News and Articles

A 2022 Pride Reflection: The Complexity of Connectedness for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians

Glad day bookstore pic
June 30, 2022

In 2014, conflict erupted between Ukraine and Russia following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Though efforts were made to put an end to the conflict in the region, tensions remained high. In February 2022, Russia commenced a full-scale military invasion into Ukraine resulting in approximately three thousand civilian deaths, seven million internally displaced people, and five million Ukranians fleeing to neighboring countries. 

I recently attended a panel on supporting LGBTQ+ communities in Ukraine at the Glad Day Bookshop in downtown Toronto which discussed the nuanced experiences of social belonging and isolation for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians amidst the current conflict in the region. All panelists will be kept anonymous to protect their identities.

Some LGBTQ+ Ukrainians have voluntarily joined forces with Ukrainian troops to counter Russian forces including some, sewing the image of a unicorn into their uniform just below the national flag in recognition of their LGBTQ+ identity and connection to the broader queer community. As one of the panelists articulated, the current conflict is the first modern war where queer visibility is so high. For some LGBTQ+ Ukranians fighting alongside members of the far-right who have historically rejected LGBTQ+ people amongst other minority groups in an effort to advance their “traditional” vision for society, differences are overlooked in a joint effort to protect the sovereignty of their country. For others, their investment in fighting is to  repel the imposition of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ regime in Ukraine. As a panelist noted, prior to the Russian invasion, social acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community was on the rise to the extent that in large cities in Ukraine, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was generally socially acceptable. Legal protections and recognitions of LGBTQ+ Ukrainians were actively being explored and granted such as the granting of properly gendered legal documents since 2017 and the hosting of public pride events in some large cities. With an optimistic outlook for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians on the horizon, the risk of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda weighs heavily. Joining the Ukrainian army brings the hope that in the post-war state, they will experience less prejudice based on their identities. However, for some in these spaces, queer identities are not always welcomed or accepted.

Despite homosexual activity being legal in Ukraine and increased social acceptance of queer identities, many legal protections and legal recognitions such as same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and a ban on conversion therapy are not granted. This lack of formal recognition, and precarious positionality exacerbates violence and social isolation against LGBTQ+ Ukrainians. This only increases in times of conflict. In a 2018 report by the ​​International Review of the Red Cross, they found that during armed conflict, violence against the LGBTQ+ community increases often because parties to armed conflict, if not directly involved in abuse, fail to take preventative measures or take proper accountability and recourse measures. LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to face violence, denial of basic services, arbitrary detention and abuse by security forces, among other forms of discrimination. For example, some members of the trans and non-binary community have been held back and/or harassed by state officials. In particular, trans women who have ‘male’ written on their identity cards have been forced, under Ukraine’s conscription laws, to fight alongside the Ukrainian army resulting in fear of crossing state borders to find safety and/or crossing into neighboring countries to continue hormone replacement therapy. For those members of the LGBTQ+ community who flee the country and seek refuge in neighboring countries, their identities as queer individuals may not be recognized. The majority of Ukrainians flee to Poland where a third of the country denounces LGBTQ+ ideology and/or promotes heterosexual familities in what are otherwise known as ‘LGBTQ-free zones’. Violence is further amplified because many LGBTQ+ people, when seeking asylum do not disclose their sexual and gender identities in an effort to avoid LGBTQ+ based prejudice. As a result their unique needs and vulnerabilities are unaccounted for creating a lack of consideration for LGBTQ+ specific needs in international humanitarian aid. As the panelists pointed out, the Canadian government has failed to allocate specific funds for LGBTQ+ Ukranians in need of assistance which in some cases, has resulted in hormone replacement shortages for trans individuals. 

While the situation is ever changing and complex, Ukrainian solidarity abroad and domestically has created systems of support for LGBTQ+ Ukranians shown predominantly through grassroots organizing. The panelists shared the work of KyivPride which successfully established shelters for displaced LGBTQ+ people and the work of the We Support LGBTQ Ukraine Fund which raises funds for non-governmental organizations based in Ukraine that are best able to support LGBTQ+ people in the region. In neighboring Poland, Campaign Against Homophobia joined forces with 40 other LGBTQ+ organizations in the country to prepare for the incoming wave of refugees. In this time, international solidarity is critical and we must continue to be vigilant and responsive to the complex needs and connections of our LGBTQ+ community globally.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.