As Ukraine fights for survival, it has relaxed some barriers to the social inclusion of gay, lesbian and other gender and sexual minorities — for example, welcoming some gay people into its armed forces. Yet this change should be expanded and made permanent. Often countries recruit marginalized minorities during wartime emergencies only to revive old practices of exclusion in peacetime. The more inclusive democracy that Ukraine aspires to, and that its transatlantic allies support bringing into full membership of Europe, will require transformations in laws, institutions and social norms for the equal inclusion of Ukrainian gender and sexual minorities.
Since Ukraine’s independence from Moscow over 30 years ago, citizens’ movements have pressed for greater democracy, accountability and alignment with the European Union. Among Ukraine’s most important evolutions has been the establishment of a vibrant civil society through which the country’s many ethnic, religious, and gender and sexual minorities have campaigned for their social and political rights.
Yet, those who seek equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or other gender and sexual minorities (LGBTQ+) have seen only the beginnings of change, confined to a few cities. There has been some progress. Activists’ first attempt at a gay pride rally in Kyiv was violently broken up by right-wing extremist gangs in 2012, but a march succeeded the next year with extensive police protection. In subsequent years, the LGBTQ+ rights movement has drawn thousands of marchers and police protection for their rallies in major cities. That progress should continue. The continued need for that protection, however, is clear.
According to 2019 surveys by the Pew Research Center, in Ukraine, 69 percent of respondents said society should not accept homosexuality, while 14 percent said it should — an acceptance level lower than six other Eastern European countries surveyed. Amid that environment, activists face threats and attacks. Human Rights Watch reported “a sharp increase in attacks against LGBT, anti-corruption, and women’s rights activists by far-right groups” in the first half of last year. While it is easy to dismiss this issue as violence by fringe groups, Sofiia Lapina, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist, emphasized last year that victims of violence go without justice due to inaction of authorities. Svetlana Shaytanova, with a German organization, Quarteera, that helps Ukrainian and other LGBTQ+ refugees, explained that, “It’s not the government that persecutes people; they put laws in place that allow the general population to be openly aggressive against queer people.”
Ukraine has contrasting foreign and domestic policies for LGBTQ+ people. Abroad, the country emphasizes its decades of democratic evolution as a basis for the Ukrainian government’s application to join the European Union. At home, however, violence against LGBTQ+ people continues — not only from extreme-right factions but too often from police and military personnel. Along with its need for more egalitarian policies, Ukraine faces the deeper cultural problem of democracies worldwide: continued anti-trans and anti-gay attitudes that permit discrimination and violence.
Different Identities, Diverse Roles
Any war changes a nation’s social norms — including those around gender. News from Ukraine’s war has included striking anecdotes of changes enforced by Ukraine’s need to confront an existential threat, notably an acceptance of gay and lesbian soldiers in the armed forces. Reuters told the story of Oleksandr Zhuhan and Antonina Romanova, LGBTQ+ activists who volunteered with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force. They described being accepted by fellow soldiers and supported by a commander who banned homophobic talk in the unit. Zhuhan recalled how Ukrainian military leaders until recently have declared that “there are no gay people in the army.” Some gay, lesbian and queer soldiers have quietly proclaimed the falsity of that myth by wearing on their uniforms a patch depicting the mythical unicorn.
Accounts from wartime Ukraine illustrate the complex, dangerous position of LGBTQ+ minorities. News organizations reported the account of a transgender woman, Zi Faámelu, whose documents identify her incorrectly. Following the martial law declaration by President Volodymyr Zelensky, Faámelu was required to stay in Ukraine to perform military service, despite her transgender identity. She told of having to swim across the Danube River into Romania to escape Ukrainian forces who sought to force her to stay. When official personnel apply stigmas, stereotypes and personal transphobic beliefs in their handling of documentation issues for transgender people, they often misuse their state-sanctioned authority to punish and harm them. This can threaten transgender people’s lives. Only some LGBTQ+ people have the privilege to be 'unicorn' soldiers; others are forced to flee to avoid being beaten, or worse — whether by Russian soldiers or Ukrainians.
Higher social cohesion via acceptance of LGBTQ+ people under the enormous pressure of the war, and violence against them, are not mutually exclusive. In this emergency, people on the margins face disparate risks and opportunities simultaneously as norms are rewritten or reinforced.
Often, countries facing the existential threat of war have mobilized their marginalized communities — women, racial or ethnic minorities — into new roles, expanding social belonging during wartime, as part of what academics call the “state of exception.” In this condition, a national emergency forces a government and society to defy conventional practices. This often has led to dramatic changes during war — and, at times, gains for some groups after wars. Britain granted women the vote following World War I after wartime expansion of gender roles advanced the case for women's suffrage.
But marginalized groups just as often return to a marginalized status after the state of exception has ended. African American troops returned from world wars to live under Jim Crow. America pushed women back into domestic roles for decades after their wartime participation in the labor force came to an end.
Governments and organizations that support Ukraine as an independent, democratic, inclusive state should recognize the full, multifaceted nature of LGBTQ+ people’s experiences and needs, rather than acting on an optimistic but partial picture of progress for only some parts of those communities. Only with that full picture can Ukraine’s allies help the country prepare for a sustainable peace built on a fully inclusive democracy.
Some Ukrainian activists hope that the war, and Ukraine’s drive to join the European Union, will create an opportunity to build broader support among Ukrainians for their equal rights. Svyatoslav Sheremet, a longtime rights activist — who was horrifically beaten by extremists in that first attempted gay pride march in 2012 — has told interviewers that Ukraine has made significant progress and that “It sounds crazy, but the war will help us.” Sheremet said that his current effort, lobbying for equal rights laws in Ukraine’s parliament, is likely to be advanced by Ukraine’s candidacy, approved last month, to join the European Union.
These exceptional circumstances alone, without comprehensive reform and political commitment, could lead to a backlash against LGBTQ+ Ukrainians; the same groups that stalked, harassed, and beat them before the war will be around after the war. There are disparities within the LGBTQ+ community, and if rights are provided, they may be specific to gay people who have received positive attention for their wartime roles, rather than apply to the entire spectrum of LGBTQ+ people.
Governments, civil society organizations and European and international institutions can take specific steps and look at various policies as they advocate for the political and human rights of all Ukrainians, including gender and sexual minorities:
- Ukraine, with support from the international community, should reform its system of identity documentation, eliminating the barriers for transgender people to receive a correct ID. This will mean aligning its policies with those in many EU countries and U.S. states. This includes providing for self-determination of gender, which does not require a court order or medical opinion.
- Ukraine should revise the order to its State Border Guard Service that forbids men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country to add a clause specifying that it does not apply to transgender women regardless of documentation. To be effective, this change will require coordination with local organizations such as Insight and NGO fulcrum that can support and monitor implementation. This clause would not be unique as 10 exceptions already exist.
- Peace organizations should develop programs to support LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine against threats to their safety by either Russians or Ukrainians, whether amid a long, stalemated war, or following the war’s end. These programs must prevent violence against LGBTQ+ people from returning to the prewar status quo, and can draw upon research and programs in countries, such as Colombia, where LGBTQ+ people faced violence during the war.