LGBTIQ+ representatives within the Ukrainian army are rarely portrayed. In 2018, Viktor Pylypenko, an openly gay veteran of the Donbas Volunteer Battalion, decided to change that by forming LGBT Military, a union of military, veterans and volunteers fighting for equal rights. The idea for the union came after he attended a life-changing exhibition. Here’s how came it about, together with the stories of two other soldiers from LGBTIQ+ community that the union has helped to support.
‘We were here’
Around 330,000 Ukrainians have taken part in the Ukraine government’s military operation against Russia-led militants in the east of the country since 2014, but there is no public information about how many of them are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is what motivated We Were Here, a Kyiv-born photography project featuring members of Ukraine forces from diverse gender and sexual orientations. The pictures were taken by Anton Shebetko, a Ukrainian artist and photographer who lives in Amsterdam.
“The ‘We Were Here’ project aims to shine a light on the people who are on the one hand modern-day heroes of Ukrainian society and on the other, are being ignored by most of their compatriots,” Shebetko said.
Most of the people in the photographs have their faces covered. One of the soldiers, Viktor Pylypenko, came out during the exhibition, becoming the first openly gay person in Ukraine who was known to take part in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
That moment also marked the beginning of the creation of the LGBTIQ+ Military union, inspiring him to set up the association. The union has been sharing stories of LGBTIQ+ soldiers on its Instagram page to raise awareness and the profile of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other diverse identities within the armed forces. These are the stories of the two people featured on the page.
From life drawing model to liaison officer
Twenty-four-year-old Illia Leontiev serves in the Kyiv territorial defence forces. He wanted to join the army even before the all-out war. On 24 February, Leontiev was planning to work as a life drawing model at a university until the sound of the sirens woke him at 4 am.
“I couldn’t believe this was really happening,” he said. His first reaction was to contact his family and check if they were ok. “Then I packed a bag and started thinking about what to do next,” he recalled.
Leontiev ended up working as a liaison officer in the territorial defence forces. His role is to mend networks, set up antennas, and program walkie-talkies.
“Territorial defence forces are quite different from the army and from what I was expecting. I thought that I would be getting a lot of physical training and a balanced diet but it’s not like that. It was very scary when there was a shelling attack and a missile landed 150 metres away,” Leontiev said.
Before the war, Leontiev frequented a Kyrylivska Street nightclub in Kyiv. The club was known to be very friendly to the LGBTIQ+ community and was subjected to attacks from far-right organisations, which were often aggressive.
Leontiev says that he doesn’t like confrontation and has been choosing his conversation partners and topics carefully.
“I never faced any aggression myself: neither in the territorial defence, nor in day-to-day life. But I know that some people in territorial defence are not LGBTIQ+-friendly,” he said.
Despite some negative experiences faced by his community, Leontiev believes that Ukraine is becoming more tolerant and there is less discrimination.
“It is important to acknowledge that LGBTIQ+ representatives are taking part in the war, too,” he said. “We defend our state exactly the same way that others do. A lot of people have been supporting me, especially after I came out. So, LGBTIQ+ Military serves a very important role.,” Leontiev said.
Leontiev did his masters degree in IT but has neither used his expertise professionally in the past, nor thinks he will in the future. He says that he found the sector too boring and wants to try the porn industry in Budapest instead.
Deputy medical unit head: ‘I did not start accepting myself fully until later’
Twenty-six-year-old Ivan Gonzyk says that it’s high time that Ukrainians make a decisive move towards accepting the LGBTIQ+ community.
“We are close to being accepted in the European Union. We are not in Russia. Here in Ukraine, we are not a homophobic country,” Gonzyk said. “Everyone stands together at this difficult time: regardless if they’re queer or straight. They volunteer together, they join the armed forces of Ukraine. This should unite us and bring an end to all the misunderstanding.”
Gonzyk attended a medical college in Henichesk in the Kherson region, which has been occupied by the Russian army since 27 February. He then moved to Kharkiv where he worked as a model. In 2015, he signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
That’s how he ended up working as a military doctor in the ATO zone (the zone where the Ukrainian government carried out its military operation against Russia-led militants -ed.), in Bakhmut of the Donetsk region.
Gonzyk has now joined his territorial defence force. “My responsibility is to direct soldiers to the hospital, to teach tactical medicine, to supply soldiers with medicines, and coordinate the work of other military medics,” he said.
Gonzyk did not reveal his sexual orientation straight away. “I did not talk about it,” he said. “I did not start accepting myself fully until a little later. When I totally accepted myself, I understood what felt comfortable for me and how to present myself to society. My life in this world has become a lot better.”
After Gonzyk moved to Kyiv and before the war started, he continued with his modelling career, learnt make-up art and pole dancing. When the war is over, he plans to resume his solo performances, including in the high-heels genre.
There are many legal difficulties in the life of same-sex couples in Ukraine. They relate to marriage, the right to have and adopt children, the right to share property, the right to visit your partner in the intensive care unit, take part in their funeral ceremony and be part of their will. All these are the privileges that currently only straight people can enjoy.
Life for the LGBTIQ+ community is no better in Russia. There is a “gay propaganda” law in force in the country, (the law is “aimed at protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values” – effectively denying them the right to information about gender or sexual diversity - ed.) and LGBTIQ+ people in Chechnya are being harrassed and killed. Gonzyk says he does not feel sorry for the Russians.
“After what they did to our land and even after seeing an LGBTIQ+ representative in their army, I do not have any compassion for them, even in relation to their anti-LGBTIQ+ laws,” he said.
“They chose their government and are continuing to dance to the government's tune. Our main role is to get this junk out of our Ukrainian territories and stop them from creating their laws on our land. When they’re on their own land, they can do whatever they want,” Gonzyk added.
LGBTIQ+ community still marginalised in Ukrainian society
Though sexual diversity in Ukraine is not outlawed (it's legal since independence in 1991), the LGBITQ+ community have long been under stigma and marginalised. In the past month alone, Ukrainians have heard hate speech towards LGBITQ+ community from at least two public figures.
Earlier this month, singer and Ukrainian jury member of Eurovision Irina Fedishin said that there were many members of the LGBT community among the Eurovision participants, so it was difficult for her to watch the show, calling LGBTIQ+ representatives “sinners”.
The other case occurred earlier with the mayor of the Ukrainian city Ivano-Frankivsk. Speaking at the March for Life and Family Values at the beginning of May, Ruslan Martsinkiv said, that “a gay man cannot be a patriot, only a Christian can be a patriot”. Both figures have been criticised publicly for their words.
A recent study by the UN found “many transgender people and some intersex people in Ukraine do not have identification documents with gender markers accurately matching their gender identity.”
“In the context of the war, it is particularly problematic for transgender and intersex women who are still often marked as having male gender. They have been therefore refused to pass internal checkpoints or to exit Ukraine, since following their identity documents, they fall under the martial law and military mobilisation of men between the ages of 18 and 60”.
There are few examples of how trans people are faced with the problem of crossing the border. Trans women and singer Zi Faámelu couldn't leave the country in March: this news was reported by different local and international media, from Vice to Rolling Stone. She eventually managed to leave to Germany.
“Although my story is known all over the world, from Italy to Japan, from Turkey to Brazil, I don't want to be remembered as a victim of a hate crime. I am Zi Fáamelu, a human being, a daughter, an artist, and I'm ready for the next chapter of my journey. I choose joy”, — she said on Instagram.