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Transgender journalist joins Ukrainian military

Ashton-Cirillo tells the Blade, ‘I want to serve this fight for freedom, this fight for liberty’



Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo)

It was shortly before 1 p.m. on Dec. 9 when Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, a member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s Noman Çelebicihan Battalion, arrived at Le Bon Café, a coffee shop on Second Street, S.E., near the U.S. Capitol. The Las Vegas native who was wearing her uniform sat down at an outdoor table and began to sip a coffee as she talked about the journey that brought her from the U.S. to the frontlines of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Ashton-Cirillo in 2015 traveled to eastern Turkey to cover Syrian refugees who had fled their country’s civil war. 

She said she was “supposed to have started the story in Syria, but I was too scared.” Ashton-Cirillo later wrote a book, “Along the Tracks of Tears,” but she told the Washington Blade that she “was terribly unhappy with” it.

“Some of it had to do with being trans,” she said. “I had been traveling with Muslims, with different groups, and they were accepting me, but I would always have in the back of my mind, would they have talked to me if they knew I was trans or a female.”

Ashton-Cirillo, who was born in northern Florida, was the director of communications for a California-based health care company before she launched, a website that focused on politics in Nevada and across the country. Ashton-Cirillo has also sought to expose extremist Republicans through her reporting.

‘I was not expecting it to happen’

Ashton-Cirillo noted she wrote her second book, “Fair Right Just,” while she was in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.) Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade that she learned about what Russia had done to them through mid-winter visits to museums.

“That led me to hate Russia, because I’m reading about things that ended up being pertinent today: Filtration camps, the language issues, they were trying to erase culture, the genocide, the torture of political prisoners, everything that we’re living now, the folks in the Baltics lived 80 or 90 years ago, as do the Ukrainians, but I hadn’t been to Ukraine yet.”

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

“It always bothered me for 6 1/2 years,” said Ashton-Cirillo, referring to her book about Syrian refugees. “As I was watching this unfold, I said, oh, there’s a massive refugee situation. Is it worth it for me to go over and try to maybe get new material and put out a book that would actually take the old material and the new material and put it together. I put it together, and so when the war actually broke out, I said, holy shit this is real and that’s why I wasn’t here (in Ukraine) on the first day. I was watching it.”

Ashton-Cirillo conceded she is “the first to say I was not expecting it to happen.”

“With the full-scale invasion happening on Feb. 24, even though Donbass had been under siege, and there had been a war going on for or years, I didn’t expect there to be an invasion, a land invasion of a full country, not just in this area that had been, you know, that the Russians had seized when basically the world was sleeping,” she said.

Ashton-Cirillo entered Ukraine on March 4, 2022, with the intention of covering refugees who had fled the country. She said the press credentials the Ukrainian government reflected her gender identity and her legal name.

“My legal name, Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, was my legal name when I traveled. My gender was my legal gender when I traveled due to having changed it in Nevada,” said Ashton-Cirillo. “My driver’s license was changed but my passport had not been changed … it was very complicated because it looked like a totally different person with totally different names, a totally different gender.”

Ashton-Cirillo noted Ukrainian officials put her legal name on the top of her press credentials and “formally known as my previous name” on the bottom of them.

“I was okay with it because I couldn’t believe they credentialed me anyway with the situation being the way it was,” she said.

Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights, less than a month after the war began told the Blade that many trans and gender non-conforming Ukrainians decided to remain in the country because they could not exempt themselves from military conscription. Stern during the March 18, 2022, interview cited the case of a trans man who tried to leave Ukraine and “in an effort to prove who he was, who he said he was, he was actually forced to remove his shirt and show his chest” at the border.   

“Unfortunately, that’s not the only humiliating and potentially violent incident that I’m hearing,” she said.

One of the stories that Ashton-Cirillo wrote for LGBTQ Nation while in Ukraine highlighted problems that trans people had when they tried to leave the country because their ID documents did not match their gender identity.

Gender Stream, a Ukrainian advocacy group, helped more than 50 trans and nonbinary people obtain the necessary paperwork that allowed them to leave the country. Ashton-Cirillo acknowledged there was “gatekeeping, but people could get out.”

“Nobody knew what to do,” she said, referring to the treatment of trans and nonbinary Ukrainians who wanted to leave the country immediately after the war began. “Every male was mobilized. It was just something I don’t think was ever going to come up in the purview. The other thing not coming up in the purview was getting a trans journalist popping in with an ID that was totally different. I didn’t expect to get let in. I didn’t expect to get credentialed.”

