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As their country is invaded by a Russian regime where homophobia is official policy, Ukrainians are fleeing into European nations with hostile climates of their own – and organizing to keep each other safe

Ukrainians take part in Kyiv's Equality March this past September, five months before the city would come under Russian assault.Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

When a friend called Andrii Zarytskyi at 5 a.m., his voice shaking, to say the first bombs had dropped on their city of Mykolaiv, Mr. Zarytskyi didn’t believe him: The 32-year-old never thought he would witness a war in his lifetime. But as Russian forces drew closer, Mr. Zarytskyi, a gay man, understood he would have to run.

“People are afraid that if they find out you belong to the LGBTQ community, they could just shoot because of who you are,” said Mr. Zarytskyi, a manager at LGBT Association LIGA, a 25-year-old advocacy group in Ukraine.

In late February, he escaped with his mother to Odesa. The sounds of bombing and air-raid sirens wailing four times a day sent them fleeing further west and out of the country. In Moldova, friends took them in.

A month into the war, Mr. Zarytskyi was experiencing panic attacks, feeling fearful and helpless when he thinks of the Ukrainians left behind.

From Moldova, he’s been helping his organization fund food, vital medications and temporary shelter for LGBTQ people still trying to escape.

Through the group’s social-media channels, including a Facebook page, he shares crucial wartime guidance: how to access news when signals go down, how to find drinking water, give birth in a bomb shelter, survive a building collapse or explosion. Amid the grim instructions are posts about breathing exercises, for bodies wracked with anxiety.

“Someone like me who cannot hold a gun, they can do something else instead of that,” said Mr. Zarytskyi, who was exempted from military service because of a health condition. “We are afraid that LGBTQ people are under extreme threat during the war.”

While all who remain in Ukraine are in danger, LGBTQ Ukrainians face severe risk of harm.

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s homophobic regime has promoted violence against LGBTQ people. After Russia outlawed “homosexual propaganda” in 2013, attacks on queer and trans people, organizations and events surged in the region. Last month, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was in part a rejection of gay rights being embraced around the world. Ukrainian activists say Russian forces are circulating lists of their names, for targeting.

In response to the particular threats facing this community, advocacy groups in and beyond Ukraine, including in Canada, are calling on governments and humanitarian groups to provide focused support.

The invasion’s early weeks: Firefighters work on a damaged residential building in a suburb of Kyiv on Feb. 25, people crowd onto an evacuation train in Kyiv on March 5, a man rides past flames and smoke in Kharkiv on March 25. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images; Felipe Dana/AP

Trying to flee the horrors of war, LGBTQ Ukrainians have faced added discrimination. Early in the crisis, advocates reported that transgender people with “male” identification markers in their passports were being denied exit from Ukraine; after the invasion, the country ordered all men ages 18 to 60 to remain in the country for the purpose of military service.

For those who do manage to escape, the political climate in neighbouring countries also poses risks, with many regions pushing regressive, anti-LGBTQ policies in recent years.

In Poland, dozens of towns declared themselves “LGBT-free zones,” as President Andrzej Duda described gay rights as “destructive.” Under nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary banned transgender and intersex people from legally changing their gender and amended the constitution to define families as heterosexual, prohibiting same-sex adoption.

“It’s not like people are entering into the most LGBTQI-friendly countries at the moment,” said Evelyne Paradis, Brussels-based executive director of ILGA-Europe, which is connecting LGBTQ organizations in the region.

Prior to the war, LGBTQ rights and visibility were making slow gains in Ukraine, another signal the country was aligning itself with progressive values espoused by much of the European Union. While same-sex marriage and adoption are still not legal in the country, protections do exist against workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and gay and bisexual people are allowed to serve in the military. Several cities, including Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv, have hosted public Pride Day events.

Now, some advocates are uneasy about what the war might do to gains painstakingly made over three decades.

