Following Vladimir Putin’s orders on February 24, 2022, Russia officially launched a devastating full-scale invasion of its neighbouring country, Ukraine. Over one year on, the war persists, with immeasurable damage and tens of thousands of casualties recorded as a result.
Many have been forced to flee the nation to locations all across the world, including Ireland, where the Central Statistics Office reports that, as of February 12, 2023, almost 75,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived.
A portion of these immigrants are LGBTQ+, escaping not only the military conflict but also the queerphobic violence and abuse they could be subjected to at the hands of Russian authorities.
According to Marianna Polevikova, Managing Director of For Equal Rights, since the invasion, enemy soldiers have “hunted and abused” queer people, with over 100 horrifying accounts of alleged human rights violations reported to local NGO, Nash Svit.
It’s no wonder that some people are fleeing to safer places, but one lesbian couple proved that even the darkest of clouds can potentially have a silver lining.
Arriving in Ireland on March 17, 2022, Uliana and Alina left Ukraine together, having been a couple for over a decade. Although they hid their relationship in their home nation, upon arriving in County Clare, they realised that on the Emerald Isle, same-sex couples largely have rights equal to their heterosexual counterparts. Taking advantage of this, the pair did what they thought would never be possible and got married on November 16, 2022.
“Once upon a time, we dreamed of going to an island and perhaps having a fake ceremony,” they shared. “Now, we got married in Ireland. We never dreamed it would be real for us!”
However, not everyone has decided to leave Ukraine, and many activists and community members remain, battling every day for their country, for freedom and for the safety of their people. Among them are the team at Insight, a nonprofit advocating for and supporting women and queer folk in the Eastern European state, co-founded in 2017 by one of TIME Magazine’s Women of the Year, Olena Shevchenko.
Taya Gerasimova, Communications Coordinator for Insight, explained, “A lot of LGBT people didn’t want and don’t want to leave the country.
“Yes, we have problems in Ukraine, but we are part of the civil society, and we want to change the country here, and now we see that it’s possible. Because of that, we are here and not fleeing to better conditions.”
She emphasised that it is crucial for Western Nations to remember that - that people are staying because they have something truly valuable to fight for.
“We see sometimes in European and American narratives that we should keep peace, or we should go to peace, but we know that peace will be after victory.”
And so, the pursuit of triumph continues, with Taya and her team carrying out truly inspiring work amidst the violence.
It really helps people and Ukranians to see that we are part of society. We are in this country and we fight alongside everybody else...
In 2022, Insight opened three shelters for women and LGBTQ+ people, two in Lviv and one in Chernivtsi, housing 406 people in total. Additionally, to support those emigrating, consultations regarding fleeing the war were provided for 436 locals, and 7,000 people abroad received vouchers for temporary accommodation. Thanks to the organisation, 428 transgender people received gender-affirming hormones, while more than 1,000 hours of psychological consultations were facilitated for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, 25,352 humanitarian aid parcels were sent to those in need by Insight’s volunteer team.
These are just a few of the organisation’s incredible achievements from last year and an even smaller snapshot of how queer Ukrainians are actively and relentlessly serving their country. Throughout the war, the LGBTQ+ community has been on the frontline, demonstrating its national pride - a collective force thought to be breaking down barriers to acceptance in the country.
“Something is changing because the LGBT community is still visible, and a lot of people are in the army now, for example, or are volunteers and help people - not only the LGBT community but all people who need it,” Taya noted. “It really helps people and Ukrainians to see that we are part of society. We are in this country, and we fight alongside everybody else.”
Similarly, in a written report, Insight stated: “When you work altogether, communicate, see each other on a daily basis, any person will eventually come to [the] conclusion that we are all equal, that homophobia is a Russian narrative that has no place in democratic independent Ukraine.”
While LGBTQ+ rights remain limited in the nation, the majority appear to be in favour of this changing, and soon. On March 7, 2023, Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun submitted a bill to legally recognise same-sex unions in the country. The politician claimed that 56 percent of the population currently support the move and urged President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “take the lead from the people”.
“Every day, Ukrainian LGBT military personnel put themselves in danger protecting us. Yet, if they are in relationships, the state does not recognise those,” Sovsun said. She outlined the severe consequences that this lack of legal protection poses, noting that if a queer soldier is wounded, their partner is unable to make decisions about their medical treatment. “Ukrainians can no longer wait for equality. We must do it immediately. LGBT Ukrainians deserve to have a family. Every day can be their last… There is no time for hesitation.”
Although Zelenskyy said he would work to ensure “all people are free and equal in their dignity and rights,” he also commented that the government would only look into legislation for same-sex partnerships after the conflict has passed.
While the nation awaits these high-level changes, there are plenty of other ways that the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community can be supported in the meantime, whether it be through helping those who emigrate with acclimating into new territories or by acting in solidarity with those in the war zone.
Speaking about the latter, Taya said that first and foremost, and perhaps the easiest way to support, is through “spreading information about what’s happening”. She outlined the importance of sharing the narrative of victory preceding peace and also the fact that not all queer folk are fleeing the country. Essentially, Western Nations’ saviour complexes should be replaced with respect and awareness of the strength of Ukraine. Taya also encouraged donations to local organisations, including Insight, saying it is “the best way” to offer assistance.
“We need some funding to support people, especially women, women with children, women with disabilities, who we support a lot on the frontline and near the frontline. They do not want and sometimes cannot leave their small towns and villages, but they need basic needs like food, pampers and some hygiene products.”
Insight also needs finances in order to allow the team to continue sending humanitarian packages from its warehouse, through which it is currently posting approximately 200 a day.
Monetary contributions, no matter how big or small, enable the essential and inspiring work of Insight to persist through difficult times. To support Ukraine is to take a stand against Putin and Russia, sending a message that aggressive and hate-fuelled politics and propaganda are not tolerated.
Information on how to donate can be found at insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate.