LGBTQ Ukrainians and Russians find solidarity in Berlin | Russia-Ukraine war

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Berlin, Germany – Having visited the German capital twice earlier than, Polina Punegova, from the Russian port metropolis of St Petersburg, had usually advised her Ukrainian companion Yulia Maznyk that she would love Berlin’s structure, graffitied streets and spirit of open-mindedness, and that they need to go to collectively.

However following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the Moscow-based couple discovered themselves in Berlin in lower than holiday-like circumstances.

They had been visiting Budapest when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“The whole lot was a large number,” says Punegova, 27, referring to the confusion that dogged them within the first days of the conflict. On the airport, they found that their flight had been cancelled and that there wouldn’t be one other, recounts Punegova, an IT mission supervisor, whereas talking on the Berlin group house of Quarteera, a German volunteer-led organisation supporting the rights of LGBTQ Russian audio system.

As the cash of their Russian financial institution accounts misplaced worth in a single day as a consequence of sanctions, they needed to react shortly. “We had a lot to debate: What are we going to do now? What’s going to we do for cash? What about our life in Moscow and our two pets – a canine and a cat?” says Punegova.

Amongst their issues was how Russian authorities would possibly deal with Kyiv-born Maznyk, 37, in the event that they returned to Moscow. Some months beforehand, upon returning to Russia after a visit to Ukraine, Maznyk was saved for 2 hours on the airport whereas authorities checked her paperwork. “The entire thing was fairly unusual,” says Punegova. “We had been fearful that if we went again simply because the conflict was starting, authorities could preserve her passport and we weren’t positive what they might do along with her, both.”

Then got here alarming information of anti-war protesters being tortured by police in Russia. Apprehensive that there could possibly be a wider crackdown together with on the LGBTQ group, already hounded by authorities, the couple made the troublesome choice to not return residence.

Reaching out to some help teams on social media and their buddies, they discovered concerning the robust community of help on provide in Berlin for LGBTQ individuals. The pair determined to go to Berlin, the place they discovered an important help system via Quarteera.

Local weather of hostility

Punegova and Maznyk are among the many tens of millions of individuals displaced by the conflict in Ukraine. Greater than six million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine, with round 60,000 in Berlin. A whole bunch of hundreds of Russians have additionally left their nation, many fearing persecution for opposing the conflict, with some exiles now within the German capital.

Though there may be little or no knowledge on what number of Russian exiles determine as LGBTQ, activists in Berlin inform Al Jazeera that because the conflict began, the variety of requests from LGBTQ individuals nonetheless within the nation in search of help on the right way to depart has risen.

Russia’s LGBTQ group has lengthy confronted hostility and discrimination. Relating to authorized rights, comparable to safety in opposition to discrimination, and social attitudes in the direction of the group on points like same-sex marriage and adoptions, Russia ranks 34 out of 100 (with 100 being essentially the most equal) on an equality index by Equaldex, a crowdsourcing collaborative platform that tracks LGBTQ rights globally.

Hostility grew with the 2013 so-called “homosexual propaganda” legislation that banned materials selling “non-traditional sexual relations to minors”.

Human rights groups say the legislation has led to elevated homophobic and transphobic violence and has been used to stamp out the group’s visibility by shutting down LGBTQ web sites that present data and sources to youngsters, cancelling main occasions like Pleasure marches and curbing help teams.

This hostility has permeated different Russian-speaking areas. Within the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, lately, greater than a hundred men have been kidnapped, tortured and forcibly disappeared in what have been described as “anti-gay purges” by human rights teams. Chechen forces are amongst these deployed to Ukraine.

Ukraine fares a little better (44 out of 100), in keeping with Equaldex.

The group doesn’t have entry to the identical authorized rights as opposite-sex {couples}, and same-sex marriage is just not recognised. Whereas homophobia and transphobia are skilled in areas comparable to employment, in keeping with activists, since 2015 it has been in opposition to the legislation in Ukraine to discriminate in opposition to somebody within the office primarily based on their gender or sexual orientation, and following legislation in 2016, it has grow to be legally simpler for transgender individuals to transition.

