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Foreign to the world: Challenges faced by LGBT refugees from Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere

It is a common perception that gender and sexuality issues should fade into the background in times of war, with war being the ultimate equalizer. In reality, however, any humanitarian crisis harbors particularly high risks for queer people: an increased level of violence, a lack of access to medical, psychological, and other assistance because of social isolation, and problems with border crossing. Queers find it much harder to emigrate and request asylum than heterosexual people, especially couples: Russia does not grant asylum to queer people, and even Western countries regularly reject their claims. However, even those Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian queers who escaped the war to Europe are still at risk. 

  • Fluid identities

  • At the border

  • Abroad

  • Impossible subjects

Artwork credit Michel Hunealt ROXHAM

Almost immediately after the war broke out, many transgender people reported not being able to leave Ukraine. Such cases have been covered by Vice, The Guardian, Euronews, and other media. When Ukraine declared martial law, it included an international travel ban for all men aged 18-60. Apart from violating common sense and international law, this ban made it highly problematic for transgender and non-binary individuals to leave the country if their external gender expression even slightly differed from the information in their papers. Ukrainian border guards refuse exit to trans women who use their old passports where they identify as “Male”; trans men with female IDs often hear they “must join the fight”. Even if their IDs match their new gender, transfeminine persons who are receiving hormone therapy but have not undergone genital surgery (which is not mandatory for trans people) are subjected to humiliating manual examination: border guards scrutinize “what are you?” and prohibit passage.

Ukrainian border guards refuse exit to trans women who use their old passports where they identify as “Male”

A CBS broadcast on transgender Ukrainians caught up in the conflict was ridiculed on Twitter, and it’s a widespread perception that “war discriminates against no one” and that gender and sexuality issues in such catastrophes are “First-World problems” unworthy of serious consideration. However, as numerous studies and NGO reports have shown, armed conflicts and other large-scale shocks (akin to the COVID-19 pandemic) harbor much higher risks for queer people than their cisgender, heteronormative peers and offer lower chances of getting the necessary aid.

Around 14 million migrants and refugees worldwide belong to LGBTQI+ groups

To analyze the circumstances of queers fleeing from war or migrating in times of peace, it is practical to engage the concept of intersectionality. It sheds light on how an individual’s multiple identities intersect and thus determine their discrimination or privileges (by virtue of gender, race, class, income, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on). For instance, in a society with a high level of queerphobia and heteronormative social institutes, any lesbian may face difficulties when accessing necessary help; it is even harder if she belongs to an ethnic minority, but somewhat easier if she is upper-class. The world currently has around 281 million migrants, including 46 million forcibly displaced persons outside their countries of residence and refugees. Even by the most conservative estimate, which sets the threshold of 5% of queers in any given group (although the actual share is considerably higher), around 14 million migrants and refugees belong to LGBTQI+ groups.

Fluid identities

Over the last decade and a half, migration and diaspora studies have considerably evolved, shifting their focus from quantitative inquests into migration flows to so-called “migrant narratives”, demonstrating the diverse nature of mobility. Until recently, migration was approached mostly as a labor market phenomenon: a quest for better employment opportunities and higher quality of life was believed to be a key driver behind the movement of people. Migration flows were also viewed as homogeneous processes: from rural to urban areas and from less advantageous locations to better ones. However, high-quality mobility studies, which incorporate queer theory optics, have shown that migration often occurs along less obvious lines and that sexuality and gender identity often provide the main impetus for relocation.

Sexuality and gender identity often provide the main impetus for relocation

Queer identities and migration are interrelated, although this observation is a recent discovery. Scholars are exploring the “migration culture” in non-heteronormative communities, which is often fueled by discrimination and exclusion faced by queer people in many regions. Karma Chávez published a book in 2013 titled Queer Migration Politics, addressing the intersection between queer and migrant issues and civil and political coalitions that emerge at this confluence. The editors of Queer Diasporas point out a correlation between the “sexual fluidity” of the last decades and increased migration flows. In their new countries of residence, queer migrants establish fluid communities, and these formations have enabled researchers to reinvent the concept of diasporas, which were previously mainly ethnic. The very notion of queer as a particular “anti-identity identity” emerged in many parts thanks to migration from non-Western cultures to the West: African, Asian, and Latin American queers brought their sexual identities and practices that went beyond the Western scope of LGBTQI+, thus expanding it.

