ANTONINA VYKHREST: QUEER HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE
I recently sat down with Antonina Vykhrest, to whom I was introduced through a mutual friend. As a child, Antonina immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, following the fall of the Soviet Union. Growing up in Brooklyn, her interest in the humanities led to degrees in political science and international comparative studies from Duke University and later a master’s in international law of human rights and criminal justice at Utrecht University. As a 2014 Fulbright Fellow, Antonina returned to Ukraine to be involved in addressing violence against women during armed conflicts rocking the eastern part of the country.
She has worked for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, cofounded her own NGO (ACCESS), and is currently studying at Harvard Business School’s MBA program to better understand the implication of tech and innovation in the social sector.
During our conversation, Antonina shared her experiences and views on returning to Europe as an American national, her role as an American living abroad, her identity as a bisexual woman, and why voting is a civic duty.
Matthew Piker (MP): Thanks for agreeing to talk. Could you start by sharing where you are from in the United States?
Antonina Vykhrest (AV): It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation. So, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York to a Ukrainian family. But I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, a Southern seaport city on the Black Sea. I immigrated to the US with my family when I was eight years old.
MP: What made your family decide to move to the US?
AV: We moved in the mid-90s, a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, and it was a very chaotic, painful transition for Ukraine at-large, from an era of communism to a [system] of hyper capitalism. Institutions failed; there was a lot of turmoil, crime, violence, and corruption. At that time, there were few opportunities to make an honest living. And my parents, being doctors – and who, in-theory, should have been OK – were not getting paid for months at a time. So, we came as immigrants looking for a more stable life and greater opportunities.
MP: Out of curiosity, did you already speak English?
AV: I did not! Not until we got to Brooklyn. Looking back, it seems normal because we were in an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and there were people with varying English language skills. But it was certainly a big adjustment and replete with a lot of stress for a kid who suddenly cannot communicate.
Russian is Antonina’s mother tongue. She also speaks Ukrainian and considers English her most fluent language, interchangeable with Russian. She also speaks French and Spanish at a professional level.
MP: What have been your roles working in international human rights, and what made you go back to school?
AV: I have been a Human Rights' Advocate or Advisor, as well as Project Manager, in terms of functional role descriptions. I also cofounded my own NGO. I came to the MBA program to understand how tech and innovation can be leveraged to address large-scale, complex global issues, and how the private sector plays a critical role when discussing transformation, be it environmental change, socioeconomic change, political change, etc.
MP: An interesting aspect of your journey is that you immigrated to the US as a child and then moved back to Europe as an adult. What enticed you to go back?
AV: It did feel like there was something closer to my origins when I went back [to Europe] and then stayed for the master’s program [in the Netherlands]. One practical reason [for going back] was because the US is not as engaged in international human rights, no matter the administration. The State Department, they put out foreign policies that guide the system forward, but we don’t hold ourselves liable to it. I knew I wanted to work in that field, but I felt there was a more genuine commitment to it on the European side; it made sense to go work for institutions based in Europe.
And personally, I wanted to explore my roots and understand this part of the world to which I was connected. I wasn't as attracted to countries where I didn’t understand if I'd be doing more harm than good in, say, a post-colonial and imperialist set-up. If I was going to work in human rights, I wanted to have a cultural grounding.
MP: And as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, what has been your experience?
AV: Well, as a bisexual cis woman, being an American has given me more confidence in some ways. I mean, also, being a white cis woman who is rather fem in my appearance, I think that has privileges and is why I've generally felt comfortable in Western Europe, in terms of being open with a partner. I think it's also because I grew up in New York City, and I went to a college where there was infrastructure in place and a liberal-leaning population.
And from a human rights angle, I extrapolate [my identity]. I think that the US, one thing that we export well, is that we do have strong social justice movements in our history. And democracy, laws, human rights, these are muscles that must be exercised.
So, in looking at the queer movement, even though more recent – having worked with different human rights organizations around the world, they do take the US as an example. There is a lot of sharing of practices. Not to say that the US is the only source of it, but I think that going into Europe again, I felt solid. By solid, I mean comfortable using vocabulary and explaining structural change and having conversations with people who have varying degrees of homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, lesbophobia, etc. But obviously being a queer woman, it is a challenge when you travel to a country where there is violence, a lot of hate crime, and you learn to protect yourself as well.
MP: A lot of these issues are overlapping. How did you perceive moving throughout Europe within the various communities with which you identify?
AV: I speak about intersectionality more from the identity of a woman. I think in terms of being bisexual, there is certainly biphobia within the queer community. I've never experienced it in an aggressive manner, but there's invisibility with being a bisexual woman.
Because when I’m in a relationship with a woman, I embrace the fact that I am perceived as a lesbian. And I live a lesbian relationship. But if anyone asks, I don't represent myself as a lesbian because that overlooks a part of my identity, even if I have no problem with being potentially seen as a lesbian. And when I'm in a relationship with a man, I'm perceived as being heterosexual, and it's the flip side of it.
For me, it's about raising visibility of bisexuality because it's an identity that I embrace and can be vocal about. I think it pushes back within the queer community about certain assumptions, certain prejudices, that we're not really in or out. As in, we're halfway in the community, we're halfway out of the community – as if we have a choice. No, you are with whom you are at a particular moment.
But it also increases visibility for people outside the community. For them to understand that I have no qualms with my identity as a bisexual woman, that’s important. And it may make it easier for somebody who may not be in the same position as me to potentially, also, come out or be confident about being bisexual.
