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  • Writer's pictureMariia Chubareva

Queer (Military) People of Ukraine: Fighting Two Battles

“It was like ‘Well, the fact that you’re bisexual is bad, but not as bad as russists.’ So, russists always beat all the records when it comes to awfulness,” says Peter Zherukha (28), an openly bisexual soldier, who has been defending Ukraine against Russian aggression since 2022, as he recalls coming out to his peers in the military.

 

As the pride month is approaching its end, Zherukha, who was recently transferred from the frontlines to a safer region, continues to fight not only for Ukraine’s freedom but for his rights. On June 16th, the defender, along with his peers and queer civilians, attended the Kyiv Pride March, the first equality march since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.


© Photo of Peter Zherukha by Gennadiy Kravchenko

“In the beginning, I thought there were very few [queer soldiers], like a couple thousand out of the whole army. I thought I was the only one in my brigade,” says Zherukha. “But then people started texting me, from different brigades, from different military bases, and it was inspiring. That’s why I try to be visible.”

 

This year’s Kyiv Pride was not only about visibility. As Maxim Potapovych (25), a communications manager for the Ukrainian LGBTIQ+ Military and Veterans for Equal Rights NGO, explains, the core message of the equality march was support for the army. “We went with the posters 'Arm Ukraine Now', advocating for the supply of weaponry and air defence to protect the Kharkiv region, our infrastructure.”

 

Queer Rights are Relevant Now More Than Ever


Despite the ongoing genocide, the Ukrainian queer community is actively fighting for equal rights, which, with the beginning of the full-scale invasion, became a more pressing issue as LGBTQI+ soldiers joined the fight against Russians.

 

One of the key demands of the queer community is to implement certain laws, such as the law project allowing for legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. In 2022, a citizen petition was created and signed by more than 25,000 people calling for the legalization of same-sex marriages. However, at the time, President Zelensky responded by saying that it was impossible to make changes to the constitution during wartime.

 

In 2023, a revised law about “registered partnerships”, which does not require constitutional changes, was presented to the parliament. Later that year, the Ministry of Defence, which Potapovych calls “one of the most conservative government structures,” officially supported the law project. However, the law is yet to be reviewed by the parliament.


© Maxim Potapovych

Implementing the “registered partnerships” law will ensure equal rights for queer people and solidify Ukraine’s democratic values. More importantly, as Potapovych explains, it will provide the partners of queer soldiers with opportunities to visit them in intensive care units and make medical decisions, as well as with the right to make funeral arrangements, to government compensation and inheritance in case of death.

 

“In 2022 or 2023, they added a few extra days that we can take off for family reasons. Family reasons are something important related to your close family or partner,” says Zherukha. “And I thought it was cool, but then I was like ‘Wait, damn, f**king discrimination again!’ They just forgot that there are people who cannot legally register their relationship, so they can’t take that leave.”

 




Another prominent law project the Ukrainian queer community is fighting for is criminalizing discrimination, hate crimes, and hate speech. “Queer military often face bullying and discrimination, which also affects their performance at the frontlines. Same thing with veterans and their partners, who are unprotected when they return to civilian life in cities that are not inclusive,” says Potapovych.

 

Legally punishing crimes based on discrimination will practically benefit all Ukrainian LGBTQI+ people, who still largely remain a vulnerable part of society. “A taxi driver recently kicked us out of the car with the words ‘I don’t drive f**gots.’ We got it on video, and as far as I know, he lost his job,” says Sashko Drugli (29), an openly gay influencer and activist.

 

During the Pride March on Sunday, conservative counter-protesters attempted to interrupt the event, which also advocated for the aforementioned laws along with the law for the depathologization of transgender people. According to Sashko Drugli, the counter-protesters position themselves as “family values supporters, who in reality, go against family values.”

 

In less radical cases, Ukrainian conservatives oppose addressing issues that supposedly shift the focus from the ongoing war. They believe that problems, such as equal rights for LGBTQI+ people, divide the society that now, more than ever, needs unity to defeat the common enemy, Russia. Those citizens often use the phrase “It’s not the right time” when voicing their beliefs.

 

“It’s a product of Russian propaganda when it’s not the right time for anything that’s uncomfortable. It’s just a good reason not to do something,” says Zherukha.

 

“It’s not the right time for homophobia. It’s not the right time for transphobia. It’s not the right time for discrimination. It’s not the right time for Russian values. Queer people suffer from psychological, cultural, economic, and political pressure every day,” says Sashko Drugli. “And all of this is happening during a genocide. We not only suffer from the enemy’s attacks and literal destruction, but also from the pressure in our own society. That’s why it is exactly the right time for that.”


Sashko Drugli (on the right) with his boyfriend at the Kyiv Pride March © Sashko Drugli

According to Potapovych, Ukraine must fight for the equal rights of its citizens in order to achieve progress with the EU integration and distance itself from Russian values, one of which is homophobia. In 2023, Russia passed a law that recognizes LGBT people as an extremist movement, which led to prosecutions of any acts regarded as promotion of queer relationships.

 

Nevertheless, it appears that Ukraine is indeed breaking away from Russian influence and moving towards equality. According to the report by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, most Ukrainians share a neutral attitude towards queer people, while the majority of society supports LGBTQI+ military defending the country. Furthermore, over 70% of the population, with a 7% increase in the past two years, believes that queer people should have the same rights as other citizens.

 

Data from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology report for 2024

Potapovych explains that the majority tends to actively support the queer military due to high trust in the army. In 2023, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology reported that 96% of Ukrainians trust the Ukrainian Armed Forces, resulting in a historically unprecedented level of trust in the structure.

 

Nevertheless, Potapovych is optimistic about society’s neutrality. “This position is part of Ukrainian mentality, to which it is important how the person acts, not who they are,” he explains. “We, as activists, interpret this percentage of neutral people as potential audiences that we can convince to become allies.”

 

Zherukha and Sashko Drugli also agree that democratic values should not necessarily come naturally to a society that has for a long time been under the influence of Russian conservatism. “I will not be scared of my co-citizens. We need to work with them,” says Sashko Drugli.

 

“It is important for me to understand what happened in someone’s life when they are so aggressive to a certain group of people. Especially if I am part of that group,” says Zherukha. “I don’t believe that they must themselves realize and embody the true idea of democracy. It doesn’t work like that.”

 

Just like the rest of the country, the Ukrainian queer movement highly relies on the help of the international community. However, activists now see a decline in international support.



“Western queer community is one of the key audiences for our organization [LGBTIQ+ Military and Veterans for Equal Rights] because we see a high percentage of apolitical organizations and members of the community, who are vulnerable to Russian fake news,” explains Potapovych.

 

“Our task is to show that Ukraine has a whole variety of queer organizations, one of which is LGBTIQ+ Military. We have open members of LGBTQI+ community, unlike Russia,” he adds. “And even during such tragedy as the full-scale war, we still raise the question of same-sex partnerships.”

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