‘When we see that some groups are less well helped elsewhere while we have the people and the expertise to accommodate them, we must go all the way,’ writes Bruno De Lille. He calls for attention to the situation of LGBTI+ persons on the run.

No, we should not make rankings of who is suffering the worst from the war in Ukraine right now. And we should try to help every refugee who asks for our help. But when we see that some groups are less well assisted elsewhere while we have the people and the expertise to receive them, we should go all out for that. Hence this call to the Belgian government to actively welcome Ukrainian LGBTI+ refugees.

For LGBTI+ persons, life was not easy in Ukraine anyway. If you look at ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow map, you’ll see that the country ranks 39th out of all European countries whose regulations the organization reviewed. When it comes to respect for LGBT and trans rights or protection from violence and discrimination, the country doesn’t do very well.

But since the Maidan revolution in 2013-14 and the country’s pro-EU stance since then, there has been a positive evolution. According to the 2010 European Social Survey, barely 28% of Ukrainians thought LGBTI+ persons should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit. By 2016, however, just over half of Ukrainians no longer had a problem with this. In 2015, the parliament passed a law to prevent discrimination in recruitment, including for LGBTI+ persons. A year later came regulations allowing trans people to have their identity documents more easily modified. Before 2014, the Kiev-Pride was cancelled more often than it was able to take place but in recent years it went on without violence and with increasing numbers of participants. The number of associations of LGBTI+ persons increased steadily and since 2019 there was even a group of openly gay military personnel.

However, those small steps in the right direction were under constant pressure. And Russian influence and threats were no stranger to that.

The Dutch website De Correspondent recently published an article that accurately exposed Putin’s anti-LGBTI+ agenda. They show how the Russian president sees LGBTI+ rights as a threat to Russia’s survival and how he suspects the West of using those rights to destabilize his country.

Rémy Bonny, executive director of the NGO Forbidden Colours, found in his research a lot of evidence that Russia actively supports and promotes an international network of anti-LGBTI+ organizations.

In the regions occupied by Russia for several years, the situation for local LGB and trans people had become very difficult anyway. In both Crimea and Donbas, Russian anti-LGBTI+ laws were de facto implemented and homosexuality became a crime. Frightened, a lot of gay, lesbian, bi, trans and intersex people moved to Kiev, hoping to find a more open climate there.

For a long time, then, Moscow used the “gay theme” as a propaganda tool to portray Ukraine and its allies as weak or degenerate.

When the Maidan revolution against pro-Russian President Yanukovych began, Russian newspapers wrote that the revolt was organized by nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and homosexuals.

Professor Lien Verpoest puts it this way in De Morgen: “Euromaidan is called Gayromaidan in Russia, Europe Gayropa. In Russia, some people now believe that the West is planning a genocide in all the countries that oppose gay marriage.”

And don’t forget the statements of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and close friend of Putin, who claimed in early March that the war in Ukraine is also a spiritual war: Russia, according to him, is fighting a Western culture that wants to impose Gay Prides and homosexuality on others.

So the LGBTI+ community in Ukraine feared the Russian threat with good reason. Especially when, a few days before the Russians invaded the country, U.S. Ambassador Bathsheba Nell Crocker, wrote a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stating that Russia had drawn up lists of people to be eliminated by killing them or sending them to camps, and that in addition to Russian and Belarusian dissidents, journalists and anti-corruption activists, LGBTI+ people were also on those lists.

The fact that in the early days of the war, large groups of Chechen soldiers were fighting on the Russian side was therefore very disturbing. LGBTI+ persons have been targeted in Chechnya by Ramzan Kadyrov and his followers for a long time.
As an LGBTI+ person, you don’t want to fall into the hands of soldiers indoctrinated with homophobic propaganda who used rape and abuse as weapons of war. Consequently, in the first days after the Russians invaded, many people kept a big cleanse on their social media out of fear of getting into serious trouble when confronted by Russian soldiers.

Thus, the Ukrainian LGBTI+ community is rightly asking for our support. After all, it is at risk of being victimized multiple times. In the short term by the war crimes of the Russian soldiers. In the longer term – if the Russians were able to take power anyway – they risk losing all the rights they have been able to build up in Ukraine so far. Not surprisingly, there are many examples of LGBTI+ individuals who have taken up arms or actively support their troops. Many of them are open about their orientation and have a sense of being accepted. This also makes them dare to hope to be rewarded for their commitment after the war by, for example, the opening up of marriage.

At the same time, of course, thousands of LGBTI+ Ukrainians are also fleeing. They are a very vulnerable group. Because social acceptance of queer people in Ukraine has been even more difficult than in our regions, there are more people who have to rely on their “chosen family” than on their real relatives. In a normal situation this need not be a problem but in a war or refugee situation it can cause additional difficulties. It is more readily accepted that relatives want to stay together than it is for friends (however intense the friendship may be). Each border post, shelter or care facility then becomes an additional obstacle.

The cynical thing is also that LGBTI+ Ukrainians end up first in countries where their rights are under pressure. Poland was ranked 30th in Ilga-Europe’s Rainbow index just a few years ago, meanwhile it has dropped to 43rd place (thus behind Ukraine). Hungary, under the leadership of its president Victor Orban, has been waging a battle against its LGBTI+ community for years, and Slovakia, too, is not known for being open-minded when it comes to rainbow rights.

So at a time when one should be receiving support, comfort and understanding, these LGBTI+ refugees must ask themselves whether they can be open or have to crawl back into the closet to avoid being discriminated against. Coming out of the closet is often difficult anyway. But if you need help, then it becomes even more difficult. And if you’re alone because your “chosen family” can’t or may not be with you, then the loneliness can be really tough.

Of course, every refugee’s situation is harsh and it doesn’t make much sense to start determining who is now the most victimized. But if we have expertise and can efficiently help a group that is undeniably suffering, we should do so. Hence, countries like Belgium, countries at the top of the rainbow rankings, should actively signal to LGBTI+ refugees that they are welcome here. By collaborating with and providing resources for organizations like Çavaria, the rainbow houses, Sensoa… we can also provide adapted care and shelter. This way we don’t stop at words but really show that we have an eye and ear for the needs of this group.

Bruno De Lille is a former Brussels Secretary of State for Groen and a LGBTI+ activist.

>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation.