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Queer in Ukraine

The struggle to leave, the danger of staying

Nearly one month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Febuary 24, the lives of those in the country remain in danger as Russian forces continue to enact President Vladimir Putin’s plans for “a partition and a massive purge of the civilian population.” Millions of people have fled Ukraine over the past few weeks, and a large number of those people are members of the LGBT+ community. They face immense uncertainty with regards to exiting the country and subsequently existing freely in neighbouring countries of refuge. Since Ukraine’s enactment of martial law at the beginning of the invasion, men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been recruited via conscription, and they have ultimately have been barred from leaving the country in order to defend Ukraine from Russian troops. For transgender women and non-binary individuals who do not have an official legal document recognizing their gender, this has led to “a war within a war,” as many find themselves trapped within the country and unable to seek refuge amid discriminatory laws and transphobia. With Russia’s flagrant history of LGBT+ rights violations, queer Ukrainians face another layer of fear for their safety – especially as they are forced to seek refuge in nearby countries hostile to their identities. Reliant on queer networks in these countries, LGBT+ Ukranians face a precarious journey to safety should they choose to flee. 

Life for queer Ukrainians pre-invasion

For queer Ukrainians, safety has not been guaranteed for a long time. Since Ukraine gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of developments in Ukrainian law and society have made the country safer for queer people, though progress has often been slow and fraught with challenges for those fighting for LGBT+ rights. In 1991, Ukraine repealed criminal liability for homosexuality, and an annual Pride march is organized in Kyiv every year.

However, KyivPride, a non-governmental organization focused on campaigning for the rights of queer Ukrainians, has had trouble organizing its annual March for Equality, dealing with pushback from both conservative Ukrainian groups and from Ukrainian police. The first Equality March was planned by the group in 2012, but it was cancelled due to an alleged recommendation from Amnesty International. The planning itself was secretive, and the location was hidden from non-participants. Ultimately, however, “a large number of nationalist and religious organizations” found the march. They reportedly shouted “Out of Ukraine!’’ at participants and sprayed an aerosol in the eyes of a KyivPride organizer. 

Protests against Pride events were also held outside of parliament buildings ahead of such events in Kyiv, which consistently “passed off without any incident,” while LGBT+ protestors have, throughout the years, continually experienced violence at the hands of Ukrainian police and right-wing groups. In 2014, KyivPride’s attempts at another Equality March were once again thwarted, this time “because police were incapable of providing security to the public gathering,” failing to protect LGBT+ individuals and allies from the violence of right-wing groups. 

Amnesty International’s Head of Research (Deputy Regional Director) at the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office has historically pointed to the failings of Ukrainian police forces in protecting queer citizens. At a 2018 event in Kyiv, speakers from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and KyivPride were due to speak at an event titled “The Offensive against LGBTI Rights as a Form of Censorship: The Russian experience,” but the event was cancelled before it could begin when more than 20 far-right protestors arrived and threatened participating speakers and attendees with violence until they left. While five officers from Pechersk District Police force were at the event, they refused to intervene, and additional police forces arrived more than an hour later to assist in the safe departure of event participants – without a single arrest of the offensive parties. Krivosheev noted that, “[g]iven the police’s repeated inaction over such attacks, it is no surprise that members of Ukrainian far-right groups take full advantage of their impunity – repeatedly attacking individuals and groups whose views or identity they dislike.” 

Later in 2018, gay activist Borys Zolotchenko was attacked by ten men in Kryvyi Rig and subsequently hospitalized for his injuries. According to Zolotchenko and the group of activist organizers who witnessed the attack, policemen refused to appear at the scene. Zolotchenko demanded more protection from state actors: “We must show the authorities and society that safety and equality must be accessible to all Ukrainian citizens.”

Though life in Ukraine is not always safe for LGBT+ citizens, activists have made progress in recent years by seeking more protective laws for queer people. In the last three years, turnout for Pride events in Kyiv has increased, reaching 8,000 attendees at its peak. The 2021 KyivPride event reported no incidents of violence, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s campaigns have often been markedly progressive, though his cabinet has put forth conflicting messages regarding their support of queer Ukrainians. Ultimately, public opinion on LGBT+ rights in Ukraine is mixed, and the country is not typically a safe place for queer people, both regarding their existence in society and their associations with law enforcement. As citizens continue to escape the country following Russia’s invasion, queer people will be reliant on those same forces and military aid to guide them to safety, and they will face persecution from even more vicious sentiment from Putin-led Russian troops. 

Russia and Putin’s anti-gay laws

Russia’s anti-queer laws are known for being oppressive. In a 2021 poll, only 14 per cent of Russians “totally agreed” with the statement “gays and lesbians in Russia should enjoy the same rights as other citizens.” The Kremlin is known for using state-sponsored homophobia as a control strategy, and in 2013, the country passed a federal law banning “gay propaganda” by 436 to 0 votes, making it “illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights.” The law also “introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners,” making the country unsafe for queer people to live in and visit. 

Putin’s intended plan to annex Ukraine and install a puppet government in the country would have dire implications for LGBT+ Ukrainian citizens, who are already unsafe in their country. When Putin announced the invasion on Febuary 24 as a “special military operation,” he spent a sizable amount of time commenting on the perceived threat to “traditional values.” He addressed the “fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia,” commenting on how “they sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.” 

