The conflict in eastern Ukraine has taken the lives and rights of some of the most marginalised
When Dasha was 20 years old she began living as an out transgender woman. She had obsessed over the decision since her early teen years. In the summer of 2015, Dasha left her hometown in Lugansk in east Ukraine, where a war between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists had been raging for over a year, and headed to the capital city of Kiev in search of safety.
“When the war, started life for anyone who was ‘different’ became more dangerous,” Dasha, now 23, tells Dazed.
Dasha is one of the nearly 1.6 million people estimated by the United Nations to be displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed over 10,000 lives and has inflicted a humanitarian crisis. Since pro Russian separatists took control of Donbas, rights activists say life has become much more precarious for the LGBT community.
“Ukraine’s LGBT community has suffered more under Russian-led forces in Donbas, where a law mirroring Russia’s anti-gay propaganda legislation is being implemented. Many left out of fear of being persecuted,” says Ulyana Movchan, a co-ordinator from Insight, a Kiev-based LGBT NGO.
Russia’s notorious 2013 law banning material that is seen to promote homosexuality is considered central to Putin’s nationalist message, which casts Russia as a defender of ‘traditional’ values against a morally corrupt West. In occupied territories, the scapegoating of LGBT people for political purposes is not uncommon, and only increases their vulnerability, according to the Human Dignity Trust.
In 2016, the ‘head’ of the proto-state Donetsk People’s Republic repeatedly stated: “this generation is being raised on democracy, which implies that a family can have two fathers or two mothers. To me, this is categorically unacceptable.”
“Kiev is more open-minded, there are more job opportunities and hormone therapy is less expensive,” says Dasha.
Unable to afford housing, Dasha turned to the Shelter, accommodation specifically for LGBT refugees set up by the NGO Insight. The Shelter houses 30 refugees at one time, providing each with up to three months of housing, as well as psychological and legal help. Clothing, medicine, public transport passes, and assistance finding work is also provided.
The Shelter was initially intended as a temporary refuge for LGBT migrants from the zone of military conflict and the occupied territories, but the ongoing demand has kept its doors open.
Today, it accepts applications from LGBT people who are fleeing all sorts of difficult situations in Ukraine. Some have been kicked out of their homes, rejected by their families.
“The first time I met other LGBT people, it felt surreal”
“It was the first time I met other LGBT people, it felt surreal,” Dasha explains. “My family didn’t accept me and I had no friends in Lugansk. I only talked with people on internet forums. I would change my name and used a different photo. I love how you can create another world through technology. But in Kiev, I have more real friends than cyber friends.”
Still, Dasha has faced numerous challenges in Kiev. She said the landlord of the first apartment demanded she leave without giving a reason. He shouted ‘pervert’ as she dragged her cases through the doorway.
Dasha said she struggled for months to find a job. “I applied to be a barista and had a few trials but they kept telling me I wasn’t not suitable for the job.” Eventually she found work as a shop assistant and currently lives with her girlfriend on the outskirts of Kiev.
When a pro-Western government was elected following the Maidan protests that erupted in 2014 and led to the ousting of pro Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, human rights activists envisioned a society more accepting of LGBT people. In 2015, Ukrainian authorities passed a law banning workplace discrimination against the LGBT community, but many activists are disappointed by the government’s lack of commitment to protecting LGBT people.
A 2017 report by Nash Mir, a Ukrainian human rights NGO, says the state reluctantly and inefficiently investigates hate crimes against LGBT people. Nash Mir documented 226 cases of acts motivated by homophobia and transphobia, discrimination and other violations of LGBT people’s rights in Ukraine.
Although most Ukrainians consider themselves ‘pro-European’, tolerance toward the LGBT community is low and homophobia is widespread. There are, however, signs that support for LGBT rights is strengthening. Last week, thousands joined Kiev’s biggest ever LGBT Pride demonstration. The first Pride event in 2013 attracted just 100 participants and was cut short by 500 counter protestors who violently interrupted the march.
Dazed spoke with Sergiy Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, at this year’s Pride. “Putting an end to discrimination and violence against people on the basis of their sexual orientation is important in bringing Ukraine closer to Europe,” he says. “There’s less violence, less provocation, and more support for human rights. But it’s not enough. We should not need so much protection from the police.” Leshchenko pointed to the long walls of police officers on either side of the march.
The progress so far is making a marked difference for many LGBT Ukrainians who come to Kiev for a better life. A few years ago, Dasha said she could only connect with people on the internet. Last week, she was able to march with her girlfriend and thousands of others for LGBT rights in the capital.