Coming out during war: Doubled unsafety

Two stories of people who, among other things, have to defend their rights, and whose feeling of unsafety has doubled
11 September 2022
Mara Vavilonskaya

Photo: Paula Bronstein / Mathias Reding. Collage: Mara Vavilonskaya

According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology conducted in May this year, Ukrainians have become more tolerant of the LGBT+ community over the past six years. However, the total number of cases of harassment and homophobic attacks in Ukraine has not decreased over the last year. Some LGBT+ people are forced to come out in war conditions.

The Novy Chas journalist talked to those who, among other things, have to defend their rights, and whose feeling of unsafety has doubled.

Katya’s story

Before the war, Katya lived with her partner Kinder Limo in Lviv. Katya was planning to come out after she turned 18, since she felt that her family would not understand. The girl will come of age in October.

On February 24, Katya’s father called and told her to immediately return home to the Ivano-Frankivsk Region. The couple did not want to split up at such times, so they decided to go to Katya’s parents together.

They lived with Katya’s family for several weeks. Meanwhile, Kinder Limo got the opportunity to go to Berlin, where she was offered a free room. The girls didn’t want to be separated – Katya wanted them to go together. It seemed that the parents didn’t mind, and the girls started packing. But the following day, the father said they weren’t going anywhere, and then invited both of them for a conversation in the evening.

“In my world, woman gives birth, and man cuts wood. Who’s going to chop wood for you, girls?

Courtesy photo
“For most of that conversation, the parents were screaming. My dad took my passport so that I wouldn’t run away”, the girl recalls. Kinder Limo later wrote on her social media that at that moment, she was afraid for herself and Katya because the father was extremely aggressive: “When Katya once again asked to let her go, he said he would kill or maim her if she leaves”.

When her father left the room, Katya, hoping for the mother’s understanding, decided to tell her about her relationship with Kinder Limo, and how important it was for her to leave with someone she loved. “However, it turned out that my parents didn’t care that we were dating. They believed we would find male partners, and everything would be fine”, Katya recounts that conversation. “My mom told us that this was not normal, that this was some kind of trauma”. In her post, Kinder quotes Katya’s mother: “In my world, woman gives birth, and man cuts wood. Who’s going to chop wood for you, girls?”

Katya and her partner Kinder Limo at the Equality March in September 2021, courtesy photo
The day before Kinder Limo left for Berlin, Katya’s grandmother locked the girls in the house and did not let them out to prevent Katya from running away. The woman was also exercised about when they would start looking for boyfriends and even promised to help with this endeavour.

In the end, Katya’s partner went to Berlin alone. The mother accompanied Katya to the train station as she wanted to see off Kinder Limo. This way the mother wanted to make sure her daughter would stay in Ukraine. When the couple hugged goodbye, the mother asked them not to do it, because someone could see and judge them.

After the departure of her partner, Katya felt really bad. The mother promised to take her to a psychologist. “I thought maybe a psychologist could explain to my mother that my orientation is okay”, the girl says, “but my relatives had another plan. My grandfather, a terrible homophobe and cruel conservative, worked as the chief doctor at the hospital and made arrangements with a regional mental hospital. I was taken there. It was terrible”.

Katya and Kinder Limo, photo from social media
According to Katya, nobody was particularly concerned about her condition there:

“I told three different psychologists that I felt bad and stressed, but it didn’t matter to them. As for my orientation, they just said that everything was fine and I would meet someone else, I shouldn’t be worried. I felt horrible, I didn’t eat anything, I was on sedatives, and I was shaking. I either slept for a very long time or wouldn’t sleep at all. In a couple of days, I decided that I would go to Berlin anyway”.

Katya struggled with the decision to run away, she doubted, given how tough it was for her parents. But the girl realised that the war would not end in a week or a month, and, unfortunately, it would not work to live the way she wanted without hiding her true self if she stayed with her parents.

To make the plan work, Katya would take out things in a small backpack every day and hide them in the forest. She managed to find her international passport at home.

