Ukrainian soldiers Oleksandr Zhygan, 37, and Antonina Romanova, 37, who are a couple say goodbye before leaving for the front. In the past year, queer people have achieved unprecedented visibility in the military as Ukraine fights to preserve its sovereignty. | Edgar Su/Reuters
J. Lester Feder is a journalist and senior fellow with the global LGBTIQ organization Outright International, which is supporting 27 queer organizations in Ukraine through the war.
KYIV — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized Ukrainian society in many unexpected ways, but perhaps one of the most remarkable is how it has advanced the rights of LGBTQ people.
On Tuesday, in a move that would have been nearly unthinkable a year ago, a Ukrainian lawmaker introduced legislation in the country’s parliament that would give partnership rights to same-sex couples. This legislation, along with a prohibition against anti-LGBTQ hate speech abruptly adopted in December, reflects a sharp rejection of Russia’s effort to weaponize homophobia in support of its invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that he attacked Ukraine last year partly to protect “traditional values” against the West’s “false values” that are “contrary to human nature” — code for LGBTQ people. Perhaps he hoped this would rally conservative Ukrainians to Russia’s side — it’s a tactic Kremlin allies have tried repeatedly over the past decade. But this time, it instead appears to be convincing a growing number of Ukrainians to support equality and reject the values Putin espouses.
I’ve traveled to Ukraine and neighboring countries three times in the past year, and I’ve seen firsthand how queer people have achieved unprecedented visibility as Ukraine fights to preserve its sovereignty. Ukraine’s military has more out queer soldiers than ever before, and their stories are reaching a broad audience thanks in large part to the social media of a Ukrainian group called “LGBTIQ Military” and a Ukrainian news media that’s sympathetically covering queer peoples’ contributions to the war effort. Dozens of LGBTQ organizations across Ukraine have transformed themselves into humanitarian relief groups, assisting the displaced and providing food, medicine and other resources to people affected by the fighting.
As LGBTQ people have demonstrated their commitment to defending Ukraine’s democracy, public opinion has rapidly grown more supportive of reforms to fully recognize their rights as citizens.
Queer soldiers, who have come out in record numbers amidst the fighting, have been particularly influential in changing broader public opinion. As Inna Sovsun, the member of parliament who authored the partnership legislation, told me, they “give visibility and legitimacy to the claims for equal treatment by the community itself.” They make the case that, “we want equal treatment, because we’re serving in the military equally.’”
I could not have imagined the LGBTQ movement building such momentum when I first visited Ukraine as a reporter in 2013. Ukraine was then on the verge of consummating its long-negotiated “association agreement” with the European Union, a step Russian President Vladimir Putin bitterly opposed. As the deadline to sign the agreement approached, an oligarch close to Putin funded a campaign with billboards reading, “Association with EU means same-sex marriage.” Anti-EU protesters dubbed the EU “Gayropa.”
This effort failed to dissuade Ukrainians from a European path. When Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, tried to call off the EU deal at the last moment, pro-European protesters revolted, taking to the streets across Ukraine until a new government was installed and moved ahead with the deal. (This became known as the Revolution of Dignity, or the Maidan, after the square where the protests were centered.) LGBTQ activists across the country were integral to this movement, reflecting both their aspirations for their country and the belief that becoming a European democracy would advance LGBTQ rights. When Russia responded to the revolution with bloodshed — seizing Crimea and backing puppet armies in the eastern Donbas region — LGBTQ people stepped up to support the Ukrainian military fighting for the country’s autonomy.
But Ukrainians and their leaders did not immediately recognize LGBTQ people’s contribution to the fight for democracy, nor that true democracy required LGBTQ equality.
At the time, Ukraine’s new lawmakers refused to comply with a standard requirement for countries seeking closer ties with the EU, to adopt legislation banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The EU bent its rules to move ahead with the process anyway, allowing the Ukrainian government to later quietly ban employment discrimination with an administrative order that required no vote in parliament. When activists planned an LGBTQ pride march in Kyiv in 2014, Mayor Vitaly Klitschko used the fight with Russian-backed forces in the country’s east to argue a pride parade would be inappropriate “when battle actions take place and many people die.”
As Ukrainian activists organized new pride parades in city after city over the last decade, many have been met with hostility from city leaders, violence, or both. This was in part just a reflection of the times — anti-LGBTQ policies still prevailed in much of Europe, especially in the eastern part of the continent. But anti-LGBTQ propaganda coming out of Russia also swayed many Russian-speakers in the region, and this messaging gained moral legitimacy from anti-LGBTQ religious leaders.
