Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has done something unexpected. It has united the nation in a rejection of Kremlin propaganda and allowed a reconsideration of social attitudes, including to LGBT+ rights. 

Opinions on non-traditional gender and sexual orientations have shifted in recent years, providing policymakers and activists with some support for liberalizing legislative action. A countrywide survey gauging acceptance of the LGBT+ community conducted in 2016 was replicated in 2022, finding that over six years the percentage of the population who felt negatively about LGBT+ people dropped from 60.4% to 38.2%, and support to replicate the same legal rights as all other citizens nearly doubled.  

When the survey was run again in 2023, the trend continued. Negative attitudes dropped again, this time to 33.9%. But while 15.5% felt positively about LGBT people, 45.3% said they were indifferent. The findings indicate growing tolerance for choices made in private life, but also reveal a continuing social conservatism often concentrated among Orthodox Church believers. 

Ukraine is relatively liberal on gay rights by some measures, though it still differs considerably from many western European Union (EU) member states. Nonetheless, homosexuality is legal, gender change without surgery is allowed, and sexual consent ages are the same for all. But same sex civil partnerships are not allowed and campaigners are working hard to change this. Whether that happens in wartime is, however, an open question. 

The media is now more open to discussion, according to Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian lawmaker who makes frequent media appearances to advocate for LGBT+ rights. She said in an interview that the issue with gaining media attention “was not to get journalists to change their minds but to get the media to change its policy about talking about it,” and according to her recent experiences, Ukrainian media outlets have changed their policies to accommodate discourse on the topic. 

The explanation may be the war, and its effect on people’s thinking. In 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, many insisted that there were no gay soldiers in the Ukrainian army, driving LGBT+ soldiers to sew a unicorn onto their uniforms to gain visibility. This practice continues. In 2018, Viktor Pylypenko, a former volunteer Ukrainian soldier, became the first openly gay person to have served in the country’s military and was surprised by the positive response from the public and his old comrades. He went on to establish the Union of the LGBT Military, Veterans, and Volunteers, an organization advocating for open and closeted LGBT military. The group’s press representative said that now is the time to take legislative action because the country is more united than ever before and “it doesn’t matter who you are if you are Ukrainian.” 

Hopes of legislative change were ignited in August 2022 when President Zelensky responded to a petition calling for equal rights for the LGBT+ community, saying he had asked the prime minister to investigate “options” for registered civil partnerships for LGBT people. These “options,” however, have not been presented to the public or the country’s legislative body. That has caused parliamentarian Sovsun to take matters into her own hands and introduce a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions (a change in marriage rights would require an amendment to the constitution, which is prohibited during the current state of martial law.) 

Get the Latest
Sign up to receive regular emails and stay informed about CEPA’s work.

When asked why now, she said: “When the country is at war and our lives literally, very literally, depend on our military, denying any type of rights to the person wearing a military uniform fighting over there to protect our lives kind of got difficult.” Partners of LGBT+ soldiers in Ukraine do not have such basic privileges as being notified of the death of a loved one, claiming death benefits from the state, inheriting property ownership or the custody of children.  

This bill is gaining traction not only because of heightened empathy for soldiers but also as an act of resistance against Russia’s homophobic propaganda. The desire to differentiate Ukrainian values from those espoused by Putin has been driving unexpected support for the bill from lifetime conservatives like parliamentarian, Andriy Kozhemiakin, who despite his personal beliefs about LGBT+ people endorsed the bill and urged his colleagues to do the same, stating that “this law is like a smile towards Europe and a middle finger to Russia. So I support it.”  

But the Defense Ministry, so far at least, has resisted the idea. It stated its opposition on the grounds that it was unsure of the numbers involved or support for the change among military personnel. That had the effect of stilling support among parliamentarians who might otherwise have backed the idea. Sovsun’s team is now talking to the ministry to attempt to change its position.  

The Union of the LGBT Military has also been in dialogue with the ministry. Domestic and international support for the bill and subsequent pressure resulted in the ministry’s decision to poll all military units, although the Union’s representative says it’s being conducted in different ways in different units, with some methods likely to accidentally out some individuals; and some questions use vague terminology, often excluding trans people. The Union has been able to set up a meeting with the ministry to discuss making the process more standardized, anonymous, and broader in reach. 

The dispute over the poll reveals the problem. There are strong pressures for social liberalization caused by war and the equal service of LGBT+ people, which accords with Ukraine’s desire for EU membership in particular. EU values are clear in requiring that all citizens enjoy equal dignity and rights. But the country is facing a war of national survival. There is a sense that Ukrainians in positions of power, such as the president, who has so far remained silent regarding the bill, are hesitant about tackling the issue while fighting continues.  

Ultimately, of course, they will be forced to decide what kind of society they want to rebuild for their citizens after so much suffering and sacrifice by all Ukrainians.  

Shuchismita (Shuchi) Hassan grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and lived in Hong Kong, before moving to upstate New York for college. Shuchi has a Master’s in Public Policy from George Mason University and was previously an intern at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’ 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. 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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
Read More