A 2018 LGBTQI parade in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Michael Bleyzer

As explosions rock cities across Ukraine and air raid alarms pierce the air in Kyiv, a city Alex Burlakov once called home, he thinks of his sister, his niece and nephew, and his mother there. He says he also fears for the queer Ukrainians who could be tortured and killed under Putin’s regime. 

And with every passing hour, he says the Russian invasion of Ukraine is more perilous for queer people in the nation.

“People underestimate the risk for LGBTQ+ people,” Burlakov tells the Reader. “There is a huge risk aside from physical danger to people with invasion and the war. If something were to happen, I can see how it may be riskier for people who are in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially activists who are doing that [work] openly.”

Burlakov was born in Makiyivka, a city in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. in 2016. Now living in Chicago, he’s a member of the activist group LGBTQ Ukrainians in America (QUA) and is among those raising the alarm for what Russia’s invasion means for LGBTQ+ people there, in light of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s long-standing repression of the community.

“I’m scared for my family and a backsliding of democracy,” says a trans woman who the Reader agreed not to identify because she has not come out. “We have been worried that this would happen since 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea.”

Her grandparents fled Soviet-controlled Ukraine in World War II and eventually immigrated to the U.S., and she grew up speaking Ukrainian. Now, watching from afar missile strikes over Lviv, as air sirens that she says haven’t blown since WWII sound off, and civilian buildings hit by Russian artillery, she too fears for queer Ukrainians under Putin’s rule.

“If Ukraine falls, there will be more anti-LGBT sentiment and persecution worldwide,” she says.

Russia has long been a hot spot for anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policies. The nation drew international criticism in 2013 when federal lawmakers amended a child protection law to make it illegal to distribute materials that support non-heterosexual relationships to minors.

Bogdan Globa, co-founder of QUA, said in a press release that previous Russian conquests have had disastrous effects on queer rights in Eastern Europe. When Russia annexed Crimea—then a semi-autonomous region in southern Ukraine—in 2014, Globa says queer rights were quickly under siege. 

“The LGBTQ community in Crimea experienced particular hardship: losing access to medical treatment and finding themselves criminalized,” Globa says. “Many gay people were tortured or ended up in psychiatric clinics.”

QUA is staging a protest Saturday at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City over the invasion and the potentially deadly consequences it has for queer Ukrainians. 

Crimea isn’t the only Russia-controlled republic to face allegations of torturing gay men.

A bombshell 2017 report by the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed allegations that officials in the Russian republic of Chechnya had undertaken what many called a purge of gay men in the nation—including forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killlings. Witnesses said men who were perceived to be gay or bisexual were also held in what they called “concentration camps.” At the time, reports said more than 100 men were detained and at least three had died in the camps.

The following July, Novaya Gazeta published more than two dozen names of men allegedly shot to death by Chechen authorities months earlier. The Washington Blade reported at the time that reports that gay men were among those killed were unconfirmed. The State Department said the reports were “troubling” and called for an investigation by the Russian government. 

A statement by Ukraine’s oldest LGBTQ+ rights group, Nash Mir (“Our World”), all but confirms concerns that such violence will reach Ukraine. The statement cites a speech by Putin in support of “traditional values,” a phrase often used as an anti-queer dogwhistle. 

Rémy Bonny, who runs a European LGBTQ+ rights group, said on social media that “confirmed intelligence suggests that post-invasion, Russia will kill representatives of LGBTIQ+ organizations in an attempt to demoralize the society to resist.” NBC additionally reported that the U.S. representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva believes Russia plans to either kill or send to camps Ukrainian dissidents—namely religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ people.

With that in mind, activists are calling on U.S. officials to offer asylum to queer Ukrainians. Dane Bland, development and communications director for Rainbow Railroad, a national nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ people suffering state violence, tells the Reader that the organization is “ready to respond to any requests for help from LGBTQI+ individuals in the region, including Ukrainians.” 

“The situation in Ukraine is alarming,” Bland says. “It has been nearly six months since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and we have seen firsthand how geopolitical conflicts disproportionately affect marginalized communities including LGBTQI+ people. 

“We are concerned about the impact this conflict will have on the LGBTQI+ community in Ukraine and are preparing, in consultation with our partners in the region and around the world, how we can provide help to individuals at risk.”

State Department officials did not respond to inquiries about asylum for queer Ukrainians by press time.

The trans woman whose family fled Ukraine in WWII says Putin’s warmongering in eastern Europe and anti-trans lawmaking in the U.S. aren’t unrelated phenomena.

“The same folks who are propagating Texas’s anti-trans laws are the same ones worshiping Putin and Trump,” she says. “We need to unify and realize that this is bigger than ourselves.”

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.