For years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Ukraine have fought to be recognized as equal members of society.
But now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion imperils Ukraine’s very existence—and amid fears that LGBT activists are on a Russian kill list the U.S. intelligence community exposed in recent days—international organizations are working to protect LGBT Ukrainians who are working to save a country that has not yet accepted them as full citizens.
“The main fear at this moment is that if they will be successful, that we lose everything that we have,” said Jul Sirous, the volunteer coordinator of KyivPride, which organizes Ukraine’s annual Equality March and works to expand LGBT equality in the country, often at great personal risk to its members. “Unfortunately, if this city will be occupied like other cities, then there will be some persecution against LGBT people.”
Speaking on a Zoom call from Kyiv, where she had gone three days without sleep as Russian forces closed in, Sirous told The Daily Beast while some are seeking safe haven in Western Europe, many LGBT Ukrainians are preparing to square off against the would-be occupiers.
“I know a lot of LGBT people who go to our army now,” Sirous said. “They try to fight and it’s also our main message that we try to be one united nation and we try to do everything to make sure that Russia will be defeated.”
But if Putin’s forces overtake Kyiv, those who remain might be at particular risk of persecution, the U.S. intelligence community warned in recent days. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva has sent a letter describing Russia’s so-called kill list to the U.N. human rights chief, warning that Russia has plans to kill or round up journalists, activists, minorities, dissidents, and LGBT Ukrainians in camps.
The list is purportedly part of Putin’s plan to occupy a country and eliminate resistance after invasion, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in a recent interview on NBC News’ Today.
The threat of a Russian takeover in Ukraine poses a particular risk to LGBT Ukrainians, experts told The Daily Beast. Putin has long fashioned himself as a warrior for traditional family values at home, which has led to harsh crackdowns on LGBT people in Russia—most notably with the passage of the “gay propaganda” law in 2013 that effectively made it illegal to advocate for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Russians.
Putin has leveraged his broader sphere of influence to allow for extreme forms of persecution against LGBT people, too. In Chechnya, the Kremlin has tacitly endorsed state-sponsored arrest, torture, and murder of LGBT Chechens in exchange for the loyalty of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Already in Ukraine, according to a Nash Svit report, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion in eastern Ukraine in 2014, LGBT Ukrainians have faced numerous instances of violence and imprisonment by Russian-backed forces in the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a territory in eastern Ukraine Putin recognized in order to claim a justification to invade.
In a lengthy tirade last week announcing the invasion, Putin cited supposed efforts by the West “to destroy our traditional values and impose their pseudo-values on us, which would corrode us, our people, from within.”
To Andriy Maymulakhin, the coordinator of LGBT non-profit Nash Svit, that line was proof that Putin’s war “is not about dividing the spheres of influence,” but “a war of civilizations”—one of which is founded in homophobia and transphobia.
Still, multiple experts on Russia’s past ill-treatment of LGBT people tamped down the possibility of “kill lists” explicitly targeting high-profile LGBT Ukrainians, however, telling The Daily Beast that the assertion doesn’t seem to comport with Russia’s current brand of homophobic oppression.
Some expressed concerns that rumors of “kill lists” could spread panic.
“My initial reaction was that this [kill list] seems far-fetched and does not align with Russia’s approach to LGBT issues,” one authority on international LGBT rights told The Daily Beast, speaking anonymously in order to be candid about the diplomat’s letter. “Russia has used LGBT rights instrumentally for domestic political gain, and geopolitically as the defender of ‘traditional values,’ a shorthand for Putin’s broader grievances with the West.”
Even so, it’s up to Western governments to make it clear that anyone in Putin’s circle associated with a kill list will not go unpunished.
“I think [the U.S.] and European allies should be signaling really clearly and publicly that they’re collecting intelligence and they’re continuing to collect intelligence related to all the kinds of activities that constitute war crimes that are being ordered and are being carried out,” David Kaye, the former United Nations special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
“Everybody who’s in the military chain of command in Russia—you need to know we are watching.”
For many LGBT Ukrainians, the risk of potential persecution is too high a risk to stay.
“Hate crimes, attacks, intimidation of LGBTQI activists are already common in Ukraine—a potential Russian invasion could result in more extreme violence and persecution of LGBTQI people there,” said Sebastian Rocca, founder and CEO of Micro Rainbow, a nonprofit that runs safe houses in the United Kingdom for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. “It is likely that LGBTQI people might need to move or to hide.”
LGBT people are generally at particular risk during military conflicts and moments of government instability, often facing violence or exploitation as they seek refuge, and potential persecution if they remain. That dynamic has been repeated over and over in global crises in recent years, from LGBT Hondurans who had to flee a migrant caravan, to LGBT people working to avoid “a death sentence” at the hands of the Taliban last summer.
“Ukraine is just the latest example of a crisis situation that could create fallout for LGBTQI+ individuals,” said Dane Bland, director of development and communications at Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian nonprofit that helps LGBT people escape violence in their home countries, noting that the six months since the fall of Kabul have seen horrifying incidents of violence against LGBT people in Afghanistan. “So far governments’ responses to crises such as these have been reactionary and, as it stands right now in Afghanistan, inadequate.”
To many human rights workers who spoke with The Daily Beast, the failure of Western governments to adequately assist LGBT Afghans in the wake of the Taliban’s conquest of the country last summer is a cautionary example of what could happen in Ukraine.
“The frustration that NGOs had with the slow speed of the U.S. government and the State Department’s reaction to refugees who were queer fleeing Afghanistan is probably emblematic of the problem,” said Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, which advocates for LGBT people in the American immigration system. “It will be similar, I think, to the situation in Ukraine: we have a great capacity to accept and to assist people fleeing persecution, and we have, I think, a moral obligation to really focus on those who are the most vulnerable and who need immediate alteration.”
“Hopefully,” Morris said, “LGBTQ people are squarely within that population.”
The State Department did not return a request for comment for this story.
“Our suggestion for the U.S. government—or any government—would be to reach out to the local LGBTQI organizations and regional ones ASAP… and to strategize together on the best way forward for both those LGBTQI people who need to leave and those who cannot,” Rocca said.
For LGBT people choosing to stay in Ukraine, Sirous said, the hope for now is first to force back the Russians. And then—if Ukraine is able to survive the greatest threat to its existence since its modern founding—that fellow citizens see their LGBT neighbors fought for their home and that they be treated like equal citizens of a country they helped save.
“We didn’t run in this very important moment—we stayed,” Sirous said.
“It’s very important for all Ukrainians—if we still are Ukraine, after this moment—I hope that our people will see us as equal. That’s why we fight, that’s why we always fight. We’re still fighting.”