Ruby Swanson had anticipated the annual Pride celebrations in Ukraine’s capital city would be loud with music and jubilant crowds.
Instead, the procession of 8,000 people in the June heat was strikingly quiet, save for the cries from assembled far-right protestors and the sound of the boots of police and soldiers marching alongside outfitted in riot gear.
“There was nobody watching, there was no music playing and these people peacefully marched about a 10-block route through town and I thought, what am I doing here?” Swanson said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.
“And when it was over it was a huge relief.”
Marchers had been ordered to disperse immediately after the parade to avoid being identified by the several hundred activists. Swanson had been warned that wearing any pride symbol could put her in danger.
Swanson participated in the Kyiv march during a book tour of the Ukraine. The Edmonton author’s memoir, A Family Outing, which chronicles her experiences with her son’s coming out story, had recently been translated into Ukrainian.
Since her son’s coming out, Swanson had become a staunch LGBTQ advocate.
During a 2016 trip to the Ukraine, to find her family roots, she was asked to read to a group of LGBTQ teens at the Kyiv pride centre.
They begged her for a proper Ukrainian translation of her story so they could share it with their families.
The following day, she met with their parents.
“They were among the most defeated and demoralized people I had ever met in my life,” Swanson said.
“And I thought, I need to give some hope. I thought, if they read my book, it will give them hope that things can change in their country as well.”
Swanson describes her time in the country as a wake-up call.
Gay people in the country are still vilified. She met parents whose LGBTQ children had been incarcerated or forced to flee the country as refugees.
“You can’t walk down the street even today and hold hands without getting beat up,” she said. “You can’t wear a rainbow pin, you can’t wear a rainbow flag or you risk everything.”
Swanson plans to return once again to Ukraine to volunteer at a camp for LGTBQ youth.
“It’s an evolving democracy and it’s evolving quickly, but things can change backwards quickly as well, so it’s made me think, what else can I do?
“It’s made me want to do more.”