Thousands of people took to the streets of Warsaw on Saturday in a joint march for peace uniting Ukraine’s KyivPride with Poland’s Warsaw Pride. The innovative cooperative event between the two Eastern European capitals called for an end to war and solidarity with LGBTQ Ukrainians.
“It was wonderful and beautiful, a very exciting presence,” Lenny Emson, KyivPride executive director, told NBC News just after the march.
Organizers had predicted some 120,000 participants in all, and Emson said the Ukrainian contingent alone more than doubled its expected 200 marchers.
“Over 500 Ukrainians marched with our group,” he reported.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of KyivPride’s first Equality March — the largest LGBTQ rights event in Ukraine — but the Russian invasion and ongoing war rendered marching in the Ukrainian capital impossible.
“When we looked into the future, we realized that unfortunately we could not foresee when the war will stop, or how we can actually be visible as a community,” Emson explained. “During the Russian invasion, Warsaw Pride was always helping us with humanitarian aid and with medications, and they were sheltering our people. So it was very natural for us to partner with the nation that has accepted the biggest number of Ukrainian refugees.”
For Warsaw Pride President Julia Maciocha, the KyivPride partnership also made perfect sense.
“They explained how they were supposed to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, but of course due to this horrendous war, they cannot do that in Kyiv,” she said. “So they asked if they could use Warsaw Pride and make a joint march, to let them walk on our streets since they cannot walk on their own.”
The combined KyivPride and Warsaw Pride march promoted a multipronged manifesto, including a call to queer people around Europe and the world to show “maximum solidarity” with LGBTQ Ukrainians.
“If you want the queer community in Ukraine to survive, help our country,” Emson urged. “This is the main message.”
Emson said he believes Warsaw's Equality Parade — the largest annual Pride march in Central Europe — may also mark the first time a Pride parade marched not just for LGBTQ rights but for broader human rights.
“We are marching for basic human rights for all people,” he said, “because right now, Russia is taking them from us — the right to life, the right to freedom, the right to security, the right to peace.”
Though members of the Ukrainian military — and indeed all men between the ages of 18 and 60 — were precluded by law from leaving the country to be at today’s march in Poland, KyivPride organizers were able to bring in 25 activists from LGBTQ organizations across Ukraine.
“We wanted our LGBTQI movement to be represented, and these are the best of the best in our movement who work with us,” Emson said.
Ukrainian refugees living in Poland and neighboring countries were also warmly invited to take part in the Warsaw march. Not so eagerly embraced were a pro-Russian group of potential marchers, who were told in no uncertain terms that promoting Russia would be forbidden.
“The goal of their group was to advocate for free Russia and for Russians against the war,” Emson said. “We politely asked them not to do that. ‘You can march with us,’ we told them, ‘but please do not promote anything related to Russia. Please do not take our space from us.’
Emson added, “If people want to advocate for free Russia, there are places where these actions would make more sense — like in front of the Russian Consulate, for example.”
Maciocha said Warsaw Pride’s pairing with KyivPride was not only vitally important but also exactly the sort of intra-European communion she’s been striving for with her Warsaw-based LGBTQ activism.
“I’m putting a lot of effort into building coalitions and building bridges with activists from the whole of Europe,” Maciocha explained. “I’m trying to connect us, to stay in touch, to know what is happening in different countries, to know what are the biggest struggles in different countries around Poland — so we can support each other, we can help each other, and we can also learn from each other’s experiences.
“So for me, this situation where KyivPride or any other Pride can call Warsaw Pride and say, ‘Listen, we cannot do it without you,’ and they know that we are going to help them — this is the situation I’m fighting for. It’s the situation I want for the future of activism. I want us to be there for each other in the darkest, darkest times.”
Emson said he and the other marchers are "extremely grateful" to Poland.
“You know, we have the same context. Poland has the same problems with Russia that we do, and the situation with homophobia and transphobia in our countries is more or less the same," he said. "I would say in Ukraine it is a bit worse, but still, they understand us, they know us, and we understand them, we know them. That’s why this partnering was very natural.”
KyivPride is also being represented locally at several other Pride events around the world this year, including at Riga Pride in Latvia last weekend. On Sunday, Toronto’s Pride march will feature a large Ukrainian contingent, in a city with one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora populations in the world.
“For the local Prides in other cities and countries, we let people decide what is their goal,” Emson said. Some Ukrainians, as in London, just want to be visible as a group at their local Pride events, he explained, while others are raising money for KyivPride and for the LGBTQ community in Ukraine. Still others have specific aims.
“In Riga for example, they were marching for freedom,” Emson said. “For them this was very important, because Latvia is a neighbor country to Russia, and they understand very well that if Ukraine would not resist, what will happen to them? They will be next. So freedom for them is crucial right now.”
Emson said the key thing for the global LGBTQ community to remember right now is that like the entire Ukrainian populace, its queer people are suffering, though their struggles are often less visible.
“All of us saw the Bucha massacre, and we saw what Russians did to Mariupol,” he said. “When you see this news from Ukraine, you should ask yourself, ‘How many queer people died in Bucha? How many queer people were shelled in Mariupol? How many queer people were raped among all the women that Russians raped in occupied territories?’ Those are the questions we should ask ourselves.
“So we would ask you to not give up on Ukraine, to stand up for Ukraine, to remind the world that Ukraine needs help. When you pay attention to the fact that LGBTQI people are part of the population that is suffering inside Ukraine, you’re helping us already."
Emson is already looking forward to the day when KyivPride can welcome LGBTQ people from around the world to the Ukrainian capital.
“When you march today, think of all LGBTQI Ukrainians who are with you in their thoughts and who cannot march today,” he told the crowd at the start of Saturday's event. “But they are welcoming you to KyivPride when we celebrate the victory — you will come to Kyiv and march with us.”