Trans people in Ukraine have told VICE World News that they are “totally stuck” and “scared for their lives” in the country.
Two Ukrainian trans women said they can’t leave Ukraine or even safely travel through it because all of their identification documents say “male” and mention their “old masculine names”.
Some trans people have even been advised to “lose their ID” by human rights groups, in order to get out of Ukraine. Trans campaigners estimate this issue is leading to “hundreds” of trans people in Ukraine being left in “serious danger” and feeling “completely alone”.
One trans woman said she is “terrified” of being stopped trying to leave Ukraine, and being forced to join the Ukrainian army “as a man” – especially because authorities are stopping men aged 18 to 60 from leaving. Another Ukrainian trans woman is too scared to leave her accommodation in fear of transphobic attacks. She’s the only person left in her neighbourhood.
One trans man, who transitioned over six years ago and has lived as a man in Ukraine since, only has an ID showing “female”. He told VICE World News about his fears of leaving his house and trying to make it across Ukraine. During a phone call, screaming and explosions were heard coming from outside his accommodation, but he still refused to leave because of his ID issue.
A non-binary Ukrainian person explained their fears of leaving Ukraine and heading to “places like Poland or Hungary” where their identity is “ridiculed” and not recognised. “I need to choose between my own country – that I have learned how to navigate –or a totally foreign place where I could feel even more excluded and in danger,” they added.
A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ukraine following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, confirmed that 520,000 refugees from Ukraine have now entered neighbouring countries since last Thursday, warning “this figure has been rising exponentially, hour after hour.” However, trans people may not have made those journeys.
Zi Faámelu is a 31-year-old trans woman from Kyiv. She is a musician and has appeared on TV in her home nation. Faámelu said she can’t leave the country and her life is in danger.
“Like hundreds of trans people in Ukraine, I am a woman, but I have ‘male’ in my passport and on all my ID, so this is a war within a war. Ukrainian trans people were already fighting for their lives.”
“There are hundreds of us stuck like this, living miserable lives. We need some influence from abroad. We need people to write to their politicians and charities to help us.”
She is sitting in darkness while she talks to me. In her hands, she holds a “very sharp” knife. Alone in her area, she is scared of who could be outside her apartment.
Trans people in Ukraine can obtain legal gender recognition, but human rights groups have called the process “abusive”, as it “violates the rights to privacy and physical integrity.”
Asked why she didn’t change her ID documents before now, Faámelu said the process in Ukraine is “humiliating” and she’s seen people having to “stay in mental institutions for months, with psychological and physical tests to prove their gender.”
“We don’t want to go through that, so we just kept our passports as they were and laid low, stayed quiet. It’s hell for trans people here. I should have left earlier but I was waiting for some emergency gender documents, but the doctors suddenly said no.”
“I'm completely alone now. Everybody in my neighbourhood has left. It’s such a dangerous situation, but I'm trying to stay optimistic. I've seen people running for their lives, and screaming at each other to leave things behind and just get out - but I have to stay where I am. It’s the only option for me right now.”
“It is very dangerous for me as a trans person in Ukraine on a normal day, so now, it is impossible. Many gay people in Ukraine can blend in with the rest of society now, but for trans people it is impossible. There are so many physical traits that we are attacked for – big chin, broad shoulders – we’re beaten, we’re killed. We need to get out now, but we can’t even leave our apartments.”
“They will see my passport and see ‘male’, they will see my birth name, and call me a man in a dress and attack me.”
Faámelu spoke of trans people who have been threatened by individuals openly carrying weapons in their areas.
“I’m now even more scared to be in Ukraine because everyone has a gun. Now my attackers have an excuse to carry out their hate and violence. People know where I live. Every sound outside is scary,” she said.
“Trans people now feel forgotten, neglected, abandoned. We are actually invisible at the moment. We need the United Nations, we need human rights organisations. We need people to help us get noticed.”
People fleeing Ukraine have been told that several neighbouring countries will accept them without any ID, however the journeys to get to the borders may still involve being stopped at checkpoints by the police or military, queueing with members of the public, and being split into “male and female” groups for prioritising safety and travel.
Being LGBTQ in Ukraine can be life-threatening. Attacks against people based on their sexuality and gender identity are common, and citizens told us “our police just stand by and watch.”
Less than a month ago, vandals damaged an LGBTQ community centre in Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine. The attackers wrote “death threats” and “Christian scriptures” across the centre’s “mural of equality.” Campaigners said the centre had only recently been repaired after the last attacks, when “urine, shit and blood were smeared on the front door.”
Trans people in Ukraine have told VICE World News that their lives “were not worth living” before the war, and the current situation has only made matters worse for them.
Robert, 31, is a trans man who was living in Kharkiv, Ukraine. We are not identifying Robert’s surname to protect his identity. Robert’s years on testosterone have led to him “being able to pass like any other man”, but his ID still says he is “female” and uses his birth name.
“My parents tried to kill me when I told them I’m trans,” he told VICE World News earlier this week. “Everybody here knows me as ‘he’, nobody knows my situation. This is why I’m in so much danger now.”
“I’m so afraid for my life,” Robert added. “A lot of people have offered me help once I get to different countries, but I can’t get through Ukraine like this. The problem here is that you can look like one thing, but your papers say something else.”
“I can’t work, I can’t have a bank account, I can’t have a driver’s licence. I can’t continue at university because the university can’t approve my papers. I’ve just been cutting people’s hair, cleaning bathrooms and apartments, just to feed myself. It’s just existing, not living.”
Robert is now being supported by LGBTQ campaigner Rain Dove, who recently created a group and a fund to directly help “LGBTQ people, disabled people and families” stranded in Ukraine. The group has now supported “over 700 people” to get out of Ukraine, and many of them are LGBTQ.
Rain Dove told VICE World News: “We’ve had trans people get rejected at some borders, but everyone we’ve supported has eventually got out.”
“If you’re a trans woman with an ‘M’ on your passport, or you’re gender nonconforming with an ‘M’, we recommend that you ‘lose’ your passport before you speak to Ukrainian officials. Hide your ID in a water bottle, or in your shoe. If you get stopped, you can just say that you’re not from here, you can say that you’re a student in Ukraine, or were just visiting. Without an ID, you will be sent to a long line of foreign nationals, but you’ll then be talking to officials from the bordering nations, and you can present your ID without an issue. This has worked 100 percent of the time.
“If you’re a trans man with an ‘F’ on your ID, prepare to be gaslit by Ukrainian authorities. They will say ‘if you’re really a man, then fight for your country.’ This is unfortunately a really common thing. You could also hide your ID, but we know some people who have stayed to fight.”
Rémy Bonny, executive director of Forbidden Colours, an organisation pushing for LGBTQ equality across Europe, told VICE World News, “the Russian aggression against Ukraine has shocked the entire world, and queer people are extraordinarily affected by this war.”
Asked what people around the world can do to help these individuals, Bonny said, “Please donate to initiatives that are helping queer refugees from Ukraine. We are expecting about 100,000 queer refugees in the coming weeks, entering Poland, Hungary and Romania, but in the past, refugee camps have proven not to be safe spaces for LGBTQ persons.”