“Our tradition is freedom”
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine resulted in massive casualties and created a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with millions of people affected. However, the particular experiences of the queer community throughout the war have frequently been disregarded or left out of the mainstream discourse. War creates an environment where human rights abuses are more likely to occur and be normalized. In the case of Ukraine, the queer community has repeatedly been subjected to violence and prejudice, which allows hypothesizing that the war is only exacerbating the situation. On the other hand, war is a time when people are more likely to help each other and show understanding and empathy. In this context, it is critical to discuss the unique and vulnerable experience which the Ukrainian queer community faces during the full-scale war. Thus, this article aims to explore how the Russian attack affects the life of the queer community in Ukraine and whether it really deepens prejudice towards the community among Ukrainians or vice versa.
Queer History of Ukraine
A couple of years ago Anton Shebetko, a Ukrainian artist and photographer from Kyiv who works closely with LGBTQ+ topics published a book “A Very Brief and Subjective Queer History of Ukraine”. According to the author, Ukrainian queer history starts in 988 together with the conversion of Kyivan Rus by Volodymyr the Great (adopting Christianity). It is about the ritual of adelphopoiesis which is ceremonial “brother making” and may refer to the possible homosexual marriage of men. Since then, queer and LGBT topics have permeated the history of Ukraine, from the criminalization of homosexuality in the Zaporozhian Sich, Cossack proto state, from the late 16th to the late 18th centuries, as well as in the legislation of the Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire, between which ethnic Ukrainian territories were divided at the time, to Verka Serdyuchka’s performance at the 2007 Eurovision.
Unfortunately, since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, it has not been the safest place for the queer community to be represented even when the country decriminalized voluntary homosexual acts. In the last decade, physical and verbal attacks on the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine have been carried out by far-right nationalist groups. One of the most high-profile examples is the cancellation of the first gay pride event in Kyiv in 2012 due to security reasons. Then KyivPride participants noticed aggressive individuals from far-right nationalist groups and religious organizations at the venue. In 2019, Ukrainian society was shaken by the incident that happened to KyivPride attendees at the premiere of the film “Don’t Hide Your Eyes 2: Our People in the USA” (“Не ховай очей 2. Наші в США”), where 5 Ukrainians from three US cities talk about sexuality education in schools, bullying, relationships with parents after coming out, religion, shelters for LGBTQ+ people, etc. The visitors were attacked by men who kicked and tear-gassed them, and there were minors among the victims. Two years later, far-right representatives attacked the bar HVLV, which is one of the favorite LGBTQ+ bars in Kyiv. The attackers broke the windows and fired tear gas, while the guards were beaten on the back and arms with telescopic batons and prevented from entering the bar.
In addition to the obvious types of violence, such as physical harm, the queer community also faces structural violence, when social institutions provide conditions that make it impossible for people’s needs to be met. Often, members of the queer community face the fact that they are treated with caution, as well as considered to be eccentric or strange. There are stories about queer Ukrainians being excommunicated from the church they belong to, or the story of Kinder Limo, a non-binary musician who uses the pronouns they/them to identify themself and was forced out from the theological and scientific institution after their self-identification became known among professors.
Perhaps the most important reason for the queer and homophobic attitudes of a certain part of Ukrainians lies in the country’s queer history. As mentioned earlier, the first bans on homosexuality took place in Ukraine from the late 16th to the late 18th centuries, and then in the legislation of the Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire. For example, in 1715, during the reign of Peter, the Great, punishment for “sodomy” between military personnel was introduced, and in 1845, Emperor Nicholas I of Russia issued the first criminal code and punishment for sodomy. After the October Revolution, the anti-homosexual laws lost their validity. However, in 1934, the Ukrainian SSR added an article to its Criminal Code stipulating that voluntary sexual contact between two men was punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
This historical legacy, shaped by traditional values, religious beliefs, and conservative views, especially in terms of gender roles, sexuality, and family values, has had a profound impact on modern society. In today’s Ukrainian society, which is still quite conservative and sometimes indifferent or hostile towards LGBT people, travesties such as Monroe, Zi Faámelu, and Verka Serdyuchka are quite popular. This seems to be contradictory to Ukrainians’ views, but it can be explained by the fact that the aforementioned trans divas did not associate their public activities with the struggle for the rights of sexual minorities, but only with their stage performances. Additionally, their political neutrality did not create any obstacles to their media presence.
