Defiant Ukrainian teen ‘optimistic’ for the future: ‘It’s horrible, but we will make it’

On 24 February, Oleksandra woke up to missed calls from his mother and messages from worried friends.

Frantic, terrified loved ones were reaching out to find out if he was safe as news broke that Russia was invading Ukraine. Everyone was asking the same question: would he stay or would he flee?

One week on, and the 19-year-old has decided to stay. He empathises with the many Ukrainians who have fled the country in a bid to get to safety, but he doesn’t want to leave. Ukraine is his home – he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“When this started, I was in shock,” Oleksandra – whose surname is being withheld to protect his identity – tells PinkNews. “I didn’t know what to do, where to flee, would I even be able to flee, what would happen to my friends.”

First three days of Russia’s invasion were the ‘longest three days’ of Oleksandra’s life

Oleksandra is a trans man. Like countless other trans people, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put him in an impossible bind. If Russia was to gain control over Ukraine, his right to live freely and his safety could be jeopardised.

Still, he’s adamant that he doesn’t want to give up on his home country – it’s where he feels at one with himself. He doesn’t want to see the Ukrainian LGBT+ community’s hard-won progress lost.

“I genuinely believe that it will keep getting better [for the LGBT+ community] in Ukraine,” he says. “I was thinking about moving to another country a few years ago but right now, I don’t want to leave Ukraine – even if it’s difficult, because it’s my country, it’s my people. I have friends here.”

So far, things have been “relatively quiet” in the city Oleksandra lives in. There have been airstrikes two to three times a day, but so far he’s been able to stay safe. Still, the invasion has been “really hard” on his mental wellbeing.

Ukrainians and other demonstrators gather at Trafalgar Square for a protest in support of Ukraine in London, England. (Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

“The first few days were the worst,” he says. “It was the longest three days of my life. Right now, I’m more or less OK but I don’t think I will be OK when university ends. I know when people are in traumatic situations, they often experience the full impact of it at a later point.”

My friends told me to delete all evidence from my social media that I am involved in any kind of queer activism.

In Russia, LGBT+ rights lag far behind. Many LGBT+ Ukrainians have expressed concern about what that would mean for them if they were to end up under Russian control. It’s a worst case scenario that Oleksandra doesn’t even want to think about.

“Russia aren’t good for Ukraine in any sense, but yes, Russia is also an incredibly queerphobic country – that’s a fact. When the invasion started, my flatmate said I would be more afraid about you if Russian people came here because they will kill your people first.

“Not so long ago, my friends who are also queer said, ‘If I were you, I would delete all evidence from my social media that I am involved in any kind of queer activism’. It hasn’t come to that thankfully, but it is a concern for us.”

Trans people are afraid of fleeing Ukraine because their documents misgender them

Oleksandra is also keenly aware of the challenges trans people are facing when they try to leave.

Some trans people are unable to flee Ukraine because their passports and other documents refer to them as the wrong gender or name. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that legal gender recognition is far from easy in Ukraine.

Ukrainians living in Mugla ,holding banners and flags, gather to protest Russia's attack on Ukraine

Ukrainians living in Mugla ,holding banners and flags, gather to protest Russia’s attack on Ukraine. (Sabri Kesen/Anadolu Agency via Getty)

“I know some people who have had this problem,” Oleksandra says. “Their appearance doesn’t match their ID. My friend from Kyiv, he had started his medical transition in 2018 but he didn’t get his ID changed. That’s a big problem for him when he wants to find a job, for example, or make any bank operations. He wanted to get a loan last year but he couldn’t because his ID had the wrong gender marker and his old photo.”

I think that, when the war ends, we’ll rebuild our country and I’ll finally start transition.

The situation is terrifying, but Oleksandra is trying to focus on the future. He has hope, even if the situation feels hopeless right now.

“I am more or less optimistic about the whole situation,” he says. “It’s horrible, but we will make it. Queer people in Ukraine will have it better. I’m horrified, I’m anxious, but also I feel hope for my country.

“I can see a future for myself in Ukraine. I think that, when the war ends, we’ll rebuild our country and I’ll finally start transition.”