The Queer Face of War

Photos and Stories from Ukraine

It's very important to document this moment, and we don't have anyone else who’s doing it. This project is priceless.

—Lenny Emson, Executive Director, Kyiv Pride and Transgender Europe.

Russia is the first invading power to make homophobia a major weapon of war.

Through relentless propaganda and disinformation campaigns, Vladimir Putin and his allies have stirred hatred of LGBTQ people to undermine Ukraine’s independence and alliances with democratic powers. Putin claims to be combating the “outright satanism” of western powers pushing “a complete denial of humanity, the overthrow of faith and traditional values.”

The West "sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen." 

— Vladimir Putin, announcing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2022 (Image via

Ukraine is the first country under siege that has so many queer people willing to publicly tell their stories and show their faces.

From soldiers on the front lines to activists running humanitarian operations to survivors of war crimes, Ukraine’s LGBTQ community is more visible than in any conflict in modern history. And for queer people, visibility is power.

Olha Polyakova of the organization Gender Stream fled her home in Dnipro and helped organize a shelter for LGBTQ people near Ukraine’s western border with the EU.
Anna Zyablikova helped run security at Prides in Kyiv and Kharkiv, facing off against right-wing thugs. That experience helped prepare her to join the Ukrainian army.

A Story That’s Never Been Told

The Queer Face of War combines photo documentary and oral history to produce a community-level portrait of an LGBTQ movement in war.

It is based on on-the-ground reporting with queer Ukrainians since the war’s earliest days. When finished, it will be published as a book and a photo exhibition I plan to present in Ukraine and throughout the US and EU.

Queer stories matter — to Ukraine, and to the world.

Ukraine’s LGBTQ movement is fighting alongside other Ukrainians hoping to build a fully inclusive democracy. Their stories are already building momentum in support of queer people’s rights inside Ukraine. Their stories also have profound implications at a time when anti-democratic forces are exploiting homophobia and transphobia around the world.

Activists Inna Tsarkova (Kyiv Pride), Olena Hanich (Gay Alliance Ukraine), Marlen Scandal (Union of LGBT Military of Ukraine), Lenny Emson (Kyiv Pride), and Anastasiia Domani (Kohort) in Warsaw ahead of a joint Kyiv-Warsaw Pride March, June 2022.
  • Dan and Jenia, a Ukrainian-Russian couple, fled Ukraine in order to stay together after the war began. As a Russian national, Jenia was barred from staying in the country after Russia attacked.
  • Anastasia Baranyuk and Yulia Mulukina, a Russian-Ukrainian couple who fled to Germany when the war began, faced difficulty staying together because they had no legal documentation “proving” their relationship.
  • Andrei Kravchuk (left) co-founded Nash Svit, one of Ukraine’s oldest LGBTQ organizations. Here he is with his partner, Yurii Ochichenko outside the organization’s headquarters, which was attacked by a far-right group in the early days of the war.
  • Oleksandr Shadksyikh was a medical student when the full scale invasion began and volunteered as a combat medic. Here he shows a photo of a piece of shrapnel that nearly killed him during fighting in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
  • Bogdan Globa, a founder of the Ukrainian LGBTQ organization Fulcrum, at the Stonewall Inn in New York, where he lives since fleeing threats in Ukraine. His mother fled Russian-occupied Bucha, the site of some of the war’s most infamous war crimes.

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Purchase of these images made on my travels to Ukraine and neighboring countries helps me continue working on The Queer Face of War. Please order prints!

About the Author

I’ve covered the LGBTQ movement and Ukraine’s struggle against Russia for the past decade. I was the senior world correspondent covering LGBTQ rights and Europe for BuzzFeed News from 2013 to 2020—work recognized with a GLAAD Media Award and a top honor from NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.

My recent work has appeared in outlets including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Teen Vogue. From 2021-2023, I was a senior fellow for emergency research at the LGBTQ human organization Outright International, where I led research on the impact of wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine on queer people.

I am currently a senior fellow at the CUNY School of Law’s Gender Justice and Human Rights Clinic.

J. Lester Feder

Recent publications related to The Queer Face of War

Olena Hloba, founder of a network for parents of LGBTQ people, sheltered in her basement after Russian troops occupied the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which became the site of some of the war’s most infamous war crimes.
Images by J. Lester Feder, licensed from Outright International
Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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