When the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine became full-scale, there was practically no person left in Ukraine not affected by it directly or indirectly. This also applies to LGBT+ people represented in all strata of Ukrainian society.
However, besides the problems that LGBT+ people faced during the war alongside other Ukrainians, they experience additional challenges due to their sexual orientation or gender identity – more precisely, due to the fact that their human rights related to the SOGI are not respected and protected as they should be.
The factors causing such challenges can be grouped into two categories.
- Institutional – related to the absence or non-compliance with the actual needs of the legal framework or mechanisms that would ensure the proper functioning of legal norms on the part of the state.
- Social – related to homophobia and transphobia widespread in society, i.e. prejudice, hatred, and other negative feelings and manifestations against LGBT+ people.
In the case of sexual orientation, institutional factors are primarily related to the lack of the possibility of official registration of relationships for couples of the same legal gender, which entails inequality in rights between such couples and heterosexual spouses. In the case of gender identity, institutional factors mostly stem from the regulatory framework that determines the procedure of transition – from its shortcomings, which make the fulfillment of such a transition and obtaining legal gender recognition excessively difficult and even inaccessible in some cases.
Social factors, in the case of sexual orientation as well as gender identity, produce various forms of unequal treatment: rejection, exclusion, discrimination in different spheres of life, and violence in the worst cases.
From here on, considering various aspects in more detail, we will distinguish existing problems by these two categories.
It should be noted separately that LGBT+ people are not a homogeneous social group, so belonging to it does not determine in itself how a specific person behaves at the times of the war. Any generalized statements that can be seen sometimes, such as “all LGBT people are escaping to Europe”, have no basis at all. In fact, different people found themselves under the influence of different factors that affect their capabilities and decisions.
These factors can be divided into external and internal. External are those circumstances that enable, facilitate, or vice versa certain choices: location, financial situation, health status, the existence of family and loved ones, dependence on them, availability of “reserve airfields”, job situation, etc. Internal are personal attributes and beliefs through the prism of which a person perceives circumstances: patriotic position or not, assessment of the situation as rather safe or not, tendency to see the perspective positively or negatively, predominance of egoistic or altruistic motivation, subjective assessment of risks and benefits of various decisions, etc.
A complex combination of these factors determines how persons, including LGBT+ ones, will act in the situation they found themselves during the war. Options may include:
- evacuation abroad;
- evacuation within Ukraine;
- staying in the same place with the same activities;
- living in the occupied territory;
- departure from the occupied territory;
- joining the volunteer movement;
- military service;
Next, we will consider these options in more detail in the context of the challenges LGBT+ people face in choosing them.
Crossing the Border
The possibility of evacuating abroad is institutionally limited in Ukraine by martial law and mobilization legislation, which effectively prohibits people of male legal gender aged from 18 to 60 with a bunch of exceptions from leaving Ukraine. For LGBT+, this means a ban on leaving for gay and bisexual men, as well as intersex and trans people with a male gender marker. At the same time, according to Insight’s estimates, gays and trans people made up to 70% of requests for help with leaving Ukraine.
For trans people, the situation is somewhat ambiguous, since the diagnosis of F64.0 “Transsexualism”, the obtaining of which is a necessary part of the official transition procedure, is a criterion of unfitness for military service in peacetime, but of partial fitness in wartime. However, trans people striving to evacuate abroad do so in most cases exactly by the removal from military registration after obtaining unfitness based on this diagnosis. The decision on unfitness can be made by the medical commission at the military registration office, individually assessing the health status of a specific person.
That is, the presence of a trans diagnosis does not constitute a sufficient reason for it and is used rather indirectly in this approach. Thus, social factors, such as the subjective views of the commission members making a decision, play a part in the situation.
There are also known cases when people with a male gender marker, particularly trans people, crossed the border, taking advantage of the dishonest performance of official duties by border guards at certain crossing points, or even did it outside such points. This, however, actually means illegal border crossing and may have legal consequences upon their return to Ukraine.
