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 informed her Ukrainian associate 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 struggle 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.

“All the pieces was a multitude,” says Punegova, 27, referring to the confusion that dogged them within the first days of the struggle. 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 neighborhood 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 because of sanctions, they needed to react shortly. “We had a lot to debate: What are we going to do now? What is 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 stored for 2 hours on the airport whereas authorities checked her paperwork. “The entire thing was fairly unusual,” says Punegova. “We had been apprehensive that if we went again simply because the struggle was starting, authorities could hold her passport and we weren’t positive what they’d do along with her, both.”

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

Reaching out to some assist teams on social media and their pals, they discovered concerning the robust community of assist on provide in Berlin for LGBTQ folks. The pair determined to go to Berlin, the place they discovered a vital assist system via Quarteera.

Local weather of hostility

Punegova and Maznyk are among the many thousands and thousands of individuals displaced by the struggle in Ukraine. Greater than six million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine, with round 60,000 in Berlin. Lots of of 1000’s of Russians have additionally left their nation, many fearing persecution for opposing the struggle, 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 struggle began, the variety of requests from LGBTQ folks nonetheless within the nation searching for assist on the right way to go away has risen.

Russia’s LGBTQ neighborhood has lengthy confronted hostility and discrimination. In terms of authorized rights, resembling safety towards discrimination, and social attitudes in direction of the neighborhood on points like same-sex marriage and adoptions, Russia ranks 34 out of 100 (with 100 being probably 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 teams say the legislation has led to elevated homophobic and transphobic violence and has been used to stamp out the neighborhood’s visibility by shutting down LGBTQ web sites that present data and sources to youngsters, cancelling main occasions like Satisfaction marches and curbing assist teams.

This hostility has permeated different Russian-speaking areas. Within the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, lately, greater than a hundred males 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 slightly higher (44 out of 100), in response to Equaldex.

The neighborhood doesn’t have entry to the identical authorized rights as opposite-sex {couples}, and same-sex marriage shouldn’t be recognised. Whereas homophobia and transphobia are skilled in areas resembling employment, in response to activists, since 2015 it has been towards the legislation in Ukraine to discriminate towards somebody within the office primarily based on their gender or sexual orientation, and following laws in 2016, it has grow to be legally simpler for transgender folks 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 outdoors Ukraine say they worry what Russia’s homophobic and transphobic state insurance policies could imply for Ukrainian LGBTQ folks below 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 folks.

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

Working alongside LGBTQ organisations in Ukraine, Russia and the encircling territories, the organisation has been monitoring the wellbeing of LGBTQ folks 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 folks about what life is like for them in Crimea and the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk areas, collectively referred to as Donbas, managed by Russian-backed separatists, and located that they stay in an “ambiance of worry” and discrimination. One of many greatest 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 neighborhood, says Matviychuk.

A 2016 report that Matviychuk’s organisation labored on detailed discrimination inspired by authorities buildings. The report listed cases of presidency representatives expressing homophobic views in speeches to incite bodily violence towards members of the LGBTQ neighborhood and homophobia in direction of these thought of, 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 response to the report, one organisation in Crimea tracked homosexual folks 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 shortage of obtainable hormone remedy for transgender folks, and the precarious state of affairs for younger LGBTQ people who find themselves unable to entry data or obtain ample psychological assist.

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

LGBTQ activists say that they’ve heard experiences of Russian troopers concentrating on the neighborhood inside occupied areas, however say it’s laborious to get particular particulars because of restricted contact with folks 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 struggle in Ukraine in addition to Russian exiles [Courtesy: Quarteera]

Precarity

Ukraine’s LGBTQ neighborhood faces different challenges, in response to activists.

“For LGBTQ folks nonetheless in Ukraine, the state of affairs is clearly the worst as they’ve little entry to humanitarian help, secure shelters and particular medical remedy,” 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 folks, speaks to Al Jazeera through Zoom as she stands exterior her dwelling 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 neighborhood is the shortage of hormone remedy.

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

Together 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 folks throughout Ukraine to request the hormones they want through a web based kind after which Domani visits pharmacies in Kyiv, collects what is required and mails the treatment.

One other main subject is the ID checks which might be occurring throughout the nation. When a trans particular person’s look doesn’t match their gender marker of their paperwork, this has created points resembling limiting people from transferring round freely and in lots of circumstances, from leaving the nation.

