When Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, he framed the move in part as a means of defending traditional values from Western attitudes “that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.” The Russian president was referencing in particular Western countries’ acceptance and legal recognition of LGBT people—a subject that he has long weaponized as a means of undermining liberal democracy and portraying himself as a true defender of conservative social and religious values.
By justifying the war in this way, Putin had perhaps hoped to galvanize support for it among Ukraine’s conservative and religious populations. In practice, however, he may have achieved just the opposite. Since the war began, Ukrainian society has seen a sharp increase in support for the country’s LGBT community and, in particular, for the queer soldiers serving in the military. Calls for LGBT people to have access to civil partnerships have grown. For some, homophobia has become almost synonymous with Russian aggression.
Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian lawmaker who last month introduced a bill that, if passed, would legalize same-sex civil partnerships, tells TIME that what is happening in Ukraine is a direct consequence of Putin’s actions. “Because Putin made homophobia such a big part of his political agenda and [Russian] national ideology, people automatically associate him with homophobia,” she says. “So if we are different from him, then we should be different in that area as well.”
Though Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to decriminalize homosexuality after gaining its independence in 1991, LGBT rights have lagged in the country. Same-sex couples do not have access to the same rights or privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. While some efforts were taken to protect LGBT people in the country, including the passage of a 2015 law outlawing discrimination in the workplace, they were not widely accepted in society. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Ukrainian human rights organization Nash Svit and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 60% of those surveyed said they viewed the LGBT community negatively. Only a third of respondents said that they believed they were deserving of equal rights.
Much has changed since then. In a follow-up survey conducted last year, the same pollsters found that opposition to the LGBT community had shrunk to just 38%, whereas support for equal rights nearly doubled.
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As analysts and activists see it, the reasons for this shift are threefold. The first, as Sovsun notes, is that Ukraine has become largely antagonistic both to Putin and the homophobic ideology he propagates. The second is that, in a war that is widely regarded as a fight between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, many Ukrainians see the move towards greater equality and inclusivity as part and parcel of its shifting orientation towards Europe and the West.
But the third, and perhaps the most salient reason is because of the members of the LGBT community currently on the frontline. There are estimated to be thousands of queer soldiers serving in the Ukrainian army. While many of them haven’t necessarily come out publicly, their visibility is growing. “We had more coming out stories than ever before after the full-scale invasion,” says Max Potapovych, the media manager of LGBT Military, an organization that advocates for Ukrainian soldiers. Part of Potapovych’s job is to share the stories of soldiers currently serving on the frontline using social media. One such post about a gay couple, Ivan and Mykola, attracted more than 1.5 million views. “Our queer soldiers understand that they may lose their lives really fast and they didn’t live a life freely as they could without war,” Potapovych says. “It motivates them to come out despite all the homophobia.”
Petro Zherukha, a 27-year-old musicologist from Lviv Oblast, enlisted in the Ukrainian military shortly after Russia’s invasion began. He says he is the only queer person on his base—something that he kept to himself, at first.
“The war changed everything,” he tells TIME. Despite experiencing plenty of pain and loss amid the war, including the deaths of friends, Zherukha says that the love and support he received from friends and fellow queer soldiers inspired him to come out publicly. “I opened fully, and now I fight for me and my community’s rights as strongly as I can,” he says. “I think the war made me stronger and pushed me to be stronger.”
More and more Ukrainians are supportive of queer soldiers serving in the military; in the aforementioned 2022 study, even among respondents who said they have a negative view of LGBT people, 53.8% said they support their inclusion in the military. Among those who have a positive view, support is as high as 82.6%. There is also growing awareness about the disproportionate challenges facing LGBT soldiers. For example, if a queer soldier is injured or killed in action, the lack of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships means that their significant other will not be afforded the right to make medical decisions on their behalf, bury them, or collect any state compensation.
It’s these injustices that Sovsun hopes her proposed legislation will rectify, but it still has a long way to go. Though 17 other lawmakers have co-signed the bill—including members of both her party, Holos, and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party—the legislation still needs to undergo consideration by the Ukrainian Parliament’s Committee on Legal Policy, one of the required first stages of the legislative process. This stage of the process hasn’t occurred yet, and Sovsun isn’t optimistic that it will be prioritized anytime soon. (Denys Maslov, the chairman of the committee, did not respond to requests for comment.)
While Zelensky has previously expressed support for greater equality in response to a petition calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage, the president also said that such a change would require amending the country’s constitution, which “cannot be changed during a state of war or emergency.”
“He’s been trying not to go into an issue which can potentially be divisive, but the thing is that over the last year, the level of support for this kind of legislation has actually increased,” says Sovsun, noting that in order for the legislation to succeed, it will invariably require his party’s support. As she sees it, the fight to secure greater equality shouldn’t have to wait until after the war ends—Ukraine’s queers soldiers can’t afford for it to. “LGBT people who enlisted in the army are fighting for the country that does not fully support them,” she says. “While we are having this discussion here in the parliament, they are over there in the trenches fighting for the right for us to have this debate.”
Zherukha says that the prospect of being granted the right to civic partnerships gives him and fellow queer soldiers hope. He describes it as being “like air — and all queers want to take a deep breath.”
For Sovsun’s part, she hopes that greater international attention to this issue will prompt the government to act more quickly. One factor that may compel them to do so is a pending decision by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2014, Andrey Maymulakhin and his partner Andrey Markiv filed a case with the court alleging that Ukraine’s failure to recognize same-sex partnerships amounts to discrimination under European law. The ECHR communicated the case in 2021, and although it is unknown exactly when a judgment will be delivered, recent precedent suggests that it could go in the couple’s favor. In 2021, the same court ruled in a similar case that Russia was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights over its failure to provide same-sex unions with the ability to gain legal recognition under domestic law. While Moscow may not care if it is in violation of European convention, Kyiv almost certainly will.
As a contender for E.U. membership, “We cannot simply say we’re going to ignore the decision of the European Court on Human Rights,” says Sovsun.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s LGBT advocates are optimistic that change is inevitable. The war has helped the country realize that “being in partnership or being in a couple is not only to go to restaurants,” says Sofia Lapina, a Ukrainian activist and the head of Ukrainepride. “Sometimes it is about death, sometimes it is about permission to visit your partner in hospital. Right now, all Ukrainains understand this.”