Over a year after Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, the socially conservative country is on the brink of a reckoning for its LGBTQ+ citizens.
Since the war began, LGBTQ+ Ukrainians have proven themselves on the frontlines. Whereas pride parades were often attacked and protested in the country before the invasion, the work of queer military personnel has been shifting public opinion, and even affecting legislation.
Ivan Honzyk is one of the LGBTQ+ soldiers changing lives. His medical unit provides emergency first aid and evacuates wounded soldiers on the frontlines near Bakhmut. After seeing some of the bloodiest battles of the war, Honzyk recently told NBC that his work, alongside his "uncompromising self-expression," has been changing the minds of his companions.
“My fellow soldiers are really impressed with what I’ve done in Bakhmut, the massive scale of work that I did there, and after that they just don’t care about who I sleep with,” he said.
Honzyk has a large presence online, occasionally posting about the war while focusing on his identity. Several other LGBTQ+ soldiers have taken to posting online, with some wearing unicorn symbols on their uniforms in an effort to spread awareness of their contributions. To Honzyk, their work has pushed change more than their past pride parades could.
“The parades and pride events were not enough,” Honzyk added. “The better way to change attitudes is what we’re doing now. We entered the military and we’re showing that we’re worthy. We’re not hiding somewhere at the back. We’re doing real missions, dangerous missions.”
The Ukrainian legislature has seemingly recognized queer military efforts, recently drafting legislation that would not only recognize same-sex relationships, but protect inheritance, medical, and other rights for the partners of LGTBQ+ soldiers killed or wounded in battle.
Across the border, Russian president Vladimir Putin has outlawed "gay propaganda," making it effectively illegal to be LGBTQ+ in public, as well as banning the topics in media and online. For some Ukrainians, homophobia and transphobia are now associated with Russian values.
For those still not in support of LGBTQ+ rights, Honzyk said that he isn't worried about their opinions as he returns to the frontlines.
“If you accept yourself, then the world will accept you too. You need to remember a lot of people are wearing masks, but you shouldn’t do that because you have only one life, and any day a missile may kill you,” he continued. “Don’t care about what other people say, because they’ll always find somebody to hate.”
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