Ukrainian queer teen explains why he won’t flee despite terrifying war: ‘I want to be free’

Activists hold placards and flags as they gather in Lafayette Square to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Washington, DC.

Like many people in Ukraine, Franz hasn’t gotten much sleep since Russia invaded his home country last week. 

Franz – whose name is being withheld to protect his identity – lives in western Ukraine in the city of Lviv. So far, he’s been lucky – there have been “barely any airstrikes” and he and his loved ones have managed to stay safe.

Still, he’s living in constant fear. As a trans, bisexual man, he’s terrified of what it would mean if Russia were to successfully seize power in Ukraine. 

This month, Franz was supposed to start on gender-affirming treatments. Instead, he’s preparing to take up arms to fight for his country’s freedom. He’s just 18 years old, and he’s faced with the prospect of wading into a war so he can protect his freedoms.

“No matter how real it is, it’s really hard for me to believe that this is reality I’m living right now,” Franz tells PinkNews.

“Weirdly enough, I’m not really worried about myself, but it’s really scary when your friends don’t respond to your messages in time or when you don’t know where your parents are. It’s very draining. You can’t really rest or restore your energy in any way. It’s like your brain is alert every second, every moment, to danger.” 

Everything that makes up a home is here. I cannot just leave.

Franz is currently studying physics at university in Slovakia, but he recently returned home to Ukraine for a visit. He ended up staying, even though his parents wanted him to leave for his own safety.

“The borders are absolutely overwhelmed. My initial plan was to return by car, but it’s just impossible right now. The other thing is that I don’t really want to leave my home. Everything I care about is here and I want to do anything I can. I can be more helpful here. While it’s probably not happening any time soon, in case there is fighting on the streets, I hope that I can take part.”

He’s determined to fight for Ukraine’s freedom because of how intimately connected he feels to his home country. 

“The second day after the full-scale invasion began, I was walking the streets and it just dawned on me how many little things make up my childhood. The things that I love are here, in Ukraine, in this city. My parents are here, my relatives are here, my favourite buildings are here, my favourite trees and park benches. Everything that makes up a home is here. I cannot just leave.” 

A person holds a sign that reads "No to war" that is in the colours of Ukraine's flag to protest Russia's invasion of the country

Demonstrators take part in a rally outside Downing Street in London on 25 February 2022 to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty)

Being queer and Ukrainian are ‘interconnected’

Franz is now bracing himself for the possibility that he might have to join the fight for Ukraine’s freedom. That’s a feeling shared by many in the LGBT+ community – they have spent years fighting for equality and dignity. They’re not going to let Russia’s aggression jeopardise that.

“For me, to be queer and to be Ukrainian are interconnected things,” Franz explains. “I know there’s no life for me here unless Ukraine is free and prospering. I’ve seen how far we’ve come as a nation in terms of acceptance and tolerance in the past decade or so. Queer Ukrainians are on the front line reviving Ukrainian culture and establishing Ukrainian democracy. We’ve been on protests and we’re continually making sure it’s a nation that everyone feels welcome in. 

“It’s not easy work, but I think that’s something each of us can be proud of, and each of us wants to keep going in that direction.” 

I think these last few days have brought me a much deeper understanding about how much I actually want to live and be free.

Franz is already imagining a life after the war with Russia. He had hoped to start his medical transition this month, but those plans are now on hold. As of now, he’s not fully out – the invasion has made him think about the kind of future he wants for himself.

“I have been gathering courage for a while to come out to my family. That’s something I’ve promised to myself – to be completely open once it’s peaceful again. I think these last few days have brought me a much deeper understanding about how much I actually want to live and be free and do the things that I want. I’m ready to fight for that.”

Ukraine’s LGBT+ community are calling on the rest of the world to stand with them and support them in whatever way they can. Opinions differ from person to person on what the world could and should be doing – Franz thinks the best thing the queer community abroad can do is donate money to their causes.

“We have a lot of funds right now that you can donate to like Come Back Alive or humanitarian organisations helping both the military and civilians. We even have organisations like LGBTQ Soldier. Helping monetarily is important right now. It’s important to support refugees, it’s important to help people on the frontlines, it’s important to support civilians, especially medically. It’s also important to urge politicians to act in an efficient manner, because it will save lives.”

For now, all Franz can do is try to stay safe as the war continues to escalate – but if and when the time comes, he’ll be ready to join the fight.