The LGBTQ Soldiers of Ukraine
Anton Shebetko's project aims to show just how much gay soldiers have sacrificed for their country.
All photos: Anton Shebetko
This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
In November of 2018, a trans rights march in Kiev was interrupted by a group of right-wing nationalists throwing smoke grenades into the crowd. Michael Colborne, a Canadian journalist, was punched in the face by a nationalist, and American journalist Christopher Miller later claimed that instead of protecting the marchers the police turned against them. In a statement following the march, the organisers said: "Today's events have demonstrated that the level of far-right radical aggression and violence is increasing in Ukraine."
That's the day-to-day reality for much of the LGBTQ community in Ukraine, including for openly gay soldiers who still risk their lives for their country. Photographer Anton Shebetko thinks it's time that Ukrainians start appreciating the sacrifices the LGBTQ community have made for their country.
"More than 330,000 Ukrainians have fought in our anti-terrorist operations in the east," Anton told me, referencing the country's dispute with pro-Russian separatists. "But far-right groups want you to believe that there aren't any gay people in the military."
That's why Anton created the series "We Were Here", which gives former and serving gay soldiers a space to tell their own stories about their experiences in the military. I recently spoke with Anton about his project, what happens when a soldier comes out and whether things will ever get better for the LGBTQ community in Ukraine.
VICE: Hey, Anton. Who took part in your project and how did you convince them to participate?
Anton Shebetko: Everybody who featured in the project fought in the operation on the east of Ukraine. Some served as soldiers, others as paramedics and volunteers. I just approached them and explained the motivation behind it. A few declined, but the majority of people I spoke with agreed to take part. I think what helped convince them was the promise of anonymity.
How would you describe the current state of LGBTQ rights in Ukraine?
I want to believe that there have been small improvements. A few thousand people attend the annual Pride parade every year, thanks to a strong police presence protecting the participants against the Nazis and nutters who think being gay is a deadly sin. On the other hand, the situation out in the provinces – where Pride events are routinely attacked – isn't good. And then there's just the general intolerance that people have to deal with on a daily basis. So while it might seem in our bubble that things are getting better, you take a wider look and realise that the rise in nationalist sentiments coupled with anger from a tough economic climate is making life hard for LGBTQ people in Ukraine.
You've protected the anonymity of your subjects. What would happen if someone recognised them?
Well, two of the participants are openly gay; one of the guys came out after I shot his portrait. His name is Viktor Pylypenko, and he is the first former soldier in Ukrainian history to come out publicly. He's since conducted a lot of interviews, and is now working as an LGBTQ activist, alongside his regular job.
It's difficult to predict what could happen with other participants if they decide to open up about their sexuality. In Viktor's case, he's had a lot of support from his former colleagues in the military. Of course coming out has also brought with it a number of personal threats both online and over the phone. But to my knowledge he's safe and well.
Did they share any personal stories with you? How do they feel about keeping their identity a secret in the military?
Yes – I talked to each one about their experiences of homophobia and discrimination in the army. Everyone had different experiences and opinions, such as on the necessity of Pride or on when people should come out. But they all agreed that the military is institutionally homophobic. And almost all of them said they were not comfortable disclosing their sexuality to colleagues, due to potential repercussions. It's also important to remember that the problem of discrimination doesn't end at homophobia – several women shared with me their experiences of sexism in the military, too.
CORRECTION 30/01/19: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that American journalist Christopher Miller was punched in the face by a nationalist, when in fact it was Canadian journalist Michael Colborne. We regret the error and it has been corrected.
Scroll down to see more photos from Anton's "We Were Here".