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LGBTQ refugees fleeing Ukraine draw on European network of allies to find housing, medical care

A network of activists and organizations in neighbouring countries and across Europe have sprung into action to support LGBTQ people fleeing the war in Ukraine, facilitating access to queer-friendly housing, transportation and medical care.

LGBTQ Ukrainians face risks at borders but have been welcomed by LGBTQ community in neighbouring countries

People in Kyiv, Ukraine, take part in the Equality March, organized by the LGBQ community in September 2021. A network of LGBTQ activists and organizations have sprung into action in recent weeks to support LGBTQ people fleeing the Russian invasion. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

When Edward Reese, a queer activist who works with Kyiv Pride, decided to flee Ukraine on March 8, he knew it was going to be a long journey.

After leaving his home and walking for an hour in the freezing cold to the nearest working subway station, spending "one hell of a night" in a bomb shelter, catching a day-long bus ride to Lviv, and being escorted by aid workers to the Poland-Ukraine border, Reese was finally able to set foot in a small Polish border town.

"We slept for like an hour or two in the morning in this big, big hall with tons of other people on these makeshift beds," said Reese in an interview with CBC News from Warsaw last week.

A few hours later, he took a bus to Warsaw, where a local LGBTQ advocacy group connected him with queer-friendly hosts who could temporarily house him.

The whole journey took more than two days.

Although Poland has limited the rights of LGBTQ people in recent years, Reese, who is non-binary and uses he/him pronouns, said he feels safe in the country. But that's largely because he was quickly welcomed and aided by Poland's LGBTQ community.

Edward Reese is a queer activist that recently fled Ukraine and is staying with hosts in Poland. He says he has had a warm welcome by the local LGBTQ community. (Submitted by Edward Reese)

"Poland is not necessarily the best country for LGBTQ people to live," said Julia Maciocha, chairwoman of Warsaw Pride, one of the organizations helping connect queer and gender-diverse refugees to appropriate resources.

"So, we created a database of people that we know that are part of the community so we can match them with people that are in need of safe shelter."

Limiting LGBTQ rights

Since Russia invaded Ukraine just over two weeks ago, more than 3 million people have fled, with more than 1.7 million of them arriving in neighbouring Poland. 

A network of activists and organizations have sprung into action to support those among the refugees who are LGBTQ, facilitating access to safe, queer-friendly housing, transportation and medical care.

"I was almost crying because European organizations like Warsaw Pride, like Budapest Pride, they reached out to us like in the first day of the war, offering their help, offering shelter, offering transportation from the border," said Lenny Emson, executive director of Kyiv Pride.

"This is … a very good feeling that really helps us to survive through this time."

Some of the neighbouring countries refugees have to pass through have become hostile to LGBTQ people in recent years.

In Hungary, Radio-Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that in 2020, lawmakers amended the country's constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual union and allow only married couples to adopt, de facto barring same sex couples from adopting. It also limited the gender on legal and identification documents to the one assigned at birth.

WATCH | Refugees continue to stream into neighbouring countries: 

2.8 million people have fled Ukraine, more than half to Poland, UN says

5 months ago
Duration 3:48
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that nearly 2.8 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. About 1.7 million of those went to Poland.

In Poland, same-sex marriage is not legally recognized and adoption by same-sex couples is illegal; some jurisdictions in the country have gone so far as to declare themselves "LGBT-free zones."

"So the difficulty is not just making it to the border checkpoints but to be able to get safe haven once they do cross the border to a neighbouring country," said Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, an international organization that helps LGBTQ people facing persecution.

Reese said so far, he's only received an incredible amount of support and is currently staying "in a really nice room" with three cats in his Polish host's apartment. 

"We have a great amount of these propositions to host people, to help … from queer people, feminists, different people in different countries who really want to help Ukrainian queer people to go through this," said Reese, who's preparing to relocate to Denmark soon.

Trans women face risks crossing borders

Like Reese, some LGBTQ refugees plan to leave Poland after a few days for other Europeans countries, Maciocha said.

Countries such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are under less strain than bordering states and may be able to provide more resources and job opportunities to Ukrainian refugees, particularly those who are LGBTQ, she said.

