As Russia Attacks Ukraine's Western Values, LGBTQ+ People Stand as a Target

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sent shock waves of uncertainty through its western neighbor. If Putin ultimately prevails, what remnants of Western freedoms would remain intact is unknown. But one thing is clear: The rights of the nation's LGBTQ+ population would come under fire.

Although not an international leader in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights, Ukraine has taken significant steps over the past decade to better the lives of its queer citizens. In 2015 it implemented anti-discrimination employment laws, and in 2016 it began allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood, all part of an effort to become a more equitable state.

In contrast, Russia has moved in the opposite direction. In 2013, it banned same-sex couples from adopting Russian children, and in 2020 it outlawed same-sex marriage. The Kremlin has also cracked down on the ability of LGBTQ+ activists to organize, and has permitted law enforcement in the Chechnya region to carry out violent campaigns against the community.

"There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the Ukrainian people generally, but particularly marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+ community," Democratic Congressman David Cicilline, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairs the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, told Newsweek.

"Vladimir Putin commonly makes references to LGBTQ+ people not being welcome in Russia and other disparaging comments about the community," he added, "so it's a very big difference."

"LGBT activists usually are the same people who care about human rights," Bogan Globa of the nonprofit LGBTQ Ukrainians in America told Newsweek. Ukraine has made strides in recent years in promoting LGBTQ+ rights, advancements that could be under threat following the Russian invasion. Here, an activist waves a rainbow flag as police officers walk by during a protest for LGBTQ+ rights in front of the Ukrainian president's office in Kiev on July 30, 2021. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Cicilline notes that many of Ukraine's pro-LGBTQ+ actions in recent years are part of a promotion of democratic values designed to make it a more attractive candidate for NATO membership. Last November, the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership that "confirmed the importance" of advancing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Prior to signing this declaration, Cicilline said Ukraine had for years been building up its LGBTQ+ civil society and promoting the community's public visibility through providing protection against opposition groups who looked to disrupt Pride events.

Bogdan Globa, who heads the nonprofit LGBTQ Ukrainians in America, fears the individuals who've spent years fighting for these advancements could become Putin's first targets.

"LGBT activists usually are the same people who care about human rights," Globa told Newsweek. "They are people who work locally but travel internationally to speak with media."

He added a chilling warning.

"Russia will kill them," he said, "because after they will take over Ukraine, they will need to install their puppet government to control territory, and human rights activists are the people who prevent that control."

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Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) warns that LGBTQ+ activists in Ukraine could face persecution. Here, he speaks at the Equality Wins reception hosted by the Human Rights Campaign at The Mayflower Hotel on January 03, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Globa has spoken with activists on the ground in Ukraine, who told him they feel afraid and helpless. Most do not want to leave their homeland, but those who do are facing a difficult journey. Cicilline affirmed that the persecution of queer activists is a real concern, and argued that the U.S. must take action to combat this threat by passing the Global Respect Act (GRA).

Sponsored by Cicilline last May, the GRA would impose visa-blocking sanctions on individuals responsible for or complicit in violating the human rights of other people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics. The bill passed the House on February 9, picking up six Republicans votes as well as those of every Democrat present that day. It now awaits passage in the Senate.

Cicilline said the measure would be an effective tool in cracking down on Russians who perpetrate violence against LGBTQ+ Ukrainians. He emphasized that the federal government must continue to work with members of civil society who collaborate with LGBTQ+ organizations on the ground to ensure that America can provide continual assistance for queer Ukrainians as the situation develops.

"We have a well-established track record of standing up for freedom and human rights around the world," Cicilline told Newsweek.

"I hope that we will continue to be a place where these individuals who are leaving Ukraine because of fears about being tortured or imprisoned or killed because their membership in the LGBTQ community can come and find comfort and refuge," he added.