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How LGBT refugees from Ukraine are highly vulnerable

They can fall through the cracks in standard humanitarian responses — but through social media, individuals and groups are finding ways to help

- April 12, 2022

After Russia invaded Ukraine, sending millions fleeing to neighboring countries, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its solidarity with a tweet:

The well-intentioned comment may be literally accurate; war is indeed affecting anyone in Ukraine. But it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. The 4.3 million refugees who have left Ukraine and the 7.1 million displaced inside may have some similar experiences, but others are unique. In particular, our research on Venezuelan LGBT refugees in Brazil and LGBT vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic finds that sexual orientation, gender identity and other marginalized identities affect how individuals experience displacement and crises. We use our own and others’ research to understand the protection gaps and challenges LGBT refugees from Ukraine are or may be experiencing inside and outside the country.

How does being LGBT alter someone’s experience of war?

LGBT people and activists who have drawn attention to LGBT concerns during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been criticized for doing so. CBS News was called tone-deaf for including transgender rights in its war coverage. A recent Gawker piece criticized activists for that focus, listing other pressing issues in Ukraine before asking, “What has any of this to do with queerness?”

And yet Russian President Vladimir Putin himself raised LGBT issues in justifying Russia’s invasion. In his invasion announcement speech, one paragraph argued that the West sought to “destroy traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us … because they are contrary to human nature,” thereby threatening Russia.

Meanwhile, our research found that LGBT refugees can suffer in unique ways. A combination of xenophobia, anti-LGBT sentiment and exploitation may affect their journeys and influence how they are treated in host destinations. Many LGBT people do not mention their sexuality and gender identity as they seek asylum, leaving their unique needs and vulnerabilities overlooked.

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The lives and vulnerabilities of LGBT Ukrainians

LGBT Ukrainians are leaving one precarious situation for another. Though homosexuality is legal in Ukraine, same-sex marriage is not recognized and conversion therapy is not banned. And while trans people in Ukraine have been legally recognized since 2017, they must first endure extensive psychiatric observation and a long bureaucratic process before getting properly gendered documents. The Pew Research Center’s 2019 Global Attitudes Survey found that 69 percent of Ukrainians say homosexuality should not be accepted. Nongovernmental organizations such as ILGA-Europe find Ukraine to be less tolerant of LGBT rights than other European countries.

Despite this, many LGBT Ukrainians have voluntarily joined the country’s civilian defense forces, some hoping that by doing so they can help ease prejudice and be treated as equal citizens after the war.

But fleeing LGBT Ukrainians face many challenges and potential risks. First, studies around the world find that LGBT people have historically been victims of attacks and discrimination during mass displacement, as crisis settings often exacerbate the conditions for violence. That risk is heightened if they find themselves traveling with others with lower tolerance, as may be the case among those fleeing Ukraine. While some Ukrainian households and regions might be relatively accepting, others are hostile.

Second, trans populations have been trapped or pushed back from borders. Activists and aid workers report that trans women, nonbinary people and trans men have been harassed or denied entry at the border, with particular constraints being placed on trans women. One trans woman told the Guardian that even though she had “female” on her birth certificate, Ukrainian guards strip-searched her, incorrectly labeled her as a man and prevented her from crossing.

Some trans women say they are afraid to leave Ukraine because they are worried border guards will force them to join the Ukrainian army if they see identity documents with the word “male.” TGEU, a European NGO, fears that trans people are trapped in Ukraine.

Once across the border, LGBT refugees may face discrimination in border countries with anti-gay laws, such as Poland and Hungary. In Poland, more than 100 municipalities have enacted resolutions declaring the areas “LGBT-free zones.”

NATO was founded to protect ‘civilized’ people. That means White.

Beyond women and children

Historically, the humanitarian system was designed to support cisgender, heterosexual family structures, with women and children identified as the most vulnerable groups. This can leave other high-risk populations such as LGBT people overlooked. For example, refugee identity cards may not recognize chosen names or gender identities. LGBT couples are commonly excluded from food aid as they don’t count as a “family.” These structural exclusions and protection gaps may be more harmful than openly anti-LGBT policies, because they render LGBT refugees’ suffering invisible.

LGBT people are often left out of policy and execution. For example, as international organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF emphasized and attempted to respond to gendered inequalities exposed by the pandemic, they often failed to include gender and sexual minorities in the discussion.

Check out TMC’s ‘LGBTQ politics around the world’ topic guide

Significant protection gaps for LGBT refugees from Ukraine persist

Many individuals and groups have stepped in to help LGBT refugees from Ukraine. ILGA-Europe and TGEU put together information on groups in Ukraine, Poland and Germany that can help LGBTQI+ refugees. Local NGOs like Trans*Generation, HPLGBT and Safebow are trying to help marginalized groups cross the border.

Safebow reports that it has helped more than 4,000 people from such at-risk populations as LGBT individuals, people of color, children, elderly people and people with disabilities. The founder said they were recently arrested in Poland for helping a trans woman with autism and an HIV-positive gay man escape Ukraine.

But many are helping LGBT refugees in other ways, such as using social media to organize rides, safe houses and individual support. And the gay dating app Romeo recently shifted its services to helping find safe housing for LGBT Ukrainians.

Of course, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the only marginalized identities that leave people in Ukraine vulnerable; race and migrant status also can make it harder to find refuge. But the LGBT community’s experiences have historically been ignored. Now, through social media and grass-roots movements, NGOs and activists have been able to help LGBT refugees.

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Yvonne Su (@suyvonne) is an assistant professor in the department of equity studies at York University, where she researches forced migration, queer migration and refugee protection.

Samuel Ritholtz (@SamRitholtz) is a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center, where they study LGBT experiences of conflict, crisis and displacement. They are co-author of “Toward a Queer Theory of Refuge,” forthcoming with the University of California Press.