Ukrainian LGBT+ Refugees
The scenes of more than three million Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country have been brutally heart-wrenching. Eastern Europe is being overwhelmed right now. The despairing Ukrainians wait very long hours, sometimes even days to board buses and trains to cross the border. Some who have driven, have been leaving their cars and walking considerable distances — marathons to freedom. We are all shocked at what we’ve been seeing. The barbaric bulldozing of a free country by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Each day brings more shocking scenes, more horrific stories, and more desperate situations.
Only last September, over 7,000 people gathered in the capital city of Kyiv for the annual March for Equality.
Only last November, members of Out In The City sent solidarity greetings to Sphere in Kharkiv, an organisation that championed LGBT+ and women’s rights. This entire travesty spells doom for LGBT+ rights, on which progress had slowly started in Ukraine.
LGBT+ refugees fleeing Ukraine draw on European network of allies to find housing and medical care
LGBT+ Ukrainians face risks at borders but have been welcomed by LGBT+ communities in neighbouring countries
When Edward Reese, a queer activist who works with Kyiv Pride, decided to flee Ukraine on 8 March, he knew it was going to be a long journey.
After leaving his home and walking for an hour in the freezing cold to the nearest working subway station, spending “one hell of a night” in a bomb shelter, catching a day-long bus ride to Lviv, and being escorted by aid workers to the Poland-Ukraine border, Reese was finally able to set foot in a small Polish border town.
“We slept for like an hour or two in the morning in this big, big hall with tons of other people on these makeshift beds,” said Reese.
A few hours later, he took a bus to Warsaw, where a local LGBT+ advocacy group connected him with queer-friendly hosts who could temporarily house him. The whole journey took more than two days.
Although Poland has limited the rights of LGBT+ people in recent years, Reese, who is non-binary and uses he/him pronouns, said he feels safe in the country. But that’s largely because he was quickly welcomed and aided by Poland’s LGBT+ community.
“Poland is not necessarily the best country for LGBT+ people to live,” said Julia Maciocha, chairwoman of Warsaw Pride, one of the organisations helping connect queer and gender diverse refugees to appropriate resources.
“So, we 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.”
Limiting LGBT+ rights
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 3 million people have fled, with more than 1.7 million of them arriving in neighbouring Poland.
A network of activists and organisations have sprung into action to support those among the refugees who are LGBT+, facilitating access to safe, queer-friendly housing, transportation and medical care.
“I was almost crying because European organisations 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,” said Lenny Emson, executive director of Kyiv Pride.
“This is … a very good feeling that really helps us to survive through this time.”
Some of the neighbouring countries refugees have to pass through have become hostile to LGBT+ people in recent years.
In Hungary, Radio-Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported that in 2020, lawmakers amended the country’s constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual union and allow only married couples to adopt. It also limited the gender on legal and identification documents to the one assigned at birth.
In Poland, same-sex marriage is not legally recognised and adoption by same-sex couples is illegal; some jurisdictions in the country have gone so far as to declare themselves “LGBT-free zones.”
“So the difficulty is not just making it to the border checkpoints but to be able to get safe haven once they do cross the border to a neighbouring country,” said Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an international organisation that helps LGBT+ people facing persecution.
Reese said so far, he’s only received an incredible amount of support and is currently staying “in a really nice room” with three cats in his Polish host’s apartment.
“We have a great amount of these propositions to host people, to help … from queer people, feminists, different people in different countries who really want to help Ukrainian queer people to go through this,” said Reese, who’s preparing to relocate to Denmark soon.
Trans women face risks crossing borders
Like Reese, some LGBT+ refugees plan to leave Poland after a few days for other Europeans countries.
Countries such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are under less strain than bordering states and may be able to provide more resources and job opportunities to Ukrainian refugees, particularly those who are LGBT+.
The climate for the LGBT+ community inside Ukraine was not particularly accepting even before the war. A 2019 survey of around 40,000 people in 34 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 14 per cent of respondents in Ukraine thought homosexuality should be accepted in society.
