‘WILL there be safaris?” A nervous laughter ripples round the room. Yes, we should expect safaris – a favoured tactic of anti-LGBT hate groups who roam the city after Kyiv’s Pride parade, looking to attack anyone who displays any sign of having been on the equality march: a rainbow badge, the Pride wristband or even just looking queer.

I gulped. Booze would help.

The night before Kyiv Pride my partner and I joined activists for some drinks. On the way to a bar we passed some of the hate groups who were starting to set up in Shevchenko Park, where we were set to pass the next day. Religious and socially conservative groups were already distributing flyers, whilst more violent minded thugs, kitted out in combat gear, were laying out their sleeping bags and organising via Telegram to get more people there before the police closed off the surrounding streets. A sense of menace was thickening the air.

Bleary eyed and armed with banners and flags, Pride marchers trickled in through two tightly secured entry points in the city centre from 8am – early enough to make their point and for the city to be back to normal by afternoon. The authorities wanted this over with as quickly as possible.

The security presence is impossible to overstate. It’s the first thing that strikes you when you approach the assembly point. Body scanners, thousands of police, national guard, army vehicles, fencing and horses.

The Telegram appeals clearly worked. Up to 300 hard-line fascists had risen early from the park and were determined to cause trouble. Though extremely loud, there was enough security between them and us. Pride protesters stretched back and around the corner for two blocks: an army of love well outnumbering the fanatics and thugs at the end of the street.

Assembled and ready to go, it looked like any other Pride march. But this was a year of firsts: the first organised column of trans rights activists, as well as the first organised group of armed forces veterans, challenging stereotypes and making one of the most potent statements of the occasion.

Although there were no national politicians taking part, some local and international politicians joined in. Rebecca Harms, a Green MEP from Germany, was in her natural spot right at the front, where she has been every year since the first march in 2013, when members of the community were quite literally risking their lives.

Everywhere she turned there were adoring activists eager to get a selfie with the mother of the house. Dishing out kisses on the cheek and words of encouragement, she embraced every one of them like a long-lost family member. Rebecca has shown LGBT Ukrainian’s more solidarity than every Ukrainian politician combined. It’s easy to understand why they adore her.

Kyiv Pride is largely organised by young women, as I’m told is common in post-Soviet countries in eastern Europe. Sporting their red T-shirts emblazoned with the Kyiv Pride logo, these fiery volunteers made sure we stayed in line and kept apace. As though every breath might deliver the breakthrough they were marching for, they harnessed the worry, fear and anxiety of the 8000-strong crowd and gifted back to us an energy I’ve never experienced before.

The display of raw courage on their faces – soaked with sweat in the stifling city heat – as they marched with their backs to the hate groups, was the most bittersweet of scenes. Here were activists who knew their history, struggling to get a hearing in a country facing occupation and war, and yet they persist with a strength that overwhelms you.

In return the 8000 Pride marchers – the largest in the history of eastern Europe – chanted in concert: “Freedom is our tradition. No to violence. Yes, to rights.” These are the defining sounds that echoed through the historic Slavic city, as a new climate of freedom was being forged with every step on Kyiv’s ancient cobbles. An intense atmosphere? Yes. But as my friend Maxim Eristavi – a veteran of the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Euromaidan – said, a civil rights protest should be intense.

LGBT communities in eastern Europe are engaged in a battle for dignity that is physical. They’re authoring a new future and showing the rest of the world how it’s done. On Sunday, Kyiv was their city.

A queer city. If you want to see the raw struggle of Pride in action, head east, where the protest is literally a struggle to be heard and to live in freedom.