Equality for transgender Ukrainians: A long way to go, now complicated by the war

Screenshot from the website of the Ukrainian NGO for transgender people “Cohort”

Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has has turned millions of Ukrainian lives upside down. Not a single community has been spared; this means the lives of transgender Ukrainians have also been deeply affected by the destruction, the flows of forced displacement, life in exile and the need to adapt to a new and rapidly changing reality. 

Anastasiia Yeva Domani, photo used with permission

Global Voices talked to transgender activist Anastasiia Yeva Domani, who heads the Ukrainian NGO “Cohort” to hear how the community reinvents its daily life, and how it faces new challenges. Significant progress was achieved in late 2016 when legislation for transitioning was simplified and the Ministry of Health removed certain mandatory requirements for psychiatric evaluation, coerced sterilization, and a mandatory appearance before the State Evaluation Commission.

Yet, as Domani explains, even before the war that started in February of this year, daily life presented serious challenges for transgender people living in Ukraine:

В Украине трансгендерность до сих пор считается психиатрическим расстройством и транс*люди для прохождения медицинского и юридического перехода должны получить клинический диагноз, чтобы иметь возможность сменить документы. В связи с патологизацией государство через нормативные акты ограничивает в правах и возможностях трансгендерных людей при наличии такого диагноза – например практически невозможно усыновить ребенка, служить в армии, иметь зарегистрированное огнестрельное оружие, запрещены некоторые профессии и службы.

In Ukraine, being transgender is still considered a psychiatric disorder, and transgender people who want to go through their transition medically and legally need to obtain a medical diagnosis in order to be able to change their identity documents. Because of this process of medicalization, the Ukrainian state uses laws to limit the rights and the opportunities of transgender people: it is for example almost impossible to adopt a child, to serve in the army, to register private weapons, and access to certain professions and services is prohibited.

Domani also explains that similar restrictions apply to other aspects of daily life, such as registering in hotels or in airports, particularly if there is a visible difference between the overall appearance of a transgender person and the gender mentioned in their ID. Such situations often evolve into instances of transphobia, public shaming, and conflicts: 

В медицинских учреждениях чтобы получить услугу транс люди сталкиваются с проявлением трансфобии на стадии регистратуры, в очереди к врачу и во время самого приёма, – зачастую медперсонал свысока общается с транс людьми, могут отказать в помощи под предлогом, что не знают как лечить или делать диагностику “таким” пациентам и отфутболивают в другую клинику, а там происходит схожая история.

In medical institutions, transgender people often face instances of transphobia when they try to register, or while waiting in the queue to see a doctor, and even during the visit at the doctor. Very often, medical staff behave arrogantly and may even refuse service under the pretext that they don’t know how to provide care or make a diagnosis for “such people,” and send them to another medical institution where the same story repeats itself. 

Public spaces are also dangerous places for transgender people, points out Domani, as they are often identified, followed and targeted in marches and demonstrations, and sometimes get physically attacked by transphobic people. Besides, Ukrainian police is often unwilling to investigate violence against the community:

Полиция категорически не замечает преступлений, совершенных на почве ненависти и имеющих признаки ксенофобии, гомофобии и трансфобии, часто такие нарушения закона проходят как хулиганство.  В связи с этим многие пострадавшие транс люди даже не пытаются судиться с насильниками, не имея веры в справедливое наказание.

The police do not take notice of hate crimes motivated by xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia; very often those crimes are treated as instances of hooliganism. This is why many victims don’t even bother to consider lawsuits against their aggressors, having no faith that justice will be delivered.

Even in the most random situations such as applying for a job, or seeking to rent an apartment, transgender people are met with refusal, or sometimes even with accusations of having stolen someone else's ID. This is why it is key to obtain an ID that reflects the gender embraced by the transgendered person, and to change accordingly other documents such as diplomas and driving licenses, to have the same rights as other citizens, explains Domani. The pandemic added its own challenges as many transgender people who worked in low-skilled jobs that were most like to be made redundant, and thus had to return home where they often have to face violence. 

Changing legislation is key

Domani’s NGO Cohort focuses on advocacy via working groups that aim at changing legislation. This led, in November 2021, to the first Ukrainian forum for transgender people. HIV prevention is also a priority for the community as transgender people have specific needs that require tailored services: in 2022, a new program was established at the national level to include members of the community in designing appropriate services. 

Domani adds that Ukraine’s decision to apply for European Union (EU) candidacy also impacts the community:

Мы приняли решение фокус внимания сосредоточить на выполнении критериев к стране-кандидату ЕС в сфере прав человека, делая акцент в нашей деятельности и общении с государственными органами на обеспечение наших прав.

We decided to focus on fulfilling accession criteria in the area of human rights, underlining in our communication with the Ukrainian state the need to safeguard our rights.

The impact of the war

Clearly the war has deeply affected the community: all plans have been put on hold, and over 70 percent of the community has left Ukraine, while only one NGO remains active inside Ukraine. According to Domani:

Потеряна целевая аудитория, в том числе стала неактуальной база данных френдли врачей, которых мы, активисты, обучали по работе с транс людьми, теперь заново необходимо искать медицинских специалистов, особенно таких востребованных как психиатр, гинеколог, эндокринолог, семейный врач.

We have lost our target audience; our database of friendly doctors, whom we trained as activists to work with transgender people, is no longer relevant. Now we need to once again find new medical practitioners, psychiatrists, gynecologists, endocrinologists, family doctors who are the most needed.

There is also a growing sense of uncertainty because hormonal treatment has become unavailable or too expensive, which has serious consequences for physical and mental health, adds Domani. 

Overall, she is not optimistic. She believes the majority of those who left will not return; they are rebuilding their lives abroad where they have strong support from hosting countries, from hormonal treatment to language classes. She also believes the top priorities now include humanitarian help for those who stayed in Ukraine, peer-to-peer as well as legal support 

Многие транс люди сейчас потеряли работу и доход, находятся в шелтерах и других временных убежищах, часть боится выходить на улицу, чтобы не получить повестку в военкомат на медкомиссию, это как страшный сон для многих из сообщества.

Many have lost their jobs and sources of income, they live in shelters and in other temporary refuges; many are afraid to get out in on the streets as they would be called in to go through the medical commission of the army. It is all a big nightmare for a large part of the community.

How to imagine the future?

Domani’s vision for the community includes several key steps: EU accession, ratification of the Istanbul Convention that would both allow for equal rights for Ukraine’s LGBTQ+ community, including if not gay marriage, at least civic unions. 

She mentions the urgent need to have a unified medical protocol for transgender people. It is also crucial to recognize the community as a key actor in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Ukraine and have the community design the services they most need in this area. She concludes: 

В любом случае нас ждет появление новых лиц среди транс*активистов, новых, зачастую молодых лидеров и лидерок, которые будут видимы, уважаемы в самом сообществе и иметь амбиции достигать цели.

In any case, we will see new faces emerging among trans activists, including young people who will become visible, respected by the community, and bold enough to reach their goals.



Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.



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