The role of gay soldiers, the lack of legal rights for their partners, and the threat of Russia imposing anti-L.G.B.T. policies have turned the war into a catalyst for change in Ukraine.
Like many people at war in Ukraine, Olexander Shadskykh, 23, a combat medic in the army, has been forced to grapple with his own mortality. But he also has another fear weighing on his mind: What if he is killed and his boyfriend doesn’t find out in time for his funeral?
Under Ukrainian Ministry of Defense regulations, the military must inform the parents and spouse or other close relatives of a soldier who is killed. But in a country that does not recognize gay marriage or even civil unions, none of that applies to a same-sex partner. Mr. Shadskykh fears that if he doesn’t return home, his boyfriend, whom he asked be identified with only his given name, Vitalik, won’t learn about his death to say a final goodbye.
“My mother doesn’t know about Vitalik,” he said. “I want to tell her when I get home.”
Gay rights advocates said Mr. Shadskykh is one of hundreds — possibly thousands — of L.G.B.T. military recruits, facing a lack of legal rights for them and their partners that suddenly poses a palpable challenge in wartime. In Ukraine, they do not have the automatic right to visit a hospitalized partner, to share property ownership, to care for a deceased partner’s children, to claim the body of a partner killed in war or to collect death benefits from the state.
But the war is adding impetus to a drive to legalize gay marriage, with a petition recently reaching the desk of President Volodymyr Zelensky calling for same-sex partners to have the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to marry.
“At this time, every day can be the last,” says the petition, which has garnered nearly 30,000 signatures, enough to trigger a review by the president.
The petition’s author is Anastasia Sovenko, 24, an English teacher from Zaporizhzhia, in southern Ukraine, who identifies as bisexual. She said she felt compelled to draft the petition after reading an article about heterosexual soldiers rushing to marry their partners before heading to war, and feeling sad, angry and frustrated that same-sex couples did not have that option.
“They won’t be able to visit their soul mate in the hospital if something happens,” Ms. Sovenko said. “If they have a child, then the child will be taken from the parent who’s still alive if it’s not a mom who gave a birth. Because for the law they aren’t relatives. They are just two strangers. And this just could be the last one opportunity in their lives to get married.”
Mr. Zelensky can decline to act on the petition, or endorse it by drafting a gay rights bill and sending it for a vote in Parliament, where his governing Servant of the People Party has a sizable majority. He could also simply pass the issue on to Parliament for debate. Mr. Zelensky’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Any attempt to change the law faces a high barrier in Ukraine’s Constitution, which states that “marriage is based on the free consent of a woman and a man.” Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds of Parliament.
Gay rights advocates say they hope that Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian who has cast the war as a global fight for liberal democratic values and whose country recently became a candidate to join the European Union, will seize on marriage equality as an issue that can improve Ukraine’s liberal credentials and help push it closer to the West.
Inna Sovsun, a lecturer in public policy at the Kyiv School of Economics who is a lawmaker for Holos, an opposition liberal party that favors L.G.B.T. rights, said Parliament remained deeply divided over gay rights, with a majority undecided on the issue. But she said Mr. Zelensky might persuade skeptics if he spoke out forcefully in favor of a law.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- Setting the Stage: Ahead of sham elections on annexation, the Kremlin is using fear and indoctrination to force those in occupied regions of Ukraine to adopt a Russian way of life.
- In the East: Ukrainians in the embattled Donetsk Province face a grim choice after President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a mandatory evacuation of the region.
- In the South: As Ukraine lays the groundwork for a counteroffensive to retake Kherson, Russia is racing to bolster its troops in the region.
- Economic Havoc: As food, energy and commodity prices continue to climb around the world, few countries are feeling the bite as much as Ukraine.
Assuring rights for L.G.B.T. people has taken on added urgency at a time when Moscow is seizing territory and apparently plans to annex it into Russia, where sexual minorities routinely face official and unofficial discrimination, homophobia and social stigma.
In Ukraine, the sight of L.G.B.T.Q. people in uniform fighting back against Russian invaders has helped foster acceptance of sexual minorities.
“When we defend the country, we dismantle Russian propaganda about all gay people being communists, Marxists, and anti-Ukraine,” said Viktor Pylypenko, who has been fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Dombas region and is the director of an organization of L.G.B.T. people who serve in the military. “We have destroyed these homophobic myths by fighting the Russians and risking our lives for Ukraine.”
But the drive for same-sex marriage faces significant resistance in a country where the Eastern Orthodox church and traditional mores are deeply embedded in the social fabric. Opponents include some conservative members of Mr. Zelensky’s own party, who have called for a law fining “homosexual propaganda.”
Rights advocates said L.G.B.T. people in Ukraine routinely face discrimination, though not as widely as in Russia, and pride events in the country have been marred by threats and violence from anti-gay protesters and far-right groups.
Social attitudes have been changing in Ukraine, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1991, but the extent of that change is unclear. Thousands danced on floats at last year’s Pride Parade in Kyiv. The gay rights movement was energized by the 2014 Maidan revolution, which ousted Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president and helped deepen ties between gay activists and other branches of civil society.
A telephone poll in May of 2,000 respondents by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that, over the past six years, the number of Ukrainians with a “negative view” of the L.G.B.T. community had decreased to 38 percent from about 60 percent. But a Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that 69 percent of Ukrainians said society should not accept homosexuality.
Georgiy Mazurashu, a member of Parliament from Mr. Zelensky’s party who proposed the law against homosexual propaganda, said a majority of Ukrainians opposed same-sex marriage. He argued that gay rights legislation would send an “alarming signal for society and our traditional values.” Alluding to the war, he added, “We have a lot of other, incomparably more urgent and serious problems.”
But war and death are pushing the issue to the surface.
Since his boyfriend of 13 years joined the military in February, Andriy Maymulakhin, who runs a center in Kyiv advocating for L.G.B.T. rights, said that he worried what would happen to the home they built together and to their three Westies, Archer, Astra and Vega, if his partner, Andriy Markiv, 38, were killed.
That concern became all too real last month, when Mr. Markiv, a builder serving as a cook in the Ukrainian National Guard, was seriously injured during Russian shelling.
“If something were to happen to my boyfriend during the war,” said Mr. Maymulakhin, “I would not be able to see him in the hospital. If he’s well enough to call for me, I would be allowed inside. But what if he’s in a coma? No one would let me in.”
In 2014, Mr. Maymulakhin, 52, and Mr. Markiv filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which is still pending, arguing that Ukraine was discriminating against them based on sexual orientation, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court has ruled that nations are not required to allow same-sex marriage, but they must make civil union available to same-sex couples.
Oleksa Lungu, 22, said that one of the toughest decisions he had to ever make was whether to attend the funeral of Roman Tkachenko, 21, his former boyfriend, who was killed in battle in May near Kharkiv.
“How would I explain to his mother who I was? What was I doing there?” Mr. Lungu asked. “How I knew Roman?”
In the end, he went to the funeral.
“We weren’t married, we weren’t even in a relationship, so of course I wasn’t expecting that I could have any kind of rights to his body,” said Mr. Lungu. “But I wanted to see him before he was buried forever.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.