Security forces link arms to keep counter-protesters away from 2019's Equality March in Kyiv.Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Reports also emerged that some LGBTQ refugees have been denied safe shelter throughout various Ukrainian cities – reflecting hostilities that lingered in the country before the war, despite signs of progress.

“It’s been harder for gay men and trans people to be welcomed in safe shelters. People who are less able to pass as straight are facing levels of homophobia,” said Ms. Paradis, who added there is particular concern that LGBTQ people with children are not being recognized as families.

Other LGBTQ Ukrainians have been forced to hide in bomb shelters and basements with bigoted relatives.

“Unfortunately these people, they’re still there and they’re still hating us,” said Lenny Emson, executive director of KyivPride, which has been fighting for LGBTQ rights since 2012.

“Our concern is, the homophobic and transphobic forces that have been in Ukraine for years, they did not disappear within these days. They’re still there. And they’re joining the military, they’re joining territorial defense units. These people could be really dangerous.”

The war has left local LGBTQ groups hastily reorganizing to provide humanitarian aid: arranging transportation and safe accommodation, and securing food, medication and mental-health support.

Ukrainians have been taking shelter wherever they can: A subway station in Kharkiv, a basement in Irpin, an artist's co-living studio space in Kyiv. Felipe Dana and Rodrigo Abd/AP

When the invasion began in February, Dr. Emson was in Canada for a birthday and a wedding anniversary with his wife. “I was hysterical and absolutely could not think of anything apart from what’s going on in Ukraine. I spent a week in this strange state of mind and I decided to come back.”

Dr. Emson returned to Kyiv in early March, bringing bulletproof vests, binoculars and night-vision equipment from Second Front Ukraine Foundation, a Toronto charity supporting Ukrainian military forces. “It’s not the first time for us, and we’re going to fight back,” Dr. Emson said, noting that some transgender and non-binary people signed up to serve in the army, despite the many layers of risks for them.

For LGBTQ Ukrainians fleeing into the capital city in the early days of the war, KyivPride set up a shelter, with air mattresses and sleeping bags donated by a partner organization in Germany.

“We are accepting people who have no place to live, or people who need some community support at the moment and can’t stay at home with a family who is not accepting them,” Dr. Emson said, estimating they’ve helped more than 700 people since the start of the invasion.

KyivPride staff have also been delivering food and medicine to LGBTQ civilians hunkered down beyond the shelter. They’re running a secure self-help chat online, where people exchange messages of support and share relocation possibilities abroad. The organization is also offering free virtual therapy to help Ukrainians cope with grief and devastation; psychologists from around the world have volunteered to host.

In Poland, the advocacy group Campaign Against Homophobia teamed up with 40 other LGBTQ organizations in the country to quickly mobilize for the incoming wave of refugees.

“Since Feb. 24, we woke up in the new world,” executive director Vyacheslav Melnyk said from Warsaw. “It became very clear, very soon, that we need to brace ourselves to help vulnerable, targeted groups for discrimination.”

His organization launched a large-scale social-media campaign that pulled together followers willing to provide safe housing across Poland, “so people take a deep breath, calm down and decide whether to move on or to stay,” he said. Most hosts are LGBTQ themselves, or have relatives who are gay or trans.

At border crossings, his staff pasted up informational posters with links to organizations offering transport to Polish cities, safe housing and psychological assistance.

The posters also include guidance on how to secure medication. There is mounting concern over shortages and lack of access to antiretroviral treatments for those with HIV, as well as hormone replacement therapies for transgender and intersex people. Such medications aren’t necessarily on the radar of larger humanitarian organizations, Ms. Paradis said.

While Poland’s pharmaceutical association adopted a resolution stating pharmacists would honour prescriptions issued in Ukraine, “we’re trying to see whether this works, whether there are no cases of discrimination,” Mr. Melnyk said.

Early on, KyivPride’s Dr. Emson managed to secure drugs through Polish LGBTQ organizations: “I personally brought a huge pack, big suitcases full of hormones for trans people.”

