Russia may be weaponising homophobia, but the war has strengthened Ukraine’s fight for LGBT rights

«There will be no ‘pink’ in our country!» a Russian soldier yelled while grabbing Vadim’s hair and kicking him in the back.

This material is taken from the information portal ABC News.

WARNING: This story contains references to sexual violence that may disturb some readers.

Key points:

  • Ukraine has made progress to become more supportive of the LGBT community, but still lags behind many western European countries
  • Activists say the conflict with Russia has drawn attention to the inequalities the community faces
  • More Ukrainians now see homophobia as a Russian world view, and seek change

In Kherson, two Russian occupiers used the same insult – «pinks» – when they burst into the hide-out of a lesbian couple.

The men then violently raped the two women at gunpoint, according to an account published in a report by Ukraine’s LGBT Human Rights Nash Svit Centre in November.

Over the past year, there have been dozens of reports of trans and homophobic attacks carried out by Russian troops in occupied territories. 

Due to the lack of internet and phone connections, it has been difficult to gain information on the full extent of the brutality.

But the stories rights groups and activists have been able to collect from people like Vadim – who lives in occupied Melitopol – indicate the LGBT community has faced increased risks throughout the 12-month war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies and propaganda have made LGBT people particularly vulnerable during the conflict. 

He has been accused of weaponising what he describes as the West’s attack on «traditional values», using the LGBT community as part of his case for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Moscow’s homophobia hasn’t been the only challenge LGBT people have had to contend with during the war.

While Ukraine has made progress in recent years to become more supportive of the LGBT community, it still lags behind many western European countries.

Same-sex relationships are still not formally recognised and discrimination and prejudice remained rife throughout society before the war. 

But activists say the conflict has drawn attention to the inequalities the community faces and many feel more visible than ever.

And as Ukrainians become «more united», and the country tries to distance itself from Mr Putin’s version of Russian values, the war has become a catalyst for change.

«Many Ukrainians have opened their eyes suddenly,»  Sofiia Lapina, president of NGO UKRAINEPRIDE, told the ABC.

«I don’t think it will ever be the same as it was previously.»

‘Ukrainians don’t want to be aligned with Russia’

Like many Ukrainians, at the start of the war LGBT people took to the front lines, started volunteering and became active in the humanitarian response. 

Ms Lapina said there had been LGBT military personnel fighting for Ukraine since 2014, but back then it wasn’t safe for them to be open about their sexuality.

Now, not only are they coming out because «they could die any day», but it has become usual to face homophobia on the front lines. 

«Right now, Ukrainians are much more united than ever,» Ms Lapina said.

«When the war started, Ukrainians generally and people on the front lines started to understand that homophobic rhetoric is a Russian discourse.

«Ukrainians don’t want to be aligned with Russia and they see that homophobia is a Russian world view.»

This shift is also being seen at a government level as Kyiv struggles to join the European Union.

At the opening of Sydney WorldPride last month, Ukrainian ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko said when the country was recognised as a European Union candidate back in June it «changed everything» in respect to human rights, inclusion and diversity.

«Despite the issues we’ve had in the past with conservatism in Ukraine, which existed, we’re making some leapfrog steps towards the European Union,» he said.

«There are a lot of LGBTQI+ people who are fighting in the trenches.

«That’s what Ukraine is fighting for. We are fighting for those human rights and the ability to be able to celebrate who you are and not in any way be harassed or persecuted.»

In June last year, as part of its bid to join the EU, Ukraine ratified the Istanbul Convention, which prohibits violence against women and domestic violence.

UKRAINEPRIDE, which organises events and works with the media to promote LGBT rights, has also been pushing for the adoption of bill 5488, which would impose penalties for hate crimes.

Ms Lapina said the bill would make Ukraine safer for everyone regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity.

Fighting for recognition

One of the main issues the community is fighting for is the legal recognition of same-sex couples. 

«LGBT people are suffering a lot because we are not recognised in our country, we don’t have any civil partnership, we don’t have any hate crimes protection, we don’t have civil rights,» Olena Shevchenko, chairperson of  LGBT organisation Insight, told ABC’s The Drum.

Under Ukrainian law, if someone in a same-sex relationship dies, their partner cannot collect their body.

Ms Lapina said she knows of many couples who lost partners in the war and faced these difficulties. 

«Some were in the military and others died in missile attacks … what if these couples had a child?» she said. 

«You need to be legally recognised even to organise your partner’s funeral.»

These kinds of examples have made it clearer to society and the government why recognising same-sex relationships is so important, she said

«People are starting to understand this issue because a lot of Ukrainians have lost their family members and partners.» 

In August, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was forced to respond to a citizen petition calling for same-sex marriage to be legalised, which gained 25,000 signatures.

He opened the door to the prospect of «civil partnerships», but said it would be too difficult to change the constitution’s definition of marriage while the country was at war. 

He also promised to work with his ministers to «ensure the rights and freedoms» of all Ukrainians.

Transgender community gains visibility 

Anastasiia Yeva Domani, a trans activist and chief executive of the NGO Cohort, said as the war continued, the transgender community was becoming increasingly marginalised. 

«People have lost their sources of income and they can barely support themselves now,» Ms Domani told the ABC.

«So if the war continues even further, we will need to find a new way to support the needs of our community.»

One of the main roles Cohort has taken on during the conflict is helping trans people access hormone replacement therapies (HRT), which have been in dangerously short supply since the first months of the war. 

The costs have also skyrocketed, with some medications tripling in price, Ms Domani said. 

Stopping hormone treatment can bring serious physical and mental health impacts, from depression and anxiety to increased cancer risks.

But, with the help of aid and humanitarian organisations, Cohort has been able to gain access to more suppliers than ever.

«At this moment, I have more than 100 items of hormones,» Ms Domani said. 

«People can contact Cohort with the brand of therapy they need and we are able to send it out.»

She said so far the organisation has helped more than 950 trans people. 

«We had a lot of attention and recognition from organisations around the world and we want to keep these connections even after the war,» Ms Domani’s colleague, Yulia Familyeva, said. 

«Our community has become much more visible since the start of the war and much more consolidated among itself.» 

However, where the community has suffered is the loss of «friendly doctors», Ms Domani said. 

It’s still not easy for trans people in Ukraine to access gender-affirming healthcare such as hormones and surgery, with many encountering discrimination from doctors.

«We managed to improve the standard for the transgender community with the society at large, so it has been a great improvement from more than 20 years back,» Ms Domani said.

«However, the conditions of war hampered our efforts.

«So now we try to focus on short-term goals like the inclusion of transgender specific care in the education of medical professionals taking more of a priority.»

While organisations like Cohort have benefited greatly from international support, Ms Shevchenko said more needs to be done to meet the specific needs of marginalised people. 

«Nobody is taking into account the needs of the most marginalised, vulnerable communities,» she said. 

«They just copy/paste strategies like they use in Syria and Afghanistan, just to bring everything to Ukraine as they did for refugee camps, for instance.

«It is not a working strategy.»