On Day X, the girl left early, took the three or four backpacks she had collected in the forest and went to the vehicle that was waiting for her. In advance, she and her partner contacted Rain Dove,  a blogger and model who helps LGBT+ people in difficult situations. He organised transportation first to Warsaw and then to Berlin. It was Rain Dove who then helped make things work with Katya’s mother. When the girl was in Warsaw, Rain agreed with her mother that Katya would call regularly and tell her how she was doing.

Katya and Kinder Limo, courtesy photo
After everything that happened, Katya’s relationship with her parents was very tense in the first months, but she still kept in touch with her mother. With other relatives, it was much more complicated:

“My grandfather used to text me on Telegram every morning, like how could I do this to them, accused me of being a bad daughter and granddaughter. When I was still on my way to Warsaw, he called me and threatened that he would call the police, they would take me away, deport me, and everyone who “stole” me would be put in jail. I didn’t talk to my dad for almost three months until his birthday on May 23, when relations with her mom improved halfway. I called and congratulated him on his birthday, the conversation was quite short, but he asked when I would come to see them”.

According to Katya, since then her parents realised that she would not return and would not be able to communicate with them as long as they acted homophobic. Of course, they have not changed their worldview, but rather accepted the modern times and have become more loyal. “However, they often manipulate our conversations: they say I caused them a lot of problems and accuse me of the fact that we don’t see each other right now. It is very difficult to live with it, all this makes me really depressed”, shares Katya.

In July, Katya and her partner came to visit Katya’s parents in Ukraine. However, they stayed in a hotel not far from home, as they were afraid and did not feel completely safe. Katya’s relatives did not know where the hotel was located. First, she came to see the family alone, and her parents rejoiced. They invited both girls to stay at their house instead of the hotel. Katya and Kinder Limo agreed, although at first, it was strange and a little scary for them. Over time, things have straightened out. “And yet they still ask not to demonstrate that we are a couple in front of other people because I taint the family’s reputation”, the girl notes sadly.

Katya and Kinder Limo, courtesy photo
On the upside, Katya lives the way she wanted: in two months she will turn 18, and the family will not be able to put pressure on her in any way. She dropped out of Lviv University and plans to enrol at a European one. Katya wants to grow as a stand-up comedian and drag king artist, she is also interested in a blogger’s and model’s career. And the girl is already on it. She grew to love Berlin, unlike when she was there in March for the first time and had to go through so many stressful situations. Her partner Kinder Limo has entered a university and is currently living in a dormitory on campus. Katya is looking for an apartment and a job to be able to live with her partner and their two dogs.

Since the beginning of the war, more and more people in the military are coming out: “My name is Boris, I am 35 years old, I am a programmer and bisexual, and since February 24, a machine gunner in the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

“I am Maksim, 22. I was a closeted LGBT+ soldier, and no one knew my story, but now I’m starting to open up and comment on topics related to LGBT+, without being shy or afraid that people will find out about my orientation”.

There are many such publications on the Facebook page “Ukrainian LGBT soldiers and our allies”. This community became the first such organisation in Eastern Europe and now unites LGBT activists with combat experience. It was founded by Viktor Pilipenko, who was the first among the Ukrainian military to come out, thus inspiring many other militaries to do so. However, often coming out is dangerous for a person. Our second story addresses this issue.

Pavel’s story

“With a skewer in his hand, he told me how he served eight years for killing his stepfather”

Pavel is 20 years old. When the war broke out, he served in the army. After the service, he planned to take up psychology and engage in LGBT activism. For six months now, the young man has been fighting in the Ukrainian Armed Forces against Russia. At first, Pavel fought in flashpoint areas near Kyiv, now he is defending the country in the south of Ukraine.

Pavel on service, courtesy photo
Pavel is gay. He did not conceal his orientation on purpose, but also did not shout about it at every corner. There was an incident in the army a few months ago. One of the fellow soldiers found out that Pavel is gay. Pavel was on duty guarding the weapons when that drunk guy with a skewer in his hands came over to confirm his guesswork. Pavel admitted his identity.