Russian airstrike killed activist days before Ashton-Cirillo arrived in Kharkiv

Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade that she wanted to go to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and cover Russia’s efforts to seize it. Ashton-Cirillo instead traveled to Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in eastern Ukraine.

Elvira Schemur, a volunteer for Kyiv Pride and Kharkiv Pride, was inside the regional administration building in Kharkiv on March 1, 2022, when a Russian missile struck it. The 21-year-old law student was among those who were killed.

Ashton-Cirillo arrived in Kharkiv eight days after Scheumer’s death.

CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward was among the journalists who reported from Kharkiv during the first weeks of the war. Ashton-Cirillo recalled to the Blade a conversation that she had with her shortly after she arrived in the city.

“Clarissa says to me, via the Twitter Space, Sarah, I’ve been following your work in Kharkiv. It’s great,” recalled Ashton-Cirillo. “If you don’t leave you’re going to be traumatized for the rest of your life because this is the worst bombing … she knows it.”

“She’s an idol of mine,” she added. “She’s somebody that I look up to from a journalistic standpoint … I didn’t understand what that meant because I’m embedded with security services and not only am I trans, I’m living with security forces during the bombings as a trans woman and a journalist and I’m living with them. I was seeing things that no one else was seeing, but I was also living in a bubble and because of that I was living this life of war and I was living this life of terrorism and death every single day, but I didn’t realize it.”

Ashton-Cirillo said the only foreigner she saw from the time she arrived in Kharkiv until April 21 was an Al-Jazeera reporter who visited the same site that Russia had attacked. 

“I was in a bubble and didn’t realize what I was going through was not normal,” she said. “It was not normal because journalists come in and out, they have each other to talk with. I was totally on my own.”

Ashton-Cirillo lived and worked with local security officials. She also helped them deliver weapons to checkpoints while she was not writing about the war.

The mayor of Zolochiv, a village in Kharkiv Oblast that is 10 miles from the Russian border, named Ashton-Cirillo his official representative in negotiations with foreign aid groups after he met her. She said there “was devastation” in the village when she first arrived.

“I’m on the Russian border and I’m being empowered as power of attorney for this town of Zolochiv. This was my focus in between my writing,” she said. “I would go up there and do my things, but I was not a combatant yet.”

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson targets Ashton-Cirillo

Russia’s castration of gay Ukrainian men and hunt lists for LGBTQ and intersex people in Mariupol and other cities are among the stories that Ashton-Cirillo wrote for LGBTQ Nation. 

She notes in one LGBTQ Nation article that Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on April 21 publicly accused her of participating in the disappearance of journalist Gonzalo Lira, who, she noted “was being held by Ukrainian State Security services.” Zakharova, according to Ashton-Cirillo, described her as a “transgender journalist from Las Vegas” who took pictures with “gangsters,” a reference to Ukrainian soldiers.

“It made me cry. It was the first time I cried,” Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade. “It was the worst and then it unleashed right-wing trolls. Glenn Greenwald jumped on it.”

Joe Oltmann, a Denver-based podcast host, falsely accused Ashton-Cirillo of murdering Lira. Ashton-Cirillo has filed a defamation lawsuit against the prominent 2020 election denier. 

“All this insanity was going on and I’m crying,” said Ashton-Cirillo.

She said a member of the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian National Guard unit that defended the port city of Mariupol during the Russian siege, asked her why she was crying.

“You come out to the rocket attacks. You see dead bodies. You don’t cry,” he said.

“Maria Zakharova attacked me,” said Ashton-Cirillo.

“I’m so proud of you because that means you’re really getting to them,” responded the Azov Regiment member.

Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade the conversation “changed my whole mindset.”

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo)

Ashton-Cirillo soon began to work for the Kharkiv Media Hub, which supports journalists who are working in the city. Ashton-Cirillo also continued her work with Zolochiv and NGOs, including José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, once they reached areas that Ukrainian forces had liberated from Russia.

“I was so proud to see these guys,” she said, referring to World Central Kitchen. “This organization gets it.”

Ashton-Cirillo began to work for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in a civilian capacity in August. She continued to represent Zolochiv.

“My mind wasn’t on the stories anymore,” said Ashton-Cirillo. “I knew how much work I was doing for the government. I pushed the envelope as far as I could without, I think, getting into an ethical dilemma from a journalistic standpoint because I love journalism.”

