A Russian Occupation Would Be Devastating for LGBTQ Ukrainians

For the LGBTQ community, Ukraine was far from a utopia, but the country falling under Russian control would likely decimate any progress that has been made, making activists targets and forcing many into hiding.

Ukraine, a largely Orthodox Christian country, has made slow progress on LGBTQ rights, but it's no longer a crime to be homosexual and the country has moved towards socially accepting the LGBTQ community. However, activists worry that could be undone with a Russian occupation because life has already changed for LGBTQ community members in Crimea and the Donbas, two Russian-controlled areas.

"We see how the situation is under occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region," Olena Shevchenko, leader of the LGBTQ organization Insight, told Newsweek. "Nobody wants to live like the Donbas region right now."

Nearly 2 million people have already fled Ukraine in the two weeks since the invasion started and Shevchenko said she knows many members of the LGBTQ community left the country. That includes many people who have children and are concerned their kids could be at risk if Russia invades.

Same-sex couples in Russia are not allowed to adopt children so some couples register as single parents to start a family, use a surrogate or sperm donor. However, they run the risk of having a visit from a state investigator and their children being taken away from them.

"I know people who live in Russia," Shevchenko said. "They always fear that somebody will come and take their children out of the family."

Ukraine russia occupation LGBTQ rights
Russia occupying Ukraine could devastate the progress Ukraine has made for LGBTQ rights. A man holds an Rainbow flag during an anti-transphobia rally in Kiev on November 23, 2019. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

While identifying as LGBTQ is no longer outlawed in Russia, the country holds strict views on non-heterosexual lifestyles. The "gay propaganda" law, passed in 2013, makes it illegal to promote "nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors. Broadly interpreted, the law has been used to shut down websites and block LGBTQ groups from working with teens, as well as, banning equating same-sex and heterosexual relations and promoting gay rights.

In 2012, the Moscow city government banned gay pride parades for 100 years and Russia formally banned same-sex marriage in 2021.

"Ukraine is a European country. We have a 10-year history of Pride marches, and as you know, in Russia, the situation is like opposite," Edward Reese, project assistant for Kyiv Pride, told CBS News. "We have totally different paths. ... We see the changes in people's thoughts about human rights, LGBTQ, feminism and so on. ... So definitely we don't want anything connected to Russia ... and we won't have them."

Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality in 1991 and in 2015, the labor laws were amended to ban discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. While the country still has significant progress to make, Shevchenko told Newsweek that it's "more or less possible to live and be open and proud" of your identity in Ukraine.

Gay marriage is still not legal in Ukraine, but Iulia, an 18-year-old law student in Ukraine, told CBS News she believes the country is moving that way. If Russia were to take control of the city, it would likely squash those hopes.

After the illegal annexation of Crimea, the territory's most senior official, Sergei Aksyonov, said Crimea does "not need such people," in reference to the LGBTQ community. He added that if the LGBTQ community tries to hold public gatherings, the "police and self-defense forces will react immediately and in three minutes will explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to."

Ukrainians in Donetsk also saw crackdowns on their rights after fighting broke out in 2014. The first edition of the Donetsk People's Republic constitution banned same-sex relationships, according to Hromadske international, a digital broadcasting station based in Ukraine.

Although the LGBTQ community doesn't have the recognition activists are fighting for, their lives are "much better than it is in Russia," according to Shevchenko. In 2020, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's government proposed hate crime legislation to cover the LGBTQ community and shortly into his presidency, he shouted down an anti-gay heckler.

"Won't say anything bad about gay people to you, because we are living in a free society. Leave those people alone, for God's sake!" Zelensky said.

In February, the United States sent a letter to the United Nations that Russia had a "kill list" of Ukrainians to be attacked or detained if Russian forces invaded. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC's Today that the war would aim to "repress" and "crush" the Ukrainian people.

The "kill list" included journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTQ Ukrainians.

Shevchenko, a vocal LGBTQ activist, fears that she and others in similar positions as him will be the "first to be targeted" in the event Russia takes control of the country. However, she chooses to think optimistically.

"I prefer to believe that we will win somehow and that we can go back to our homes," Shevchenko said. "I believe, I hope, that those places will be there."