"We need to survive"

By Jang KapgenLex Kleren

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As the war in Ukraine continues, marginalized people are at danger to be hit the hardest by its consequences. Lëtzebuerger Journal talked to queer people who either fled or stayed back in Kyiv – to share their testimonies of incredible resilience and constant fear of death.

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The Russian attack has started on February, 24 and has forced over two million Ukrainians fleeing into neighboring countries with rising death polls on both the Russian and Ukrainian side. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and the previous home of around three million people, witnesses consistent fights in its streets and bombs falling from the sky. A previously flourishing city has been turned into the battleground of geopolitics and hunger for power. While some of its citizens remained in the city to defend their capital or to organize humanitarian help, others have fled into the safety of west Ukraine or its neighboring countries – among them, Yevhen Trachuk. They are a previously Kyiv-based queer artist and work as project manager for Kyiv Pride, an LGBT+ organization in the capital. The war has turned their life into a nightmare of never-ending exhaustion.

The Russian threat

"Kyiv felt like a safe place to me", Yevhen explains the situation prior to the Russian invasion in our interview on March 4, "I could dress how I wanted to, and I did not fear to be attacked". They remember queer parties as part of Kyiv’s night life and the yearly Pride march, exemplifying the ever-bettering situation of the queer community in Kyiv. Nevertheless, equity was not achieved – police still had to protect Pride marches as "far right" groups were feared to attack participants, as Yevhen recounts, and basic legal equality, such as same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws, were not provided yet. However, when Putin started his attack, the safety previously felt by Yevhen could not be guaranteed anymore. The artist "felt like the local situation got more dangerous, because there are all of a sudden a lot of people with weapons. So, if they were homophobic and if they wouldn’t like you, they might hurt you".

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Nevertheless, Yevhen does not want to distract from the actual danger at hand. "We [queer people] had some struggles in Ukraine and we still have […] but the whole nation has the same issue right now, we are afraid that Russia takes control over Ukraine." As a queer person, the Russian threat becomes even more frightening as the Russian government has a record of explicitly queerphobic and transphobic legislations. Yevhen is very aware of Russia’s treatment of queer people – from Putin’s so-called gay propaganda law from 2013, which prohibits any mentioning of LGBT+ topics in the public spheres, to the horrible queer purges in the Russian republic of Chechnya, where queer men have been detained, tortured and murdered by the local Russian government and population. Yevhen is aware that a case of Russian occupation could result in similar LGBT+ right’s violations in their home country. "This is what actually happened in Donbas [a Ukrainian region next to the Russian border], which is under Russian occupation right now. They have imposed the same laws in the region. I know of art spaces that have been turned into prisons where they detain pro-Ukraine and also gay people." Yevhen grew up in a town in Donbas, where their parents and many of their queer friends are still located. Hence, their fear of receiving bad news is omnipresent.

Background information

  • Beginning 2017, news outlets started to report on the queer purges in the Russian republic of Chechnya. During these purges, men that were perceived as gay or bisexual have been detained in prison and tortured in order to extract information about other queer people in the region. There have been recorded cases where queer dating apps have been used to detect gay or bisexual man. While human rights organizations call for an end of the violence, similar activities are still on-going as new reports keep emerging.

  • The law, signed by Putin in 2013, bans all mentioning of LGBT+ topics in the public sphere, including TV, print media, radio and Internet. The reasoning behind the ban is to ‘protect’ minors from being exposed to non-traditional sexual behavior. As the law actively limits freedom of speech, queer charities have been heavily impacted by the ban, as they cannot openly offer their resources (such as mental health counseling centers) and advocate for LGBT+ rights. The queer community hence has no legal means to access information about LGBT+ rights. Human rights organizations as well as the European Court of Human Rights have labeled the law as discriminatory.

