“A brother from our community died today,” read the caption on a viral Instagram post shared by a Ukrainian LGBTQ military group last week.
A silhouetted image of a soldier offering a military salute to a rainbow flag paid tribute to the unnamed man, who “never had time to come out in his lifetime.”
Though publicly closeted, the man was reportedly out to close friends and was known for providing anonymous interviews to the media about his experience as a queer soldier in the Ukrainian military. The news of his life being cut short without him ever being able to ever to fully celebrate his identity served as a grim reminder about the realities faced by Ukraine’s LGBTQ soldiers: The same country that they are willing to take up arms to defend does not provide them the same rights as it does their straight comrades. “Let’s cement the achievements of such anonymous boys and girls who gave their lives for a free Ukraine,” the Instagram post continued, and “legalize the right to marry.”
Ukraine became the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality when it gained independence in 1991. But more than 30 years later, the Eastern European nation still lags on LGBTQ rights and does not provide a legal pathway for state recognition of same-sex partnerships.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought that gap into sharp focus. Partners of LGBTQ Ukrainian soldiers who are wounded—or worse, killed—in action do not have the same rights as their married heterosexual counterparts. Hospital visits, identifying the deceased, or collecting state benefits are all impossible for LGBTQ couples.
In March, however, equal partnership rights inched one step closer to becoming reality. That month, Ukrainian lawmaker Inna Sovsun introduced a bill to parliament that would recognize same-sex civil partnerships and grant LGBTQ civil partners the same rights as their married heterosexual counterparts.
This recent step appears to be part of a larger trend of increasing acceptance toward and rights for LGBTQ Ukrainians since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022. Sovsun said that proposing her legislation “definitely would have taken longer” if not for the war. While the liberal lawmaker has always been a strong advocate for gender and sexuality rights, she believes the recent conflict has brought LGBTQ issues to the fore and increased the likelihood that her bill will be passed.
In the summer of 2022, a petition calling for marriage equality garnered 28,000 signatures, passing the threshold needed to be considered by Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky. (Though the 45-year-old leader said he supported the call for action, he acknowledged that his hands were tied: The Ukrainian constitution defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and cannot be changed during wartime.) In December, Ukraine passed a bill outlawing hate speech against sexual minorities in the media.
All this has transpired as Russian President Vladimir Putin—who has overseen a significant crackdown on LGBTQ rights in his own country—has explicitly justified his invasion of Ukraine in part by invoking its sexual minorities. “Family is the union of a man and a woman,” Putin said in a February address to the Kremlin on the one-year anniversary of the war. Just 12 months earlier, he had argued that the West has “sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us.”
Sovsun believes it is no coincidence that Ukrainians are now showing more tolerance toward the LGBTQ community in the face of Putin’s “extremely homophobic” government. Putin’s position, she argued, seems to have made the conditions for advancing LGBTQ rights in the country less arduous. “People who used to be more friendly toward Russia…they are now saying, ‘if Russia hates gays, then we love gays.’”
This is hardly the first time Putin has appealed to “traditional values” to justify his geopolitical ambitions. During Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in February 2014, Russian state-sponsored media sought to discredit the aspirations of Ukrainian protesters for integration with the European Union by spreading homophobic messaging. Russia’s largest newspaper claimed that demonstrations were being organized by “nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and homosexuals,” and warned about same-sex marriage being imposed on Ukraine if the country joined the EU. Russian media often simply referred to the movement as “Gayromaidan.”
What is different now, said Emil Edenborg, an associate professor of gender studies at Stockholm University who has tracked sexual politics in Russia throughout the 21st century, is that Putin’s anti-LGBTQ stances and rhetoric have only become more radical. “You can clearly see from 2020, 2021, how it really becomes a fixation. When [Putin] speaks, especially when he talks about the war in Ukraine, there is almost always a portion dedicated to ‘traditional values,’” explained Edenborg, adding that this can at times “border on genocidal.”
Putin’s top-down state-sponsored homophobia initially posed a direct threat to Ukraine’s queer community. Just days before Russian tanks rolled across the border in February 2022, Foreign Policy noted that the military would likely carry out targeted attacks on dissidents and sexual minorities in Ukraine. At the time, most experts expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv and most of Ukraine within days.
In a November 2022 report, the Ukrainian human rights organization Nash Svit shared that it had uncovered at least 10 cases where LGBTQ Ukrainians living under Russian occupation in the country’s east had been targeted in anti-gay attacks, which included accusations of rape, sexual violence, imprisonment, assault, theft, and attempted murder.