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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Graham-Harrison and Artem Mazhulin in Kyiv

War brings urgency to fight for LGBT rights in Ukraine

Participants in the Equality march, organised by the LGBT community in Kyiv in 2021.
Participants in the Equality march, organised by the LGBT community in Kyiv in 2021. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

The Ukrainian MP Andrii Kozhemiakin is a wiry, conservative ex-spy who likes to emphasise his Christian faith and large family. He is also an unlikely new recruit in the fight for LGBT rights in Ukraine.

A draft civil union law that would give same-sex partnerships legal status for the first time was introduced this year to Ukraine’s parliament, which is still functioning despite the war.

Kozhemiakin’s committee was the first to debate it and the team behind the legislation were bracing for defeat; they had even prepared a statement. He started with a script they recognised, talking about his Soviet-era KGB training, his religious beliefs and his “personal opinion about LGBT people”.

And then he announced his wholehearted support for the legislation, referencing Vladimir Putin’s homophobic claim that there are no gay Russians.

“Anything that our enemy hates … I will support,” Kozhemiakin said. “If it will never exist in Russia, it should exist and be supported here, to show them and signal to them that we are different. This law is like a smile towards Europe and a middle finger to Russia. So I support it.”

Inna Sovsun, the MP who drafted the law and is now trying to shepherd it through parliament, said Kozhemiakin’s speech was “the most unexpected thing in my political career”.

She would prefer allies who embrace the moral argument for equal marriage, but faces an uphill struggle to get the law passed, and that day showed “there are people who can support the bill for different reasons”.

She began working on the legislation soon after Moscow sent its troops across the border; the war made the fight for LGBT rights even more urgent when Ukrainians were dying for their country.

Her team were fundraising for equipment to support a gay friend who had enlisted in the military, when they realised that her position in parliament meant she could support him in other ways.

With the law, they aimed to show him – and all LGBT soldiers fighting for Ukraine – that the country he is willing to die for is one “that respects him for his values and who he is”, she said.

Ukraine has made huge progress on LGBT rights, but homophobia is still rife, gay soldiers are often badly bullied even on the frontlines, and the constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

It cannot be altered when the country is at war, a legal bind that the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy has used to deflect calls for equal rights for the soldiers fighting and dying to protect it.

“We need to pass this law during the wartime, to make our soldiers in the battlefield feel more confident,” said Maksym Potapovych, of the campaign group LGBT Military, which shares photos and stories of gay fighters. “But also, so that when they return to civil life, they know that while they were fighting for us in the trenches, we were fighting [for them] here.”

Civil unions would mean financial support and official recognition for partners of soldiers who are killed, and the right to make medical decisions if their loved ones are injured. Those are not abstract concerns.

Many gay Ukrainians are not out to their families, or have been rejected by them. If they are legally single when they are killed, those relatives have the right to take important decisions. Some fear their partners might be banned from their funeral, or not even notified of their death.

In November 2022, Leda Kosmachevska went viral with a Facebook post explaining she had married her best friend to make sure his wishes would be respected. “I will become the wife of a soldier,” she wrote under the title “Difficult times, difficult weddings”.

“I take responsibility for the search, identification and burial of his remains, the notification of relatives and friends. I will not ask a priest to hold the funeral, because my husband did not want it,” she wrote. “It’s not something I want to do, or was supposed to do … My future husband has a husband. They have been together for 15 years. But as far as the state of Ukraine is concerned, they are strangers to one another.”

Dmytro’s worst fears became a reality at the end of December, when Oleskii, his partner of five years, was seriously injured. He was told to come to a hospital in Dnipro. “I was just 15km away when I got a call saying ‘don’t rush’.” His partner had died.

The NGO manager is speaking about his loss in the hope that it might help Ukrainians and others understand why the new law is so urgently needed.

“It’s not about the money, it’s first of all to be able to see [your loved one] in the hospital … His family was OK with us, but others might not be,” he said. “Even though this civil union law doesn’t solve all the problems when something [bad] happens, it solves the majority of them.”

Beyond practical realities, war has brought an existential urgency to the fight for equal rights and against homophobia for many LGBT Ukrainians, said Potapovych, from the LGBT Military activist group. “They really feel that during war their life can end really fast, so they would like to live a free life as much as they can,” he said. “It encourages them to come out, in spite of homophobia in their units.”

Participants attend the Equality march in Kyiv in 2021.
Participants attend the Equality march in Kyiv in 2021. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

European values

Over the last decade as Ukrainian activists strengthened democracy and the country embraced European values, attitudes to gay rights have shifted fast.

A recent survey found that 58% of Ukrainians felt positive or neutral towards their LGBT compatriots. Although that is low compared with acceptance in the UK and other western European countries, it represents a significant and rapid improvement.

“In 2016 that figure was only around 30%, so we doubled [acceptance] in five or six years, something that other [LGBT] pride movements have achieved in 10 or 20 years,” Potapovych said. An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians – more than 80% – supported gay soldiers serving in the military.

Like Sovsun, he sees that as partly a reflection of his country’s desire to bolster its identity as a European democracy. “Maybe our government or people don’t strongly want to [back equal rights], but they have to support our rights. It affects our standing before our European partners, we really want to show that Ukraine is a democratic country.”

There is still a long way to go. Institutional homophobia is underpinned in parts of Ukraine, particularly the more socially conservative west, by religious homophobia. Before the war, there were pride marches in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Odesa but never in Lviv, in a reflection of this.

The defence ministry has not backed the law, instead publicly questioning its provisions. Asked to comment on its position and support for LGBT soldiers, a spokesperson sent a response that was almost comic in its evasiveness.

It did not mention sexuality at all, despite laying out a long list of protected characteristics including “race, colour of skin, political, religious or other beliefs, gender, ethnic or social origin, financial status, place of origin, language”.

But the LGBT campaigners and their allies are convinced they can persuade the ministry to back its soldiers.

“We will make them reconsider,” said Olga Kolomiets, a sniper. “If you are fighting, fight till the end, that’s my motto in life. One, two, three people they might not hear, but if there’s more of us to stand up, they will hear us.”

Sovsun estimates she spends about 70% of her time lobbying for the law inside parliament. Its members are more conservative on this issue than broader Ukrainian society, but the war has made her campaign a little easier.

“I say to them: ‘You are here in Kyiv, drinking a nice coffee, what is your message to our LGBT military in the trenches, about denying them their rights?’”

And a legal case working its way very slowly through the European court of human rights means she is confident – eventually – of victory.

Nearly a decade ago, two Ukrainian men who had been living together for 10 years sued the government for denying them rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. “We share all our joys and troubles like any family, but in the eyes of the state we are two separate men,” said Andriy Maimulakhin, one of the men.

The court has previously ruled in favour of a Russian couple who brought a similar case – although Moscow ignored the verdict.

A ruling is expected in the Ukrainian case within months and Sovsun says that will be an imperative to act. “I just wish it would be sooner rather than later,” she said.

Ivan and Roman are one of the couples waiting for the law to come through. Ivan is a member of a reconnaissance unit that scouts behind enemy lines, one of the most dangerous jobs in the military.

Ivan was outed by someone in his unit who eavesdropped on a call between the two men, and the immediate response from his fellow soldiers underlined the homophobia that keeps many Ukrainians in the closet.

He was sent to sleep in a basement and bullied by other soldiers. “The closer guys who served with me in the same platoon, they were more understanding, but others who don’t know me so well, they would be making stupid jokes,” he said.

“It’s one of the most dangerous things to do, and they still don’t respect you.” Still, neither man regrets his choice. “We see a future in Ukraine, that’s why we volunteered to fight.”

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