Text: Olha Kurshevska; Photo: Artem Derkachov

Ukrainian LGBTQ+ soldiers have a double-sided war against the Russian enemy and for equal rights for their community. 

“I want to get married and start a family. If, God forbid, something happens to me, I want my love to receive the state’s payments and the government to support her. I can’t take 10 days off to visit a family because I don’t officially have one. Why can everyone else do it, but I can’t?” says Maria Volia, a lesbian who serves in a mortar unit of the 56th Brigade.

Maria is from Mariupol. After the start of hostilities in her hometown in 2014, she was financially supporting the army, but a year later decided to join it. She dreams of marrying her beloved Diana the most, but she cannot do it because same-sex civil partnerships are not legalized in Ukraine. 

Maria doesn’t want to go abroad to get married.

“I sacrificed 9 years of my life to this country. Now I ask the state to give me the right to marry the person I love.”

She faced the beginning of the full-scale war in Mariupol, which was later seized by Russian forces. To get out of the encirclement, Maria’s unit had to march through the occupied lands for 8 days. The soldiers were moving under constant Russian shelling.

Her arm was seriously injured and Maria thought she would lose the limb, but doctors managed to save it. After what she’s been through, she came out as a lesbian on social media. After this post, her commander said that she was disgracing the brigade. Mari faced a lot of hatred in the comments, as people wrote her offensive stuff and devalued her military experience. However, Maria didn’t give up and now continues to fight for equal rights. 

“I belong to the most vulnerable groups of the population. As a soldier, I cannot be released from service. As a woman, I face sexism in the army. As a lesbian, I feel condemned by supporters of traditional Christian values,” she says. 

Maria and Diana came to KyivPride, which was held in Ukraine for the first time since the beginning of the full-scale war. The couple believes that such events are just right, especially during the war, as LGBTQ+ couples need to have the same rights as traditional families. Currently, they cannot officially be reported about their partner going missing or being captured. Same-sex couples are deprived of the right to enter intensive care units, have access to the body identification and the burial of a loved one. 

Viktor Pylypenko, a paramedic in the 72nd Brigade, also visited KyivPride to openly assert his rights. The soldier fought in battles for Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. He is credited with saving dozens of lives of his brothers in arms. During the assault in the Kharkiv region, many of his medical comrades were killed, but Viktor was lucky to survive. He continued to provide emergency care on the battlefield.

Viktor openly states that he likes men. 

“Since the first days of service, my comrades knew about my orientation. I took out my phone with a rainbow sticker on it. The guys started asking me if I was gay. I didn’t lie and said I was. Before coming out, my comrades already knew me as an effective fighter, so I didn’t have any special cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

Not everyone is as lucky with their comrades as Viktor. Homophobia within the military is quite common.

“Our members face bullying directly from their fellow soldiers and commanders, and there have even been cases of beatings,” says Maksym Potapovych, coordinator of the NGO Ukrainian LGBTQ+ Military for Equal Rights.

“If a commander is homophobic, he can initiate the transfer of a soldier to another unit because it is unacceptable for him to have these people in his unit. There was a case when a commander sent a soldier to the very trenches as a punishment for him being transgender.” 

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry is helping to solve problems with homophobia in the military. However, members of the LGBTQ+ community want a ban on discrimination to be adopted at the legislative level.

Both Mariia and Viktor actively support Bill 5488, which aims to improve the mechanism for responding to cases of discrimination and investigating crimes of intolerance. LGBTQ+ soldiers will feel more protected from homophobic attacks. Even during this year’s KyivPride, many aggressive opponents of this community gathered on the capital’s busy streets. Some participants of the protest march wore masks preparing for a fight. The clashes were avoided only thanks to the police, who separated two groups on time.

The LGBTQ+ military community has about 500 members who do not hide their identity. At the same time, many soldiers are afraid to come out because of possible harassment and problems with service promotion.

Many LGBTQ+ soldiers strongly support the adoption of Bill 9103 “On the Institute of Registered Partnerships.” Yet, Andrii Kravchuk, an advocacy expert at the LGBTQ+ Human Rights Center “Our World”, this law is unlikely to be voted on in the near future, as Ukraine’s Constitution only underpins marriage based on the free consent of a woman and a man, which cannot be changed under martial law.

The expert believes that it is more realistic to adopt a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Bill 5488 is a European integration bill, and its adoption is a condition for Ukraine’s accession to the bloc.

Currently, these bills are not on the agenda of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, and LGBTQ+ community continues to experience discrimination both at the frontline and in the rear. However, soldiers believe that one day they will gain equal rights and continue to fight against Russian aggression and homophobia.