However, Ukrainians have always fought and continue to fight for their independence from imposed values and for a democratic future. This is illustrated by the events and transformations that currently take place in Ukrainian society.
The time of the full-scale invasion
Considering the violent nature of such an event as war and the widespread traditional values in Ukrainian society, surprisingly, this war helps the social perception of the queer community. Polls conducted in May 2022 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show that almost 60% of Ukrainians have a positive or neutral attitude towards LGBTQ+ people, and more than 60% support equal rights. The LGBT Human Rights Center compared these data with the data for 2016 and the results showed that the number of people who have a positive attitude towards the queer community has increased (from 3.3% to 12.8%) and those who are indifferent to them (from 30.7% to 44.8%), as well as from 60.4% of those who had a negative attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in 2022 to 38.2% of respondents. The improvement in the attitude of Ukrainians towards the LGBTQ+ community was also shown by the Nationwide telephone survey and the National Survey of the Attitudes of the Ukrainian Population towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People as part of the project “Reducing Stigma and Discrimination Against LGBT People Among Local Authorities”.
The logical question is, what helped to achieve such an improvement in the perception of queer and LGBT communities in Ukraine in the context of war and the prevalence of traditional values in its society?
Fighting against Russian man-hating narratives
Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians want less and less to have anything in common with Russia, so queerphobia and homophobia are considered Russian narratives in Ukrainian society. A Ukrainian member of the LGBTQ+ community who is now defending Ukraine said in an interview with CBS Morning that Ukraine cannot lose this war because “it would be a complete disaster. Putin’s ideology is homophobia.” That is Russian queerphobia and homophobia, on both levels of society and legislative power, that leads to a more positive perception of the queer community in Ukraine.
The latest poll by the Russian non-governmental research organization Levada-Center on whether adults have the right to engage in consensual relationships with people of the same sex showed that the proportion of people who do not support such relationships has increased from 60% in 2013 to 69% in 2021. Russia has recently passed a law banning the “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences. Moreover, last November the Russian president signed a decree “On Approval of the Basic State Policy for Preserving and Strengthening Russia’s Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values,” for which the Russian Ministry of Culture compiled the so-called registers of traditional values and alien ideas. Traditional values include service and preservation of the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, historical memory, etc. Alien ideas are the cultivation of permissiveness, the denial of the natural continuation of life, and the destruction of traditional families through the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships.
Queer people as defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty
Now queer people serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, volunteer and help at the front. This is another reason why more traditionally-minded Ukrainians are abandoning homophobic beliefs and prejudices. Non-binary personality Antonina Romanova and her partner Oleksandr Zhuhan joined the army to defend Ukraine openly communicating their status. Antonina says that she was prepared to face certain problems or bullying, but this did not happen. She also says that she sees her fellow soldiers coming out almost every week and notes that it is important to draw the attention of Ukrainians to the fact that they are also protected by LGBTQ+ representatives. The intelligence officer Margo first came to the front line in 2016, and all her colleagues know that she is a lesbian, and she says there are many LGBT people among her colleagues. She feels a loyal attitude but admits there are exceptions and people who treat her negatively yet get ignored by the majority.
Ukrainian commitment to democratic values
Also, Ukrainians are committed to democratic values, which resonate with the aspiration to become an EU member. Ukrainians are convinced that tolerance is a sign of a modern democratic society. The strengthening of Ukraine’s ties with the EU and other Western partners since the beginning of the full-scale invasion has led many to identify more with the values espoused by the EU. The latest poll conducted by Razumkov Center in April 2023 shows that among other organizations, Ukrainians have the most positive attitude towards the EU (89%) and NATO (79%). The intelligence officer Margo puts it this way: “If we are destined to become a shield for Europe and the ideas it represents, we must fully confront our common enemy and its man-hating paradigm.”
