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Queer Ukrainians Are Fighting for a Different Kind of Freedom

For many queer Ukrainians, fighting back against Russia isn’t just defending their country — it’s defending their very right to be who they are

Vira Chernygina, a member of the lesbian-feminist nonprofit Sphere, is in her apartment in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv when we speak over Zoom. Just hours before, Russia launched multiple air strikes on the city, killing at least nine people and injuring 37 more. Chernygina is talking to me during a moment of quiet, between bombings, and she cries throughout our conversation. She tells me how, days ago, her twin sister wanted to flee the country, and begged Chernygina to come with her — in the end, they both stayed. She sobs as she describes how her close friend is currently trying to leave Kharkiv with her two children, but can’t get onto a train because they’re already full when they pull into the station. “I’m really worried,” she says. “I don’t believe in God, but I’m praying.”

Chernygina also tells me about how, when the war started a week ago, Sphere delivered what they could from their community center to help those fighting. This included Sphere’s branded socks, which have little rainbows stitched into them — and she smiles as she imagines LGBTQ+ soldiers on the frontlines wearing them. “We’ve also collected some money,” she says, “for, I don’t know, the future.” Chernygina explains that Sphere already gave half of its money to the army, and is hoping to use the rest to support LGBTQ+ people who’ve been displaced by the war. 

Sphere is just one of many LGBTQ+ groups working to help queer people in Ukraine, who, despite being especially vulnerable right now, are remaining resilient and rallying together to fight. Organizations like KyivPride, UkrainePride, Insight and All Out have also been raising money to aid queer Ukrainians in need, while many LGBTQ+ people have been volunteering for combat (the visibility of gay people in the military has been improving since the country’s first soldier came out in 2018, then formed an advocacy group with around 30 other LGBTQ+ soldiers in 2019). A group of LGBTQ+ activists even reportedly captured and beat up some Russian soldiers they found hiding in their office basement. Although it hasn’t been directly confirmed, the news was celebrated by Ukrainian supporters on social media, particularly among the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. “This is our war, the Ukrainians, but we have also been fighting as LGBTQ+ people,” Viktor Pylypenko, who was one of the activists, told Israel Hayom. “We are confronting a tyrannical, homophobic enemy.”

“A lot of queer people are fighting because it’s the fight for our freedom,” says 27-year-old Cay, an Kyiv-based organizer with the activist group Rebel Queers. “Putin’s fascist regime means deaths and repressions for most of us, therefore we’re going to fight until we win.” There are even rumors of a “kill list,” which Putin supposedly wants to enforce in Ukraine — it would allegedly see him kill or round up journalists, activists, minorities, dissidents and LGBTQ+ Ukrainians in camps.

Russia is notorious for its inhumane treatment of queer people. In 2013, the Kremlin passed its so-called “gay propaganda law,” which bans public discussions about homosexuality and the promotion of positive messages about LGBTQ+ issues. In the first five years after the law was enacted, hate crimes against gay people doubled, with Russia providing no anti-discrimination protections for them. Last year, in a further rollback to LGBTQ+ rights, Russia outlawed same-sex marriage and banned trans people from adopting. In Ukraine, life for queer people is better. Since the country gained independence in 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s LGBTQ+ community has become increasingly vocal and visible — in 2019, the country held its largest gay pride event to date. And — although anti-LGBTQ+ views still prevail, and same-sex couples aren’t eligible to all the same rights as heterosexual couples (including marriage and adoption) — Ukrainians refuse to sacrifice their freedom.

“Ukrainians fought for their independence and values many times, and we’re doing it again right now,” says 25-year-old Yevhen, an organizer with KyivPride. Since the war began last week, Yevhen has fled their home in Kyiv for another Ukrainian city. “I’m safe, have basic things and a place to sleep,” they tell me. “But it’s still stressful and painful. Everyday starts with calls and texts to [loved ones]. Although me and my friends are trying to forget about the war and live our normal lives just for a bit, it seems to be impossible. My phone is [filled] with messages about possible air attacks. People are hiding to protect themselves from bombings. In some cities, we’ve run out of food and water.” 

Yevhen tells me that KyivPride is focusing all its resources on supporting the LGBTQ+ community and the Ukrainian army. As well as raising money, the group is helping coordinate transport and shelter for those in need, hosting daily group therapy sessions online and has created a chat for anyone who just wants to talk.

“LGBTQ+ people are more vulnerable and have a lack of rights and protection,” says Yevhen. “Queer people may face discrimination during the war, get abused physically and verbally and might have trouble trying to cross the border.” Poland, where many Ukrainians are fleeing to, is also famously hostile to LGBTQ+ people — although they don’t appear to have any specific rules on refusing refugees based on their sexuality. Still, a recent report did warn that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face “double discrimination” across Europe. To combat this, grassroots activists have been working to help with transportation and translators at various borders, as well as finding housing for LGBTQ+ refugees. 

“[Some] queer people also have special needs — for example, it’s much harder to get hormones for trans people right now,” Yevhen continues. Some trans people have also reported getting “stuck” in Ukraine, telling VICE that they’re struggling to travel through or out of the country because their IDs show a different gender to how they identify. But Yevhen says that it’s not necessarily the wartime vulnerabilities that scare them the most. “Russia’s side threatens me more,” they continue. “Since it’s a country famous for its ‘gay propaganda law,’ and is responsible for arresting and killing LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya.”

For Chernygina, thinking about this future — or any future — isn’t possible right now. She says that, in the immediate sense, “queer people have the same problems as non-queer people.” Cay also holds this view. “The war doesn’t care who you are,” they tell me. “The bombs and missiles kill people regardless of their gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity and so on. If you survive, it’s just about luck.”

Mostly, Chernygina and Cay just want action from other countries. “Europe and the U.S. keep writing articles like, ‘Oh Ukrainians are so brave.’ Yes, we are brave, we love freedom and we’re ready to fight for it. But it doesn’t mean we want to die. We need the world’s support to fight Putin, and I don’t understand how the world can be so inactive about it.”

Chernygina offers a more direct, devastating plea. “Please help us to close our skies,” she begs. “Russia’s ballistic bombs are terrible. It sounds like the sky is broken. Yesterday I heard several, today I’ve heard two…” She trails off, crying on the floor of her bathroom. “It feels like a year’s passed in these seven days. Nobody knows what will happen from now on.”