  • Ukraine is still on its journey to creating legislations which ensure the safety and dignity of all queer people – however, they were on a good track, as all our interviewed LGBT+-activists claim. In the ILGA-Europe ranking of 2021, which assesses every year the queer-friendliness of every European countries’ legislations, Ukraine got a score of 19% (39th out of 49 European countries). In comparison, Luxembourg got a score of 72% (3rd) and Russia of 10% (46th). Among others, Ukraine’s queer community is still demanding legislative frameworks which explicitly address LGBT+ hate crimes, respect the self-determination of trans people and acknowledge marriage equality and queer families.

    We recommend taking a look at the interactive map of Rainbow Europe if you want to further compare and read upon queer legislations in Europe and specifically Ukraine.

As a project manager at Kyiv Pride, Yevhen also knows that the Russian authorities know about the organization and probably about each and every one of their team members. They retell how Russian news outlets repurposed photo material and videos published by Kyiv Pride for their own goals. "The project I was in charge of was aiming to mobilise the LGBT+ community in Donbas [through workshops, community get-togethers and other events]. They used our project to show how bad Ukraine is, that we are forcing gay people to Donbas". Yevhen is still in disbelief. "At the beginning, we thought it was funny. We were joking that they might start a war. But now, it’s not funny anymore." The project manager was supposed to travel to Donbas in beginning of March, but the project has been stopped as the Russian invasion started. "There is also a rumor going around of a Russian kill list", they add, "which supposedly includes LGBT+ advocates and activists". Knowing that Russian media has already appropriated their video and photo material by Kyiv Pride, rumors like these cause distress and fear among the team members.

The day of the war

"Me and my friend, we were sitting in the kitchen – talking and thinking that the war might start tomorrow", remembers Yevhen the day before the war, "and I had the feeling like maybe something bad was about to happen. Then, the next day, as I woke up, someone was hitting my door. I was thinking maybe it’s my neighbors and didn’t further paid attention. But then, I opened my phone and I had a million messages asking if I was fine, if I was alive and all those questions. When I then opened the door, I actually saw my friends standing there who told me that the war started and that we needed to head to the subway. I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening – that Kyiv was being bombed at that moment. I quickly took my most important things and we headed to my friend’s place". Yevhen recounts their experience of how the war started for them. During their last nights in Kyiv, they had to sleep altogether in one room, they had to close the windows and hide from them at all times and could not leave the apartment. "We stayed there for three nights and even had to sleep for one night in the subway, because of the bombs. Then, we bought train tickets to escape because the situation got more and more stressful. We did not know what would happen next."

"There is also a rumor going around of a Russian kill list, which supposedly includes LGBT+ advocates and activists."

Yevhen, project manager Kyiv Pride

"Now, our lives are pretty normal again", as the Kyiv Pride project manager lives in a western region in Ukraine that the war has not reached yet. "But it is not the same, because you know that so many things are happening around you. It is really hard to go outside, even though cafes and restaurants are open here. I don’t have the energy to go out”. For Yevhen, it all keeps going back to the war – reading news, listening to a speech by their president, hearing updates from friends and family. Every morning, "you wake up and ask your friends if they are fine and if they need help. For me, this feels like one big day. Even though, I am sleeping and waking up. I am just waiting for all of this to end".

The Maidan Revolution

  • Russian-backed President Yanukovych is chased out of office, after massive protests regarding corruption and Yanukovych’s plan to move closer to Russia. During the "maidan" revolution, more than 100 people are killed in demonstrations that center on the main square of Kyiv. Russia provides security assistance. The new caretaker government is heavily attacked by pro-Russian pundits and campaigns. Pro-democracy candidate and Ukrainian oligarch Poroshenko becomes president later.

As Yevhen now lives in the west of Ukraine, they know that an escape over the border could be an option, "but I still have this feeling… I want to stay in Ukraine because it is my country. I have seen it change. I saw this presidency and how change happened after the Maidan [revolution]. I did believe everything was going to be fine." They describe this conflicting feeling between wanting to help – even going back to the war zones of Kyiv – and staying safe in their current location. Seeing the solidarity in Ukraine gives them hope.