Last but not least, the change in minds was not something that happened overnight and only because of the issues associated with the war. After Ukraine’s proclamation of independence and the decriminalization of consensual homosexuality in 1991, people were able to be more open and express themselves in various ways. This happened in cities all over Ukraine, not just in the capital. In 1993, Mykhailo Koptev organized the Orhidea Theater of Provocative Fashion in Luhansk (eastern Ukraine), now temporarily occupied by Russia. In Crimea, which is also under temporary occupation by Russia, the Hedgehogs bar and nightclub in Simeiz was opened as a meeting place for LGBTQ+ people. In the same year, in Lviv (western Ukraine), Konstantin Gnatenko presented a homoerotic play “I’m Not a Monster” at the Lviv Opera House. In 2004, the Mykolaiv Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals was established in Mykolaiv (southern Ukraine), which is now the oldest active LGBT organization in Ukraine. In addition, there has been some improvement in the legal framework: in September 2012, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine passed a law on the prohibition of discrimination that recognizes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification.
Despite positive changes in social attitudes toward queer and LGBT people, there are still challenges for members of these communities in Ukraine. One of them is the lack of openness in Ukrainian society regarding LGBTQ+ and their rights. Ukraine still lacks sex education in schools and no corresponding program for informing the adult population exists. The reasons to this lye in the stances of political parties on the topic as politicians and different political parties have different views on this topic, which does not allow for a unified policy in raising awareness and combating stereotypes applied to members of the queer community. Numerous groups and individuals have sought to spread awareness of the difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine and to fight for their rights, and they could help shape policy in this regard.
Legal protection of the rights of queer representatives remains important, and the implementation of certain laws can help. At the moment, the recently registered draft law that will allow the registration of same-sex partnerships is one of the most important in this context. Non-binary person Antonina Romanova, who is now defending Ukraine on the military front, explains that “If one of us is wounded, doctors only allow close relatives or spouses into the ward. We belong to neither the first nor the second category. I think it’s very unfair. I want not only us to defend our mother Ukraine, but also it to defend us. And our rights in particular.”
Borys Khmilevsky, army medic and civil rights activist says that “it’s extremely important right now because we have many same-sex couples who are fighting right now, and they don’t have the same level of rights. But it’s so important in a situation like that because if one partner dies on the front line, and you’re the same-sex couple, you can’t get compensation, you don’t have any right for the body, for the ceremony.”
At the moment, there is no specific legislation in Ukraine concerning health care for the queer and LGBT community. However, discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal everywhere, even in medical settings. The Ukrainian government has also taken some steps to recognize the health needs of the LGBTQ+ community, including providing free HIV/AIDS testing. However, there are a number of significant obstacles that queers may face when trying to obtain health care in Ukraine. These include a lack of access to LGBTQ-friendly medical services, stigma and prejudice on the part of medical professionals, and a lack of understanding and experience among medical staff regarding LGBTQ+ health issues. In this case, Ukraine can take Australia’s policy on LGBTIQ+ health as an example. The Australian government has launched the 2021-2023 Strategic Plan to increase access to health care for the queer community. This approach includes such actions as developing culturally sensitive healthcare practices, increasing access to LGBTQ-friendly healthcare providers, and funding health research.
What is surprising during the full-scale war is not the deepening of the queer- and homophobic views of Ukrainians, but rather the positive shift in this area. Ukraine has a long history of fighting for its rights and future in the European Union and continues to do so. There are still plenty of challenges in the area of law enforcement, health care, and lack of openness among Ukrainians on the topic of queers. However, the long fight for their rights, Russia’s queerphobia and homophobia, and Ukrainian commitment to European values have helped queer representatives make Ukraine a more tolerant country that respects the rights of all people without exception.
 “Our tradition is freedom” is the slogan of the campaign by Ukrainian-Canadian activist Andrew Kushnir, who questions the incompatibility of traditionalism and queerness.