When Hanna Vasyk, a 37-year-old LGBT+ person from Kyiv, began military training as a civilian four months ago a friend jokingly warned, “Watch out, in a few months you’ll be at the frontlines.” At the time, she shrugged it off, but next week, she will join the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Sharing her thoughts on Instagram, she writes, “Preparing oneself fully for war is impossible, but we can take steps to increase our chances of survival.”
With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine now in its seventeenth month, a Russian world order poses a threat to the most vulnerable, particularly threatening the safety of LGBT+ people with violence and exploitation. This risks the hard-fought progress recently made by Ukrainian LGBT+ communities and organizations. In Ukraine, the proportion of the population with positive attitudes towards LGBT+ people has quadrupled in the last six years.
In Russia, persecution of minorities and opposition groups continues to rise, forcing any public display of gay life further underground or into exile. During a speech marking the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Russia’s dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin, remarked, “Do we want to instill in their [Russian children’s] minds the idea that other genders exist alongside women and men, and offer them gender reassignment surgery?” These transphobic statements are part of a larger narrative that propels the military effort in Ukraine by pitting traditional Russian values against a liberal Western world order. The Kremlin exploits anti-gay legislation to shore up public support, especially during times of increased opposition, such as the anti-government protests in 2011-2013. In 2022, when Russian public opinion began turning against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine due to mobilization efforts and high casualty counts. The 2022 amendment to the law, banning LGBT+ propaganda, imposes hefty fines on any expression of LGBT+ life, leading to the detainment of activists and the prohibition of gay pride marches.
Within Russia, LGBT+ communities are increasingly portrayed as posing an existential threat to Russian nationhood, yet this demonization has had unintended consequences, not only within Ukraine but on an international scale. As Ukraine aligns itself with the West, gay rights have emerged as a key point of discussion in Ukrainian politics, representing a significant shift. Many challenges remain, but the growing support for the LGBT+ community has reached higher levels of government. This year, Ukraine’s parliament introduced a proposed civil union law, which, if enacted, would grant legal recognition to same-sex partnerships for the first time. As Vlad Shast, a 28-year-old non-binary person and LGBT+ performer who joined Ukraine’s military reserve, told me, “I feel a big difference this PRIDE month in Ukraine. We finally have a strong base and I feel the support behind us from all levels of society that allows us to fight homophobia like never before.”
The Kremlin’s homophobic campaigns—a rallying cry for the full-scale invasion—have backfired within Ukraine and increased support for gay rights as anti-gay sentiment aligns more and more with a pro-Russian agenda. The LGBT+ community’s unwavering dedication to preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity translates into battle, with an estimated 200 soldiers publicly identifying as gay. But the legislation has yet to catch up. Currently, there are no legal protections for them such as financial support for partners if soldiers are killed or medical decisions made by their partners if they are injured.
The integration of LGBT+ voices into Ukrainian society has not only reshaped the conversation at home but also emphasized the significance of LGBT+ rights as a cornerstone of transatlantic unity in the face of the global rise of authoritarianism. Acting as a litmus test for European values, the legal recognition of gay rights would be a fierce rebuke to Putinism. As Rita Kostiuk, the mother of an openly gay soldier from Vinnytsia, told me, “I will stand behind anything our enemy hates. How can we talk about European values if our soldiers are dying to support our country and we cannot even guarantee them basic rights?”
In my conversations with LGBT+-identifying Ukrainians, I sense a shared endeavor that goes beyond LGBT+ identity to a broader Ukrainian unity, even in light of historical challenges to LGBT+ rights. The existence of a free and independent Ukraine—made possible by the defeat of Russia—is the most urgent task at hand for the LGBT+ community; questions of identity are irrelevant if Ukraine does not exist. Vlad Shast, with a hint of irony, says LGBT+ individuals should now “support not only the entities working to protect the LGBT+ community but also that part of the world we thought it would be difficult for us to support — straight people serving on Ukraine’s frontlines.”
Dr. Lyu Azbel (they/them) is a public health researcher with over ten years experience in designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating health interventions for marginalized populations. Currently an Assistant Professor at Yale University, Dr. Azbel’s research provides groundbreaking solutions to tackling the most stubborn impasses to translating medical technologies into new environments.
All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.