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Berlin becomes refuge for LGBTQ Ukrainians

Dmitry Shapoval swam across river to flee Ukraine

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Dmitry Shapoval, 24, is a gay Ukrainian man with HIV. He fled his country in March and now lives in Berlin. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

BERLIN — Dmitry Shapoval is a 24-year-old gay man from Ukraine who lives with HIV.

He was working at an IT company’s call center and studying web and UX design in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in February when Russia launched its war against his country. Shapoval swam across a river and entered Poland less than a month later.

Shapoval now lives in Berlin with his cat Peach and has begun the process of resettling in Germany.

“I feel very secure here,” Shapoval told the Washington Blade on July 22 during an interview at Berlin’s Palais Populaire by Deutsche Bank on the city’s Unter den Linden boulevard.

Shapoval is one of the more than 900,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in Germany since the war began. 

Ukrainians are able to enter Germany without a visa, and the German government provides those who have registered for residency a “basic income” that helps them pay for housing and other basic needs that include food. Ukrainian refugees can also receive access to German language classes, job training programs and childcare. 

Anastasiia Baraniuk and her partner, Yulia Mulyukina, were living together Dnipro, a city on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, when the war began. 

Mulyukina, who is from Russia, was living in Moscow when she and Baraniuk began to talk online. Mulyukina traveled to Lviv in western Ukraine via Istanbul to meet Baraniuk, who is a Ukrainian citizen.

Mulyukina on July 22 told the Blade at Palais Populaire that she asked the Russian Embassy in Kyiv for help when the war began. Mulyukina said officials suggested that she “ask Ukraine what to do.”

“I was really shocked that my own country, with this idea of bringing peace, bringing quiet to Ukraine, just rejected me entirely,” she said in Russian as Shapoval translated.

Baraniuk, who also spoke with the Blade in Russian, said the Ukrainian government and a local NGO provided them with food and money. 

The couple had planned to stay in Ukraine, but they decided to leave after Mulyukina “heard five explosions” while she was walking to a store. The two women’s friends gave them money to buy train tickets to Poland.

Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ and intersex rights organization, helped Baraniuk and Mulyukina and their cat enter Poland. They spent a week there before they arrived in Berlin on April 28.

Shapoval met them when they arrived at the train station.

From left: Yulia Mulyukina and Anastasiia Baraniuk fled their home in Dniper, Ukraine, in April. They now live in Berlin. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Shapoval, Baraniuk and Mulyukina are among those who attended a reception that took place at the end of a two-day meeting the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration organized that took place in Berlin from July 21-22.

Activists from Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S. attended the gathering that had a stated goal of starting “the conversation about long-term/mid-term needs and solutions for LGBTIQ Ukrainians and incite collaboration among stakeholders working with LGBTIQ Ukrainians and third-country nationals.” 

“We were thrilled to bring together activists and human rights defenders from 10 countries and 20 organizations to develop medium and long-term strategies to support displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians and third country nationals,” ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth told the Blade after the meeting. “All these organizations, including ORAM, have done an amazing job getting emergency support and services to LGBTIQ Ukrainians in need. As the war in Ukraine drags on, it’s more important than ever for organizations to coordinate efforts and plan for supporting longer term needs. This two-day roundtable in Berlin was a great step in that direction.”

ORAM has partnered with Airbnb.org and Alight (formerly known as the American Refugee Committee) to provide more than 1,000 nights of short-term housing to LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians and other displaced people in Germany and other countries in Europe. Shapoval, Baraniuk and Mulyukina are among those who live in such apartments.

Roth noted ORAM has begun to develop “a housing collective” for LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians in Berlin. He said ORAM rents the apartments in which the refugees can live for up to six months, “allowing them to register in Berlin, access social welfare and other services.” 

“Safe and secure housing is one of the most urgent needs facing displaced LGBTIQ Ukrainians,” Roth told the Blade. “It’s an essential element in getting settled and rebuilding lives.”

