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Ukraine LGBTQ group chair attacked

Man approached Olena Shevchenko in Lviv on Thursday

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A man on April 14, 2022, attacked Olena Shevchenko, chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ rights group, with pepper spray in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Olena Shevchenko)

A man on Thursday attacked the chair of an LGBTQ rights group in Ukraine with pepper spray.

Insight Chair Olena Shevchenko in a Facebook post said the man attacked her in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that is close to the country’s border with Poland, after she and her colleagues had loaded “humanitarian aid for women and children” onto a bus.

Shevchenko said “a guy in dark clothes” approached her on the street while she was talking on her cell phone and asked her a question. Shevchenko wrote the man attacked her with a balloon full of tear gas when she turned around to speak with him.

“I called (the) police and emergency (services),” wrote Shevchenko. “I have chemical injuries to my face and eyes, hands.”

Shevchenko posted pictures to her Facebook page that show her washing the tear gas out of her eyes. Shevchenko also wrote hospital personnel “gave me all the assistance I needed in this case.”

Shevchenko told the Washington Blade the man who attacked her “recognized me.” Shevchenko also said he was Ukrainian.

“I think it was planned,” said Shevchenko.

Shevchenko in her Facebook page wrote she hopes “the police identify him.”

“I am angry and very disappointed,” Shevchenko told the Blade.

Shevchenko on March 10 left her home in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and evacuated to Lviv where she and her colleagues continue to support LGBTQ Ukrainians and others whose Russia’s invasion of the country has displaced.

A Russian airstrike on March 1 killed Elvira Schemur, an activist who volunteered with Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride, in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in the eastern part of the country. A group of “bandits” on the same day broke into the Kyiv offices of Nash Mir, an LGBTQ rights group, and attacked four activists who were inside.

Helen Globa, co-founder of Tergo, a support group for parents and friends of LGBTQ Ukrainians, on March 2 used her bicycle to flee the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Her son, Bogdan Globa, and his husband, Harmilee Cousin, brought her to New York a few days later.

The U.S. is among the countries that have condemned Russia over the atrocities its soldiers committed in Bucha while they occupied it. President Biden this week described the war as genocide.

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Eastern Europe

LGBTQ community in Kharkiv braces for another winter at war

Ukrainian city is 30 miles from Russian border

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Kharkiv, Ukraine (Photo by Brian Dooley/Human Rights First)

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Only 30 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second biggest city and was a key target of Russia’s invasion in February last year, when it was almost encircled.

I have been reporting regularly from Kharkiv since last year’s full-scale invasion, and the city is still often bombed by Russian missiles. United States government officials rarely come here because of the security situation. As temperatures plummet, Russia is targeting Ukraine’s heating infrastructure. 

It hopes to make life unbearable for people in Ukraine’s cities and force another wave of mass movement out of Ukraine and into Poland and other European countries.

Attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid have begun, and some communities in the city have been particularly vulnerable since Russia’s invasion last year, and are facing a difficult winter.

Vasyl Malikov of the Kharkiv-based LGBTQI NGOs Alliance.Global and Spectrum Kharkiv has been distributing packages of hygiene goods, food and vouchers for humanitarian aid since last year. He helped to set up a new shelter for LGBTQI people and their relatives in the city.

“There are government shelters, and the authorities say they don’t discriminate against who uses them, but we know from lived experience that these official shelters aren’t always welcoming places for LGBTQI people. They feel vulnerable and are harassed there,” Malikov said. “We thought about setting up a shelter last year, but the situation seemed too uncertain and it wasn’t that easy to find premises, but we have gone ahead now and we can offer accommodation for up to 16 people to stay for up to three months.”

Some of those in the shelter are fleeing areas of conflict on the front lines, others have fled domestic violence, and others have been driven away by families who refuse to accept them. Some people, in Kharkiv for medical appointments, stay for days, others stay for weeks or months.

The shelter is a large apartment that has a kitchen and a large room where workshops and social events are held.  It is on a block near a metro station which, Malikov says, is a useful place to run to in case of heavy bombardments. 

Crucially, a new generator has arrived, which should heat the shelter during power outages. It’s a dual fuel model that can run on diesel or gas and costs around $2,000.

“This is a safe place for LGBTQI people and their families,” explains Malikov. “We shouldn’t have to set up our own facilities, the authorities should be doing this work, but we have to because they don’t.”

Other NGOs are also filling gaps that local authorities are failing to provide. The NGO Sphere has, since 2006 “been uniting women of Kharkiv, including lesbian and bisexual women.” 

Tucked in a small office near the city center, some of Sphere’s activists described how their work has adapted to meet the challenges of the war.

“We’ve been providing aid for those forced to flee their homes because of the war,” says Yevheniia Ilinska, a long-standing member of the organization. “We’ve raised money from abroad — including from LGBTQ+ groups — to distribute basic supplies. We’ve been handing out clothes, including socks, and have provided some to our military.”