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

Domani’s organisation is working to deal with this subject 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 neighborhood who’re visibly LGBTQ are being attacked,” says Emson, talking from Kyiv.

Activists have referred to as for an investigation following a report of a violent assault towards 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 struggle to intervene in such circumstances, in response to Emson, who plans to fulfill police pressure representatives to deal with such circumstances.

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

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 international locations like Poland and Hungary, which have anti-LGBTQ legal guidelines.

Shaytanova says that among the many current arrivals to Germany, there have been experiences of discrimination via verbal abuse and unequal remedy.

Based on Maneo, a Berlin-based organisation that tracks circumstances of anti-gay violence, two homosexual males from Russia had been subjected to homophobic verbal abuse from a workers 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 referred to as on authorities to clarify why the boys had been handled on this means.

Shaytanova says it can be crucial that LGBTQ folks have entry to secure lodging, particular medical therapies and psychological assist.

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 folks caught up within the battle.

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

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

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

Within the first few weeks of the struggle, Quarteera was receiving at the least 5 messages a day from Russian LGBTQ folks – round 30 p.c of requests – in contrast with one or possibly two every week previous to the struggle.

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 provide these inside Russia. “We get numerous requests from folks saying that they don’t have any visa, no cash, they usually can’t go away Russia. And on this case, we now have to say no. It’s very unhappy, however we’re powerless,” says Shaytanova.

Below German legislation, it’s unlawful for them to assist folks go away their dwelling international locations and search asylum, however Quarteera is at the moment 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 assist for LGBTQ folks contained in the nation, in addition to assist folks evacuate [Courtesy: Marina Usmanova]

Determining the place to go

Quarteera assisted Punegova and Maznyk by offering bureaucratic assist and placing them in contact with folks in comparable positions in order that they will search the recommendation and the expertise of others.

When the struggle broke out, the couple headed to Maznyk’s cousin’s dwelling 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 numerous tears and panic assaults throughout these preliminary days,” says Punegova.

After discovering out a couple of assist community in Berlin, they boarded a practice to the German capital, travelling with only a few 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 provided to them when a buddy posted an Instagram story about their state of affairs, they had been contacted by Quarteera after an acquittance informed the group they wanted help.

One in every of Quarteera’s 30 “buddies” referred to 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 at all times needed to go to, Punegova remarks wryly, “It’s humorous how that has turned out.”

A part of the struggle efforts

Marina Usmanova, the director of a feminist LGBTQ inclusive organisation, and Dan Aute, head of the board of an NGO for transgender folks, 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 direction of the neighborhood from some segments of Ukrainian society, the LGBTQ neighborhood in numerous cities throughout the nation was creating properly previous to the struggle.

“That’s why we’re actually grateful to the Ukrainian military. They don’t seem to be solely saving our lives, but additionally our identities as a result of once we are in Ukraine and below Ukrainian laws, we’re free to be out as LGBTQ folks,” 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 Satisfaction will nonetheless go forward. Unable to happen contained in the nation, it’s going to be a part of up with Warsaw Satisfaction on June 25, when 80,000 members are anticipated.

Usmanova and Aute held a solidarity march on Might 17 in Berlin, the Worldwide Day In opposition to Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, with Quarteera to spotlight the dangers confronted by their neighborhood. They are going to use funds earmarked for plans disrupted by the struggle to assist LGBTQ folks in Kherson with meals and different provides and for evacuation.

Nonetheless, Usmanova says you will need to not overlook that “the neighborhood could be very large and various and it’s doing lots for the struggle efforts inside Ukraine”, together with combating on the entrance traces and offering medical help.

“What has been irritating,” Usmanova says, “is how little focus the media have given LGBTQ folks, resembling trans girls who’ve joined the navy, and the position they’ve been taking part in within the struggle 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 neighborhood 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 youngsters 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 assist 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 assist to Ukrainian refugees. “One of many first issues we did once we received to Berlin was learn the way we are able to begin serving to others, as a result of the very first thing you are able to do to calm your self down is assist 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 holding 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 slightly settled, however uncertainty performs on their minds. Associates again dwelling inform them they made the correct determination.

“Instances are robust for folks dwelling in Russia proper now, economically, and particularly in the event you don’t like the present authorities,” Punegova says. “However once we take into consideration the longer term, the principle hope is for this struggle 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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