Ukraine’s trans community caught in the crosshairs of war

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Oleksandra wants to leave Ukraine since her house was bombed. But she cannot, because her passport indicates that she is a man, and can therefore be drafted into the army.

Like many other transgender people in Ukraine, she fears discrimination if she is called up to fight in the Ukrainian army.

But until she can meet all the requirements to legally change her gender, she will remain a man on her passport and she cannot leave, as men must remain in Ukraine to help with the war effort.

“I’m afraid of being discriminated against if they call me to the front,” Oleksandra, 39, told AFP in a video call.

In Ukraine, the trans community still faces stigma and Oleksandra lives in fear of this stigma every day.

She fled her home in Mykolaiv in March after the town was targeted by Russian strikes.

She went to Odessa, helped by an association which also provides her with free accommodation.

She has already had to answer questions from the local administration to obtain her relocation certificate, which she needs to access humanitarian aid.

Fortunately, she was well received.

“They asked me why I had false papers but luckily when I explained the situation, they were sympathetic,” she says.

– Special exemption –

More than eight million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. There is no data on the number of them belonging to the LGBTQ community, nor even on the importance of this community in Ukraine before the war.

But fleeing can be more complicated for the trans community.

If their passport indicates that they are male, they are not allowed to leave.

Changing gender on a passport is not impossible in Ukraine, but it is not easy.

Previously, applicants had to undergo surgery before applying for a legal gender reassignment. Now hormone therapy is sufficient.

Still, they have to present their case to the authorities, which includes obtaining a medical certificate stating that they are transgender, which not all doctors are willing to provide.

And many activists say transgender people should not have to receive hormone therapy at all to legally change their sex, arguing that this requirement is discriminatory.

For Oleksandra, administrative obstacles force her to stay for the time being.

“I can’t cross the border with my documents: they don’t correspond to who I am,” she said, using only one name for security reasons.

She considered appealing to the military enlistment office for a waiver from having to fight.

With that, she might be able to leave the country. But there’s not much hope that she can.

She has not undergone any hormone treatment or surgery, and fears she will be rejected for an exemption.

The bureau has previously “arbitrarily” refused to grant such exemptions to trans people, says Inna Iriskina, coordinator of LGBTQ rights group Insight.

– Fears for the missing –

Although the rights of trans people have improved in recent years, Ukraine is still far from exemplary.

Pro-LGBTQ laws improved after 2014, when massive pro-EU rallies in Maidan Square brought down the pro-Russian government.

But in 2020, Ukraine was ranked 39th out of 49 European countries for respecting LGBTQ rights, according to the NGO ILGA-Europe.

The war has further complicated the lives of some members of the trans community.

Jahn would like to join the army as a man, but cannot.

“My birth certificate says I’m female, and women are only accepted if they have military experience,” said the 20-year-old student with colorful dreadlocks.

Iriskina does not think this case is isolated. She thinks most transgender people would be ready to prove their patriotism – if they could do so without facing discrimination.

Some transgender women have disguised their biological sex to join the military, she said.

Others may have secretly left Ukraine, a risky move since desertion is subject to criminal prosecution.

The war has complicated the lives of transgender people in Ukraine in other ways.

Iriskina said access to hormones became very difficult in February after the invasion and that, thanks to continuing shortages, “their price rose sharply”.

She now sends hormone treatments to transgender people in the military – when she can get her hands on it.

And for those living in areas newly controlled by the Russians, there are concerns about how they might be treated.

Compared to Ukraine, there is very low tolerance for trans rights in Russia, where any speech deemed pro-LGBTQ has long been banned.

Iriskina says she has two trans friends in parts of Ukraine currently occupied by Russians and fears for their fate.

“I haven’t heard from the two people who are there,” she said.

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