On the other hand, there were individual cases when border guards did not let a transwoman who already had a legally recognized female gender, just because they learned she is a trans person. This constitutes a violation of the law on their part based on transphobia.
In the case of transwomen, refusing to cross the border for them is discriminatory because it also means refusing to treat them like other women. Simplifying the procedure for legal gender recognition, so it would be quicker and more accessible, could solve this problem to some extent.
In general, the expediency of a gender-based legal ban on leaving is at least a debatable issue. In conditions where Ukraine has enough volunteers to form the army reserve, and a course has been taken for gender equality in the army (the expansion of the list of military positions available to women made a few years ago, as well as the recent decision on the military registration for women in certain professions can be mentioned), it looks like a relic of the past. The existence of public demand for the lifting of such a ban is evident from a number of relevant petitions to the president, which are quickly gathering signatures. At the same time, in his response to the first such petition, President Zelenskyy made it clear that lifting the ban on men crossing the border during martial law is currently not under consideration.
When people are already abroad, situations can vary greatly from country to country. While, for example, Germany or Sweden are friendly to LGBT+, the level of homophobia and transphobia in Poland or Hungary is high. Accordingly, those who evacuated to the latter may face its manifestations more often or be forced not to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity.
At the institutional level, the problem is getting worse by the fact that when people of the same legal gender who are in a relationship leave as a couple, their relationship is not legally registered, as it is impossible in Ukraine. Accordingly, they are deprived of the rights that families have, sometimes beginning with the accommodation or housing rent options available. If it is a family with a child, it usually means that only one in the couple has the legal status of a parent, while the other is formally nobody to that child. This can create difficulties, for example, when the child goes to the local school, should be taken to the doctor, etc. In some cases, the problem can be solved by registering a marriage in the country of residence, but this is not possible everywhere: in the countries of Eastern Europe, where the largest number of refugees are concentrated, same-sex marriages are not allowed, and not all countries allow marriages between foreigners.
In the case of trans people, the situation can be complicated if the person did not obtain legal gender recognition by the time of leaving. Again, depending on the country, they may or may not be able to obtain partial recognition (that is, a document showing their social name) right where they are. And when they have to show a document where the data does not correspond to the gender identity in legal interactions, it is a choice between hiding the identity and revealing the trans status, and there is always a risk to face manifestations of transphobia.
Another institutional problem of trans people abroad is connected with the need for access to doctors and hormonal drugs. Trans people may not have a diagnosis related to their trans status at all, and if they have, it needs to be legalized or confirmed in some way according to the regulations of the country of residence. This is not always a quick process, while the need for hormones is constant, and in many countries, unlike the common practice in Ukraine, they cannot be bought freely at a pharmacy without a doctor’s prescription.
Evacuation within Ukraine
Part of LGBT+ people evacuated within Ukraine. In some cases, it was an involuntary choice due to the impossibility of going abroad, but in general, as already mentioned, it could be caused by various motives.
The peculiarity of the problems of LGBT+ people in this context lies in the social factors related to a high level of homophobia and transphobia. In particular, in case of disclosure of their sexual orientation or trans status, people may get a refusal in accommodation or face negative attitudes from cohabitants in hostels and shelters. Moreover, while an individual non-heterosexual person can just not reveal their orientation, it is objectively much more difficult for a couple in a relationship. Not to mention trans people in the process of transitioning, whose legal data does not match their actual appearance.
This determines the need for shelters specifically for LGBT+ people, where they would not be exposed to danger due to their SOGI. Such shelters were established by Insight organization in Lviv and Chernivtsi. Another shelter was opened in Uzhhorod by the organization Gender Stream. Later, KyivPride also opened a shelter in Kyiv, and Projector NGO did so in Odesa for trans and non-binary people. At the same time, given the limited capacity, such shelters are still a place for temporary accommodation, from a few days to a few weeks. During that time, a person in a safe space can develop a plan for further actions, including finding a job and permanent housing.