Just recently, up until the 1980s, many countries used non-normative sexuality or gender identity as a pretext for deportation or refusal of entry on a regulatory or customary basis. Thus, the McCarran–Walter Act passed in the U.S. in 1952 prohibited entry for persons with “sexual deviations”, while the Hart–Celler Act of 1965 explicitly banned the immigration of queers. Even after homosexuality was excluded from the list of mental disorders in 1973, these bans remained in effect, in one way or another, for at least another seventeen years. One did not even have to be queer to be refused entry or asylum: thus, up until the mid-20th century, the U.S. essentially blocked entry for Chinese women because of stereotypical associations with illegal sex work, promiscuity, and venereal diseases. In 2020, a collection of papers titled Queer and Trans Migrations was published, describing and analyzing various national practices of outlawing, incarcerating, and deporting queer migrants and refugees.

Up until the 1980s, many countries used non-normative sexuality as a pretext for deportation or refusal of entry

However, the situation took a turn for the better in the 1980s thanks to the effort of LGB, queer, feminist, and trans-activist communities, and mobility triggered by SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression) enters the spotlight. The AIDS epidemic also had a major part to play: the U.S. and some other countries adopted measures postponing the deportation of HIV-positive illegal immigrants for humanitarian reasons. Meanwhile, strict quarantine rules were imposed to prohibit entry for HIV-positive individuals and had a long-lasting impact on the restrictive migration policies of multiple states.{{image_JzU8IO5bg}}

The more detailed understanding of LGBT identities shaped in the West, along with the community's self-identity, the more evidence was collected confirming the vulnerability of sexually and gender-nonconforming people’s lives and health in multiple regions. Coupled with AIDS activism, these developments resulted in SOGIE-related risks being treated as a basis for migration or granting of asylum. Courts and migration services started processing asylum or residence applications from individuals subjected to harassment, threats, intimidation, psychological or physical pressure, torture, incarceration, or social pressure towards heteronormativity and gender binarism in their homeland because of their sexual or gender expression. Australia was among the first to announce a progressive queer mobility policy, recognizing same-sex relationships as a basis for immigration in 1985 and introducing the category of interdependency in 1991, simplifying immigration for queer partners of Australian nationals. Canada was the first country to welcome queer refugees in 1991, to be joined by Australia and the U.S. in 1994.

Canada was the first country to welcome queer refugees in 1991, to be joined by Australia and the U.S. in 1994

Since then, twenty-five more countries adopted similar policies. Meanwhile, the U.S. maintained its immigration ban for HIV-positive people until 2010, and until 2013, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) excluded the possibility for same-sex and transgender partners of American nationals to enter the country on the grounds of family reunification because DOMA defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. While these developments generally facilitated queer mobility, they also reinforced what researcher Sonia Katyal calls “identity export” from the West elsewhere, meaning that any sexual and gender nonconformity was now packaged into America- and Europe-centric LGBT categories, while differences faded. Although attention to SOGIE migrants led to the evolution of the very notion of flight and migration, legal and media practices have continued treating these processes as part of the strengthening dichotomy of the West and the East and demonization of “underdeveloped regions” to highlight the progressiveness of the host country and the indisputable risk faced by the migrant in their homeland. In her investigation of the migration of Latin American lesbians to the U.S., Olivia Espin demonstrates how they end up stuck between the lesbophobic and misogynistic attitudes of their native communities and the racially and ethnically biased practices of the new homeland. The American state and society place them under strict control, depriving them of the right to practice their complex ethnic and sexual identities. It was not before 2008 that the UN Refugee Agency published a guidance note on treating queer refugees and processing their asylum claims.

At the border

Queer refugees and migrants begin to encounter issues already at the border with transit or destination countries. States that treat SOGIE as a criterion for migration or flight need to be able to verify such claims. As a result, even EU member states regularly reject asylum seekers’ claims and residence permit applications, failing to verify that the claimants are queer or at risk of persecution at home.

Almost ubiquitously, the current immigration law places the burden of proof on SOGIE migrants and asylum seekers. In the case of queer migrants, it takes the shape of degradingly humiliating (as well as stereotype-ridden and pointless) procedures. At least until 2009 in the Czech Republic and until 2012 in Slovakia, phallometric evidence was used: gay migrants were forced to watch homoerotic porn to see if they get an erection. In the 1990s UK, gay refugees were checked for evidence of previous homosexual intercourse through anal examination.

