Ukrainian film director Arkadii Nepytaliuk knows what it means to be homophobic.

When he was growing up in a small village in Ukraine’s Khmelnitskyi region during the Soviet era, being gay was a taboo subject, and Nepytaliuk said he felt afraid when he first met openly gay people as a student in the capital, Kyiv.

But his homophobic beliefs melted away when he became friends with his gay room-mate and other LGBTQIA+ students, the 56-year-old film-maker told Openly.

Now, he hopes his new film, “Lessons in Tolerance”, will have a similar thawing effect on audiences when it debuts at cinemas across Ukraine on Valentine’s Day.

“(Our film) is for people who are homophobic, so they can look at themselves and change – and not just towards LGBT people but towards each other too,” he said.

The film’s release, almost exactly two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, takes place at a crucial juncture for LGBTQIA+ rights in the country.

The presence of openly LGBTQIA+ soldiers on the frontlines during the war against Russia, and the country’s bid to join the European Union has increased debate over the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender Ukrainians.

In 2022, a citizen petition calling for same-sex marriage to be legalised received tens of thousands of signatures, leading to a draft law on civil partnerships being introduced in parliament last year.

But while same-sex relations were decriminalised after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the mainly Orthodox Christian nation scores poorly on LGBTQIA+ rights, ranking 39th out of 49 European countries in the 2023 Rainbow Map by the ILGA-Europe rights group.

Surveys from the Kyiv-based LGBTQIA+ rights centre Nash Svit found attitudes towards gay and trans Ukrainians were improving in Ukraine, with public opposition to same-sex civil unions falling to 38.9% in 2023.

But at the same time, a study from the Ukraine-based Center For Social Expertise showed only 36% were ready to accept a gay or bi person as a friend, neighbour or colleague.

Fighting ‘internal enemies’

Adapted from a stage play by Ihor Bilyts called “Gay Parade”, Nepytaliuk’s film follows a financially struggling family forced to confront their prejudices when they host a gay activist as part of a European integration programme.

Its message could cause a stir in Ukraine, where cultural events and films with an LGBTQIA+ theme have been targeted by ultra-conservative groups in recent years.

Last year, cinemas hosting the country’s first LGBTQIA+ film festival, called Sunny Bunny, were targeted with arson threats, according to U.S. nonprofit Freedom House.

And in 2021, media reports said the director of gay love story “My Young Prince” received death threats as the film angered far-right groups.

But “Lessons in Tolerance”, which had its world premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in November, has not so far faced the same level of hostility from sectors opposed to LGBTQIA+ rights, said creative producer Oleksiy Gladushevskyy.

Actors – both gay and straight – are keen to take part in projects with LGBTQIA+ storylines, which remain rare in the Eastern European nation, he added.

“Lessons in Tolerance” is the first Ukrainian feature film to tackle homophobia head on, Nepytaliuk said.

“This is the story that’s needed now,” he said.

“(Our troops) are fighting to free Ukraine from its external enemies, and we’re trying to free Ukraine from internal enemies. This is our cultural frontline.”

Reporting by Natalie Vikhrov in Canberra.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.