MP: While you are fortunate to have not experienced overt discrimination, has there been an issue that would consistently come up regarding your bisexuality?
AV: Within the queer community specifically...you know, I've worked with very committed advocates, who are strategic and have immense vision. I've engaged with organizations that focus their attention on LGBTQ+ women, and I think they're good at not showing biases. But it's in more casual conversations that this comes up. There's a slight dismissal, a joke or a jab.
I think the one big ask of LGBTQ+ advocates and allies could be that we ask for a constant reevaluation of how much space is being given to each group. Not that it needs to be equal, but I think it's a point of questioning whether or not someone is being left behind, or if there are certain biases that are not being questioned.
For example, it's applicable in the case of trans persons. They deal with a very different set of challenges and barriers that much of the community doesn't necessarily understand or deal with. There's been attention working on changing those biases and shining light onto them. But I'm not so sure it's the same thing for bisexual women. Not that the issues are comparable in terms of gravity, but there's not that level of recognition. So, the question ultimately becomes, is there a loss of cohesion if you are sidestepping a certain group and not fully leveraging these individuals as members of the community? I think that's something that could be given more thought.
MP: Before returning to the US, how was it being perceived as an American while moving throughout Europe?
AV: It's very country-specific to a certain degree. For me, I always saw it as a double-sided role. On the one hand, acknowledging that the US has done a lot to reinforce its national interests that have done damage to other countries, but on the other hand, also acknowledging that there is a lot of heterogeneity to us.
And the challenges grappling the US itself, be it racism, very wide socioeconomic inequality in a country that is so rich, to how polarized the US is – sometimes people perceive us to be under-educated, backwards, and ignorant. Part of it is true, but it's a wide gap. So, I sometimes see it as my role to push back on ignorance.
I think when people have lived in the US they are more nuanced about how they describe the country. It's those who have never lived in the US or have never visited who speak in more stereotypical ways. I embrace my American background, with all its multiplicity, when I'm abroad. Not to signal status – I am comfortable saying I come from an immigrant Ukrainian family – but to double-down on the fact that the US is very diverse.
And if I'm able to have some familiarity and context about your culture and show you compassion, in that way I expect that from you, in return. I try not to sound nationalistic, but I think it's about providing a bit more complexity to round out certain views.
MP: Was there something especially difficult about living abroad for so many years? What made you return to the US?
AV: I'm rather adaptable, which has allowed me to change countries several times. I'm lucky to have friends all over, and we find ways to stay in touch; but we lose the proximity of certain relationships, and some of them do not sustain. The constant negotiation of shifting communities and losing relationships has been harder.
In speaking about being back in the US today, just before coming back I kept thinking, What are you doing? You've created this life in France, and now you're throwing all that away to move back. But I couldn't help feeling like, in Strasbourg (while working at the Council of Europe), which is a very quaint, provincial town where, strangely enough, European leaders and decision-makers convene monthly – that things had become complacent.
I needed more growth. I liked my job, but I couldn't see myself doing it for the next ten years. It was not moving as quickly as the rest of the world. But now that I've been away from Europe for a year, I definitely have a different relationship to it.
MP: How do you see the upcoming election? What are your thoughts on the issues taking shape?
AV: We are at a crossroads. There's a lot of crystallization; there's an understanding that things cannot continue the way they were. I don't think it's too idealistic to say that we've reached a new level of awareness of the legacy of slavery in the US. We're also seeing that the growing economic inequality is not sustainable.
If Trump were to be reelected, I think it would have severe implications for the US, on domestic issues and regarding the country’s standing in the world. It's already declined substantially. And some say that's a good thing. But if you ask people who work in diplomacy and human rights, they’d say it opens up space for authoritarian and oppressive views, and it would threaten global cooperation if the US were to be quickly withdrawn from these issues. The election will be important on both fronts! I'm guardedly optimistic.
MP: What was it like voting while living outside the US? Is there additional awareness that needs to be brought to overseas voting?
AV: In some ways in voting, you feel connected, at least for me. You're reinforcing your connection to a country. I see voting as a process of democracy, supporting a fundamental building block that has created a lot of stability for the US over the centuries. That feels important, for lack of a better word.
However, I think it's easy for someone living abroad to disconnect from the US, especially in the time of Trump, where there's one scandal, one ridiculous Tweet, one crazy development after another. And so many Americans don't take him seriously, so being abroad, it's difficult to focus on what is actually happening. That makes it harder to stay attuned and follow a political campaign.
MP: Last question: people who say that voting doesn't matter, perhaps specifically the younger population, what are your thoughts on that?
AV: I have very strong thoughts about that. I consider voting a form of civic engagement. A form of activism. A form of exercising your right. My response to someone who thinks voting does not matter is that you can only say that because you're very privileged. You are privileged to think that it doesn't matter because you haven't had to fight for it. And you have this privilege because others have for many decades fought for your right to have it, be it as a woman, as a minority, as a racial minority, or as an immigrant. Whatever way you want to slice it – even as a white male – it should never be taken for granted.
I think it's a very American view, where we're used to having a certain amount of stability, and we're used to a peaceful transition from one government to another. Whereas in other [countries] – democracy, the right to vote, people determining the policies of their government – it's never to be taken for granted given how many authoritarian regimes we see being reinforced.
And if you think voting is not something that makes a difference, you are already that frog sitting in a pot of water starting to boil. That's a red flag that democracy is on the decline, that you feel so privileged to have this view and voice it.