With his war against Ukraine, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is also waging a campaign against LGBTQ people. For him, they represent dangerous "pseudo-values" of the West. Despite the threat, many of them remain in Ukraine, and are fighting back.
KYIV — Ever since war broke out in his home country, Anton Levdyk has been avoiding the streets — and it's not because he is afraid of shelling. He worries that the medical certificate exempting him from military service will not be recognized in the current extraordinary situation and that he will be sent to the front.
Yet he is tormented by an even more ominous thought. "It's only a matter of time before they find us," the 44-year-old says on the phone.
A kill list
For people like Anton, the situation in Ukraine is particularly threatening right now. That's because Vladimir Putin, in attacking Ukraine, is also waging a campaign against LGBTQ people, who in his eyes represent a threat to the Russian nation and its "traditional values" — and must be fought.
A report last month in The New York Times, for example, cites a letter from the U.S. government to the United Nations that Washington has "credible information" that Russia has designed kill lists with names of Ukrainian LGBTQ activists.
But despite the threat from the Russian aggressor, many gay, lesbian and trans people are resisting, including those standing up for their country directly on the front lines — and often without hiding their sexual orientation. On social networks, they pose in camouflage uniforms and rainbow stickers on their AK-47s.
Coming out as a gay soldier
One man, in particular, is responsible for this new self-confidence among gay soldiers: Viktor Pylypenko.
The soldier, who fought as a volunteer on the front lines in eastern Ukraine in 2014, became known nationwide when he came out as the first gay soldier in 2018. It was a brave move, as the Ukrainian army is considered quite homophobic. He founded a group for LGBTQ military personnel, with a following of 1,800+ people on Facebook.
Since 2014, we have been building a freedom-loving country that values human rights.
Even now, the 35-year-old is fighting on the front lines. He says it's important to be actively involved in Ukraine's defense as a gay man. "There is a high level of institutionalized homophobia in Russia," he tells Die Welt. "Since 2014, we have been building a freedom-loving country that values human rights. The Russian regime wants to burn our constitution and make us slaves. We won't let that happen."
Queer people are also helping to cushion the consequences of the invasion away from the battle lines. This is the case for Anton, the activist, who works as a project manager at the LGBTQ organization Fulcrum UA. He lives in Kyiv, but the war forced him and his partner to flee to the city of Lviv in the west of the country. From there, he is now coordinating housing for displaced LGBTQ people. Although he's scared, he's not thinking of quitting his job. "If I stop, if other LGBTQ activists stop, who will help us?"
"Make Kyiv Queer" sticker on a rifle
"Make Kyiv Queer Again"
Russia's crackdown at home
The threat Putin poses to LGBTQ people in Ukraine is already shown by his treatment of them in his own country. Since 2013, "homosexual propaganda" in front of minors — such as statements about same-sex relationships or simple sex education — has been punishable by the law. In 2020, Putin had marriage formally and exclusively enshrined in the constitution as a union between a man and a woman.
Many LGBTQ organizations are also on a list of "foreign agents," making their work much more difficult. Violence against queer people is not uncommon. In 2017, it became public that security authorities in the autonomous republic of Chechnya tortured gay people.
Putin's February 24 declaration of war was also laced with anti-gay ideology. In the televised statement, Putin came to speak of the West's alleged attempt to destroy Russia's "traditional values" and impose "pseudo-values" on the Russian people that were "directed against human nature itself."
The Russian president wants to extend his repressive anti-LGBTQ policies to Ukraine.
Political scientists and activists warn that the Russian president wants to extend his repressive anti-LGBTQ policies to Ukraine. "The reality is that the Kremlin has constructed a pernicious ideology of homophobia as geopolitics, and in official Russian rhetoric the war in Ukraine is framed as the continuation of this politics by other means," writes Emil Edenborg, professor of gender studies at Stockholm University, in the U.S. political magazine Boston Review.
Putin's course clashes with the pro-Western trajectory Ukraine has been on in recent years. LGBTQ Ukrainians still suffer from a lack of equal rights. For example, homosexuality has been legal in Ukraine since 1991, but registered partnerships and same-sex marriages are not. Nor is Ukraine free of anti-LGBTQ violence. In early March, unknown offenders broke into the office of the LGBTQ human rights group Nash Mir in Kyiv, and attacked staff and employees.
At the same time, however, especially since the pro-Western Maidan protests in 2014, queer civil society has increasingly been taking a place in the public sphere and fighting for its rights. In 2019, the largest annual LGBTQ parade to date, "March of Equality," took place with over 8,000 participants and attendees.
Hormones supply chains
LGBTQ organizations across the country not only support their own community but also organize aid deliveries from abroad for civilians and the army, coordinate emergency shelters and transport.
In Kyiv, where in 2019 people took to the streets in colorful dresses for equality, fear and destruction now reign. More than half of the residents have already left the city. Not so Anastasiia Yeva Domani.
Since the war began, the 43-year-old activist's apartment has served as a distribution point for hormone medications she obtains from an LGBTQ organization abroad. The usual supply chains have broken down, she explains to Die Welt on the phone. Transgender people urgently need the hormones to continue their transition. Domani is trans herself and works for the transgender organization Cohort.
She still vividly remembers the beginning of the war — and the end of her previous life. On the second day, she says, she witnessed a ballistic missile hit the apartment complex next to her home. Only a few meters separated her from the destruction. Still, she wants to stay, she says determinedly. "We will fight even if Putin resorts to nuclear weapons. I was born 50 meters from here, Kyiv is my home."
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