By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Protesters from far-right and religious groups disrupted an international lesbian conference that kicked off in the Ukrainian capital on Friday, highlighting the LGBT+ community's struggle for acceptance in the country.
Dozens of demonstrators holding signs reading "homosexuality is a disease" and "go back to hell sodomites" tried to block access to the hotel hosting the European Lesbian Conference (ELC) in Kiev as guests arrived on Thursday, organisers said.
A few tried to break into the premises and threw tear gas canisters but were held back by police, said Olena Shevchenko, the head of local LGBT+ group Insight, which helped organise the event.
"They are shouting "#LGBT go away!" and trying to enter the venue," Oksana Pokalchuk, director of rights group Amnesty International Ukraine, tweeted posting a video of the incident.
On Friday about 35 protesters, mainly women from religious groups, held a fresh but peaceful demonstration outside the venue, as the conference got under way, Shevchenko told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Are you scared?!" she asked conference-goers speaking from the stage before the first panel discussion, drawing a chorus of "No!" in reply. "Are you prepared to fight?!" she added, a live online footage from the event showed.
Homosexuality has been legal in Ukraine since 1991, with authorities increasing their support for gay rights since a pro-Western government took power in 2014. In 2015 it passed a law banning workplace discrimination against the LGBT+ community.
But human rights groups say people in many countries across the former Soviet Union often still find it hard to accept anyone being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and homophobia is widespread.
Hosting international events like the ELC was key to raising public awareness about issues affecting the LGBT+ community in the country and across eastern Europe, Shevchenko said.
About 350 people from 40 countries were due to attend the three-day event, organisers said.
Security allowing, participants planned to venture out of the hotel and stage a short march on Saturday, said ELC chair Silvia Casalino, who described the protests as "stressful" but common.
"A lot of us are used to that," she said. "We need to be outside and not to keep our sexuality and genders hidden at home under the sheets."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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