Ashton-Cirillo said discussions about her enlisting in the Armed Forces of Ukraine were already taking place when the Kharkiv counteroffensive began in September. Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade that she also worked to counter Russian propaganda that included the claim that Russian troops had captured Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk Oblast.

“I’m in Bakhmut. Fighting is literally all around. I’m standing there grinning at City Hall, look, Russia doesn’t have it. It’s lies,” she recalled. “I get a phone call that night, we’re ready to enlist you.”

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo)

A journalist drove Ashton-Cirillo from Bakhmut to Kyiv.

“I had never been to Kyiv,” she said. “I get to Kyiv, and it’s bustling and its amazing. I was frozen with disbelief. Wow, Kyiv is great.”

Ashton-Cirillo was in Kyiv on Oct. 10 when Russia launched a rocket attack against Kyiv. She said one of the rockets landed less than 700 feet from the apartment in which she was staying. Ashton-Cirillo was the first journalist on the scene.

“I had my credentials with me and I had my vest and my helmet and I did a video that was viewed millions of times,” she said, noting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shared it on his official Instagram page and Ukrainian television stations broadcast it on their nightly news casts. “That was it. That was my last journalistic endeavor.”

Ashton-Cirillo a short time later went to a recruiting station to enlist.

She said a commander who brought her there told her she will “have to prove yourself.” Ashton-Cirillo told him that she was willing to join a frontline unit, she could march 30 km. with a 20 kg. backpack and she was willing to kill someone.

“One of the reasons I was willing to join is because the war became so personal,” she said, noting she had conducted interviews while rocket attacks and shelling was taking place. “I knew how to shoot. I’m a country girl from the South, so I know how to shoot. Country girl will survive.”

“I want to serve this fight for freedom, this fight for liberty, this fight for all of us,” added Ashton-Cirillo. “As a trans person I want to survive, but most specifically as a human being … it became personal, and I was a citizen of Kharkiv. I was a citizen of Kharkiv Oblast and all of us went through something horrifying, life-changingly traumatic and I was ready.”

Ashton-Cirillo described her commander as a “huge champion of mine.” She told the Blade he asked his colonel whether her gender identity mattered.

“He said no,” recalled Ashton-Cirillo. “I told you she looks healthy. That was it.”

She had a standard physical at a military hospital the next day and “no one batted an eyelash.” Ashton-Cirillo passed, and had 1 1/2 days to return to Kharkiv to get her belongings before she reported to her base.

She is a combat medic because of her background in health care.

“We’re in the field,” she said. “I’m not at the front currently. However, we all live together. Every one of the soldiers knows I’m trans. Some people are completely great with it.”

Ashton-Cirillo — who speaks with her fellow soldiers through Google Translate, English or another language, such as German or Spanish, because she does not speak Ukrainian — said some of them have asked her why she is trans and for how long she has known about her gender identity. Ashton-Cirillo described these questions as “genuine curiosity.” She also said “everybody was cheering me on” when Russian state media last month once again featured her.

“They had me shooting machine guns. They had my training videos and that we’re coming to Crimea,” recalled Ashton-Cirillo. “It backfired so badly on them because it was almost as though you paid them to publish this because you managed to say on Russian television ‘Slava Ukraini’ (‘Glory to Ukraine’) twice. What better publicity and they allowed me to say we’re going to Crimea.”

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo)

The Blade spoke with Ashton-Cirillo while she was in D.C. to speak with lawmakers on behalf of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry about continued support for Ukraine.

Ashton-Cirillo met with U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), members of U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho)’s staff and other lawmakers or their senior aides. 

“We were focused on Ukraine,” said Ashton-Cirillo. “I’m here in a nonpartisan manner. I’m here representing Ukraine’s interests, so we can win this war with our greatest ally, the United States. They met with me.”

“The senator and the senator’s staff were absolutely amazing with me and not in a fictitious way,” she said. “We got down to business.”

Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade that her gender identity was not discussed.

“I haven’t been focused on identity for 9 and 1/2 months,” she said. “I’m sitting in your office. I want to say thank you for your support of Ukraine.”

Ashton-Cirillo also met with activists and NGO representatives in D.C. She traveled to New York; Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas, where she visited her child, before she flew back to Poland on Tuesday.

Ashton-Cirillo once she landed in Warsaw picked up an ambulance that drove into Ukraine the following day.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, right, holds a Ukrainian flag after she picked up an ambulance donated to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Warsaw on Dec. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Ambulances for Ukraine)

Zelenskyy on Wednesday met with President Joe Biden at the White House. The Ukrainian president also spoke to Congress before he left D.C.