Ukrainian refugees arrive at Przemysl Glowny train station to onward their journey, after fleeing the Russian inv
Greater than six million Ukrainians have fled their nation [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Fears in Ukraine

Activists each inside and out of doors Ukraine say they worry what Russia’s homophobic and transphobic state insurance policies could imply for Ukrainian LGBTQ individuals beneath Russian invading forces.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Heart for Civil Liberties, a human rights organisation primarily based in Ukraine, says that areas held by Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014 have seen persecution of LGBTQ individuals.

“We’ve got been documenting circumstances of discrimination in opposition to the group,” she says, talking over the telephone from Kyiv. “There’s a very particular ideology round gender roles and sexuality that Russia has been making an attempt to impose on Ukrainian territories for years.”

Working alongside LGBTQ organisations in Ukraine, Russia and the encompassing territories, the organisation has been monitoring the wellbeing of LGBTQ individuals since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the battle broke out in japanese Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists.

Matviychuk says they’ve spoken to LGBTQ individuals about what life is like for them in Crimea and the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk areas, collectively generally known as Donbas, managed by Russian-backed separatists, and located that they stay in an “ambiance of worry” and discrimination. One of many largest points is that officers in these areas “have imported [the] Kremlin’s homophobic legal guidelines” that legitimise the discrimination and the criminalisation of the LGBTQ group, says Matviychuk.

A 2016 report that Matviychuk’s organisation labored on detailed discrimination inspired by authorities buildings. The report listed situations of presidency representatives expressing homophobic views in speeches to incite bodily violence in opposition to members of the LGBTQ group and homophobia in the direction of these thought-about, within the phrases of Sergey Aksyonov, the pinnacle of Russia-occupied Crimea, to be “destroying the ethical well being of our nation”. In such an environment, in keeping with the report, one organisation in Crimea tracked homosexual individuals on-line earlier than setting them up on false dates the place they had been overwhelmed after arriving.

The report additionally famous the restrictions round LGBTQ activism in Donbas, the dearth of accessible hormone remedy for transgender individuals, and the precarious scenario for younger LGBTQ people who find themselves unable to entry data or obtain ample psychological help.

Given what has been taking place in areas beneath de facto Russian management since 2014, Matviychuk says it’s unsafe for LGBTQ individuals to be open about their sexual orientation in areas the place Russian troops are current.

LGBTQ activists say that they’ve heard reviews of Russian troopers focusing on the group inside occupied areas, however say it’s laborious to get particular particulars as a consequence of restricted contact with individuals in these locations.

A photo of a large group of people walking through the street holding a large colourful poster with a sentence in Russian and a large group walking behind the poster with some holding a sign that says "Quarteera".
Quarteera, a German volunteer-led organisation supporting the rights of LGBTQ Russian audio system, has been elevating consciousness concerning the dangers confronted by LGBTQ Ukrainians whereas supporting these fleeing the conflict in Ukraine in addition to Russian exiles [Courtesy: Quarteera]


Ukraine’s LGBTQ group faces different challenges, in keeping with activists.

“For LGBTQ individuals nonetheless in Ukraine, the scenario is clearly the worst as they’ve little entry to humanitarian assist, secure shelters and particular medical therapy,” says Quarteera’s Svetlana Shaytanova, 30, who comes from the Siberian metropolis of Omsk however lives in Göttingen, Germany.

Anastasiia Yeva Domani, director of Cohort NGO, an organisation that advocates for the rights of transgender individuals, speaks to Al Jazeera through Zoom as she stands exterior her residence in Kyiv after an air raid warning.

Domani, wearing a cream jacket, says, as she scans the sky, that one of many main issues for the trans group is the dearth of hormone therapy.

“It has gone from dangerous to worse. There’s a actual shortage of hormone provides and people who find themselves transitioning don’t know for positive if they are going to get what they want from week to week,” says Domani.

Along with her organisation primarily based in Kyiv, there may be higher entry to provides than elsewhere within the nation. They’ve arrange a system that permits trans individuals throughout Ukraine to request the hormones they want through a web-based type after which Domani visits pharmacies in Kyiv, collects what is required and mails the treatment.

One other main situation is the ID checks which can be occurring throughout the nation. When a trans individual’s look doesn’t match their gender marker of their paperwork, this has created points comparable to proscribing people from shifting round freely and in lots of circumstances, from leaving the nation.

