Ukraine’s LGBT+ leaders say fleeing isn’t an option: ‘We have to save our country’

Demonstrators walk on the streets in support of the LGBTQ community under the slogan 'Side by Side to Protect Equality' during the Equality March, Kyiv.

With Ukraine defending itself from Russia’s brutal war of aggression, the country’s LGBT+ activists have found themselves playing a new role.

War is an equaliser, Kyiv Pride director Lenny Ensom tells PinkNews. The bomb doesn’t ask you what is your identity, the bomb just falls,” he explains.

He hasn’t been able to get much sleep since the invasion started, as the sound of shelling is never far away. On Tuesday night (15 March), a building in his district was hit.

“It’s like Russian roulette. They just hit and you don’t know where the bomb will land.”

As director of Kyiv Pride, he’s dedicated much of his life to making things better for Ukraine’s LGBT+ community. In the last few weeks, the focus of his work has changed dramatically and suddenly, away from advocacy and toward helping the community access food and housing as the war rages on.

Kyiv Pride is working to help Ukraine’s LGBT+ community stay afloat through the war

Right now, the many queer people who remain in Ukraine are just focusing on staying alive and fighting for their freedom in whatever way they can.

But discrimination and inequalities still exists – there have been widespread reports of racism targeted at Black and brown people trying to flee the country, and of trans people (women, in particular) being unable to leave Ukraine or pass internal checkpoints because of inaccurate documents.

Security is paramount, Lenny says – there are far-right actors in Ukraine who are still targeting the LGBT+ community even as war rages.

“They’re still attacking LGBT+ people during the war and during the invasion and this is absolutely disgusting,” Lenny says. “We are not only fighting Putin, we’re fighting our inner homophobic forces.”

While Lenny’s not getting much rest, his days continue to be busy. Kyiv Pride has set up a secure chat for queer Ukrainians, has created a database of safe places people can stay abroad, and is circulating an easy-to-complete form so that it knows who needs help.

They’ve partnered with Gay Alliance Ukraine to support LGBT+ people who have been evacuated from surrounding areas to access emergency accommodation.

Kyiv Pride is also helping the local LGBT+ community to access mental health support during the war. They’ve put together a psychological support group, and volunteer psychologists are working around the clock to make sure queer people stay afloat.

“We’re answering the community’s demands,” Lenny says.

Lenny Ensom (C) with other activists involved with Kyiv Pride.

Lenny Ensom (C) with other activists involved with Kyiv Pride. (Provided)

Much of the international media attention has focused on the huge number of Ukrainian people that have fled their home country in search of safety. Around three million have now left Ukraine, but Lenny points out that more than 40 million remain.

“We need to understand that, if we want to stop this war, we cannot evacuate the entire population of Ukraine,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s not possible. I’d say the community understands that a lot.”

Many of Lenny’s colleagues and friends have actively chosen to stay behind. Some of his friends have joined the military and territorial defence units.

“I really appreciate them doing this,” he says. “Our country needs us right now and we will win if we stay here and we will fight back against Russian aggression. If we just flee from war, nothing will stop the Russians then.”

People in Ukraine woke to the sounds of war three weeks ago

Lenny’s resolve has remained firm ever since he woke up to the sound of his city being shelled – it’s how he discovered Ukraine was being invaded.

“People did not read the news, they just ran away or to the bomb shelter,” he says. “We did not believe it – how on earth can you believe in such a thing as stupid as a ground war in the 21st century? It’s like to believe that aliens will come to earth right now. This is a barbaric way of having a war.”

As Lenny sees it, this isn’t about Russia versus Ukraine – it’s about Russia versus the world. He doesn’t think the world expected Ukraine “to fight back so successfully – and I think right now, when we continue to fight, it’s absolutely clear that Ukraine needs more help and then we will win”.

A participant holds a placard which says Love is love during the Equality March KyivPride 2021 of the LGBT community.

A participant holds a placard which says Love is love during the Equality March KyivPride 2021 of the LGBT community. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty)

The situation is terrifying, but there is optimism. “We really believe in our military, our Ukrainian army,” Lenny says. “We have the spirit behind us, and this is keeping us going.”

Part of that means rallying together “to show the community that we’re here to support them”.

“We’re here altogether, and together we will win.”

LGBT+ activist Vira Chernygina had to flee Kharkiv as the war ravaged her city

Vira Chernygina, president of lesbian organisation WA Sphere, was living in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine when the invasion started. The city has been one of the worst affected by the war.

She stayed there for 10 days before she made the difficult decision to flee to Lviv in the west. Vira had been trying to keep working in Kharkiv, but she found it impossible to focus as the fear for her safety became all consuming.

“Your brain can’t work when there are explosions,” she tells PinkNews. “I tried for 10 days and it’s impossible.”

Vira Chernygina, president of Sphere in Kharkiv.

Vira Chernygina, president of Sphere in Kharkiv. (Provided)

Staying in Ukraine comes with its own set of dangers and worries, but Vira is determined to remain in her country and continue fighting for human rights. She says activists like her will be treated as enemies by Russia, which is fierce in its opposition to any kind of LGBT+ rights.

“It is dangerous for us as activists,” she says. “On the second day, we realised that we should stay in Ukraine and make LGBT+ rights a priority because the war will finish… It doesn’t matter what orientation you have, we have to save our country. We have one goal – we have to win.”

The real work will begin after the war, she points out. They will have to rebuild their cities and people in Ukraine will need psychological support to help them recover from the trauma of war.

Like so many others, she is prepared to join the fight for Ukraine’s freedom if she needs to.

“If it will be, I’ll take any action I can – I’ll take my arms and I will fight. We don’t have an opportunity to go back or escape somewhere, we have just one way and that’s to win. It’s the Ukrainian spirit.”

It’s that Ukrainian spirit that keeps Vira looking towards the future. Like Lenny, she believes that Ukraine will win the war and that things will keep improving for LGBT+ people there.

“Ukraine will have the biggest Pride movement in Europe. Support is really important for us – we will have power, we will have motivation. Just your support, that’s what we will need in the future.”