People stand under a rainbow banner of peace at an antiwar protest in Rome on March 5.Remo Casilli/Reuters

While local LGBTQ organizations have been playing a crucial role in the war, they are not equipped for the long run, Ms. Paradis said. “They’re not humanitarian experts or refugee resettlement agencies. That’s where the role of larger humanitarian actors is crucial. At the moment we’re not seeing them step up at all.”

In Canada, the Dignity Network has called for the country’s $245-million humanitarian aid package to be inclusive, with a portion of the funds channelled through local LGBTQ organizations that have the know-how to deliver help within Ukraine and border countries. “My concern is that our communities will be left out, forgotten or overlooked,” said executive director Doug Kerr.

In mid-March, the federal government launched the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel to fast-track Ukrainian immigration applications, offering refuge for up to three years to Ukrainian nationals and their immediate family members. Last Saturday, Ottawa announced six weeks of income support and two weeks of hotel accommodations for the incoming refugees.

But advocates worry that because the measures are largely limited to Ukrainian nationals, LGBTQ refugees of other nationalities escaping Ukraine may be excluded – including many Afghans who fled there when the Taliban seized their country after the withdrawal of U.S. forces last year.

“There are refugees in Ukraine who are mostly people of colour who did not have the same access to resettlement,” said Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian charity that helps LGBTQ people escape state-sponsored violence. Mr. Powell noted that his organization has names of more than 300 Afghan LGBTQ refugees still waiting to be relocated after the Taliban takeover: “Do they not have the right to refuge?”

Ukraine supporters rally in Toronto on Feb. 24.Nick Lachance/Reuters

Canadian advocacy groups have been preparing for the coming refugee surge for weeks.

“We want to live in a world where LGBTQ people aren’t forced to migrate due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” said Rev. Jeff Rock, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, a LGBTQ-welcoming congregation and human-rights centre that set up networks between Ukraine and Canada through local groups such as KyivPride.

“This is going to be an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Rock said. “There’s a lot of trauma. This is going to be a long story.”

To help LGBTQ Ukrainian asylum seekers adjust in Canada, the church’s peer-support services guide newcomers in accessing health care, opening bank accounts and applying for work.

The church is also organizing sponsorship teams, which involve groups of five Canadian citizens or permanent residents who can raise $18,500 and commit to a year of helping. Mr. Rock said a dozen teams are currently coming together for refugees that include Ukrainians. “I even got a message from New Brunswick of someone offering their two spare bedrooms,” he said.

To date, the church has organized 67 sponsor teams for refugees globally, putting out a similar call on behalf of LGBTQ Afghans fleeing the Taliban last year.

“It’s a tangible way to help people rebuild their lives in a safer community,” said Sharalyn Jordan, associate professor of equity studies and counselling psychology at Simon Fraser University.

Prof. Jordan is board chair at Rainbow Refugee, a Vancouver community group that supports LGBTQ people seeking protection in Canada as they escape persecution. With its own sponsorship program, the organization has assisted LGBTQ refugees from 62 countries.

Rainbow Refugee has been aiding Ukrainians as they navigate Canada’s emergency measures and apply for visas. Once refugees reach Canada, Prof. Jordan said the organization will help them find safe housing, equitable employers and culturally informed mental-health providers. Rainbow Refugee has been seeking Ukrainian speakers who can pinpoint LGBTQ-welcoming spaces in the Ukrainian-Canadian community.

From Moldova, Mr. Zarytskyi said he and his mother plan to return to Ukraine and reunite with relatives sheltering throughout the battered country. Every day, they call or send messages through a large family group chat on the app Viber, though the connection is spotty.

In the meantime, they have applied for a visitor’s visa to Canada; the plan was to stay for one year. Mr. Zarytskyi is aware of the sizable Ukrainian community here, and of the way this country treats LGBTQ people.

“I heard that Canada is some sort of LGBT heaven or something like that,” he said. “I definitely feel like we won’t be alone.”


Ukrainian refugees: More from The Globe and Mail

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