Choosing to stay? Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people and the war in Ukraine

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  • 1 University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and KU Leuven, Belgium
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After the Euromaidan protests in 2013/14, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) community in Ukraine used the momentum to increase its visibility and build a strong network of local and international partners and allies. The continuous support of Western partners and the persistent work of Ukrainian civil society activists resulted in some advancements, such as introducing an anti-discrimination amendment to the Labour Code in 2015. Despite some progress, however, the rights of the LGBTQ community have never been a priority for any of the major political forces in Ukraine (Shevtsova, 2021). LGBTQ organisations are largely dependent on foreign funding and receive no support from the state.

Feminist scholarship demonstrates that wars and military conflicts are often followed by the militarisation of society, the strengthening of traditional gender roles and the growth of gender-based violence (Gusterson and Besteman, 2019). Existing inequalities increase and groups that have been marginalised in peaceful times find themselves in even more precarious situations (Altınay, 2019). Is this also the case for LGBTQ Ukrainians? This gender update argues that as the government continues ignoring LGBTQ Ukrainians, notwithstanding the efforts of local LGBTQ activists, without well-coordinated and informed support from the international community, there is a high risk of a backlash that will disproportionately heighten the challenges LGBTQ Ukrainians face.

First, it is crucial to understand that the war in Ukraine started not on 24 February 2022, with the full-scale Russian invasion, but eight years earlier, with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the proxy war waged by the Kremlin in eastern parts of Ukraine. The participation of radical right-wing groups on the Ukrainian side legitimised the activities of small but numerous right-wing groups in the country and heightened right-wing populism (Shekhovtsov, 2014). Although right-wing parties have never had enough popular support to make it to the parliament, the activism of right-wing groups became visible as they regularly attacked feminist and LGBTQ rights events, disrupting the work of Ukrainian human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs). During the first three months following the full-scale invasion, LGBTQ activists reported growing homophobic and transphobic violence (NASH SVIT, 2022). In several cases, the persecutors were members of the territorial defence, that is, groups of armed volunteers policing the residential area in Kyiv.

A second factor is the right to leave the country. Several days after the full-scale invasion had started, by the state’s decree, men between 18 and 60 years old were prohibited from leaving Ukraine, with few exceptions. This affected most Ukrainians, including cisgender gay men in Ukraine and trans people who still have male gender markers in their documents. During the last decade, Ukraine has made considerable progress concerning the transition procedure for trans people, with among the best legal conditions in post-socialist countries. In theory, a trans person can receive a medical certificate that exempts them from military service. However, in the de facto bureaucratic process, treatment in official institutions and restricted mobility in martial law conditions make this seriously challenging. In desperation, some trans people pretend that they have lost their documents and attempt to cross the border illegally under the risk of detention and imprisonment.

Third, forced to flee the country, LGBTQ Ukrainians who manage to cross the state borders face additional obstacles in foreign countries with no social network (see Brzezinska and Logvinenko, this issue). Although many European LGBTQ rights NGOs pooled resources in solidarity, those are limited and provide only short-term solutions. Moreover, not all host countries have LGBTQ-friendly infrastructure, and in some regions, LGBTQ Ukrainians face discrimination and homophobic and transphobic violence.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to portray LGBTQ Ukrainians only as victims in flight. Many of them choose to stay and defend their country. In 2015–16, right-wing groups accused LGBTQ people of ‘demanding special rights’ while ‘good citizens’ should be fighting at the front line in times of war. In response to this rhetoric, a grass-roots initiative of LGBTQ military, veterans and volunteers was founded in 2018. Since then, the group has grown significantly. Its founders, Viktor Pylypenko, an openly gay veteran, and Nastya Konfederat, an openly lesbian veteran volunteer, air-reconnaissance operator and military cartographer, gave multiple interviews to the media, slowly changing societal perceptions of LGBTQ people. After 24 February 2022, many LGBTQ veterans joined active military forces. It is worth noting that social media (Facebook in particular) plays an important role in increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people in the Ukrainian military. In a public Facebook group, there are weekly coming-out posts by LGBTQ soldiers that get mostly positive reactions.

Finally, many LGBTQ activists who stay in the country and continue their work have had to adapt to new conditions. They cancelled planned project activities, such as training courses for police and educators, or HIV prevention campaigns, and channelled the resources they had from Western organisations towards building shelters and providing humanitarian aid – primarily for LGBTQ people but usually also for the broader local population in need, often elderly people or women with children. However, the current situation has demonstrated a gap between how foreign donors funding LGBTQ rights NGOs perceive the situation and the real everyday needs of affected groups. My interviews with LGBTQ rights NGOs indicate that many major international donor organisations tend to take weeks in responding to urgent requests, continue requiring reporting procedures that cannot be sustained or put ongoing projects on pause instead of redistributing resources towards issues that require immediate solutions, such as providing medication for people living with HIV or trans people depending on hormonal treatment. By contrast, the flexibility of some NGOs, like RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex rights) Sweden or Frontline Defenders, has proven effective in providing urgent assistance to LGBTQ people, both inside and outside Ukraine.

In sum, the government that did not consider the needs of LGBTQ people in more peaceful times chose to ignore their increased vulnerability – as well as that of other marginalised groups like HIV-positive people, the Roma community or sex workers – during full-scale invasion. Across all these groups, common problems are also loss of jobs, safe housing, threats to health and life, and psychological trauma. In the past, foreign funding was indispensable for LGBTQ organisations, which would not have been able to fully function otherwise. Now, the whole state of Ukraine is becoming largely dependent on foreign support. The question remains as to whether in the state that will be rebuilt, the needs of LGBTQ people will be heard and if such dependency on the West can make the Ukrainian government more LGBTQ-friendly.

Funding

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no 945380.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Phillip Ayoub for his helpful suggestions in developing this text. I am also thankful to the Ukrainian LGBTQ activists, whose names I cannot mention due to confidentiality reasons, for trusting me to collect data for this piece.

Author biography

Maryna Shevtsova is a EUTOPIA postdoctoral fellow at the Sociology Department, the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Senior FWO (Research Foundation - Flanders) postdoctoral fellow at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her book, LGBTI Politics and Value Change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?, was published by Routledge in 2021.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • 1 University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and KU Leuven, Belgium

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