“Now it’s like the whole international system is crashing,” Shevchenko told me. And in Ukraine, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan, Syria, and countless other conflicts around the world, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups face special vulnerabilities in getting to safety. Earlier this week, armed men broke into the offices of the LGBTQ organization Nash Mir, beating four activists sheltering there.
Many queer Ukrainians are serving in the Ukrainian military, but many trans people—who are elligible for a medical exemption from the order that all men ages 18-60 remain in the country—are being blocked at the border by Ukrainian officials who see an “M” on their official documents, according to reports from many NGOs assisting them.
Queer communities in neighboring countries have mobilized to help Ukrainians fleeing conflict—raising funds, setting up shelters, trying to troubleshoot problems at the border. But LGBTQ people’s rights have been under attack in several of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, and there is a palpable fear that the situation could grow worse if Russia expands its ambitions.
And LGBTQ activists are deeply concerned for queer folks in Russia, where there is a growing expectation that Putin will impose some sort of martial law and they will be hunted along with other opponents of his regime.
“We’re working to shelter refugees while worrying about becoming refugees ourselves,” said one activist in Moldova, where Russian-backed separatists have claimed independence for a region along Ukraine’s southwestern border. “It’s just two hours for Russian troops to reach our capital.”
For now, Kyiv stands. Though a million Ukrainians are estimated to have fled the fighting, some 42 million people remain; many LGBTQ activists are staying to fight, and some who were abroad are returning.
One of those is Lenny Emson, director of Kyiv Pride, who was outside the country when fighting began.
“We’re helping each other, we’re staying together…People are not coming back to the closet,” Emson told me Thursday while making plans to go back. “We’re continuing to fight. So for right now, the question is how to survive—the question is how to keep our people alive.”
And Shevchenko is still in her apartment near Kyiv’s central station, where thousands of panicked civilians have had to fight their way onto trains. Shevchenko told me she has no plans to leave—in fact, most of her team is staying, not just in Kyiv but throughout Ukraine. And that’s true for many LGBTQ activists on the ground.
“I will stay,” Shevchenko said, in order to keep assisting where she can and fight if she must.
When I asked her why she hadn’t made a plan to escape should Kyiv fall, she said, “Because somebody needs to stay.”