Berlin Pride shows solidarity with Ukraine

The meeting ended a day before the annual Christopher Street Day parade took place in Berlin.

Baraniuk helped carry ORAM’s banner during the parade, while Mulyukina took pictures for the organization.

Anastasiia Baraniuk marches in the Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin on July 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers

‘Stop Russian aggression’

Kyiv Pride Executive Director Lenny Emson is one of LGBTQ and intersex activists from Ukraine who participated in the ORAM meeting and in the parade.

He told the Blade before the parade began that he took several trains from Kyiv to Poland before he flew to Berlin. Emson said the trip took two days.

“I understand that it is a safe ground, but I still have those flashbacks,” Emson told the Blade as he smoked a cigarette in front of a hotel near the parade staging area. “When you were sitting in the conference room and I saw something that reminds me of an air raid siren I was getting a panic attack. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a safe place.” 

Emson also took issue with parade organizers’ opposition to war.

“Unfortunately, we as the Ukrainian community here (are) very disappointed with the motto that Berlin Pride put on the main stage: No war,” said Emson. “This doesn’t reflect the feelings that we have right now.”

“We would like to actually say it loud: Stop Russian aggression,” he added. “We need action right nowWe need to stop it. We need to stop Russian aggression. We need to stop it right now.”

A group of marchers held a blue and yellow — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — banner that read “Arm Ukraine: Make Pride in Mariupol possible” while others simply carried the Ukrainian flag.

A man carried a homemade sign that read “Arm Ukraine: Make Pride in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizha, Kryvyi Rih possible again.” Viktoriya, a woman from northern Ukraine who is now pursuing her PhD in Berlin, held a cardboard poster that noted her homeland’s “queer soldiers are fighting for all of us.”

“I’m marching for both rights of queer people and rights of Ukrainians: The right to live and the right for love,” she said as she marched towards Potsdamer Platz in the center of Berlin.

Ukrainian LGBTQ and intersex activists march in the Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin on July 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity was commonplace in Ukraine before the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last year pledged his country would continue to fight anti-LGBTQ and anti-intersex discrimination after he met with President Joe Biden at the White House. 

Shapoval, who is dating a man he met last October when he traveled to Berlin, told the Blade that he received “looks” in Kyiv if he wore a pink shirt.

He was wearing a pair of purple sneakers during the interview. Shapoval said he would not have been comfortable wearing them if he were still in Kyiv.

“For me it was even harder because I had misery in Ukraine because of homophobes,” he said. “Even the gay community is so toxic in Ukraine because it’s all about toxic masculinity and all of that … I also had some experiences where gays were like, ‘Oh my gosh just cut your hair and then we will get in touch with you.'”

Shapoval has begun the process of applying for German residency. 

“I fell in love with the city right from the beginning,” he said. “I found friends here.”

Hafen, a gay bar in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, shows its solidarity with LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
Prinzknect, bar in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, shows its solidarity with LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians by selling Odesa mule — and not Moscow mule — cocktails (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights, and others have noted transgender and gender non-conforming Ukrainians have not been able to leave the country because they cannot exempt themselves from military conscription. Another issue that LGBTQ and intersex Ukrainians have faced as they attempt to resettle in another country is the lack of legal recognition of their relationships.

A marriage equality petition that Kyiv Pride submitted to Zelenskky on July 12 received more than 28,000 signatures, which is higher than the threshold that requires him to consider it. Ukrainian law requires Zelenskky to respond to it within 10 days of receiving it. 

Baraniuk and Mulyukina hope to resettle in the U.S. and Canada, but are unable to legally prove they are in a relationship. The U.S. has a marriage-based immigration system for bi-national couples, while the Canadian system requires them to be married or “common-law partners.”

The U.S. has approved Baraniuk’s resettlement request, but denied Mulyukina. 