Sphere’s activists say that beyond its obvious damage and destruction to the city, the war is causing “a social revolution:” many men are away from their homes fighting in the military, and many family dynamics are changing dramatically.

The activists fear a spike in domestic violence when soldiers return home, a phenomenon witnessed in other countries.

“The full-scale war significantly aggravates some of the problems that existed before, including gender-based domestic and sexual violence, and discrimination at work,” Sphere notes on its website.

The war has also helped change some attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine. Last September, when the dangers from rocket attacks made an open-air parade impossible, Sphere helped organize a successful Pride event in the city’s metro system.

“We dressed wearing national symbols and LGBT flags,” says Ilinska. “And the public reception was very positive.”

The reaction is more evidence of a positive shift since last year’s invasion in public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, in part because the community’s contribution to the war effort is increasingly seen and valued. Hopes are high that Ukraine will soon legalize same-sex civic partnerships, and eventually same-sex marriages.

But for now, the cold is an immediate challenge. Sphere is raising funds to offer locals a safe place so that “in the event of rocket attacks and power outages, LGBTQ+ people will be able to stay warm indoors, have a hot drink, take a shower, and do laundry,” says Ilinska.

“We’re constantly adapting our work,” says Ilinska. “Adapting our advocacy and our public events, and our projects on targeting humanitarian aid. Kharkiv is changing and so are we, we have to react to this dramatic crisis, to the invasion, and we’re proving that we and our community can resist,” she said.

For more, see Human Rights First’s new report, Ukraine’s Winter War, written by Maya Fernandez-Powell and myself.

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Eastern Europe

Transgender soldier from US named Ukrainian military spokesperson

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo was journalist before she enlisted

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Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in D.C. on May 19, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Armed Forces of Ukraine have named a transgender soldier from the U.S. as one of its English-speaking spokespeople.

The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, last week in a tweet noted Sarah Ashton-Cirillo “has become one of the speakers for the Defense Forces.” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar is among those who praised Ashton-Cirillo.

“Sara informs the English-speaking audience — she objectively covers the events of the Russian-Ukrainian war, debunks Russian fakes and propaganda,” said Malyar, according to the Kyiv Post. “Sarah’s audience reach on Twitter alone was 28.3 million users. So, the enemies get excited on hateful social networks, of course. However, this has only increased Sarah’s audience.”

Ashton-Cirillo was a journalist when she began to cover the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s Kharkiv Defense Forces at the beginning of Russia’s war against the country in 2022. She eventually enlisted, and a commander from the Defense Ministry on Jan. 31, 2023, facilitated her transfer to the unit’s 209th Batallion of the 113th Brigade.

Ashton-Cirillo, who was born in New York, was working as a senior combat medic in a trench near Kreminna in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2023, when shrapnel from an enemy artillery shell wounded her. Ashton-Cirillo suffered injuries to her right hand and to her face, and her fellow soldiers had to wait seven hours to evacuate her. Ashton-Cirillo eventually received treatment for her injuries in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that is roughly 130 miles northwest of Kreminna.

The Washington Blade spoke with Ashton-Cirillo in May while she was in D.C.

“The big key there was I wasn’t able to take any painkiller by staying in the trench because I was still technically in battle,” she recalled. “Seven hours after my injury, I finally got to a hospital.”

Ashton-Cirillo on Tuesday told the Blade her “new role within the Armed Forces of Ukraine is a position that has been earned due to my performance on the physical and informational battlefields.” 

“What this means is that in today’s Ukraine being a part of the LGBTQ community is neither a benefit nor hindrance, but simply an accepted part of whom a person is,” she said. “The vocal support shown by LGBTQ groups in Ukraine, such as Gender Stream, Kyiv Pride and Ukraine Pride, upon news of this taking place, along with the statement of confidence in me issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, made me understand that this battle for the country’s liberation is not about tolerance or acceptance for any one group but freedom and liberty for all Ukrainians.”

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Eastern Europe

Ukrainian LGBTQ organization’s community center attacked

Insight office in Lutsk damaged

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Insight's community center in Lutsk, Ukraine, was attacked on June 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Olena Shevchenko/Insight)

The executive director of a Ukrainian LGBTQ and intersex rights group on Tuesday said a group of unknown people attacked one of their community centers.

Insight Executive Director Olena Shevchenko told the Washington Blade the people who attacked her organization’s community center in Lutsk, a city in northwestern Ukraine, destroyed a door at the entrance. Shevchenko also said the assailants destroyed equipment that was inside.

“We don’t know who it was,” said Shevchenko.

Shevchenko told the Blade that she and her colleagues notified the police.

“We still don’t know how they will qualify this attack,” said Shevchenko. “We still don’t have a law on hate crimes.”

Russia on Feb. 24, 2022, launched its war against Ukraine.

Insight is among the many Ukrainian advocacy groups that have continued to work inside the country since the war began.

Insight’s community center in Lutsk, Ukraine, was attacked on June 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Olena Shevchenko/Insight)
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