Kyiv Pride event highlights changing attitudes in wartime Ukraine

On June 16, members of Ukraine’s LGBTQI+ community and allies gathered in central Kyiv to celebrate the first Pride March in the Ukrainian capital since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two years ago. The event highlighted changing attitudes in wartime Ukraine as the country stands defiant against Russia and embraces a European future.

Hundreds of kilometers from Kyiv on the front lines of the war with Russia, the Ukrainian LGBTQI+ community is also present within the ranks of the military among Ukrainians of all ethnic backgrounds and religions defending the country. While calculating the exact number of LGBTQI+ soldiers is challenging, a 2023 article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph estimated that between two and seven percent of serving personnel in the Ukrainian Armed Forces are members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Some serve openly, sporting symbols such as a unicorn patch below the blue and yellow national colors of Ukraine on their military uniform. In many cases, they do so to demonstrate that, contrary to assertions from Russian propagandists and other opponents, LGBTQI+ Ukrainians are just as willing to defend their country as other Ukrainians.  

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The increasing openness in Ukraine toward issues of sexual orientation and identity stands in stark contrast to the deteriorating situation in regions of the country currently under Kremlin control. Throughout occupied Ukraine, the LGBTQI+ community faces the reality of draconian Russian legislation that often prevents them from defending their rights and sets the stage for serious human rights abuses.

According to Nash Svit, a Ukrainian LGBTQI+ organization, these abuses include public humiliation, torture, extortion, and sexual violence. The National LGBTQ Consortium in Ukraine has documented a similarly oppressive atmosphere of increased fear and violence in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and the Crimean peninsula following Russian occupation in 2014.

In Russia itself, LGBTQI+ individuals have long featured in the ever-growing category of scapegoated groups, where they are joined by representatives of the free media, civil society, and the country’s tiny anti-war opposition as proxy targets in the Kremlin’s campaign against the West. Scores of LGBTQI+ Russians have fled the country in recent years, citing a mounting climate of insecurity and oppression. Those who remain face routine discrimination along with threats to their livelihood and personal safety.

In line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly radical anti-Western rhetoric, last year Russia’s Supreme Court declared the “international LGBTQ movement” a terrorist and extremist organization. The Russian authorities have since used this ruling to convict Russians of displaying the rainbow flag, raid LGBTQI+ clubs, and brand LGBTQI+ activists as foreign agents.

The oppression of the LGBTQI+ community in Putin’s Russia has sparked debate across the border and helped persuade many in traditionally conservative Ukraine to reject homophobia. A June 2023 poll found that more than 70% of Ukrainians believe members of the LGBTQI+ community should have the same rights as any other Ukrainian citizen, representing a significant increase from prewar levels of social acceptance.

Despite indications of progress, significant challenges remain. While LGBTQI+ individuals can now serve openly in the Ukrainian military, many say they face difficulties not experienced by non-LGBTQI+ soldiers. Efforts are ongoing to secure equal partner rights, including the right of same-sex partners to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner in case of injury, and to receive the same state benefits for military service.

Amid the unprecedented trauma and turbulence of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the issue of LGBTQI+ rights remains on Ukraine’s political agenda and continues to gain traction. In 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged growing demand for recognition of same-sex civil unions. A year later, Ukrainian MP Ivana Sovsun formally introduced a bill on civil unions.

Current trends look set to continue. As Ukraine takes additional steps toward membership of the European Union, the accession process will include a growing focus on Ukrainian human rights legislation. This will include measures to bring Ukrainian law into line with EU standards, meaning the likely introduction of greater legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ukraine’s LGBTQI+ community is in many ways at the forefront of the struggle against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian brand of Russian imperialism. From the LGBTQI+ soldiers on the front lines of the war to the activists pushing for social change in Kyiv, the community plays a vital role in Ukraine’s ongoing European integration and defense against the Kremlin’s anti-Western crusade.

Aleksander Cwalina is a program assistant for the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Demonstrators are partaking in the Equality March organized by KyivPride NGO for the first time since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 16, 2024. (Photo by Ukrinform/NurPhoto)