People who turned to such shelters were mostly from the eastern and southern frontline regions, as well as those who left the occupied territories. According to information from the shelter in Chernivtsi, 60–70% of residents used it as an intermediate point before going abroad, while in Lviv, it was about 90% of women. The rest remained in Ukraine, later finding a place for permanent or temporary residence, or returning home. The latter, however, may not be possible if their home remains in a war zone, captured by Russian occupiers, or destroyed by shelling.
In general, requests for evacuation were coming from people from all parts of the LGBT+ spectrum. They are moving alone as well as, often, in couples: lesbian, gay, and sometimes trans ones. Lesbian couples often leave with children as well as in extended families with parents and pets. Since June, according to Insight, the flow of such requests has noticeably decreased. However, it remains and probably would remain as long as the war is going on.
Living under the Occupation
As for LGBT+ people who found themselves under Russian occupation, the institutional factors come down to the fact that no laws are effective in these territories. International organizations such as the UN and the Red Cross can call for adherence to the Geneva Conventions and other humane approaches, but they lack the tools to enforce them in practice. Even in those places where the occupants try to maintain a certain semblance of legality, their power remains unlimited and can be applied at any moment under the principle of “the right of the strongest”.
In known cases, LGBT+ people under the occupation tried not to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity in any way, because such disclosure can carry not only the risk of negative attitudes in those circumstances but also a lethal danger. And not only because of homophobia and transphobia, the level of which is extremely high among Russians, but even because a person with their peculiarity stands out among others.
Insight received several requests for help to leave the occupied territories. Such a leaving is complicated because the Russian military persons refuse to open evacuation corridors, selectively let people through at checkpoints, and sometimes fire at vehicles heading out. It is impossible in principle to leave some territories in the direction of Ukraine – only to Russia first and then to other countries, from where one can finally return to Ukraine. This adds even more complexity to the situation, although there are volunteers who help with this.
In general, organized aid to LGBT+ people in the occupied territories is practically impossible. Public associations cannot operate there openly, because that would only mean putting everyone involved at risk. The connection is unstable there, the Internet is blocked to some extent and may work with interruptions. Occupants can also check the contents of phones, which requires additional security measures when communicating and limits the possibilities for it even more. Because of these reasons, the perception of the situation of LGBT+ people under the occupation remains very fragmented.
LGBT+ People in the Army
Some LGBT+ people serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Some of them were in the army already, while others joined the territorial defense or directly the Armed Forces after the full-scale invasion of Russian troops on February 24. In terms of social factors, the military environment in Ukraine remains quite homophobic in general, so people often avoid revealing their sexual orientation at the place of service, or do so only to close acquaintances. There are some exceptions mainly among public gays and lesbians. With this, according to some evidence, the attitude toward homosexual women is more often calm than toward men. At the same time, women face sexism and sexual harassment more often.
Closeness, in turn, contributes to the spread of myths about the seeming absence of LGBT+ people in the army. Meanwhile, the “Ukrainian LGBT Soldiers and our Allies” community has existed on the network for several years, took part in the Equality March in Kyiv as a separate column, and at the time of writing has more than 2,000 members. On its basis, an organization was created with the aim of uniting LGBT+ military persons and, in general, obtaining equal rights for LGBT+ people. One of its goals is to make army regulations, rules, and statutes LGBT+ inclusive.
The institutional problem of the lack of marriage equality raises for LGBT+ military persons as perhaps even more important than for other groups. At the frontline, people are constantly at risk of being wounded or killed. Therefore, the rights provided by marriage are especially urgent for them, such as visiting at the hospital, making decisions about artificial life support, inheritance, etc. After all, without a registered relationship, the partner of a military LGBT+ person is not legally bound to them in any way, and priority in these matters is given to close relatives – who may have a negative attitude towards them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, which brings additional acuteness to the issue.
It is worth mentioning that soon after the beginning of the full-scale stage of the war, the government allowed remote marriages for the military and several other categories of citizens exactly to ensure their rights in the conditions of war. However, as long as marriage remains a heterosexual institution by definition in Ukraine, it does not apply to people of other sexual orientations, and they are discriminated against in this regard.