“There’s a explicit drawback for trans individuals who have ‘male’ marked of their identification paperwork. Since all males are required to remain within the nation to battle, it’s right down to pure luck if a trans individual or somebody who identifies [as] nonbinary has been in a position to depart the nation,” Shaytanova says.

Domani’s organisation is working to handle this situation on a extra systemic, governmental degree.

Lenny Emson is the director of KyivPride. “We’ve got been witnessing a rising variety of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes throughout Ukraine the place members of the group who’re visibly LGBTQ are being attacked,” says Emson, talking from Kyiv.

Activists have known as for an investigation following a report of a violent assault in opposition to two homosexual males within the southern Ukrainian metropolis of Odesa, the place the pair say they had been overwhelmed and subjected to homophobic verbal abuse from Ukrainians in navy uniform.

The police are too busy with the conflict to intervene in such circumstances, in keeping with Emson, who plans to fulfill police drive representatives to handle such circumstances.

And for a lot of LGBTQ individuals, life has grow to be extra precarious. Going through marginalisation and discrimination in employment earlier than the conflict, Emson says many locally at the moment are jobless, requiring meals, cash and help.

A photo of a box of buttons and badges.
Since its founding, Quarteera has been advocating and elevating consciousness across the state of LGBTQ rights in Russia [Courtesy: Quarteera]

Serving to refugees and exiles

Many refugees and exiles have fled to neighbouring nations like Poland and Hungary, which have anti-LGBTQ legal guidelines.

Shaytanova says that among the many latest arrivals to Germany, there have been reviews of discrimination via verbal abuse and unequal therapy.

In line with Maneo, a Berlin-based organisation that tracks circumstances of anti-gay violence, two gay men from Russia had been subjected to homophobic verbal abuse from a employees member working within the refugee asylum division when the pair went to register for asylum in Berlin. They had been then despatched to a cramped refugee house exterior the town regardless of there being lodging accessible within the capital. The organisation has known as on authorities to elucidate why the boys had been handled on this means.

Shaytanova says it is crucial that LGBTQ individuals have entry to secure lodging, particular medical therapies and psychological help.

That is the place Quarteera is available in. Based in 2011, the organisation helps LGBTQ Russian audio system in Germany in addition to in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and has acquired round 3,000 requests from LGBTQ individuals caught up within the battle.

Shaytanova says the organisation needed to mobilise shortly to help LGBTQ arrivals from Ukraine in addition to Russian exiles and combined Ukrainian and Russian same-sex {couples} following the conflict’s outbreak. “The primary two weeks had been actually exhausting,” Shaytanova says.

She says the organisation has helped round 750 individuals on a variety of issues comparable to buying HIV medication, discovering short-term, secure lodging and navigating the German asylum system.

In areas the place they don’t have professionals, comparable to psychologists, they ahead requests to larger organisations.

Within the first few weeks of the conflict, Quarteera was receiving a minimum of 5 messages a day from Russian LGBTQ individuals – round 30 % of requests – in contrast with one or possibly two every week previous to the conflict.

But whereas Quarteera can assist Russians in the identical means they do Ukrainians as soon as they’re in Germany, it’s restricted on how a lot it could possibly provide these inside Russia. “We get quite a lot of requests from individuals saying that they don’t have any visa, no cash, and so they can’t depart Russia. And on this case, now we have to say no. It’s very unhappy, however we’re powerless,” says Shaytanova.

Beneath German legislation, it’s unlawful for them to assist individuals depart their residence nations and search asylum, however Quarteera is presently lobbying to make the asylum course of simpler, she says.

A photo of a large group of people walking and holding vqrious LGBTQA+ posters and flags.
Marina Usmanova (holding a flag), the director of a feminist LGBTQ inclusive organisation in Kherson, says the organisation will proceed to supply help for LGBTQ individuals contained in the nation, in addition to assist individuals evacuate [Courtesy: Marina Usmanova]

Determining the place to go

Quarteera assisted Punegova and Maznyk by offering bureaucratic help and placing them in contact with individuals in comparable positions in order that they’ll search the recommendation and the expertise of others.

