After Fleeing Ukraine, LGBTQ Refugees Search for Safety in Countries Hostile to Their Rights
Vitaly’s bright light was what woke Vitaly and his wife up on February 24, at 4:30 a.m. And then came the They heard four explosions in succession shaking Odessa. Their phones were flooded with panicked texts and calls from their friends, who believed that Russia was waging war against Ukraine. The two men grabbed bags, got in their cars, and headed west.
Vitaly claims that they reached the Moldova-Ukraine border after navigating unfinished roads and endless gas lines.
Vitaly, who identifies as trans* masculine, is one of the few trans Ukrainians who has been able to have his gender markers changed on legal documents. (TIME has granted Vitaly’s request to use a pseudonym because he fears persecution should he return to Ukraine.) Ukrainian officials were forced to flee after the Russian invasion. ProhibitedThe majority of men aged 18 to 60 stay in the country. Vitaly claims that he received a military ID at his transition more than 10 years ago, which declared him ineligible for military service. His psychiatric evaluation was required.Part of the Transition. Vitaly claims that he presented the document to the border agents and that he was allowed to drive through checkpoint with his wife.
But leaving Ukraine didn’t assure his safety. Vitaly, along with hundreds of thousands other Ukrainian refugees fled to safety. Other Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Poland are also available. In recent years, the government has taken steps to restrict LGBTQ rights.Ukraine is a country where LGBTQ persons are also subject to discrimination, however Vitaly was able to navigate the country. One day he went home. his home,He didn’t know where he Safe would be the best.
But a vast network of LGBTQ activists and organizations—which were already organized in response to their increasing repression in Eastern Europe—have sprung into actionThese weeks have seen the support of LGBTQ Ukrainian refugees. They are now able to help them in every country that they travel through, escaping conflict at home. Vitaly isn’t alone. United Nations EstimateSince Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, more than 2,000,000 people fled the country. There were approximately 1,412,503 Polish refugees and around 214,160 Hungarian refugees. Data isn’t available on how many refugees are LGBTQ. However, they are conscious of the government’s right-wing policies and queer advocates mobilize to aid LGBTQ refugees. This includes providing safe housing, transport, medical care, as well as teaching how to function in new political, legal and social settings.
“That was our survival kit,” Vitaly says. “Understanding that you are not alone, and that people understand your needs and want to provide you the best way to survive and be safe in their country when it comes to LGBTQI rights.”
Already advocates have begun to prepare for a long fight. “We need to make sure that LGBT people fleeing Ukraine find themselves in a safe space,” says Vyacheslav Mladenyk, executive director at the Polish LGBTQ advocacy organization Campaign Against Homophobia. “And we need to remember the situation is going to last for months—if not years. We must keep mobilizing.”
Eastern Europe cracks down on LGBTQ rights
Eastern Europe’s populism is on the rise. Attacks against the rights of LGBTQ persons
I am proud to be included in the I am LGBTQ Rights Europe ranking.nternational Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe)Out of 49 countries, Hungary ranks 28th while Poland is 43rd. “LGBTI activists and organizations in Hungary and Poland are remarkably courageous,” says LIGA-Europe executive director Evelyne Paradis. “They’ve been enduring years of harsh opposition from political representatives and the consequences of anti-LGBTI measures. In the absence of state support and in the face of rising hate, they got organized and took the lead in helping their communities.”
The legislature in Hungary has been improving over the years. Marriage legally recognizedThe heterosexual union effectively bans same-sex adoptions.Legal gender recognition has been endedfor intersex and transgender persons. In February, a Hungarian judge A consequential ruling was issued Human Rights Watch stated that an article comparing a lesbian group with pedophiles didn’t damage its reputation.
In Poland, same-sex marriage and adoption are also illegal, and in the past few years roughly 100 municipalities have enacted non-binding resolutions declaring the areas “LGBT-free zones,” Protests erupt sharp criticism The European Union.
“What we see in Hungary and Poland is somewhat of a reflection of a broader trend that is centered in Russia,” says Amie Bishop, a senior research advisor for the global LGBTQ human rights group Outright Action International. LGBTQ people are being demonized by their governments, she argues, in the name of preserving so-called “traditional values” as a tactic to consolidate power and differentiate socially, politically, and culturally from the West.
Bishops states that many LGBTQ activists in Ukraine remained after the Russian invasion in order to defend their country and help the local community. Outright Action International, Bishops adds, is currently partnering with at least 16 Ukrainian groups.
