KIEV — At sunset, on the outskirts of Kiev, Anton lights a cigarette and looks out from his balcony, hundreds of miles from war, from home, from love.
Life for this middle-aged, soft-spoken doctor had become unbearable in his hometown of Donetsk, a frontline city held by Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. His decision to leave, however, was not taken lightly — it meant abandoning his long-term partner.
Nor would fleeing the warzone lead him to safe ground.
Anton is among 1.6 million Ukrainians uprooted by war to other parts of the country. As the conflict grinds through its fourth vicious winter, the state is failing these disenfranchised citizens, who face poverty, prejudice and perplexing levels of bureaucracy.
Anton is also a gay man living in a former Soviet nation where homophobia flourishes. Internally displaced people (IDPs) already face stigma here; it is intensified when their sexuality or gender identity doesn’t match the mainstream.
“When I moved from Donetsk to Kiev, I didn’t feel any safer. If this shelter didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to survive here” — Anton
He found sanctuary in a secret shelter helping displaced LGBTQ people start their lives over, while the Ukrainian government struggles to deal with the war’s humanitarian fallout.
The Kiev refuge is a four-room apartment hidden in a generic tower block on Kiev’s city limits. But, inside, the place is scattered with colorful clues: a mug emblazoned with a rainbow among cheap china and boxes of teabags; a mural of a penguin holding a rainbow balloon.
The facilities are basic, bedrooms poky, the neighborhood rundown. But here men and women identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender can live openly without fear of arbitrary eviction by homophobic landlords or violent attacks from bigoted tenants.
“When I moved from Donetsk to Kiev, I didn’t feel any safer,” says Anton, who’s in his late 40s. “If this shelter didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to survive here.”
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Anton has long led a double life. He began working as doctor in Donetsk in the mid-1990s. He also had a long-term boyfriend — a relationship he felt compelled to keep secret. “Back home we had to say we were brothers,” he says.
When war broke out in 2014, many fled but Anton and his partner decided to stick it out. In May 2016, Anton had to travel from the unrecognized rebel-held “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) into sovereign Ukraine to update his identification papers. This bureaucratic process took weeks and left him in limbo, forcing him to find work in Kiev. Eventually, the move became permanent.
“To be honest, I’d had enough of war,” he says at the shelter. “The conflict affects all parts of life in Donbas. You never get used to the bombs — they can fall any time. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
His long-term partner still lives in the DNR. The couple are trying to maintain the relationship from afar.
“It’s hard to keep it going,” Anton admits. “We talk by phone and offer each other support … If potential employers ask about my family life, I say I have a wife, otherwise I’d never get a job.”
Despite his high level of education, discrimination against IDPs has prevented Anton from securing decent work — only sporadic shifts at a pharmacy and temping at an office.
The war in Donetsk has ripped apart families and relationships | Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
“The media pushes negative stereotypes. People think we’re all separatists,” he says. “I face many problems. Employers either tell me I’m over-qualified or not qualified enough.”
Anton’s plight is symptomatic of the wider discrimination against Ukraine’s displaced masses. IDPs are barred from accessing some public services, denied certain voting rights, subjected to time-consuming checks and increasingly dependent on external aid.
The financial stress inflicted upon civilians in the breakaway east was laid bare earlier this year in March when huge, unmanageable queues formed outside branches of state-owned Oschadbank, the government’s gatekeeper for social benefits. IDP pensioners were told their payments would stop unless they attended compulsory checks in Kiev-controlled areas.
But even before these people reached the overwhelmed bank branches, the ultimatum prompted record queues at already-congested checkpoints between occupied and government-held territory. Amid the chaos, the deadline was eventually pushed back. But the order to cross the warfront remained, causing hardship for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who happened to live on the wrong side.
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Estimates vary but organizations working with IDPs say more than 1 million people are likely living in separatist-held territory without pensions and other crucial forms of aid because they haven’t registered as IDPs. Campaigners argue that connecting social payments to IDP registration is an unreasonable and punitive breach of Ukrainian law and human rights.
In the combat zone, compensation for damaged and destroyed properties is practically impossible to come by. And as temperatures plunge below zero, many endure dire living conditions while local authorities fail to offer protection against forced evictions and exploitative landlords.
“During this war, no one’s really bothered about sexuality — they’re too focused on staying alive. If anything, the level of homophobia felt less [in Donbas] than before” — Anton
The situation will become more desperate early next year when the United Nation’s food agency halts aid to eastern Ukraine due to a lack of funding, despite increasing numbers of people going hungry — 1.2 million Ukrainians, up from 620,000 in 2016.
“IDPs just need the opportunity to live with dignity like normal people,” says Olga Ivanova of Stabilization Support Services, a Canadian nonprofit that works with IDPs.
“The real frontline in society is our attitude,” she adds. “Not the contact line between soldiers, not the border between Ukraine and Russia, but our attitude.”
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Rights campaigners say that Ukraine’s LGBTQ community suffers more under Russian-led forces in Donbas, where regard for human rights is non-existent, justice is administered haphazardly and laws often mirror Russian anti-gay legislation (or are even more discriminatory).
Separatist commanders have incited the murder of those who spread “the culture of homosexuality,” while flyers were reportedly posted in one rebel-held area stating, “Homosexuality is an abomination and must be prosecuted under DNR laws.”