Zelenskyy after he met with Biden at the White House in 2021 pledged Ukraine would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Ukraine since 2015 has banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, with President Joe Biden at the White House on Dec. 21, 2022. (Official White House photo public domain)

Zelenskyy over the summer announced he supports civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Ukrainian lawmakers last week unanimously approved a media regulation bill that will ban hate speech and incitement based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“President Zelenskyy’s response to the civil partnership petition shows his commitment to human rights and the rule of law,” Ashton-Cirillo told the Blade on Wednesday in a WhatsApp message. “He could have avoided answering or hiding behind the ongoing war against the Russian invaders but instead gave a clear response based on dignity and liberty.”

“In Ukraine it is key to remember this is a society that is literally fighting for liberation, for all its citizens,” she said. “The new media law is an extension of that.”

Ashton-Cirillo further stressed that Ukraine “cares about humanity, Putin and his war criminals don’t.”

“The separation between the two societies are clear,” she said. “Life in Ukraine is not about tolerance but about freedom. And now the broader world is beginning to realize this as every new civil rights advance takes place.”


Eastern Europe

Ukrainian MP introduces bill to legally recognize same-sex couples

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy backs civil partnership law



A Pride commemoration in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 25, 2022. A Ukrainian MP has introduced a bill that would legally recognize same-sex couples in the country. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Women's Association)

A Ukrainian MP has introduced a bill that would extend legal recognition to same-sex couples.

Inna Sovsun in a series of tweets notes 56 percent of Ukrainians “support same-sex partnerships” and she hopes “the majority of the Parliament, including [President Volodymyr Zelenskyy)’s party will take the lead from the people.”

“Ukrainians can no longer wait for equality,” said Sovsun. “We must do it immediately. LGBT Ukrainians deserve to have a family. Every day can be their last. Just like for any other Ukrainian. There is no time for hesitation. Let’s legalize same-sex partnerships in Ukraine already this year.”

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

“Every day, Ukrainian LGBT military personnel put themselves in danger protecting us,” said Sovsun. “Yet if they are in relationships, the state does not recognize those. This means that their partners do not have the same benefits as partner (sic) in heterosexual relationships.”

“This includes some very unsettling sitaution (sic),” she added. “If (an) LGBT military person is wounded, his/her partner would not be able to make decisions about his/her medical treatment.”

Zelenskyy last summer said he supports a civil partnerships law for same-sex couples. 

Ukrainian lawmakers late last year unanimously approved a media regulation bill that bans hate speech and incitement based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova during a Jan. 26 event in D.C. that highlighted LGBTQ and intersex servicemembers in her country applauded Kyiv Pride and other advocacy groups. Markarova acknowledged “not everything is perfect,” but added Ukraine is “moving in the right direction.”

“We together will not only fight the external enemy, but also will see equality,” she said.

Ruslana Hnatchenko, funding manager of the Sphere Women’s Association, a Kharkiv-based group that promotes LGBTQ and intersex rights in Ukraine, last month told the Washington Blade during a Zoom interview from the Hungarian capital of Budapest that conservative politicians, prominent figures within the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches and many Ukrainians themselves remain opposed to LGBTQ and intersex rights. Hnatchenko said she believes Zelenskyy “believes in human rights,” but the landscape to advance LGBTQ and intersex rights in her country remains complex.

“He (Zelenskyy) is kind of between a rock and a hard place in that sense, but I believe that human rights in Ukraine will overcome, especially after our victory,” said Hnatchenko. “We will make progress.”

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Eastern Europe

Zelenskyy notes LGBTQ rights support in Golden Globes speech

Ukrainian president is a former actor and comedian



Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Screen capture via Twitter)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday in a virtual Golden Globes appearance made a broad reference to LGBTQ and intersex rights in his country.

“I can definitely tell you who were the best in the previous year: It was you, the free people of the free world. Those who united around the support of the free Ukrainian people in our common struggle for freedom, democracy, for the right to live, to love, to give birth, no matter who are you are, no matter where you are from, no matter who you are with,” said Zelenskyy in a video message shown during the Golden Globes ceremony that took place at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, in 2021 pledged Ukraine would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after he met with President Joe Biden at the White House.

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

Zelenskyy last summer said he supports a civil partnerships law for same-sex couples.

Ukrainian lawmakers last Dec. 15 unanimously approved a media regulation bill that bans hate speech and incitement based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Zelenskyy less than a week later traveled to D.C.