When the conflict broke out, the couple headed to Maznyk’s cousin’s residence in Munich to determine what to do, says Punegova. Including to their stress was concern about Maznyk’s mom, who refused to go away Kyiv. “There have been quite a lot of tears and panic assaults throughout these preliminary days,” says Punegova.

After discovering out a few help community in Berlin, they boarded a prepare to the German capital, travelling with just some gadgets of vacation clothes, together with the swimsuits they’d deliberate to put on in Budapest’s baths.

Shortly after their arrival on the emergency flat supplied to them when a buddy posted an Instagram story about their scenario, they had been contacted by Quarteera after an acquittance advised the group they wanted help.

One in every of Quarteera’s 30 “buddies” known as to see what they wanted. It was solely after this name and after listening to the buddy’s reassurances that Quarteera may assist them that the couple begin to fear much less. Now, discovering themselves within the metropolis they all the time needed to go to, Punegova remarks wryly, “It’s humorous how that has turned out.”

A part of the conflict efforts

Marina Usmanova, the director of a feminist LGBTQ inclusive organisation, and Dan Aute, head of the board of an NGO for transgender individuals, each primarily based within the southern Ukrainian metropolis of Kherson, have been in Berlin because the starting of March.

Talking over Zoom, they are saying that regardless of restricted authorized rights and intolerance in the direction of the group from some segments of Ukrainian society, the LGBTQ group in varied cities throughout the nation was growing nicely previous to the conflict.

“That’s why we’re actually grateful to the Ukrainian military. They aren’t solely saving our lives, but additionally our identities as a result of once we are in Ukraine and beneath Ukrainian laws, we’re free to be out as LGBTQ individuals,” says Emson, who has been a visual member of the LGBTQ motion for 20 years.

Eager to not derail the progress made lately, Emson says this yr’s Kyiv Pride will nonetheless go forward. Unable to happen contained in the nation, it should be part of up with Warsaw Pleasure on June 25, when 80,000 contributors are anticipated.

Usmanova and Aute held a solidarity march on Could 17 in Berlin, the Worldwide Day In opposition to Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, with Quarteera to focus on the dangers confronted by their group. They may use funds earmarked for plans disrupted by the conflict to assist LGBTQ individuals in Kherson with meals and different provides and for evacuation.

Nonetheless, Usmanova says it is very important not overlook that “the group may be very huge and various and it’s doing loads for the conflict efforts inside Ukraine”, together with preventing on the entrance strains and offering medical help.

“What has been irritating,” Usmanova says, “is how little focus the media have given LGBTQ individuals, comparable to trans girls who’ve joined the navy, and the function they’ve been enjoying within the conflict efforts.”

A photo of a room with a sofa and the gay flag is painted on the wall behind the sofa.
Quarteera’s lately opened group house is near one of many few remaining components of the Berlin Wall [Gouri Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Serving to others

Punegova and Maznyk, sitting on the Quarteera house as kids performed exterior within the lunchtime solar close to one of many few remaining components of the Berlin Wall, say they lately secured short-term lodging.

Their days have grow to be much less fraught now that they’ve someplace to remain and owing to the help they obtain as a part of a wider group of individuals related to Quarteera.

Punegova’s precedence is to discover a job in Berlin, whereas Maznyk, who used to work as a nanny in Moscow, volunteers at a homeless charity that’s now providing help to Ukrainian refugees. “One of many first issues we did once we received to Berlin was learn the way we will begin serving to others, as a result of the very first thing you are able to do to calm your self down is help others in comparable positions,” says Maznyk, talking in Russian as Punegova interprets for her.

Maznyk worries much less now about her mom, who appears to be in a safer a part of Kyiv and is conserving herself busy by making ready meals and distributing medication to Ukrainian troopers and residents.

The arrival of their canine Mors and their cat Sanya after each travelled by street with a pet journey firm has helped them to really feel a bit of settled, however uncertainty performs on their minds. Buddies again residence inform them they made the best choice.

“Occasions are powerful for individuals residing in Russia proper now, economically, and particularly if you happen to don’t like the present authorities,” Punegova says. “However once we take into consideration the longer term, the primary hope is for this conflict to cease as a result of till that occurs, it’s troublesome to consider what the longer term holds for us.”

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