People attend the gay pride march in Kiev on June 18, 2018. Homosexuality is still considered taboo in Ukraine | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images
Anton, however, disagrees with the premise that homophobia is any less rampant in Ukraine, where homosexuality was only legalized in 1991 and is still considered taboo.
Fanatic hostility toward the LGBTQ community is something both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists have in common, he says. “As a gay man, nothing changed for me.”
“During this war, no one’s really bothered about sexuality — they’re too focused on staying alive. If anything, the level of homophobia felt less [in Donbas] than before.”
This may be true for a discreet gay man. But there is much evidence of brutal, anti-LGBT persecution carried out by Russia-backed separatists who oppose “Gayropa” — a blanket term for Europe’s purportedly hazardous, perverted brand of liberal values.
In separatist areas that reject the rule of West-leaning Kiev, sexuality can be dangerously political. As one source told human rights investigators: “If you’re gay, that means you’re a fan of Europe. Ukraine wants to be part of Europe, so that means you’re for Ukraine.”
The situation is particularly difficult for transgender people, whose differences are often more overt and whose documents do not always match their appearance. Trans men and women have reported abuse, harassment, arbitrary arrest and being denied aid. Likewise, campaigners say many lesbian women have fled, fearing rape and other violence due to their sexual orientation. But these threats exist in government-controlled areas, too.
“I can fight for equality in my workplace but still be assaulted outside the office. There is no environment of security” — Maxim Eristavi, non-resident research fellow with the Atlantic Council
Ukrainian law offers the LGBTQ community little protection.
“I cannot be open and cannot afford to trust anyone,” says Oleksandr, a shy young man in his mid-20s and a fellow resident at the Kiev shelter. While his siblings accept his sexuality, he feels rejected by society. “I only feel safe meeting dates in daytime, in neutral territory.”
“There is no legislation that treats acts against LGBTQ people as hate crimes,” says Maxim Eristavi, a non-resident research fellow with the Atlantic Council.
Ukraine’s parliament passed a law in 2015 banning workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people but Eristavi insists that this “symbolic step” makes no sense without hate crime legislation. “I can fight for equality in my workplace but still be assaulted outside the office,” he says. “There is no environment of security.”
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Anton and Oleksandr live with four others at the shelter: a transgender woman, two lesbian women and another IDP from Donbas, a transgender man from Luhansk in his early 30s whose business was commandeered by pro-Russian Cossack militants.
More than 70 people have turned to this shelter since the beginning of the war. Each tenant can stay for up to three months. (Anton has stayed for longer as he helps with the shelter’s day-to-day administration.) Psychological and legal help is on hand, as is clothing, medicine, public transport passes and assistance finding work.
There are some hopes that Ukraine could become a bastion of LGBT tolerance in the east of Europe | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images
The refuge was opened in June 2014 by Insight, a Ukrainian nonprofit LGBTQ organization, after sexual minorities in the warzone began contacting the group, fearing persecution.
Olga Olshanskaya, who coordinates the project, says the group struggled to obtain funding. Help eventually came from international women’s fund MamaCash and other charities. When resources dip, Olshanskaya says colleagues offer their own money and ask friends for donations.
It took weeks to find somewhere to house the shelter. Most landlords simply hung up when asked to rent out their properties to IDPs from Donbas or to LGBTQ people.
Ukrainian society remains divided on the issue of LGBTQ rights. Since the Euromaidan Revolution, tolerance is rising in some quarters and Kiev’s gay pride march this year was largely incident-free with a record number of participants and heavy police presence — a far cry from violent clashes in previous years.
Compared to state-sponsored homophobic crusades in Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Russia, Ukraine is not the region’s most hostile country for LGBTQ people. Campaigners hope that breakthroughs here could make Ukraine a beacon, illuminating a path towards progress in surrounding countries.
Organizations like Insight are “changing the way people treat us,” says Anton. But movements for so-called traditional values, the rise of right-wing nationalism and a backward justice system are barriers to equality.
“More visibility brings more pushback from far-right, neo-Nazi and homophobic groups,” says Eristavi, an LGBTQ advocate and Ukraine’s only openly gay journalist.
“I’m a lesbian. I’m a feminist. I’m just a person who wants to live in a civilized country and have the same rights as others” — Igor Zakharchenko, LGBT activist
“We’re dealing with an onslaught of international homophobic groups moving resources to countries like Ukraine and Russia. It’s not just a local problem anymore — it has a cross-border element.”
This year has seen a spate of homophobic attacks across the country. In September, scores of masked, right-wing radicals armed with tear gas and flammable objects descended on Zaporizhia’s Equality Festival and attacked the crowd. Police investigated the violence as hooliganism, rather than a hate crime.
The following month, LGBTQ activist Igor Zakharchenko and his partner fled Ukraine after thugs savagely beat them and spray-painted their Odessa apartment building with graffiti saying “Death to faggots.”
“We don’t want to be killed at our own home,” Zakharchenko later said. “The police didn’t help us, the state’s on the side of homophobes.”
Olshanskaya says she is determined to keep up her work despite the risks.
“I’m a lesbian. I’m a feminist. I’m just a person who wants to live in a civilized country and have the same rights as others,” she says. “This shelter is a safe place where you can be yourself, where you don’t have to lie about yourself. I’m trying to change the reality of this country. Who will do this if not us?”
Some names have been changed for security reasons.
Jack Losh is a freelance journalist with a focus on conflict zones and humanitarian issues. He tweets at @jacklosh