When he speaks of “traditional values,” Putin refers to “patriotism, spirituality, rootedness in history, respect for authority, and adherence to heteronormative and patriarchal ideas of family and gender,” the Boston Review reports. Concepts that challenge the implied understanding of traditional Russian values include queer rights, as Putin has shown in his repeated human rights abuses towards queer Russians. Any appeal to the rights of LGBT+ people is viewed “not only as foreign to Russia’s values, but as existential threats to the nation.” 

Ways out: queer refugees

Should Putin be successful in his plan to install a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Ukraine, he will apply anti-queer Russian attitudes and policies towards LGBT+ Ukrainians. In the Kremlin’s federal national security strategy, it is written that “special attention is devoted to supporting the family, motherhood, fatherhood and childhood,” with the note that “higher birthrates are necessary in order to increase the population of Russia.” Putin’s security strategy includes a forcibly imposed heteropatriarchal view of the nuclear family. Those not in compliance with these identities or nuclear family structures will therefore be threatened by Putin’s rule. 

LGBT+ individuals are now making or attempting to make the journey out of Ukraine in order to escape Putin’s threats to their gender identities and sexualities. Fleeing to other countries also presents challenges, with many neighbouring countries also upholding hostile attitudes towards LGBT+ people. Many queer Ukrainians are seeking refuge in nearby Poland and Hungary, both of which have been condemned by the European Union for their anti-gay legislation. In Poland, around 100 towns – a third of all towns in the country – have legally passed resolutions declaring themselves “free of LGBT ideology,” meaning that queer Ukrainians will be forced to hide their identity at risk of severe discrimination. 

For individuals in Ukraine who are a different gender from what is marked on their legal identification documents, leaving the country has proven difficult. With conscription in force, any individual identified as male by their identification documents will be made to stay in the country and join the Ukrainian army, even if that individual is not and has not been living as a man. For transgender individuals, being forced into the military is a profoundly dangerous process, meaning that for many people seeking refuge by fleeing the country is often the only option. 

Activists on the ground in Ukraine have found that trans people with identification documents that differ from their gender identity cannot pass internal checkpoints, essentially trapping them in the country. They also note that trans people seeking aid as a result of the invasion of Ukraine may face difficulties: “Access to food banks, shelters, and other basic essentials often requires a valid identity card. Mismatching ID documents can lead to denial of service, besides suspicion of fraud, ridicule, harassment, and violence. Fearing discrimination, a trans person might forgo their right to seek assistance.”

This has been a traumatic process for many in the transgender community, who have, in some cases, had to temporarily de-transition in order to match the gender marker on their identity documents. One transgender man commented that he “had to whisper so nobody would notice my deep voice. I even painted my nails violet and wore Mom’s shirt to look more girly.” 

Zi Faámelu spoke with CBC about her experience as a transgender woman living in Kyiv. She says there is “no way” that the Ukrainian border guards will let her through with her passport, which still has a male gender marker. “If you have a male gender in your passport, they will not let you go abroad,” Faámelu explained. “They will not let you through.” 

The process for obtaining a passport or legal documentation with a gender marker matching one’s gender identity is excruciatingly difficult for trans people in Ukraine. The government forces transgender individuals to both participate in a long process of psychiatric observation and to receive gender reassignment surgery in order to have their gender identity formally recognized on legal documentation. Many transgender people opt not to have surgery for a multitude of reasons, and a psychiatric observation can be a long and draining process that imparts undue trauma on transgender individuals. Faámelu did not participate in the process to change her passport gender marker for this very reason: “I don’t want to go through that, this is like, humiliating.”

Networks of queer people across the country and throughout the world have banded together to help individuals in situations such as this safely escape Ukraine. Julia Maciocha organises Warsaw Pride (known as Equality Parade), and has been connecting queer refugees with safe places in her country: “[W]e created a database of people that we know that are part of the community so we can match them with people that are in need of safe shelter.”

The current Executive Director of Kyiv Pride, Lenny Emson, has commended the queer communities in neighbouring countries for their immediate offers of assistance for queer Ukrainians. He expressed immense gratitude for queer friends and allies who came to his country’s aid: “I was almost crying because European organizations like Warsaw Pride, like Budapest Pride, they reached out to us like in the first day of the war, offering their help, offering shelter, offering transportation from the border.” 

How to help

The solidarity shown by queer people across the globe for LGBT+ Ukrainians has been immense. Once more, queer people find themselves reliant on the support networks they have built in the absence of targeted support from governments, who fail to recognize the nature of the danger faced by queer refugees. 

For every person living in Ukraine, Putin’s invasion has enacted immense harm and suffering. For queer Ukrainians, who have already faced danger in their country, however, the task of leaving the country can be nearly impossible. Directly supporting queer Ukrainian organizations is an important way to assist queer refugees in their struggles to leave the country. Fulcrum is a Ukrainian organization based around supporting queer Ukrainians, and their website contains details on how to support Ukrainians financially as they attempt to find safe spaces to shelter and exit their country. Insight is another Ukrainian organisation that is collecting funds to help LGBT+ Ukrainians in vulnerable positions, and donations can be made through a variety of channels. As well as this, supporting global activists in their organization efforts helps drive the coordination of safe housing and refuge for those leaving Ukraine. For more information, stay up to date with LGBT+ news sources, which are sharing stories from queer Ukrainians and the global effort to get them to safety.