Speaking in Kiev before an audience of prominent politicians, businessmen and diplomats, Elton John urged Ukraine to protect gay rights and embrace tolerance of LGBT people.
The gay British rock star delivered the keynote address at the Yalta European Strategy Summit, a prominent annual conference in Eastern Europe. The Associated Press reported John told the audience policies “designed to repress LGBT citizens … hinder economic development.”
“I am afraid that Ukraine is falling behind the rest of Europe. I have to say, wake up Ukraine,” John said to the crowd, according to the British newspaper the Independent. “Your stance on human rights will be a defining characteristic of the new Ukraine and there is no clearer touchstone on the issue of human rights than the respect and dignity afforded your LGBT citizens.”
Ukraine does not permit same-sex marriage and does not have national employment protections for LGBT workers.
The musician also referenced a recent pride march in the nation’s capital of Kiev where a crowd of 250 people needed 500 police officers to protect them from far-right protesters. Five police officers were injured in scuffles with anti-gay protesters, and more than 20 people were arrested. A month later, in July, right-wing militants attacked a similar gay-rights march in the city of Odessa.
John also made an economic case for tolerance, pointing to studies that show emerging economies that protect LGBT rights have a higher gross domestic product per capita. “Being tolerant and inclusive is not only the morally right thing to do, for the new Ukraine, it’s the smart thing to do,” he said, according to the AP.
This is not Elton John's first trip to Kiev. He played two outdoor concerts in the capital, in 2007 and 2012. Both took place in the Maidan, the city’s central square that served as a hotbed for protests that eventually ousted the government last February. The Elton John AIDS Foundation has spent $11 million on programs designed to fight the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine since 2001. By some accounts, slightly more than 1 percent of the adult population is living with HIV, one of the highest rates in Europe.