The current immigration law places the burden of proof on SOGIE migrants and asylum seekers

In the majority of cases, proving one’s sexual and gender identity through personal narratives still means that queer migrants are subjected to detailed, humiliating interrogation about their private life, despite the explicit ban on such questioning in the immigration acts of certain countries. However, no matter how many details you provide, there is no guarantee authorities will believe you. The UK deported an Iranian gay man back home in 1991 because he “didn't look gay” and banned entry for a refugee from Cyprus in 1989, suggesting that he “stops practicing homosexuality”. This kind of advice is a frequent problem for queer refugees. Known as the “discretion requirement”, it implies demanding of the deported queer refugee that they “act prudently” and avoid practicing their sexual nonconformity. There have been hundreds of cases when asylum seekers were sent back if the authorities learned they had successfully concealed their identity at home. This requirement and deportation argument were recognized as legally invalid in the EU and countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand in the early 2000s (and in the UK in 2010), but, as The Guardian pointed out in 2020, claims still get rejected daily because of the “culture of disbelief”.

Hundreds of asylum seekers were sent back if the authorities learned they had successfully concealed their identity at home

This often results in dire situations. Thus, when the migration crisis played out in Europe in the early 2010s, exacerbating after 2015, queer refugees reported requests to present videos of them having sex with their partners. In a 2013 BBC report, lesbian refugees from Uganda and Nigeria shared that their asylum claims had been rejected multiple times, with not-so-subtle hints that videos of their intercourse could be admissible as sufficient proof. In a comment to HuffPost, a barrister specializing in immigrant and asylum law admitted that such cases were not singular. At the borders of “progressive” states, queer refugees are required to present a frank narrative that would match the Western idea of identity. Meanwhile, it is imperative to keep in mind that many queer refugees lived under immense pressure in their home countries because of their SOGIE status. Many have never experienced same-sex intimacy; many are unwilling or have no words to speak about themselves as queer. For many still, sexuality is not a part of their queer identity, and many struggle with internalized queerphobia. In all, border control and immigration officers lack specific training for working with queer people almost everywhere. Their asylum claims are assessed based on stereotypes and may be rejected if, for example, a gay man “does not look feminine” or a lesbian is not “masculine enough”.

Trans and intersex people fleeing the war in Ukraine have their IDs scrutinized multiple times at the border and are subjected to humiliating visual and manual examination and unacceptable interrogation techniques. Human rights groups explicitly recommend that they lose or hide their passports and tell Ukrainian border guards they are “students from abroad” or temporary residents. This way, they stand in line with foreign nationals and interact with the border guards of the neighboring country, which does not ban passage for men. However, nothing can deliver trans migrants from demeaning and stressful searches, questioning, and checks, which form part of any trans person's reality even in times of peace and in so-called progressive countries.

Nothing can deliver trans migrants from demeaning and stressful searches, questioning, and checks

Willingly or against their will, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have found themselves on Russian territory since the war broke out. What Russia presents as a humanitarian mission and evacuation effort is in most cases deportation. It is hard to imagine that any queers would want to flee the war to Russia. Still, if any of them wanted to seek political asylum there, it would not be possible. Russia has no institute of political flight, despite its mention in the Constitution. While interested in disenfranchised migrants as a source of slave-like workforce, Russia is not prepared to offer assistance to people in life-threatening situations. As Nastoyashchee Vremya observes, whenever migrants from the Middle East and queer migrants from Central Asia and Central Africa, including HIV-positive individuals, seek political asylum in Russia, their claims are rejected in an insulting manner and they are deported back home despite the danger to their lives.


Crossing the border does not guarantee safety to a queer migrant. A great many migrating or forcibly displaced queers arrive in the host country with serious mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and complex trauma-related syndromes. Transgender people, especially non-Whites, display a higher rate of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, sometimes several dozen times as high as the population average. In all, queers are often susceptible to so-called minority stress, as problematic as the concept of “minority” may appear. It is especially true in Ukraine, where mental disorders are stigmatized, and people are unaware of available help options – like in many post-Soviet countries. Migration, especially fleeing war, may exacerbate any mental condition because of the need to adapt to a new country, a new, often unfamiliar language, general uncertainty, and new threats. Both migrants and refugee assistance providers point out that mental issues are often internalized in the form of shame, making it impossible for queers to seek help in a new country. Many are unprepared to talk about their mental state, and some lose the ability to speak at all, like Khavaj, a Chechen from the Silent Voice documentary who moved to Brussels to escape his family after death threats because of his homosexuality and lost his voice due to the trauma.