The climate for the LGBTQ community inside Ukraine was not particularly accepting even before the war, Reese said. A 2019 survey of around 40,000 people in 34 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 14 per cent of respondents in Ukraine thought homosexuality should be accepted in society.

There is no data on how many of Ukraine's 41 million citizens are LGBTQ, but one Ipsos survey suggests that, globally, anywhere between three and 10 per cent of people identify as LGBTQ, depending on the country. That would mean potentially anywhere between 1.23 million and 4.1 million Ukrainians identify as LGBTQ.

WARNING | This gallery includes graphic images, including civilians killed by shelling in Ukraine: 

One problem for transgender women who trying to leave the country is that their government ID still identifies them as male, meaning they are subject to the law barring males between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. 

Trans people can legally change their gender, Reese says, but the process is long and complicated and people who have not yet made the change are now effectively trapped.

"Trans women whose gender marker is not matching their real gender or gender non-conforming people with a gender marker in their passport, they all are affected by this situation and they all are in danger when crossing the border," said Emson. 

"They can be discriminated [against], harassed and … of course, their attempts to to cross the border would be unsuccessful."

According to Powell, LGBTQ refugees also face difficulties accessing certain medications in bordering countries.

"We know for sure that there's a shortage of antiretroviral medication for people living with and affected by HIV," said Powell.

A woman is evacuated from a burning apartment building in Kyiv on Tuesday after Russian troops intensified their attacks on the Ukrainian capita, killing two people, according to emergency services. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

LGBTQ people inside Ukraine need essentials

Emson, who is currently in Kyiv, decided to stay in Ukraine to fight the Russian forces and support the LGBTQ community still in the country. Gay and trans people are allowed to join the military in Ukraine and have been taking part in the defence of the country, he said.

"I would like the world to know that there are trans people and LGBTQ people in Ukraine who are serving, who are protecting, who are trying to make their inputs into this fight," said Emson.

Right now, Emson says, many queer people in Ukraine need the same basic essentials as everyone else: food, shelter and medicine. 

"Those who need medication, like trans people who are taking hormones, the situation is even worse because there is a huge shortage of medications right now, and to get hormones is very challenging, too."

WATCH | Village near military base attacked by Russians mourn soldiers:

Battered Ukrainian villages mourn fallen soldiers

5 months ago
Duration 2:42
David Common visits Starychi, Ukraine, where villagers are grieving the loss of one of their own – a teacher turned soldier who died while fighting in Kyiv. Scenes like this one are playing out across Ukraine as war casualties mount.

Ensuring Canada's visa system accommodates LGBTQ

The challenges facing LGBTQ Ukrainians closely mirror those of LGBTQ people in other conflict zones, according to Sharalyn Jordan, board chair of Rainbow Refugee, an organization that helps people forced to flee persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.

"People who are openly LGBTQ are at particular and distinct safety risks when they're displaced," said Jordan. "Borders are places where they're under incredible scrutiny."

An explosion is seen in an apartment building after a Russian tank fires in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. The UN has said it has confirmed the deaths of close to 700 civilians in the war so far but that the number is likely much higher. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

She said that while Canada has offered to take in refugees, she's not sure officials are aware of how to accommodate LGBTQ people.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said his department has created a new visa category that will allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians to come to Canada for up to two years. The government is also introducing an "expedited path" to permanent residency for Ukrainians who already have some family in Canada.

"We have seen some questions and concerns about how [the programs] will work for LGBTQ people who are displaced," said Jordan.

"Just as an example, there is a visa requirement. Are these two offices ready to understand the different documentation that trans people and gender diverse people may be bringing? We also see that family unification may be part of the criteria, and we want to make sure that queer and trans understandings of family are included in the criteria."

WATCH | Russian assault on Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine continues:

Russia continues assault on Kyiv, diplomatic talks resume

5 months ago
Duration 3:06
Russian forces are closing in on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, with deadly attacks in several suburbs. This comes as a new round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials show little sign of progress.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maya Lach-Aidelbaum is a reporter with CBC Yukon. She has previously worked with CBC News in Toronto and Montreal. You can reach her at maya.lach.aidelbaum@cbc.ca

With files from Victoria Stunt, Laura Marchand and Reuters

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