Even though they may want to, some LGBTQ persons, especially transgender women, are unable to leave. Trans people can legally alter their gender in Ukraine, however, the process is complicated and costly, so people who have not completed it yet are considered trapped. Advocate groups say thatBecause their papers identify them as men, border agents turn away trans women. Moreover, LGBTQ individuals already face persecution in their homeland. ILGA-Europe ranks Ukraine as 39th in its ranking of LGBTQ rights in Europe, and reports that in 2021 Ukrainian LGBTQ groups faced repeated “attacks and intimidation” from far-right groups.
Finding safe places
The uncertain political and social landscape is awaiting those LGBTQ individuals who make it to Poland or Hungary. Melnyk claims that activists have made it a point to walk from Polish border checkpoints to Polish border checkpoints for many days, giving out information pamphlets on where LGBTQ Ukrainians can seek refuge.
First, people need shelter. Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland and Lambda Warsaw, a Polish advocacy group, have created databases that enable refugees to match with LGBTQ-friendly houses. They have set up community centers for refugees to meet with other Ukrainians fleeing war-related situations or those who are already in Poland. And their efforts are ramping up—Lambda Warsaw has received a $30,000 grant from the All Out is a global charity Rent a property specifically to accommodate LGBTQ Refugees.
Other people are doing it on their own like Amanda, a Polish activist. Waliszewska.Even though you are currently resident in Sweden, WaliszewskaHas been organizing accommodation and spreading awareness in Poland about resources available to LGBTQ and BIPOC refugees Through social media. She’s even offered up her childhood home as a place for people to stay, WaliszewskaTIME reports that she believes her neighbor were open to her queer identity because they knew her.
The advocacy group in Hungary is Transvanilla Transgender Association organizes accommodations and transportation. Food for transgender people and those who are gender inclusive. Transvanilla helped Vitaly, his wife and their family when they arrived to Hungary in March 3rd. Completely out of money and gas.
This was their direction from the group. Karoly “Logor” Pluhar, who housed the couple in his Budapest flat. He fixed their car—which had taken a beating on mountain roads—and gave them cash. Pluhar tells TIME he wanted to “help the people who could be in trouble in Hungary if they go to a public shelter.”
Vitaly and his spouse stayed at Pluhar for just one night before continuing their journey to Western Europe. Advocates claim that there are many LGBTQ refugees who have made this same decision and moved to Europe with more LGBTQ-friendly governments like Germany and Denmark..
“No one really wants to come to Hungary,” Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Transvanilla’sTIME speaks with the vice president about LGBTQ Ukrainians they have spoken to. “Those that come want to go through the country as quickly as possible.”
Navigation in Poland and Hungary
Some refugees are not able or able to travel farther west. Eastern European activists like Orbán are working to make sure that the ones who stay in Poland and Hungary have access to the support systems they need.
“LGBT people in the Ukraine crisis, like in other humanitarian emergencies, face particular risks,” Human Rights Watch says in a statement. This can include exclusion from aid programming because their family doesn’t meet the definition of a household, or harboring a deep fear of formal systems “in particular if they have, as for many in Ukraine, lived under a discriminatory legal system and faced harassment or threats in public spaces in the past,” Human Rights Watch says.
Julia MaciochaThe president of Warsaw Pride Polish advocacy group has spoken out about his experience. Coalition of activists she’s been organizing for years to meet the needs of the refugees flowing in. She says that the group has created a website listing where LGBTQ individuals can get safe housing and medical treatment in at least 10 cities across Poland.
The activists have worked with LGBTQ refugee families to address their mental health issues. Lambda Warsaw, an advocacy group claims it has employed psychologists fluent in Russian or Ukrainian. to serve refugees who don’t speak Polish or might not feel comfortable speaking about their identity out of fear of discrimination. Their community center has Ukrainian-speaking translators that can assist LGBTQ Ukrainians in Poland with information. More refugees are arriving every day. Maciocha says, they’re learning more about the best ways to serve them. “We are getting insights on how we can actually help those that are coming to establish a new life,” she says. “Even if it’s temporary.”
Vitaly and his spouse made it to Berlin, Germany on March 6, after 10 days of travel. They are grateful to the advocates who helped them along the way, and they hope to pay it forward and support other trans Ukrainians—both those who remain in the war zone and those who are scattered across Europe. “We call and support each other,” Vitaly says. “This is how our trans family is built through this war.”
They are now in the company of friends as they reflect on their lives and how it was two weeks ago that everything fell apart. “Life was divided after these explosions and it will never be the same,” Vitaly says. “We have lost something that cannot be restored.”