“With a skewer in his hand, he told me how he served eight years for killing his stepfather. My weapon was far and I could not reach it, just in case. I tried to calm him down, but it didn’t work. He swelled up, swung a skewer at me and began to beat me indiscriminately. He shouted insults like ‘motherfucker’ and threatened to kill me”, Pavel recalls.

Other fighters came running to the screams and dragged the aggressor away. For Pavel, that situation resulted in cuts on his legs and back, a minor brain injury and a lack of understanding of why someone cares about his orientation when he is fighting against the same enemy and also risking his life. This case was not the only one on service when Pavel encountered verbal homophobia.

After the incident, Pavel always keeps his weapon on him, and just in case he bought a knife. However, the guy is not afraid of such expressions of homophobia, because there is a greater fear:

“My only fear is to die without seeing my family. Homophobia is no longer a big deal for me! The more people dare to talk about it, the fewer misunderstandings and less homophobia there will be”, assumes the military.

What does the law say?

There is currently no legislation in Ukraine that could toughen penalties for hate crimes.

Draft laws aimed at combating discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, have previously been considered but never adopted. Human rights activists believe that this is due to the large religious conservative lobby that has been implanted in the Ukrainian parliament.

Another proof of this was the petition on the President’s website to legalize same-sex marriage in Ukraine. It collected over 25,000 signatures required for the petition to be considered by the president. Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that it is forbidden to make changes to the Ukrainian constitution during wartime, but one can consider registering civil unions or partnerships. The Ukrainian president instructed the Cabinet of Ministers to draft a bill on this topic.

Taisia Gerasimova. Courtesy photo

Taisia Gerasimova, communications manager for the Insight NGO in Ukraine, commented to Novy Chas that the Ukrainian president had only indicated that he was not against it. “However, he shifted all responsibility to the Cabinet of Ministers and did not name the exact deadline when this draft law should be considered by deputies, the commission and so on”, the expert pointed out. “In 2018, human rights and LGBT organisations tried to help the Cabinet and drafted such a bill. But in the end, it was passed from one ministers’ cabinet on to another for several years and then sank in there altogether”.

Taisia also emphasized that the introduction of partnerships is a misconception used to avoid solving the marriage issue and giving equal rights to all Ukrainians. Moreover, “partnership” does not provide the rights that married people have. Human rights activists are concerned that the partnership bill may not regulate the adoption or joint custody of children. And this is a very important point, especially in times of war.

“Also, the default status of ‘partnership’ implies coming out. After all, if someone learns that you are ‘partnered’, you are 100% homosexual, while if a person is ‘married’, the options are not limited”, Taisia adds.

What about Belarus?

On 1 March 1994, homosexual relations were decriminalized in Belarus: Article 119 of the Criminal Code “Homosexuality” was abolished. However, this is virtually the only thing that has been done for LGBT+ people within the legal framework. There is no anti-discrimination legislation in our country.

Belarus has no legal instruments to protect LGBT+ persons and the state machine of the current government has been repressing anyone associated with LGBT+ people for many years.

For example, in a commentary to Deutsche Welle in February this year, Daria, an activist of the Identity and Law initiative group, described how, starting in 2014, police officers started coming to gay parties, where they illegally identified everyone present, often humiliating and insulting them. According to Daria, the police also collect trans and gay people’s profiles in a database because they are “potentially prone to criminal activity”.

At the same time, the state media produces a lot of homophobia, discrimination and violence against LGBT+ persons. Any attempt by LGBT+ activists to influence and change the situation for the better is suppressed.

What can be done?

Three steps to making the world a less homophobic place and helping people avoid concealing their identity

One: Be tolerant of the people around you.

Two: Raise awareness about the LGBT community, both your own and that of others. For example, we recommend a virtual tour of the Ukrainian Acceptance Museum. There you can learn the stories of parents who have accepted their children’s homosexuality and coming-out stories of LGBT people. You might want to then share your new knowledge with friends or family over tea.

This article was originally published here
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