They said the process to legally prove they are together is prohibitively expensive.”Right now we are looking for a way to get the proof that we are a couple,” said Baraniuk. “We don’t want to stay in Berlin.”

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Europe

Andorran prime minister comes out as gay

Xavier Espot Zamora spoke with country’s public broadcaster

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Andorran Prime Minister Xavier Espot Zamora. (Photo courtesy of the Andorran government)

Andorran Prime Minister Xavier Espot Zamora has come out as gay.

“I’m gay. I’ve never hid it,” he said during an interview with Radio and Television of Andorra, the country’s public broadcaster, on Monday. “Now, if I’m not asked I don’t have to say it, in the sense that it doesn’t define the entirety of who I am and even less my personal politics, but at the same time I think it shouldn’t be a problem to express it. And if this helps many children, young people or teenagers who are going through a difficult time see that in the end, regardless of their condition or sexual orientation, you can prosper in this country and reach the highest magistracy, then I am happy to express it.”

Andorra is a small country known for its ski areas that is nestled between Spain and France in the Pyrenees.

Espot has been prime minister since 2019. The country’s lawmakers in 2022 extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The prime minister is one of a handful of heads of state and government who are openly gay or lesbian.

Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs took office in July.

Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has been in office since 2013, while Ana Brnabić became Serbia’s prime minister in 2017. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is openly gay.

Deputy Belgian Prime Minister Petra De Sutter is a transgender woman.

Then-Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in 2009 became the world’s first openly LGBTQ head of government.

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Dozens detained after Istanbul Pride march

Anti-LGBTQ crackdown expected to worsen after president re-elected

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A Pride flag hangs from a building in Istanbul on June 25, 2023. (Photo by Tuğçe Yılmaz via Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Week's Twitter page)

Turkish police on Sunday detained dozens of people after they participated in an Istanbul Pride march.

Reuters reported police in riot gear blocked access to the city’s Istiklal Avenue and Taksim Square and limited access to public transportation in the area.

The news agency noted police detained at least 50 people. An activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke on Sunday said police took 60 “of our friends … into custody.”

“Two of the people the police unlawfully took from the streets to take statements are under the age of 18,” said the activist.

Turkish authorities over the last decade have cracked down on LGBTQ and intersex activists in the country.

Police in 2015 used tear gas and water cannons against people who were about to participate in an Istanbul Pride march. Authorities in 2017 arrested nearly two dozen people who defied a ban on Pride events in the city.

Police in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on May 10, 2019, arrested 18 students and an academic who participated in a Pride march at the Middle East Technical University. They faced up to three years in prison, but a court in 2021 acquitted them. Police in 2022 violently broke up a Pride parade at the same Ankara university.

The State Department in 2021 criticized Turkey after police once again used tear gas to disperse Istanbul Pride march participants. Security forces last June arrested more than 370 people who tried to participate in another Istanbul Pride march.  

The activist with whom the Blade spoke noted police in Izmir, the country’s third largest city, on Sunday detained at least 10 people who participated in a Pride march. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former Istanbul mayor who has governed Turkey since 2003, won re-election on May 28. The activist and others across the country say they expect Erdoğan will further restrict on LGBTQ and intersex rights.

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Iceland becomes latest country to ban conversion therapy

Country’s lawmakers passed bill on June 9

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The Icelandic Parliament in Reykjavík, Iceland. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Lawmakers in Iceland on June 9 approved a bill that will ban so-called conversion therapy in the country.

Media reports note 53 members of the Icelandic Parliament voted for the measure, while three MPs abstained. Hanna Katrín Friðriksson, an MP who is a member of the Liberal Reform Party, introduced the bill.

“This is a really important issue for all gay people and a step worth celebrating,” said Samtökin ’78, an Icelandic LGBTQ and intersex rights group, after the vote. “There is no cure for being gay and any attempt to do so is violence. It’s so good that the government recognizes it with legislation.”

Malta, Cyprus, Brazil and Ecuador are among the other countries that ban conversion therapy.

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