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“Queers Will Be The Invaders' First Target”: How LGBTQ+ Ukrainians Are Fighting Against Russia

The LGBTQ+ community in Russia has already suffered under Putin's regime, while in Ukraine, on the contrary, the situation has improved in recent years for this vulnerable group. Given that many Russian government officials (from Putin to Vladimir Gundyaev, head of the Russian Orthodox Church) have explicitly justified the war with Ukraine by the need to combat gay pride parades and “protect conservative values,” members of the LGBTQ+ community have a dual motivation to defend Ukraine.

  • Don't ask, don't tell

  • Total mayhem

  • You are here to kill

Don't ask, don't tell

After Russia started the war in Ukraine on February 24, men between the ages of 18 and 60 with Ukrainian citizenship were forbidden to leave the country. «On day one, at 4 o'clock in the morning we were attacked by cruise missiles. Everybody woke up. We all took up arms, becoming one big army,» Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky said in his video address to the British Parliament.

In Ukraine, military service is compulsory for men, and homosexuality is not a reason for exemption from the draft. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, an important part of Zelensky's large army, went to war with Russian soldiers.

Antonina describes herself as a non-binary person. She was born and raised in Crimea, worked as a director in an experimental theater, played her songs on the ukulele and fought the Russian invaders since the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014. Antonina celebrated her 37th birthday on night duty as a volunteer for the Kiev Territorial Defense Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On her Instagram page, instead of photos from rehearsals and jogging, there were photos of her in uniform. Antonina's boyfriend also serves in the military. In peacetime, Oleksandr was an actor and acting coach. Last year's photos on his Instagram page show him wearing a yellow beanie, with a bicycle and a cup of coffee. Neither of them held a gun until February 24.

«In civilian life we are open, but in the TDF we still live by the «don't ask, don't tell» rule <the unofficial policy that was in effect in the U.S. military until 2011, according to which LGBTQ+ people were required to conceal their orientation under the threat of dismissal - The Insider>. I hope this will change soon,» Oleksandr wrote on the social media page for the Ukrainian LGBT Military for Equal Rights association, telling a story about what it's like to be gay in the military.

The association emerged in 2018 after photographer Anton Shebetko's exhibition «We Were Here.» His camera lens captured military personnel, paramedics, and volunteers. The portraits, in which they hide their faces, combined military camouflage and the camouflage used by LGBTQ+ people. During the exhibition, one of its participants, combat veteran Victor Pilipenko made a cameo appearance. He became the first soldier of the Ukrainian armed forces who did not hide his homosexuality, and then he became the head of the «Ukrainian LGBT Military». After Pilipenko created a Facebook group, and other LGBTQ+ servicemen joined it, and some of them also came out of the closet. The association now includes more than a hundred open and non-open LGBTQ+ soldiers.

Anton became the first soldier of the Ukrainian armed forces to reveal his homosexuality, and then the head of the «Ukrainian LGBT Military»

Viktor Pilipenko participated as a volunteer in combat operations in Donbass and the Luhansk region between September 2014 and May 2016. Before that, he lived and worked in the Arab Emirates, but decided to return when historic events began to unfold in Ukraine. «As defenders, we had a lot of respect from civilians, so they could easily accept our second, homosexual, identity. Because of that, we created an umbrella for the entire LGBT community,» he believes. Now Viktor is back to war to defend Ukraine and its LGBTQ+ people.

Sergey had come out publicly as well. Psychologically he was relieved, because he no longer had to live a double life, and his comrades-in-arms took his orientation calmly: «I have a normal commander, he said: this is your life and I have no right to interfere in it - you serve well, everything is fine, don't worry. Sergei is currently in the combat zone.

Despite individual cases, Pilipenko admits that coming out as gay or lesbian is a bolder decision than going to the front. All Ukrainian LGBTQ+ servicemen are already twice heroes.

Total mayhem

Ukraine is only moving toward full recognition of the LGBTQ+ rights, but at least it's not standing still like Russia, where all members of the community continue to be persecuted. The special operation threatens to deprive the LGBTQ+ Ukrainians of the rights and freedoms they have achieved in recent years.

If you ask a gay, lesbian, or transgender person in the military the popular question, «Where have you been for eight years?» - most of them will answer they defended Crimea or Donbass, or at the very least went to LGBT parades, which was also a sign of courage. During Viktor Yanukovych's rule, parades were only held in Kiev, and for every LGBTQ+ person, there were ten haters, including conservative Orthodox believers, far-rights, and police officers. Sometimes, violence broke out. Thus, the 2015 «Equality March» had a small number of participants and was disrupted by violent attacks.

Under Yanukovich, there were ten haters for every LGBTQ+ person

After Vladimir Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, LGBT Pride marches and equality marches began to take place not only in Kiev, but also in Kharkiv, Odessa, and other cities; police officers did not disperse the participants, but protected them from opponents. Thanks to this, about 7,000 people gathered for the tenth anniversary KievPride in 2021.

