A Russian occupation would be devastating for LGBTQ Ukrainians

For the LGBTQ community, Ukraine was far from a utopia, but the country falling under Russian control would likely undo any progress made, targeting activists and forcing many into hiding.

Ukraine, a largely Orthodox Christian country, has made slow progress on LGBTQ rights, but it is no longer a crime to be gay and the country has moved towards social acceptance of the LGBTQ community. However, activists fear this could be undone by a Russian occupation, as life has already changed for members of the LGBTQ community in Crimea and Donbass, two regions under Russian control.

“We see how the situation is under the occupation of Crimea and the Donbass region,” said Olena Shevchenko, leader of the LGBTQ organization Insight. Newsweek. “Nobody wants to live like the Donbass region right now.”

Nearly 2 million people have already fled Ukraine in the two weeks since the invasion began and Shevchenko said she knows many members of the LGBTQ community have left the country. This includes many people who have children and fear that their children will be in danger if Russia invades.

Same-sex couples in Russia are not allowed to adopt children. Some couples therefore register as single parents to start a family, use a surrogate mother or a sperm donor. However, they run the risk of having a visit from a state investigator and having their children taken from them.

“I know people who live in Russia,” Shevchenko said. “They are always afraid that someone will come and take their children away from the family.”

Russia occupying Ukraine could devastate Ukraine’s progress for LGBTQ rights. A man holds a rainbow flag during an anti-transphobia rally in Kiev on November 23, 2019.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Although identifying as LGBTQ is no longer banned in Russia, the country has strict views on non-heterosexual lifestyles. The law on “gay propaganda”, passed in 2013, makes it illegal to promote “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Broadly interpreted, the law has been used to shut down websites and prevent LGBTQ groups from working with teens, as well as to prohibit the assimilation of same-sex and heterosexual relationships and promote gay rights.

In 2012, the Moscow city government banned gay pride parades for 100 years, and Russia officially banned same-sex marriage in 2021.

“Ukraine is a European country. We have a history of Pride marches for 10 years, and as you know, in Russia the situation is like the opposite,” said Edward Reese, project assistant for Kyiv Pride, to CBS News. “We have totally different paths. … We see the changes in people’s thinking on human rights, LGBTQ, feminism, etc. … So we certainly don’t want anything related to Russia … and we don’t will not. have them.”

Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, and in 2015 labor laws were amended to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. While the country still has significant progress to make, Shevchenko said Newsweek that it is “more or less possible to live and be open and proud” of one’s identity in Ukraine.

Gay marriage is still not legal in Ukraine, but Iulia, an 18-year-old law student in Ukraine, told CBS News she thinks the country is moving in that direction. If Russia were to take control of the city, it would likely dash those hopes.

After the illegal annexation of Crimea, the territory’s top official, Sergei Aksyonov, said that Crimea “does not need such people”, in reference to the LGBTQ community. He added that if the LGBTQ community tries to organize public gatherings, “the police and the self-defense forces will react immediately and within three minutes will explain to them what type of sexual orientation they must stick to”.

Ukrainians in Donetsk also faced repression of their rights after fighting broke out in 2014. The first edition of the constitution of the Donetsk People’s Republic banned same-sex relations, according to Hromadske international, a broadcasting station digital based in Ukraine.

Although the LGBTQ community doesn’t have the recognition that activists are fighting for, their life is “much better than it is in Russia”, according to Shevchenko. In 2020, the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky proposed hate crime legislation to cover the LGBTQ community and soon after his presidency he shouted an anti-gay heckler.

“I won’t tell you anything bad about homosexuals, because we live in a free society. Leave those people alone, for God’s sake!” said Zelensky.

In February, the United States sent a letter to the United Nations saying Russia had a “kill list” of Ukrainians to attack or arrest if Russian forces invaded. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s Today that the war would be aimed at “suppressing” and “crushing” the Ukrainian people.

The “kill list” included journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTQ Ukrainians.

Shevchenko, a vocal LGBTQ activist, fears she and others in positions similar to her could be “first targets” if Russia takes over the country. However, she chooses to think optimistically.

“I prefer to believe that somehow we will win and we can go home,” Shevchenko said. “I believe, I hope, those places will be there.”

Michael A. Bynum