It was the poems that gave it away. Heartfelt writings about a man’s love for a man, and a woman’s love for a woman, found on the family computer, sent Olena Globa into a seething rage when she confronted her then-teenage son about his sexuality.
“I sat down on the sofa next to him. I remember I was looking straight at the door, and I – very sharply, very angrily – asked him, ‘Are you a faggot?'” said Globa, sitting in her apartment in the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
“My ideal family turned into a nightmare,” the 54-year-old English language teacher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It took eight years for Globa to accept her son’s sexuality, and the battle to overcome her prejudices set her on a new path: helping other Ukrainian families accept their gay children, too.
Homosexuality has been legal in Ukraine since 1991, with the authorities increasing their support for gay rights since a pro-Western government took power in 2014, and in 2015 passed a law banning workplace discrimination against the LGBT+ community.
But human rights groups say many people in the former Soviet Union still find it hard to accept anyone being LGBT+, and homophobia is widespread.
Globa also began campaigning for LGBT+ rights – and not just because she thought it was the right thing to do.
Her only son’s life depended on it.
A gay activist, Bogdan fled to the United States in 2016, fearing for his life. If her son is ever to come home, his mother knows his rights and safety must first be secured.
“We can talk freely and openly here about almost anything, except this group of people,” said Janthomas Hiemstra, head of the United Nations Development Programme office in Ukraine, which advocates for LGBT+ rights.
“We’ve been observing that there have been subliminal, but also explicit, notions that ‘lifestyles like that’ should not be tolerated in the country,” he said in a phone interview.
Yet tolerance is what Globa is hoping to spread, founding TERGO in 2013, to educate Ukrainian families of LGBT+ people.
“We know that society is homophobic and it’s difficult to change society in one moment. It’s easier to change a mother or a father who raised their child. It’s easier to change their attitude first and then we’ll start with society,” she said.
“The biggest homophobic person in Ukraine was me. But I’m not contagious anymore.”
Apart from providing social support, TERGO uses psychologists to run training sessions to help parents understand what their LGBT+ children are going through.
Yet what began in secret is still, to this day, controversial in parts of Ukraine, with protesters commonly disrupting TERGO meetings, vandalising LGBT+ poster campaigns, or flooding their social media with hateful comments.
“These training sessions make you think about who we are, and who our children are,” said Nina Mikhailova, a 72-year-old Russian mother of a transgender woman.
Mikhailova has come to accept her daughter, but said her biggest challenge was persuading her other children to accept their 33-year-old trans sister.
“I find myself between a rock and a hard place. I will leave soon and what will happen with them in the future?”, she said in an interview, after a Kiev training session with families from former Soviet nations including Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Psychologist, Maryna Didenko, who works with TERGO, said she has observed an upsurge in the number of parents seeking help, although many still hoped their child could be ‘cured’.
Concerns over what neighbours will think, misinformation, or grief over dreamt-for grandchildren hinder acceptance, she said.
“The topic of sexuality and sexual orientation has been a taboo for a long time,” Didenko said. “Parents will say: ‘When my child says that his sexual orientation is different, for me it’s like a world collapsing.'”
But when people do finally accept their LGBT+ relative, many end up taking up the fight, Didenko added.
Globa is no exception, and campaigns tirelessly for LGBT+ rights to make amends for the years lost when she rejected her son a decade ago.
“LGBT people (have) had very unhappy lives in Ukraine. They have to hide to their identity, they have to hide their life, they have to pretend, they have to live someone else’s life every day,” she said.
“But I’m quite confident that sooner or later … Ukrainian LGBT people will obtain their rights. Same-sex marriage will be legal. And I think that Ukraine will be a safe place for LGBT people to live and realise themselves,” Globa said.
Travel for this story was supported by the United Nations Development Programme.
-Lin Taylor @linnytayls and Shanshan Chen @ShanshanChen33, Thomson Reuters Foundation