Speaking at the human rights conference at EuroPride in Belgrade, Sofiia Lapina and Lenny Emson were focused and compelling as they described how the LGBTQ community in Ukraine has navigated the war to date, and why it is essential that international support for Ukraine continues.
Lapina is the president of Ukraine Pride. Emson is the executive director of Kyiv Pride. Both organisations have had to adapt what they do and step into a humanitarian role to help people impacted by the conflict.
While Russian aggression against Ukraine began in 2014 when it seized Crimea, the current conflict escalated on 24 February when Russian forces invaded - seemingly intent on annexing all of Ukraine.
“After 24 February, a lot of things changed in Ukraine and in the LGBTQ movement in Ukraine…” explained Emson. “We became united as never before. Organisations that may have competed in the past, came together as one to protect the LGBTQ community and to protect Ukraine.”
“Many people refused to leave the country and decided to stay and protect the country…” added Emson. “We showed to ourselves and the world that we are not victims of this situation. We built the systems required to provide the humanitarian aid that was needed - shelters, money, food, medication, and helping people to get back on their feet.”
There’s also numerous stories of LGBTQ fighting on the frontline as part of the Ukrainian military effort.
“During the war, people have understood that the question of life and death is more important than your ideological views…” explained Lapina. “We’re not exclusive in who we help - we help everyone who needs our help. This is beginning to dismantle some of the systemic homophobia that the queer community had struggled with before the war.”
Lapina explained that they prefer to use the word “queer” - rather than “LGBTQ” - when describing the community as this is seen as more inclusive and creates opportunities to bring together progressive people.
“It sounds a little strange, but because of the war, the LGBTQ community has had the chance to be more visible…” explained Lapina. “People in Ukraine understand that queer people want to be themselves and to live their lives.”
“One of the challenges that we’re facing is how to communicate to the wider society about the need for equality…” explained Lapina. “There’s frequently a push-back that ‘now is not the time’.”
Marriage Equality is currently at the top of the agenda for the queer community of Ukraine.
“Why is same-sex marriage important right now?” posed Emson. “If my partner is killed on the battlefield or killed as a civilian, I can’t collect the body, I can’t bury them, I can’t visit them in hospital. That’s why we need Marriage Equality now.”
“We’ve been trying to push on same-sex marriage for at least five years…” added Emson. “If a public petition receives at least 25 thousand signatures, then it must be received by the President. A recent petition on same-sex marriage secured the signatures required and it was received by President Zelensky. The President said that he would support civil partnerships for same-sex couples and that it’s now up to parliament to follow through with this. The parliament can’t currently action anything because we’re under martial law. We need to maintain pressure on the parliament to follow through on this when it’s possible to do so.”
There’s a lot to fight for in Ukraine and Lapina and Emson closed their discussion by urging people around the world to continue to support the queer people on the ground trying to protect their loved ones and their community.