While the war disrupts, the community shows solidarity

Lenny Emson is the executive director of Kyiv Pride. He is currently at a location that he does not want to disclose due to security concerns. He answers the Zoom Call on March, 3 with deep circles under his eyes and an exhausted voice. The pain of the last days are felt in every word spoken and every breath taken by him. The constant sounds of notifications of incoming messages interrupt our interview – as community members keep updating each other on the situation and ask for help. "For the LGBT+ community, Ukraine was on a very good path. We were at the verge of something really big. We were about to have our MPs vote on a law to recognize LGBT+ violence as hate crimes and we really expected them to vote in favor of it this year, so, that LGBT+ hate crimes would be punished in Ukraine. Later this year, we were also expecting that our government would take a look at the same-sex marriage and partnership bill. That’s where we were. But then the war that we did not expect coming happened. It crossed out everything that we had been fighting for and we don’t know what awaits us in the future."

The queer community had reacted quickly to the situation as LGBT+ community centers have been turned into shelters throughout Ukraine, organized by local activists to answer the community’s needs. These shelter offer food, a place to sleep and community in these times of war. Kyiv Pride redistributes all their donations to these local shelters and queer people in need – while price levels have skyrocketed. Disrupted supply lines, inaccessible warehouses and blocked streets have pushed the "food prices, transportation prices, gas prices" up making the situation of the local population even harder. Especially Kyiv has been hit by inflation as the war keeps raging over the city. "We are thankful for every donation and every support. Follow us on social media, share our updates, spread the word about the situation of queer people in Ukraine", as the executive director of Kyiv Pride demands.

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Information sharing has become one of the most important tools for Ukrainians – especially for the local community. "We created closed chats for LGBT+ people who seek help, asylum or just a place to stay. Over 100 people have already joined and we keep adding people almost every day, because the demand is growing. People are asking questions like where to go, how to go, if someone has transportation, who can help with a mother who is old and disabled, who can bring food, who can help find meds. People really need this online communication space. And that’s why we created it for them, so they can find everything in one space". Furthermore, Kyiv Pride created a database with hosts opening up their homes to refugees and "we are now spreading this database among the community, so people can find shelters in Europe".

Lenny is quick to underline that "we are not making those sources and chats public, because homophobes are not sleeping during the war. In one [online chat] of the radical groups, we just spotted an announcement that incited its members to register at queer resources in Europe [such as LGBT+ website or Facebook groups] and post announcements like 'We are a LGBT+ group of Ukrainians and we need help right now' with a bank account number. That’s how homophobes are invading LGBT+ online spaces and try to get money from the situation". He urges people to not donate to organizations who collect money to distribute, but only for charities who work on the ground. "Please do not support groups that you do not know or groups that have been newly formed".

Queer resistance to Russian forces

To the question if Russia’s record of queerphobia is threatening, Lenny has no hesitation with his reply. "We are not afraid of Russia’s policies, because we do not believe we will live under Russia’s laws – ever. We do not believe Russia will occupy Ukraine, that’s not the outcome that we expect, and we’ll do everything, so that this does not happen". As Yevhen had already mentioned, Lenny does too: LGBT+ people, as much as any other Ukrainian citizen, are ready to take up arms and fight. Ukraine will resist the Russian invasion, as Lenny repeatedly emphasizes, "queer people are joining local territorial defense units and are joining the military. We are all in this together and we are all helping each other to win this war […] These are very dangerous jobs, but people are doing these, because they firmly believe in our victory". 

"For the LGBT+ community, Ukraine was on a very good path. […] The war crossed out everything that we had been fighting for and we don’t know what awaits us in the future."

Lenny Emson, executive director of Kyiv Pride

"The support from the whole world is needed – from the whole world, from every country. This is what we need right now to win", as the executive director of Kyiv Pride explains. "It is so important to know that you are not alone in this – to know that someone has your back". To put that into more concrete terms, Lenny says: "We have a general demand: we need to survive. I mean, physically survive. To be queer and happy, we need to be alive. To be alive, we need the war to end", which means for Lenny, that NATO needs to close the Ukrainian sky for Russian aircrafts. "So, please close the sky. Please, go on rallies, write letters to your governors, protest, sign petitions – NATO needs to close the sky above Ukraine, so Russians will not be able to bomb us. This is what is really important right now, so we stay alive. Unfortunately, politicians are not as quick in these decisions, but that’s why civil society is here to put pressure on the decision makers who are still hesitating".