There is no data on how many of Ukraine’s 41 million citizens are LGBT+, but one survey by Ipsos suggests that, globally, anywhere between three and ten per cent of people identify as LGBT+, depending on the country. That would mean potentially anywhere between 1.23 million and 4.1 million Ukrainians identify as LGBT+.
One problem for transgender women trying to leave the country is that their government ID still identifies them as male, meaning they are subject to the law barring males between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
Trans people can legally change their gender but the process is long and complicated and people who have not yet made the change are now effectively trapped.
“Trans women whose gender marker is not matching their real gender or gender non-conforming people with a gender marker in their passport, they all are affected by this situation and they all are in danger when crossing the border,” said Emson.
“They can be discriminated [against], harassed and … of course, their attempts to cross the border would be unsuccessful.”
According to Powell, LGBT+ refugees also face difficulties accessing certain medications in bordering countries.
“We know for sure that there’s a shortage of antiretroviral medication for people living with and affected by HIV,” said Powell.
LGBT+ people inside Ukraine need essentials
Emson, who is currently in Kyiv, decided to stay in Ukraine to fight the Russian forces and support the LGBT+ community still in the country. Gay and trans people are allowed to join the military in Ukraine and have been taking part in the defence of the country, he said.
“I would like the world to know that there are trans people and LGBT+ people in Ukraine who are serving, who are protecting, who are trying to make their inputs into this fight,” said Emson.
Right now, Emson says, many queer people in Ukraine need the same basic essentials as everyone else: food, shelter and medicine.
“Those who need medication, like trans people who are taking hormones, the situation is even worse because there is a huge shortage of medications right now, and to get hormones is very challenging, too.”
The challenges facing LGBT+ Ukrainians closely mirror those of LGBT+ people in other conflict zones, according to Sharalyn Jordan, board chair of Rainbow Refugee, an organisation that helps people forced to flee persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.
Some LGBT+ Ukrainians are fleeing Russian occupation. Others are signing up to fight
A few weeks ago, Vlad Shast was working as a stylist, and performing on the drag queen circuit in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
That was before the Russian invasion. Now, he is pushing a grocery cart from shop to shop in Kyiv, filling it with supplies for soldiers on the front lines.
“My life is like before and after,” Shast says. “My life has changed completely.”
Even before getting called up for mandatory conscription in Ukraine’s military, 26-year-old Shast volunteered for Ukraine’s territorial defence force, a civilian corps that reports to the military.
Shast is a prominent member of Ukraine’s queer scene, who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as nonbinary. They fear what might happen under Russian occupation. Inside Russia, LGBT+ people have faced persecution, even torture.
But when Zelenskyy announced wartime conscription, some LGBT+ Ukrainians fled the country.
“I knew that if I stayed, then the border would be closed to me, and they would obligate me to serve in the military,” says Bohdan Moroz, 23, a gay designer from Kyiv whose company evacuated him to Berlin before conscription took effect.
Moroz wasn’t breaking the law by fleeing Ukraine. But he still feels conflicted. He believes the war is important for people like him.
“I believe that Ukraine is a European country, that has equal rights for everybody,” Moroz says. “So fighting for freedom now means fighting for LGBT+ people as well.”
That’s why that drag performer Vlad Shast joined the territorial defence.
“I am a legend in the Ukrainian queer scene! And you know, now I’m living with straight, hetero men, and they don’t even care about my homosexuality, about my queerness — because now we are united.”
Here’s how you can help
Activists and organisations in Ukraine and abroad have taken steps to help Ukrainians whose sexual preference or gender identity puts them at additional risk.
LGBT+ organisations across eastern and central Europe are co-ordinating evacuations and shelter for LGBT+ refugees from the war-torn country. To help them, the international non-profit All Out has started a fundraiser with Ukrainian LGBT+ organisations Kyiv Pride and Insight. Through donations, they plan to get LGBT+ people out of the country and provide resources to those who stay. Donate to All Out here.
From international fundraisers to local grassroots efforts, here are some organisations looking to support Ukraine’s LGBT+ population: Alturi, Fulcrum, Gender Z, ILGA, Nash Mir LGBT Human Rights Center, OutRight Action International, Quarteera, QUA: LGBT+ Ukrainians in America and Rainbow Railroad.