For trans people in the army, the issue of access to hormonal drugs remains important. There is no possibility to go and buy them at a pharmacy on the frontline, while there are no state-level mechanisms for providing such drugs, and people could rely only on volunteers. Likewise, there is no regulation of the use of common, in particular, gendered spaces, which would take into account the peculiarities of trans people who have not obtained legal gender recognition.
At the same time, the level of awareness about trans issues in the army is even less compared to the issues of sexual orientation – in particular, the misperception of it as a mental disorder is widespread. This pushes trans people serving in the Armed Forces to even more closeness. If they have not changed their documents, this means acting out the image according to the gender they were assigned at birth. In one particular case, when a trans woman was outed against her will in the place of service, she became the target of regular verbal manifestations of transphobia, as well as sexualization, harassment, and violence.
The Situation in the Controlled Regions
On the territory of Ukraine that is not in the immediate vicinity of the places of hostilities, certain trends can also be noted since the beginning of the great war.
In particular, the level of organized homophobia became significantly lower, as those persons who built their socio-political capital on it mostly reoriented to war-related topics or disappeared from the public sphere at all. Far right-wing organizations, whose activities were based on the opposition to LGBT+ movements, have also practically disappeared from the information space. This may be a consequence of the fact that such activity has become “not on time”, no funding is provided for it, as well as the fact that LGBT+ organizations, in turn, currently are not able to hold public events.
At the same time, manifestations of homophobia and transphobia persist at the social level. Thus, Insight received requests for help from LGBT+ people in cases of attack, rape, and harassment by former partners, as well as illegal actions by representatives of the police, military registration offices, and unidentified persons in military uniform, in some cases – with violence and even torture just because of the homosexual orientation of the injured persons. Discrimination in employment also persists – in particular, when trans persons who have not yet received legal gender recognition are refused to be hired.
As already mentioned, there was a large flow of requests for evacuation during the spring, which began to decrease closer to the summer. At the same time, there has been an increase in requests for help of a regular nature, which had almost stopped in the first months of the full-scale war, i.e., from trans people regarding the transition procedure. This can be interpreted as the adaptation of a large part of LGBT+ people to the conditions of a long-term war and planning their further life in these conditions.
In the first months, trans people almost all over Ukraine also faced the problem of the unavailability of hormonal drugs. It had complex reasons: first of all, the fact that many pharmacies stopped working, as well as the limited operation of public transport, complicated communication between regions, and outdated information in online pharmacy networks. Later, this problem has gone with the restoration of life activities in many regions, but it remains in areas where hostilities are ongoing or infrastructure was destroyed due to them.
Access to doctors is also problematic. There is still a shortage of qualified and trans-friendly doctors in Ukraine, and some of them evacuated or became unable to continue their usual appointments with the beginning of the full-scale invasion. This created difficulties in requests ranging from the need to consult a family doctor to undergoing diagnostics or correcting the course of hormone therapy in the process of transition. Again, the situation has improved in most of the territory of Ukraine over time, and some (but not all) issues can be resolved by online consultations.
Activism and Social Changes
The war also affected public LGBT+ organizations and initiatives. Some of them have practically ceased operations because most of their members and employees were forced to evacuate. This especially applies to organizations that were based in territories now occupied, like Insha from Kherson.
Mass events are prohibited during martial law, which made it impossible this year to hold marches that became regular, such as the Women’s March, the Equality March, the Trans-March in Kyiv, as well as similar actions in other cities. However, under these conditions, such events would hardly be appropriate in their usual format. At the same time, the KyivPride organization agreed with the organizers of the Warsaw Pride to hold a march there focused specifically on supporting Ukraine. Also in September in Kharkiv, KharkivPride held several events, including a march that took place in the subway for security reasons.
