As Kyiv celebrates first Pride since invasion, LGBTQ troops demand equality

KYIV — Pride in Ukraine is no longer just about defending and celebrating the right to love whom you choose. Like everything else here, it’s also about resisting Russia.

A Pride march in Kyiv on Sunday — the first since Russia’s 2022 invasion — and a host of other events this month across the country are intended as a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukrainians want to live in a country with Western freedoms — not Russian-style repressions. The events are also protesting Ukraine’s own policies, which advocates say perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ people, including soldiers who risk their lives for Ukraine’s future.

Mariia Volia, 31, a radio specialist now serving in the 47th Brigade in the Donetsk Region near the eastern front, has spent nine years fighting for her country. She believes so strongly in Ukraine’s survival that she legally changed her last name to the Ukrainian word for liberty.

But as a lesbian, she — and other LGBTQ soldiers — don’t qualify for the same rights and benefits as heterosexual troops.

Volia and her fiancée, Diana Harasko, 25, are unable to marry or register a civil partnership in Ukraine, where the law does not recognize same-sex relationships. This discrepancy poses an urgent concern for the couple: If Volia is killed or wounded, Harasko will not receive benefits like the spouses of straight troops. Harasko also cannot make emergency medical decisions on Volia’s behalf or decide details of her funeral if she dies.

“I want to be able to marry my fiancée and in case something is going to happen to me, I want to make sure the state will take care of her,” Volia said.

Russia’s war has propelled Ukraine ever closer to Europe. Ukraine’s survival depends on its ties to the West — and its image as a bastion of democracy at total odds with Russia’s authoritarianism and conservative social values. But for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians, the reality is more complicated.

LGBTQ+ individuals can serve openly in Ukraine’s armed forces. But several laws that would advance LGBTQ+ rights in Ukraine, including one that would expand hate crimes definitions to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and another that would allow same-sex civil partnerships, have stalled in parliament. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on the unequal treatment of soldiers, saying it was an issue for parliament. A spokeswoman for the ministry said that the ministry created an office for protection of servicemen’s rights to manage alleged cases of human rights violations in the armed forces.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ troops regularly face harassment within their military units, online, and even on the streets of major Ukrainian cities, advocates and soldiers say.

Last year, a transgender soldier was violently attacked by a stranger while on leave from the front in the western city of Lviv.

Volia came under such intense online harassment after coming out on social media last year that she attempted suicide in eastern Ukraine and required treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

Last Friday, while in Kyiv on brief leave from her position in eastern Ukraine, she said she was encircled by anti-LGBTQ+ protesters in front of Kyiv’s City Hall after flashing her military ID and urging them to support her right to marriage.

When they shouted at her to go back to the front, she replied: “Can I actually have a little break from that?”

Such altercations leave LGBTQ+ Ukrainian troops feeling like “they don’t know what country they are fighting for,” said Maxim Potapovych, communication manager for LGBTQI Militaries and Veterans for Equal Rights, an advocacy group. “And they don’t see that they are protected.”

Mounting anger over these inequities motivated Harasko and Volia to march on Sunday in their first-ever Pride parade.

The march, held in central Kyiv, embodied the struggle: Police allowed only 500 participants and permitted them to march just 100 meters, citing security concerns. KyivPride organizers said in a statement that “the police overestimated the risks and actually isolated” the marchers.

Once the crowd dispersed, far-right demonstrators flooded the streets to protest LGBTQ+ rights in their own parade.

“It’s a good reminder that Ukraine is at war but fighting for values — and fighting for our joint values, and certainly diversity and equality are key among,” said Gaël Veyssière, the French ambassador to Ukraine who was one of many Western diplomats to participate in Sunday’s march.

Ukrainian soldiers “must have the same rights, including for their family and loved ones — whoever their loved ones might be,” Veyssière said.

Just a few months ago, marching joyfully in a Pride parade — no matter how short the distance — would have seemed inconceivable to Volia.

A native of the now-occupied southeastern port city of Mariupol, she joined the Ukrainian army in 2015 and came out in 2022, after she was nearly killed defending her hometown.

“I actually was close to death a couple times — not even just once — and when we were retreating I realized I have to accept myself and live freely about my sexuality,” she said.

Growing up in Mariupol, she never felt she had the choice to be herself. “Mariupol is a conservative city,” she said. “There’s no pride like in Kyiv — you could actually even be hit in your head for being open, and that’s the minimum.”

In late 2023, she agreed to post her coming out story on a TikTok account for LGBTQ soldiers. That’s when the harassment started. First, her commander told her to take down the post. Then strangers piled on.

She and Harasko connected online around the same time, and their romance, like so many others during wartime, moved quickly. Within days of meeting in the eastern city of Kramatorsk last November, Harasko proposed — presenting Volia with a simple silver ring with a small diamond embedded on top.

But when Harasko returned to her home outside of Kyiv and the online harassment continued, Volia went into an extreme depression and swallowed 50 anti-anxiety pills. She told Harasko, who alerted Volia’s commander, who then dispatched medics to find her.

Emergency IV drips helped save Volia’s life, and she later spent several weeks recovering at a psychiatric hospital.

She was discharged with a new perspective on her harassers, and she soon switched to a new brigade. “I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “They won’t be successful in pushing me out of this world.”

On Sunday morning, she dressed in her camouflage pants, an army green T-shirt and military boots and stood at the front of the parade, Harasko by her side. Under morning rain, the two women pressed their foreheads together, beaming as the crowd chanted behind them. “Kyiv Kyiv Kyiv, Pride Pride Pride!” and “Russia Is a Terrorist State!”

A drag queen wearing blue and yellow angel wings and a traditional Ukrainian flower crown marched with a megaphone between the rows of uniformed soldiers. Civilians held a banner that read “Arm Ukraine, Make Pride in Mariupol Possible.” Rainbow flags flapped in the wind above the crowd, alongside Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag and others for NATO and the European Union.

“Our main message was ‘Arm Ukraine Now,’” Potapovych said. “We have hundreds of queer people in the armed forces that can’t be at this Pride, because they are now in the front line.”

Vahe Sukiasian, 32, a former military surgeon, said he was marching for those who could not because they are living in Russian-occupied territories or deployed.

Being at the first Pride march since before the invasion spurred mixed feelings, he said. “You feel that you belong, and you feel that people around are your people,” he said. “But of course on the back of my mind, we need to remember that first we need to win the war.”

Dmytro, 27, a soldier who is recuperating from a foot injury sustained in a ballistic missile strike attended with his boyfriend. Dmytro, who spoke on the condition that he be identified by first name in keeping with military rules, said Pride was about showing Europe “and mostly Ukrainians that we have this aspiration to be part of the democratic world.”

The march ended within minutes, but for Volia — who will return to her position on eastern front later this month — it felt like a coup.

“Even though it was very short,” she said, “I think it was extremely important for us to be visible.”

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