Mental issues are often internalized in the form of shame, making it impossible for queers to seek help in a new country

Requesting medical assistance is an urgent matter for refugees, especially queers. Some transgender people flee Ukraine while their hormone therapy is in progress. In Ukraine, they often purchase the drugs under the counter because gender transitioning there is a complicated, often humiliating process. Without medical proof of their endocrine condition or prescription for the necessary drugs, such people are forced to suspend their therapy in Europe. Early in 2019, the WHO released the Draft Global Action Plan on Promoting the Health of Refugees and Migrants, which stated that “nationality should never be a basis for determining access to health care”. In reality, though, access to free health care is considerably limited or blocked entirely for refugees and migrants, especially those with uncertain legal status or without the papers. Because of financial difficulties or for fear of deportation, immigrants avoid seeking medical assistance – and naturally, refrain from going to the police if they become victims of violence.

Some countries take months or even years to assess SOGIE asylum claims. Living in uncertainty does nothing to improve the condition of already traumatized people. Spain does not force queer refugees to stay in detention centers awaiting the decision – unlike most other countries. Reception centers have been a source of queerphobic violence from the moment of inception. As a rule, queer refugees suffer sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at the hands of their compatriots. Ukrainians are no exception: as Dragana Todorovic, board member of EL*C (Eurocentralasian Lesbian Community) explains, lesbian refugees from Ukraine face the risk of discrimination and violence if they attempt to integrate into Ukrainian communities. A child from a Ukrainian queer family has been bullied in a Dutch school by other Ukrainian pupils.

In detention centers, queer refugees suffer sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at the hands of their compatriots

LGBTQ migrants fall prey to sexual and physical violence in detention centers at the hands of both staff and other detainees a hundred times more often than their heteronormative peers. It was not until recently that some European countries (and the U.S. since 2011) started housing queer refugees in specialized facilities. In regular detention centers, queer-based violence often goes unregistered because of the staff's reluctance or the queers’ concerns that such complaints may negatively affect their claim assessment process. If such a complaint is registered, queers are “protected” with solitary detention.

Naturally, no one even challenges the practice of keeping any migrants and refugees in detention centers. Such measures form part of the -entrée policy of prosperous nation-states looking to reinforce their borders, which began to take shape in the 1990s, as researcher James Hathaway observes. Despite its image of a welcoming, multicultural nation, Australia, for one, concluded an agreement with the island state of Nauru for Nauru to host a detention center for refugees headed for Australia in return for social security sponsorship. Meanwhile, the EU has an agreement with Turkey, offering monetary compensation and a special visa regime for Turkey to block the passage of Syrian refugees to the Greek islands.

Fleeing violence in their new country of residence, many queer refugees leave detention centers, facing extreme vulnerability: no money, no papers, and no social ties. Many opt for sex work as the last resort. The situation is common for queers, especially trans persons, who suffer from social isolation and struggle to find work because of transphobia. Many succeed in maintaining agency in sex work, while others end up more vulnerable and prone to riskier sexual behavior. Gay and trans refugees are much more likely to practice unprotected sex and chemsex, contract venereal diseases, or get a positive HIV status. At the same time, such individuals often face isolation and cannot get support from LGBTQ communities. A lack of papers or their uncertain legal status often impedes their access to health care, medical tests, and ART therapy. Katrin Vogel documents the emigration of Venezuelan transformistas who engage in sex work to save money for transitioning. This situation is common among migrants from other regions as well.

Gay and trans refugees are much more likely to practice unprotected sex, contract venereal diseases, or get a positive HIV status

Ukrainian women and queers fleeing the war face the imminent threat of human trafficking and sexual slavery in neighboring countries and detention centers. The BBC covered how traffickers prey on female refugees and children. Anna-Maria Tesfaye of Queer Svit underlines that trans women from Ukraine are a particularly vulnerable target. Even abroad, Ukrainian queers often end up in queerphobic states: thus, over a hundred Polish towns have been declared “LGBT-free zones”, while President Andrzej Duda denounced LGBT rights as “destructive”. Hungary and Romania are not the safest destinations for queers either: gender transitioning in Hungary is outlawed, and the family is defined as a heterosexual union. They could attempt to reach Germany, where it is easy to obtain a residence permit and temporary social benefits under Section 24 of the Residence Act regardless of one's SOGIE status, but far from all can afford to buy tickets.