The holding of not only mass but also any other events has almost come to naught. This is due to several factors: the already mentioned evacuation of part of the employees as well as the active community, the technical complexity of the conducting (in particular, in the conditions of unpredictable air alarms), and a change in priorities and requests of the community. Some exceptions are the western regions, less affected by the war directly, where regular community events are still held.
In general, organizations that continue to operate have focused more on providing targeted support to LGBT+ people. The usual types of support, such as psychological and legal, were supplemented by evacuation assistance and humanitarian aid. The latter is primarily targeted at regions where hostilities are taking place, and usually includes food kits and medicines, including hormonal drugs for trans people. Unlike in peacetime, there are more options for providing aid in crisis mode, that is, as quickly as possible. Usually, organizations are not limited to helping only LGBT+ people, but combine it with help to other social categories in need, military persons, etc., and also cooperate in this with other volunteer movements.
Even though the situation is not favorable for public activism, there are signs that public opinion about LGBT+ in Ukraine is changing for the better. In particular, a sociological survey conducted in May showed a significant improvement in the attitude towards LGBT people in society compared to 2016. This includes that almost two-thirds believe that LGBT people should have the same rights as other citizens of Ukraine. Another evidence of the same is a petition on the president’s website for the legalization of same-sex marriages, which quickly reached the number of signatures necessary for consideration. The president’s reply, although contained a formal refusal, referring to the impossibility of changing the constitution during martial law, at the same time did not deny the very idea of marriage equality, and also noted that the introduction of civil partnerships is already being considered by the authorities.
It is also worth mentioning that Ukraine received the status of a candidate country to the EU. This has already contributed to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention by our country, which had not been possible to achieve for several years before. Ukraine’s movement from candidacy to full membership must be accompanied by reforms, including in the field of human rights – which, albeit indirectly, involves improvement of the protection of the rights of LGBT+ people too. In fact, the road map of such reforms has already been developed. The further task is its detailing and gradual implementation. Which, however, Ukrainian civil society should not rely only on help “from Europe”, nor should it wait for victory to come, but should already start working on it. Because human rights are always on time.
Proposals for improving the protection and enforcement of the rights of LGBT+ people during and after the war
- Introduce legislative changes that would give same-sex couples the right to register unions through marriage or a partnership equivalent to marriage in terms of the rights it confers. Also, recognize same-sex marriages registered abroad.
- Consider the possibilities of simplifying the procedure of transition. Remove requirements from it, because of which obtaining legal gender recognition may take too long.
- Adopt changes in the legislation necessary to establish administrative and criminal liability for hate crimes on the grounds of SOGI.
- Add SOGI to the general anti-discrimination legislation.
- Revise restrictions on going abroad towards a more differentiated approach. For transwomen who are not legally recognized but have a trans-related medical diagnosis, allow them to leave on the same terms as other women.
- Develop standards for the Armed Forces of Ukraine on inclusion for LGBT+ people, in particular trans people. Ensure the implementation of measures to increase such inclusion on the ground.
- Ensure the physical and financial availability of hormonal drugs for trans people in all regions of Ukraine, in particular, by including them in the Affordable Medicines program or similar.
- Support the activities of public associations that work with LGBT+ people, in particular, expand their opportunities to receive state funding.
- Conduct educational events for various audiences and professionals, including doctors, police, and military, to increase their awareness of LGBT+ people and their human rights.
Inna Iryskina, Transgender program coordinator of Insight NGO
Insight is a Ukrainian non-governmental organization founded in 2008. The organization’s activities include advocacy and public awareness; educational programs for journalists, medical and social workers; legal, psychological, and medical aid; full-scale support for trans people; community building and regional development.
Since the beginning of the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, the organization has been providing emergency assistance to LGBT+ people. In particular, 312 people/families used shelters, 717 people received legal aid, 225 trans people received hormonal drugs, and 758 people received crisis and general psychological counseling.
The analytical note “Situation of LGBT+ people in Ukraine during the war” was prepared in October 2022 within the grant awarded to Insight public organization with the financial assistance of the Council of Europe.
The opinions expressed in this document are the responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the Council of Europe.
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