LGBTQ Ukrainians Fear Loss of Rights and Lives Under Russian Occupation — but Vow to Fight for Both

Mar 04, 22
LGBTQ Ukrainians Fear Loss of Rights and Lives Under Russian Occupation — but Vow to Fight for Both

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While members of the LGBTQ community in Ukraine have different perspectives on and experiences of the threat of the ongoing invasion, they all worry about what could happen next
LGBTQ Ukraine

As the invasion of Ukraine rages on, killing scores of civilians and forcing a million people to flee the country so far, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people still there worry about what a Russian occupation of their country could mean for their community.

In a letter sent to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightsbefore the invasion began last week, a U.S. diplomat warned of "disturbing information" that indicated Russia planned human rights violations and abuses, which could affect LGBTQ people.

Those possible acts included "targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, unjust detentions, and the use of torture," Bathsheba Crocker wrote. "Specifically, we have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation."

Russian President Vladimir Putin formally banned same-sex marriage in 2021, and its law against "gay propaganda," which criminalized the promotion of gay rights and equating homosexual and heterosexual relationships, has been in place since 2013.

"In Russia, LGBTQ people are persecuted," a law student, Iulia, told CBS News. "If we imagine that Russia occupies all of the Ukraine or just a big part of the country, they won't allow us to exist peacefully and to fight for our rights as we are able to do ... in Ukraine right now."

Credit: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Ukraine does not recognize same-sex marriage but Iulia said, "It's much more safer than in Russia, believe me. It's much easier."

Edward Reese, a project assistant for Kyiv Pride, agreed, pointing to a decade of equality marches in his country.

"In Russia, the situation is like opposite," he said in an interview with CBS News. "We have totally different paths. ... We see the changes in people's thoughts about human rights, LGBTQ, feminism and so on. ... So definitely we don't want anything connected to Russia … and we won't have them."

Another activist and a volunteer coordinator for Kyiv Pride, Jul Sirous, told The Daily Beast that the LGBTQ community in the Ukraine capital fears losing ground in their fight for equality if Russia is able to exert its influence through the invasion or possible occupation.

"Unfortunately, if this city will be occupied like other cities, then there will be some persecution against LGBT people," Sirous said.

Andrii Kravchuk, who works at the Nash Mir Gay and Lesbian Centre in Ukraine, told The Daily Beast in a separate story that Russian anti-LGBTQ influence is already felt in portions of the country previously occupied, including Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which fell to Putin's regime in 2014, and in Donetsk, where the Russian leader declared the separatist region's independence from Ukraine as a justification for the current invasion.

"We are very conscious of the threats which we have faced — as both Ukrainians and LGBT+ people. We understand that the Russian occupation would mean total lawlessness and repressions — we see it right now in the Ukrainian-occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas," Kravchuk said.

"Now we have only two options: Either we defend our country, and it will become a part of the free world," he added, "or there will not be any freedom for us and will not be Ukraine at all."

Sirous said that though many are fleeing the country, others in the LGBTQ community will stay and are prepared to resist.

"I know a lot of LGBT people who go to our army now," she said. "They try to fight and it's also our main message that we try to be one united nation and we try to do everything to make sure that Russia will be defeated."

Reese agreed, telling CBS News, "We have fear, because it's natural, but we don't panic."

Instead, he said, his organization has encouraged its members to donate to the Ukrainian armed forces and offered first-aid courses so they can help.

There have reportedly been challenges for transgender people who try to leave: Vice spoke with two trans women and a trans man who said their paperwork — referring to them with the sex they were assigned at birth — meant they didn't feel like they could leave the country.

A trans woman said she was "terrified" of the prospect of attempting to leave under those conditions.

"Like hundreds of trans people in Ukraine, I am a woman, but I have 'male' in my passport and on all my ID, so this is a war within a war," a transgender woman living in Kyiv, Zi Faámelu, told Vice. "Ukrainian trans people were already fighting for their lives."

"There are hundreds of us stuck like this, living miserable lives," Faámelu said.

Credit: Pavlo_Bagmut/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty

Some members of the LGBTQ community in Ukraine plan to respond to the invasion with their own form of resistance.

"I'm sure that many of the LGBTQ people and me, myself, we won't flee the country and we will fight and destroy it," Reese, the advocate, told CBS News. of the Russian threat.

A nonbinary person who spoke with Vice said they felt they would be feel more vulnerable in some neighboring countries, like Hungary, where they might be "ridiculed": "I need to choose between my own country — that I have learned how to navigate —or a totally foreign place where I could feel even more excluded and in danger," they said.

Iulia, the law student, remains optimistic about both her country's prospects for fending off the aggression of the larger force and for her community in a post-invasion Ukraine.

"When this whole story is finished, and when Russia is done with terrorizing us, I think that we will soon legalize same-sex marriage. I think it must be about to happen," she said. "And yes, I think that I will have a very, very good and comfortable future living in Ukraine as an LGBTQ person."

Sirous expressed hope that the LGBTQ community's resistance efforts from within the country will demonstrate their value to her fellow Ukrainians.

"We didn't run in this very important moment — we stayed," she said. "It's very important for all Ukrainians — if we still are Ukraine, after this moment — I hope that our people will see us as equal. That's why we fight."

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children.

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call. This is just panic," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE of the moment her city was bombed — one of numerous accounts of bombardment by the Russians.

The invasion, ordered by Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness." 

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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