Even if both LGBT partners are Ukrainian nationals, host countries may place them in different cities because Ukraine does not recognize same-sex marriage

Tesfaye and Aisha Allakhverdieva, a volunteer at Quarteera, an organization helping queer refugees, highlight another issue. In many couples fleeing Ukraine (including same-sex couples), one of the partners is a national of a different country, such as Russia or Belarus. As Anna-Maria Tesfaye says, they are often rejected or taken off trains. The April update of the German special order addressing the influx of refugees allows for providing social support and a residence permit to members of Ukrainian families who are third-country nationals if they can prove their family connection with documents, mostly pertaining to economic ties. According to Aisha Allakhverdieva, personal narratives, correspondence, photographs, or letters from friends have no legal force. Even if both partners are Ukrainian nationals, Germany and other countries may place them in different cities because Ukraine does not recognize same-sex marriage and such partners have no documents to prove their union. Anna-Maria Tesfaye also attests to particular challenges faced by -White refugees: even at the Ukrainian border, they need to present more papers and stand in longer lines. They often encounter outrageously racist treatment in Ukraine. She shared stories of a lesbian from India, a gay man from Brazil, and a -binary person from South Africa who failed to get any assistance in Ukraine and slept in the street before Queer Svit took matters into their hands. Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, shares similar accounts of the experience of Afghan queer refugees from Ukraine.

Impossible subjects

In any armed conflict or humanitarian crisis, women, queers, and other vulnerable groups are always more exposed. A study in Moldova and post-annexation Ukraine revealed a connection between war and an increase in violence against LGBTQ. There have been reports of Ukrainian territorial defense forces showing aggression toward gender -conforming Ukrainians. The militarization of society and the actualization of masculine ideals marginalize -normative sexuality and genders even further. However, even fleeing the war does not guarantee safety to queers. Multiple researchers interpret the very institute of nationality and national borders as heteronormative. Eithne Luibhéid refers to queer migrants as “impossible subjects” because their histories are “unrepresentable” in a heteronormative civil framework. Furthermore, Jasbir Puar complements heteronormativity with “homonormativity” and “homonationalism” – when proving that you belong to an LGBT group takes conforming with the stereotypical West-centric idea of LGBT people.

Queer migrants often find themselves in transitional gray areas, which is aptly reflected, for example, in a study of queer migration to South Africa and Cape Town from other African regions. There, queers are treated as both “too African” by virtue of their origin and “not African enough” because of their sexuality. Similar processes occur to Iranian queer refugees to Turkey, Venezuelan to Brazil, and most likely, Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian to the EU. Countries like Israel and Australia, states like California, and cities like Cape Town practice so-called “pinkwashing”, promoting their queer-friendly image, while in reality they only welcome wealthy White gay men, leaving everyone else behind. Today’s migration and flight are aligned with the needs of a neoliberal regime, in which autonomous subjects are supposed to take care of themselves and contribute to the economy. An investigation into queer migration from the Middle East to Germany with Turkey as a transit point also details this limbo where refugees are kept. One of the respondents, who spent three years in Istanbul, calls the protracted bureaucratic processes a “slow death”.

Certain countries and cities practice so-called “pinkwashing”, promoting their queer-friendly image, while in reality they only welcome wealthy White gay men

However, queer migrant narratives are not exclusively those of victims. They maintain agency and, having experienced the tolls of flight, begin to help other migrants, like, for instance, a Ukrainian lesbian couple who fled to the UK and the aforementioned refugee in Istanbul, who continued his migrant activism in the Netherlands. Analyzed through the lens of queer optics, their efforts and the narratives of war refugees show to what extent today's nation-states are heteronormative formations and how much the migration process lacks inclusivity. For queers, the notion of home is performative rather than sedentary, so they often find a home for the first time after they leave, instead of losing it. For the moment, their quest is complicated by the heteronormative institute of nationality. In 2011, Canadian queer activists launched the Let Alvaro Stay campaign to protect Nicaraguan artist and activist Alvaro Orozco from deportation. He had lived in Canada illegally since 2007, after his asylum claim had been rejected because he “didn’t look gay”. Public protests resulted in his deportation being annulled. This precedent should be transformed into a ubiquitous practice so that instead of migration crises we achieve true mobility.

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