But the past decade has also seen Ukrainians standing firm in their commitment to democracy, and a growing understanding that this includes protections for fundamental rights.
There was an explosion of organizing by LGBTQ people in the years that followed the Revolution of Dignity, and some slow advances were made. But it’s been the stories of queer Ukrainians fighting and dying in the war with Russia that have truly helped other Ukrainians to see them as full citizens.
Ukraine’s current LGBTQ rights debate is unprecedented; never before has a country under siege had such visibly out soldiers who have so few formal rights under their own country’s laws. LGBTQ rights supporters have successfully framed the question on same-sex partnership as whether Ukraine will recognize LGBTQ people as equal citizens, which has become the norm throughout much of the European Union, as well as North and South America. They are successfully flipping the proposition that, as one Ukrainian politician once infamously put it, that “a gay cannot be a patriot.”
In fact, as Ukrainian patriotism has increasingly become defined as opposition to Russia, Putin deserves some credit for growing support for LGBTQ rights in Ukraine.
“I actually think that the Russians did a good job in terms of raising awareness and changing attitudes towards the LGBT community in Ukraine,” Sovsun told me in an interview. “The more Russia insists on [homophobia] being a part of their state policy, the more rejection of this policy [there] is from inside Ukraine.”
The aspiration of many Ukrainians to join the European Union has also helped move more Ukrainians to become supportive of queer peoples’ rights, as Ukraine attempts to define itself as a European democracy in contrast to Russian autocracy. A study conducted last May by the Ukrainian LGBTQ organization “Nash Svit” and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found nearly 64 percent of Ukrainians said queer people should have equal rights. Even among respondents who said they had a “negative” view of LGBTQ people, nearly half said they still supported equal rights.
The current push for same-sex partnership rights began with a school teacher from Zaporizhzha named Anastasia Andriivna Sovenko. In June, Sovenko registered a petition with Ukraine’s government demanding same-sex couples be granted partnership rights. It said simply, “At this time, every day can be the last. Let people of the same sex get the opportunity to start a family and have an official document to prove it. They need the same rights as traditional couples.”
Sovenko said she was inspired to file the petition after reading a story about different-sex couples getting married before one partner went off to war. It felt unfair to her that queer people couldn’t take the same step to protect their rights. Signatures quickly poured in, stunning even Sovenko herself.
Signature collections got a major boost when a Facebook user named Leda Kosmachevska wrote a widely shared post announcing she was marrying a gay friend in the army to safeguard his wishes if he dies because his partner of 15 years has no rights under Ukrainian law.
“This is me [honoring] his last will, and I will meet him first when he returns victorious,” she wrote. “I’m going to be a military wife. Not because I love him, but because the president of my country, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has not yet responded to the request of society expressed in a legal way by signing a petition for single-sex marriage.”
Under Ukrainian law, the president is required to formally respond to any petition that gets 25,000 signatures, and the partnership petition quickly cleared that threshold. But in a sign that the politics of the issue remains complicated, Zelenskyy ruled out full marriage rights in his response, arguing that this required a constitutional change that could not be carried out under the rules of martial law. Instead, he punted to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to examine the creation of civil unions. His language implied support, but he stopped short of using presidential powers to make it a reality.
“Every citizen is an inseparable part of civil society, he is entitled to all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in the referral.
Sovsun believes her partnership legislation still faces an uphill battle in Ukraine’s parliament. Ukraine’s churches — including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2018 and has supported the country’s pro-European movement — still remain a powerful source of opposition to LGBTQ equality.
Recognizing this reality, Sovsun said, she has not included full adoption rights in her legislation. She also has prepared a backup bill, which would only open civil partnerships to people serving in the military, hoping even opponents of LGBTQ rights will not be able to say no to legislation benefiting people serving on the front lines.
Sovsun said she believes the push for partnership recognition and LGBTQ rights in general is part of a broader debate that’s playing out beneath Ukraine’s unified front against Russian aggression. It’s clear what Ukrainians stand against — Russian domination — but there isn’t total agreement on what Ukraine is fighting for.
“I think what we are fighting for is also a matter of political debate,” Sovsun said. “There is the general consensus … that we’re fighting for liberal democracy where human rights are respected…. But the devil is always in the details, right? Does that liberal democracy goal include same-sex marriages or not?”
Establishing same-sex partnership rights, she said, is an important step for “Ukraine to be perceived as a Western democracy.”