LGBTQ+ representatives within the Ukrainian army are rarely portrayed. In 2018, Viktor Pylypenko, an openly gay veteran of the Donbas Volunteer Battalion, decided to change that by forming LGBT Military, a union of military, veterans, and volunteers fighting for equal rights. This piece explores how his idea came about, alongside the stories of two other soldiers from the LGBTQ+ community that the union has helped to support.
‘We were here’
Around 330,000 Ukrainians have taken part in the Ukraine government’s military operation against Russia-led militants in the east of the country since 2014, but there is no public information about how many of them are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is what motivated We Were Here, a Kyiv-born photography project featuring members of the Ukraine forces of diverse gender and sexual orientations. The pictures were taken by Anton Shebetko, a Ukrainian artist and photographer who lives in Amsterdam.
“The ‘We Were Here’ project aims to shine a light on the people who are on the one hand modern-day heroes of Ukrainian society and on the other, are being ignored by most of their compatriots,” Shebetko said.
Most of the people in the photographs have their faces covered. One of the soldiers, Viktor Pylypenko, came out during the exhibition, becoming the first openly gay person in Ukraine who was known to take part in the Russian–Ukrainian war.
That moment also marked the beginning of the creation of LGBT Military, as it inspired Pylypenko to set up the association. The union has been sharing stories of LGBTQ+ soldiers on its Instagram page to raise awareness of the community and the profiles of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other diverse identities within the armed forces. These are the stories of two people featured on the page.
From a life drawing model to liaison officer
Illia Leontiev, 24, serves in the Kyiv territorial defense forces. He wanted to join the army even before the all-out war. On February 24, Leontiev was planning to work as a life drawing model at a university until the sound of the sirens woke him at 4 am.
“I couldn’t believe this was really happening,” he said. His first reaction was to contact his family and check if they were ok. “Then I packed a bag and started thinking about what to do next,” he recalled.
Leontiev ended up working as a liaison officer in the territorial defense forces. His role is to mend networks, set up antennas, and program walkie-talkies.
“Territorial defense forces are quite different from the army and from what I was expecting. I thought that I would be getting a lot of physical training and a balanced diet but it’s not like that. It was very scary when there was a shelling attack and a missile landed 150 meters away,” Leontiev said.
Before the war, Leontiev frequented a Kyrylivska Street nightclub in Kyiv. The club was known to be very friendly to the LGBTQ+ community and was subjected to attacks from far-right organizations, which were often violent and aggressive.
Leontiev says that he doesn’t like confrontation and has been choosing his conversation partners and topics carefully.
“I never faced any aggression myself: neither in the territorial defense, nor in day-to-day life. But I know that some people in territorial defense are not LGBTQ+ friendly,” he said.
Despite some negative experiences faced by his community, Leontiev believes that Ukraine is becoming more tolerant and there is less discrimination.
“It is important to acknowledge that LGBTQ+ representatives are taking part in the war, too,” he said. “We defend our state exactly the same way that others do. A lot of people have been supporting me, especially after I came out. So, LGBTQ+ Military serves a very important role.”
Deputy medical unit head: ‘I did not start accepting myself fully until later’
Ivan Gonzyk, 26, says that it’s high time that Ukrainians make a decisive move towards accepting the LGBTQ+ community.
“We are close to being accepted in the European Union. We are not in Russia. Here in Ukraine, we are not a homophobic country,” Gonzyk said. “Everyone stands together at this difficult time: regardless if they’re queer or straight. They volunteer together, they join the armed forces of Ukraine. This should unite us and bring an end to all the misunderstanding.”
That’s how he ended up working as a military doctor in the ATO zone — the area where the Ukrainian government carried out a military operation against Russia-led militants — in Bakhmut of the Donetsk region.
Gonzyk has now joined his territorial defense force. “My responsibility is to direct soldiers to the hospital, to teach tactical medicine, to supply soldiers with medicines, and coordinate the work of other military medics,” he said.
Gonzyk did not reveal his sexual orientation straight away. “I did not talk about it,” he said. “I did not start accepting myself fully until a little later. When I totally accepted myself, I understood what felt comfortable for me and how to present myself to society. My life in this world has become a lot better.”
Same-sex couples face many legal difficulties in Ukraine. They are barred from marriage, having and adopting children, sharing property, accessing medical visitation, taking part in their partners’ funeral proceedings, and can't be named in their partner's will.
Life for the LGBTQ+ community is no better in Russia. There is a “gay propaganda” law in force in the country “aimed at protecting children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values” — effectively denying them the right to information about gender or sexual diversity — and LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya are being harassed and killed. Gonzyk says he does not feel sorry for the Russians.
“After what they did to our land and even after seeing an LGBTQ+ representative in their army, I do not have any compassion for them, even in relation to their anti-LGBTQ+ laws,” he said.
“They chose their government and are continuing to dance to the government's tune. Our main role is to get this junk out of our Ukrainian territories and stop them from creating their laws on our land. When they’re on their own land, they can do whatever they want,” Gonzyk added.
The LGBTQ+ community is still marginalized in Ukrainian society
Though sexual diversity in Ukraine is not outlawed (it's legal since independence in 1991), the LGBTQ+ community have long faced stigma and marginalization. In the past month alone, Ukrainians have witnessed hate speech towards the LGBTQ+ community from at least two public figures.
Earlier this month, singer and Ukrainian jury member of Eurovision Irina Fedishin said that there were many members of the LGBTQ+ community among the Eurovision participants, so it was difficult for her to watch the show, calling LGBTQ+ representatives “sinners.”
The other case occurred earlier with the mayor of the Ukrainian city Ivano-Frankivsk. Speaking at the March for Life and Family Values at the beginning of May, Ruslan Martsinkiv said that “a gay man cannot be a patriot, only a Christian can be a patriot.” Both figures have been criticized publicly for their words.
Zi Fáamelu, a trans musician who has been forced to relocate from Ukraine to Germany said in an Instagram post, “although my story is known all over the world, from Italy to Japan, from Turkey to Brazil, I don't want to be remembered as a victim of a hate crime. I am Zi Fáamelu, a human being, a daughter, an artist, and I'm ready for the next chapter of my journey. I choose joy,” she said on Instagram.
For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.