According to the annual «Rainbow Europe» ranking of LGBTQ+ rights equality, which is compiled by the human rights organization ILGA-Europe, Ukraine ranked 40th in 2021 (Russia ranked 46th out of 49 countries on that list). Despite the low ranking, the LGBTQ+ community has made some progress in recent years. Among them is the prohibition of discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a law making it easier for transgender people to transition. Most importantly, Ukraine does not have the «gay propaganda law» that was passed in Russia in 2013. Because of this, the country was a safe haven for Eastern European LGBTQ+ people, who had to leave their homeland – Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan because of discrimination. Now their asylum is in danger of being destroyed.

Lenny Emson, director of Kiev Pride, told LGBT+ radio station GlibberBeam about the good plans. According to him, the Verkhovna Rada is already considering a bill to increase liability for crimes grounded in homophobia, transphobia and other manifestations of intolerance. In addition, the possibility of allowing same-sex marriages in Ukraine is being discussed. Because of the war, these plans may not come to fruition.

The Verkhovna Rada is already considering a bill to increase liability for homophobic crimes

In Donbass, the LGBTQ+ community had already seen what would happen if Vladimir Putin's supporters took power. Before the events in Crimea and Donbass, the gay community flourished until Russia-backed separatists brought heightened homophobic rhetoric to the region. Many LGBTQ+ people faced attacks, detentions, and physical violence.

LGBTQ+ Ukrainians are aware of the threat they face. «We understand that the Russian occupation will bring total lawlessness and repression - we see this right now in the seized territories of Crimea and Donbass,» says Andrei Kravchuk of the Kiev LGBTQ Our Light Center. «Now we have only two options: either we defend our country, and it becomes part of the free world, or there will be no freedom for us and no Ukraine at all.»

Kravchuk fled Luhansk, a region near the Russian-Ukrainian border, after shelling began in 2014. He moved to Kiev, where he lives with his boyfriend. His family stayed home. His brother was captured by the Russian military as he was returning home from the market and forcibly called to defend the Luhansk People's Republic, even though the man has a knee implant. Even though his brother may be fighting for the other side - not by choice - Kravchuk will fight on.

You are here to kill

Even before the war, Russia had plans to destroy the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community. This was revealed in a letter from the U.S. government. Russian forces «have been compiling lists of Ukrainians who will be killed or sent to camps» in the event of an invasion, according to the letter Batsheba Nell Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sent to UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on February 20, 2022. The letter also states the most likely targets include «Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, as well as vulnerable groups of the population such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ people. According to Crocker, they may face «murder, kidnapping/forced disappearance, unjust detention and torture.» You can read the full text of the letter here.

The Kremlin denied the report, and presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, «Do you understand that this is an absolute fake, a lie? It's an absolute fiction. There is no such list. It's a fake.» Prior to February 24, the Kremlin also denied the possibility of Russian troops invading Ukraine.

Many LGBTQ+ Ukrainians in the early days of the war hastily erased their Internet footprints: deleting their accounts in dating apps, purging their correspondence in messengers. And they enlisted in the Ukrainian army. «We understand that Russia will target LGBT+ people first. But we have faith in the Ukrainian army, which is holding back Russian troops around the clock,» Lenny Emson said.

Before the war, Oleg, a 22-year-old bisexual, got up early every day and walked his dog along the wide boulevards of Kiev. Three days after Russian tanks crossed the border, life completely changed for the former beer sommelier. Oleg shaved off his dyed-blond hair and together with his father enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces. His mother and brother managed to escape to Germany. Oleg's favorite places in Kiev, including the green boulevards with French accents, became ruins.

Dmitry, a non-binary male translator from Bila Tserkva, a town in the Kyiv region, was going to attend a party on February 25; he had planned it in advance. Instead, the 23-year-old man joined the territorial defense forces, like Antonina and Oleksandr. Dmitry admitted he did not want to serve in the army, but then everything fell apart, and he volunteered. He didn't even have time to wipe the glitter polish off his nails. Noticing this, one of the instructors commented, «I hope you're just an aesthete,» meaning an artiste, not a gay. But then added: «I don't really care who you are. You're here to kill the invader, that's what matters.» On March 5, Russian troops launched a rocket attack on residential buildings in Bila Tserkva, and victims were pulled out from under the rubble.

«I don't really care who you are. You're here to kill the invader, that's what matters»

Vlad Shast, a 26-year-old popular queer character Guppy Drink, currently a Territorial Defense Force volunteer. Instead of juicy drag-queen makeup and lavish ruffled dresses, he now wears a khaki jacket and carries a machine gun. «There's a vastly important goal: to defeat and force Russian troops out of our country.... «, he says. «No one here cares who I am, even the most conservative members of the team put the fight for freedom above their personal views.» The war united all Ukrainians and shifted the optics from drag makeup, nail polish, sexual orientation and gender identity to the universal values: freedom, equality, security, peace.

When writing this text, we used stories and quotes from Ukrainian LGBTQ+ military personnel taken from various open sources, since most of those whom our correspondent contacted did not respond to queries, many of them refusing to communicate with The Insider. Screenshots of the correspondence are available. All of them refused to talk for the same reason: they did not want to talk «with the invaders». One representative of the Ukrainian LGBT Military for Equal Rights, Nastia Konfederat, responded to a request for an interview as follows: «Better tell us how your soldiers are killing our children.»

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