Trans rights are human rights

"I am writing these words during the bombing of Kyiv, it is very scary. It is now 10.34 am on March 4 – we have been bombed since the morning". These are the words of Anastasiia Yeva Domani, as she replies to our email interview. "I do not leave Kyiv and my home office on the 17th floor because I am obliged to promptly coordinate such assistance [for the trans community]. Despite the fact that a ballistic missile hit the neighboring house, which then buried my house under itself".

Anastasiia Yeva Domani is a trans activist, working for the charity Cohort NGO, which fights for trans rights in Ukraine. To support the community, Cohort NGO paid out all the salaries of their employees for February and March in advance and spent their budgets by transferring money directly to their transgender members. "The average is $35 per person. After the first round of payments, we make a second payment to the same trans people, because we know that [the sum] is not enough". As prices are rising in the country and transgender people often struggle to accumulate savings due to lacking family support and discrimination in work environments, these small payments can become lifesaving – and ensuring safety is the top priority of the organization. "We try to share all news and opportunities for trans people through social media channels. How to go abroad, where to get psychological help, who helps with evacuation, where to buy hormones, train timetables, air raid alarms, and so on", as Anastasiia explains.

Transgender rights

  • In an interview with Women UN in 2020, Anastasiia Yeva Domani revealed "that the legal aspects of transitioning were even more challenging than the medical process, especially when trying to change one’s sex on official documents like national identification". While trans people face stereotyping, discrimination and also violence in Ukraine, according to Anastasiia, the legal recognition of their gender is for many another tiring burden as the bureaucratic process is complex and exhausting. Consequently, many trans women have not started or completed this bureaucratic process and now still have a male gender noted in their identification papers – which has been resulting in the current complications with traveling and crossing the border.

    If you want to read more about Anastasiia’s experience with the legal system in Ukraine before the war and about her journey as trans activist, read her portrait via Women UN.

Misgendered IDs further make the life of trans people harder. As the bureaucratic process for transgender people to change their IDs from their birth certificate’s gender to their actual gender had been tiring and complex, many transgender women still have an ID which wrongly claims they are male. But "traveling abroad with a male gender marker in the passport is prohibited" according to the current presidential decree as the male-identified population from 18 to 60 years is required to join the military. Many trans women now fear that, if they would travel or try to cross the border, they will be required to join the military. But Cohort NGO and Anastasiia work day-and-night to help solve these issues – and try to answer every incoming question. Kyiv Pride, as much as Cohort NGO, underlines that, although much media attention has been focused on fear among the Ukrainian trans community, no trans person should feel alone – there are many LGBT+ organizations providing support, resources and community.

"Many were forced to stop hormone replacement therapy, including myself, because they did not have time to stock up on drugs. […] The situation can be described as a humanitarian catastrophe, chaos and danger to life. Many communications are destroyed – trans people in Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kherson, Mariupol have no electricity, water, heat and Internet." One last hope are the humanitarian corridors "for the supply of medicines, food and the removal of the wounded, children and people who have lost their homes". These corridors were decided upon during the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations on March 4. Facing all these issues also herself, Anastasiia still is firm to stay at her computer to spread information about Ukrainians’ situation, transgender or cisgender, and to help every trans person that reaches out.

Yevhen, Lenny and Anastasiia – their testimony speaks of hope, fear and incredible resilience. LGBT+ people, as well as the whole of Ukraine, are suffering from the Russian invasion, but they are resisting and standing in solidarity. Charities such as Kyiv Pride and Cohort NGO are doing their best to help and support their communities’ survival, but the future of Ukraine is decided upon through politics. As Lenny said, "We have a general demand: we need to survive".