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Eastern Europe

Polish president vetoes anti-LGBTQ bill that targeted schools

Measure would have further limited access to comprehensive sex ed



Polish President Andrzej Duda (YouTube screenshot from PBS News Hour)

A controversial bill that would further limit access to comprehensive sexual education and anti-LGBTQ discrimination preventative classes in schools in Poland was vetoed last week by President Andrzej Duda.

The measure, similar in nature to an earlier measure also vetoed by Duda, would have implemented restrictions on curriculum and school activities, giving the country’s central government more control over the regional school systems and administrative staff.

The legislation was put forward by the majority ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland’s Parliament, known as the Sejm and Senate. Przemysław Czarnek, the ultra-conservative education minister who backed both bills, has publicly claimed that reforms are needed to “protect children from moral corruption.”

Both measures would give school administrators and superintendents the power to remove books, lessons, and ban student participation in events or clubs that are LGBTQ affirming.

The first passed the lower house of Poland’s Parliament, known as the Sejm, this past Jan. 13, in a 227-214 vote. Duda vetoed that initial version in March 2022. Undeterred law makers then drafted a later version, which moved control over directly to the education ministry.

Czarnek,  who has been vehemently opposed to the LGBTQ rights and the country’s equality movement, working with lawmakers was able to get the second version through the Parliament this past October.

The law, if signed, would have allowed education minister-appointed provincial education superintendents to suspend headteachers [principals/headmasters] if they conclude there is an “urgent threat to the safety of students during activities organized by a school.”

Czarnek, has been a leading figure in a campaign against what he has labeled “LGBT ideology,” which the minster alleges “comes from the same roots as Nazism.”

The legislation specified that schools would have had to submit details of extracurricular activities for the superintendent’s approval at least two months before they take place. The legislation also introduces additional hurdles for seeking the consent of parents for such activities.

Opponents of the measures say they were intended to prevent certain outside groups — such as sex educators or those speaking about LGBTQ issues — from entering schools.

Czarnek has staked out several public vitriolic anti-LGBTQ positions that has included an attack on the LGBTQ community in the U.S., specifically West Hollywood, Calif.

Speaking with a reporter on Serwis Info Poranek with the national state-run TVP Info (TVP3 Polska) last June, the education minister said (translated from Polish):

“Let’s end the discussion about these LGBT abominations, homosexuality, bisexuality, parades of equality. Let us defend the family, because failure to defend the family leads to what you see.

Przemysław Czarnek (Screenshot via Serwis Info Poranek)

As he spoke these words, he was holding a phone in his hand, on the display of which he showed a picture of several people.

“These are the Los Angeles guys in downtown last June. I was on a delegation there, I was passing through, there was a so-called gay pride parade there,” he added. “We are at an earlier stage, there are no such things with us yet, but such chaps shamelessly (shamelessly – ed.) Walk the streets of the western city of Los Angeles,” he added.

Passage of the second measure led to widespread protest by students and advocates across Poland.

Human Rights Watch noted that students and activists regularly gathered in front of Warsaw’s Presidential Palace and across the country to demand respect for their rights.

They called on Duda to veto a controversial bill that would further limit access to comprehensive sexuality education and anti-discrimination classes in schools.

Last Thursday Duda told reporters:

“I refuse to sign this bill,” said Duda. “I understand that some people will be disappointed, but a large part of our society will be calmed by this [decision].”

He then noted that he had received more than 130 protest letters against the law, some signed by dozens of organizations, with political views ranging from progressives to ultra far-right.

“Entities from all sides of the political scene find points in this act that they have very serious doubts about and against which they protest,” said Duda. “Unfortunately, it has not been possible to achieve what I would call a social compromise … The bill has not received wide social acceptance.”

The president emphasized — as he did when vetoing the similar law last March — that Russia’s war in neighboring Ukraine makes it all the more important for “us to have peace” at home rather than conflict and division.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said: “The public has taken to Poland’s streets countless times since the conservative Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and launched an attack on women’s and LGBT rightsjudicial independence and education. Despite enduring civil society resistance and international pressure, the Polish government is likely to continue trying to limit students’ access to accurate, inclusive and age-appropriate sexuality education.”

Notes from Poland reported that one of the opposition progressive MPs, Katarzyna Lubnauer of the liberal Modern (Nowoczesna) party, hailed Duda’s veto as “a great victory for Polish schools, for all NGOs, for parents, children and all those who participate in education”

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