“Please don’t panic, but they’ve started bombing Kyiv,” Cay*, a non-binary queer activist with Queer Rebels, recalled hearing their partner say over the phone at 6:30 am on Friday, as they awoke in their hometown of Kyiv in a state of total shock.
The previous day, 24 February, the world had watched as Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia unleashed terror from the north, east and south, targeting Ukraine by air, land and sea. By the early hours of Friday morning, the capital, Kyiv, was under attack.
Shortly after their troubling phone call, Cay heard an explosion.
“I don’t think I can express with words what I felt at that moment,” they said. “I think that the reason why they started bombing at night is because when you wake up to bombing, you’re more prone to panic.” Their first reaction was to get dressed, grab their ‘go-bag’ and rush to the subway to travel to stay with their father. But upon arriving at the station, they thought it over and decided to turn back.
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As Russian president Vladimir Putin pushes his deadly invasion forward, ordinary people from all walks of life are facing devastating consequences. On 27 February, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health said that Russia’s invasion had already killed 352 civilians, including 14 children, with numbers expected to rise as more casualties are confirmed. A further 1,684 people, including 116 children, have been injured. A day later, the head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that, since the start of the conflict, 500,000 people have fled Ukraine.
Despite the particular dangers faced by LGBTQ+ communities if Russian forces lay prolonged claim to Ukrainian territory, Cay and many other queer activists have decided to stay in Kyiv. They’re there to fight until the end.
Fearing the future
In recent years, Russia has gained notoriety for its treatment of gay people. The country passed a near-unanimous homophobic ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013 that bans LGBTQ+ expression – outlawing pride marches, detaining activists and cultivating a climate of hate. Five years after the bill’s introduction, reports of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people had doubled (though many more cases are believed to have gone unrecorded). Amnesty International also condemned the “failure of the Russian state to provide justice” for victims of a wave of homophobic crimes in Chechnya.
Yevhen Trachuk, a 25-year-old non-binary activist also known as Zhenya, pointed to Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region – where there were terrifying lethal purges against dozens of men perceived as gay or bisexual in 2017 and 2019. The leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is an ally of Putin’s, made a number of horrific statements in 2017 referring to gay people as the “devil”.
Zhenya explained why stories like these have made them afraid of the outcome of an invasion. “People were taken away, tortured and kept as prisoners. I’m afraid this could happen to Ukraine, after so many years of fighting for change.”
When you wake up to bombing, you’re more prone to panic
Over the past few years, young queer people in Ukraine have been laying the foundations for a brighter future for the country’s LGBTQ+ community by organising large-scale Pride marches, hosting queer parties, and fighting for equal marriage and adoption rights. Although the atmosphere was still tense amid threats from the country’s organised far-Right, young people felt a shift was taking place.
“It’s hard to believe that all that I’ve been doing and everyone has been doing could just land us in prison,” Zhenya said.
Zhenya has been involved in organising successful Pride marches in the capital that have attracted thousands. While heavy police presence was necessary to protect the marchers, 7,000 people hit the streets with the ‘March for Equality’ last year, in comparison to a few hundred far-Right counter-demonstrators who mobilised.
Cay took trips around Kyiv to graffiti queer messages onto the city’s walls and participated in bold actions like hanging a rainbow flag in front of Kyiv National University. They were also involved in organising a ‘queer-anarchist’ bloc at Kyiv Pride and had plans to host a queer party at the end of March.
While the efforts of queer activists have made headway, same-sex marriage and adoption remain banned. In 2018, the queer community in Ukraine was fearful of a turn for the worse with the proposed anti-gay ‘propaganda’ bill, but the law was thrown out when a Kyiv court found that the local authorities’ push for the law was “discriminatory”.
Karla*, a queer Belarusian activist based in Dnipro, a city in the east of Ukraine, believes that it was precisely the growing visibility of the LGBTQ+ community that was contributing to the shift in society. “People were feeling safer to openly share their beliefs and saw the future positively.”
Zhenya explained that back in their hometown, they were the victim of a homophobic assault and police failed to support them. They also found out that members of the far-Right were circulating their photos and videos from Instagram on a Telegram channel. This type of backlash and far-Right information exchange through Telegram chats is no isolated incident.
“We’ve lost a lot of lives. Not just the lives of the soldiers, but also the lives of ordinary people,” said Karla. “The invasion must stop.” Like Karla, Cay and other activists are ramping up efforts to support their community and country having seen the devastation unfold.
“I have only slept a total of four hours since the war started,” Cay said on Saturday. “After spending most of the first two days in a bomb shelter with my friend, I’m now starting to find the energy to do something.”
With so many people – including their partner – already having volunteered with the Territorial Defence Forces, they decided to put their skills elsewhere. From their apartment, Cay is calling on the international community to take action and supporting those fleeing their homes to find temporary accommodation. But they’re also ready for more. “I’ll also be making Molotov cocktails with my friends to use against the Russian army.”
That sense of readiness is widespread among the community. “This is our capital and we need to show it’s ours,” proclaimed Zhenya, who has been involved in organising Kyiv Pride. The organisation sent a message of defiance to Putin on Twitter as the invasion was launched, writing: “Putin will break all his teeth trying to bite us. We have left far behind the past to which he seeks to draw us.”
People were taken away, tortured and kept as prisoners. I’m afraid this could happen to Ukraine
Zhenya described how Ukraine’s queer community is mobilising in the resistance against Russia’s invasion. “Some of the queer community is fighting in the war, while others are helping with supplies and donating blood to medical centres.” Gay men in Ukraine gained the right to do this only in 2016.
They also point to the importance of psychological support networks that have been set up, as well as transport and accommodation networks to help those fleeing. “Being silent and doing nothing is an awful way to be in this situation,” they said. “Everyone is playing their part.”
Battles are not just taking place on the ground. US media organisation NPR has reported that a Ukrainian cyber-security executive has recruited hackers from around the world to engage in the cyber-warfare taking place. With phishing attacks rolling in against Ukrainians, Karla joined the combat against digital threats. As part of a wider operation, her role is to check and verify the IP addresses of those sending the phishing emails, while others work to block the ‘phishers’.
The activists say the international response, which has taken place in the form of financial sanctions on Russia and military support for Ukraine, has been too slow. “The international community needs to respond more quickly to the war. That should happen not only with Ukraine, but also with other countries facing war,” said Karla.
This sentiment is echoed by the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets around the world to demand an end to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and call on world leaders to take action. In Russia, too, anti-war protesters have turned out across 48 cities, facing crackdowns and arrests by security forces.
Back in Ukraine, imagining life after the war is close to impossible for people on the ground. “I still can’t believe that the war is happening right now. It’s very complicated to imagine and plan how I’ll live afterwards,” said Karla.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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