What is the situation facing LGBTQ folks in Ukraine — and how can we help?
Ukrainian-Canadian playwright Andrew Kushnir has been amplifying and advocating for queer and trans Ukrainians
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
The situation facing LGBTQ people in Ukraine as the invasion by Russian forces continues is both horrifying and complex. But as much as it may feel too exhausting or too heartbreaking to process, it's important for us as a global community to stay informed — and do what we can to help. And queer Ukrainian-Canadian playwright Andrew Kushnir has been doing everything he can to assist us.
Kushnir grew up in a "very, very thorough Ukrainian context," with his grandfather having fled Soviet oppression for Canada.
"I feel very connected to it all and I just needed to move that into, I suppose, some form of storytelling, which is what I do," Kushnir says. "I'm not an activist by training. All I felt I could do was tell the story and hope that the story would bring some particulars to war, genocide, atrocity. These are these monoliths, and we can kind of lose ourselves in them and start feeling as though it's all too big; it's insurmountable; it's incomprehensible. And I wanted to make it understandable on a real human scale."
"For me, the human scale is — are these queer friends of mine who had a number of particular threats that they had to contend with?"
Kushnir is one of many Ukrainian-Canadians in the arts advocating or organizing on behalf of Ukraine right now. He began posting concise, shareable information about the situation facing LGBTQ Ukrainians and why they need our support on his social media.
"Of course, there's this sort of unified threat, the threat of the Russian aggressor, and everybody is undergoing that in Ukraine," Kushnir says. "But what I was also seeing is that my queer friends were specifically navigating the martial law that was put in place. Men between 18 and 60 couldn't leave the country. What does that mean for trans women in particular, who don't have documents that necessarily reflect their gender identity?"
Kushnir says that those mismatching documents were creating these "really harrowing contexts" for trans women. As well, there is the issue of anyone who is requiring medication for living with HIV and/or hormone replacement therapies. As cities are being besieged, those medicines are being cut off to those who critically need them.
Alongside that, Kushnir felt that it was important to highlight acts of resistance and defiance, particularly the fact that there is "this kind of virtual queer division" in the armed forces and in the territorial defence.
"I don't think a lot of people know about that — that there is this initiative," Kushnir explains. "In fact, [soldiers] wear a chevron on their sleeve that is the unicorn. And these are openly queer soldiers and defenders as well as allies. I think there's as many as 150 of them now who are dispersed within the armed forces and the territorial defence, and they're fighting for a country that has not wholly enfranchised them. You know, that has not wholly enshrined their rights, that has not wholly upheld their dignity. And yet they believe so much in Ukraine as a home, a robustly democratic nation. They believe in that idea so much they're willing to lay their lives down on it."
To put this in a little more context, consider that there is no official recognition of same-sex relationships in Ukraine, and same-sex couples are banned from adopting children. A 2021 study by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Ukraine 39th out of 49 European countries in terms of LGBT rights legislation — which is not great.
Kushnir has been traveling to Ukraine since 2011, and has built extensive relationships with many queer and trans activists in the country, particularly with a couple who helped start the organization Gender Zed.
"They opened up their home to me, they shared their activism with me, and I've stayed in close contact with them for a decade now," Kushnir says of the couple. "And I have monitored their incredible work around sensitizing the media to queer realities, to sensitizing police, which is a really, really key part of the story. Homophobic attitudes are still persistent in in the police force, and there's been lots of work to to dismantle that. Also with psychologists — [they've done work] to help psychologists not, you know, diagnose queerness as an illness."
Kushnir says he often draws on a particular memory of the couple to help him get perspective.
"In 2019, my friends at Gender Zed achieved their first Pride parade in their city of Zaporizhia, and they called it '100 metres of Pride,'" he recalls. "I've often told this story and people chuckle or cock their heads a little bit, and I have to explain that it was literally 100 metres because that's all they were safely able to march. City authorities really wanted them to hold their Pride celebration on the outskirts of town, out of view. My friends insisted on doing it in the city centre. And the upshot of that decision was that there were hundreds of police officers that had to surround them to keep them safe from right-wing groups and counter-protests and various forms of hooliganism that tend to descend on Pride events in Ukraine. And so my friends marched 100 metres. And it's an indication of where they're at."
So where do things stand now, and how can we help?
"Right now, I think what we're seeing is that organizations on the ground are being really effective," Kushnir says. "Like Cohort, which is an NGO that specifically works with trans individuals in Ukraine. They currently do have some supply of hormone replacement medicines. They've been able to take care of those that have remained in Ukraine. They've also been able to support safe passage of trans folks across the country. So if you're asking whether giving money to organizations on the ground will actually be useful, I'm going to tell you right now, yes. My friends at Gender Zed have a waiting list of 60 people who write to them with their immediate needs, and there is such a spectrum. Some queer folks have lost their jobs, their homes, their families."
For more information about how you can help specifically, Kushnir has compiled a list of resources.
"I implore everybody to just find a way into this and to stay in this because it's going to be a while yet," Kushnir says. "There will be an incredible rebuilding that has to happen. And I even have queer activists saying to me, 'Yes, please give now, but please, please also give tomorrow.'"
Kushnir reached out to a few folks on the ground in Ukraine, asking them to offer messages to us for this story. Here's a selection of what they told us (quotes have been edited and condensed).
A representative from Cohort NGO, a trans rights organization, shared some hopeful developments, as well as the realities they face going forward:
And an activist implored everyday people to find ways they can help: