The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now in its third month, and stories of resilience, perseverance, and opposition have been front and center in the news. The story of Ukraine has sparked support from all corners of the world. Part of the Ukrainian story is the story of transgender individuals, many of who are finding themselves stuck in Ukraine.
A Personal Battle in the Middle of a War
While members of the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine say they have more freedom than they did in Russia, members of the community are still targeted by conservative and religious groups.
“It is relatively common knowledge that trans people, as well as other LGBTQ groups, face legal and social challenges and bias in Russia. They do not have any laws in place to safeguard against discrimination,” says Wynne Nowland, a transgender woman, activist, and insurance company CEO.
Transgender Ukrainians may be especially susceptible to discrimination and hate crimes. Transgender individuals faced legal issues and social challenges in Russia, but that did not wholly disappear once Ukraine was an independent country even though there was some definite improvement.
The invasion has brought Russian conservatism and control front and center again.
“To transgender people and their allies, the logical conclusion has been that Russia will apply their tightly held biases against the transgender community amid their invasion,” says Nowland.
The invasion has placed a whole new level of pressure on transgender individuals looking to live their lives authentically. Those who are managing to escape the country find themselves in neighboring countries that may not welcome or accept LGBTQ+ people. Those who cannot escape the country need to make nearly impossible decisions or run the risk of losing their lives in an all-out war.
Life or Death Decisions
When the invasion occured, Ukraine initiated marital law. Males between 18 and 60 were compelled to stay in the country and fight. This mandate created a significant issue for transgender women who do not have IDs that identify them as women. There have been stories of several transgender women afraid to leave their homes and travel to the Polish border because of their lack of an ID with their true gender identity. The fear is they will be turned away and told to go back and fight once they reach the border.
One story detailed by Business Insider described a transgender man who made the gut-wrenching decision to use his old female ID to cross the border with his mother. The bombs flying overhead have forced the hand of many to leave behind all they know in hopes of seeing another day. For transgender individuals, decisions are not only about where they will go but also about who they are.
A newly-formed Alliance for Queer Emergency Aid for Ukraine based out of Germany has been working to identify transgender and non-binary individuals in need of assistance in Ukraine. In addition, London LGBTQ+ activist Rain Dove Dubilewski is leading an effort to help get transgender people and other vulnerable individuals out of Ukraine. Desperate times are calling for genuinely desperate measures. The advice to the transgender men looking to fee has been largely trending towards deception: use your old passport, look as feminine as possible, and get to the border as fast as you can. Many hope that the confusion and chaos of the border crossings may work in their favor.
Crossing the border into Poland or Hungary may not signal the end of all problems for transgender people. While not the oppressive dictatorship of Russia, many European countries have not entirely embraced LGBTQ+ rights. Transgender individuals face discrimination in the countries where they seek asylum as well.
“If history has taught us anything, it is that in times that are trying for all people, frequently the underrepresented groups face additional struggles and challenges,” says Nowland.
These struggles are especially true for individuals under increased susceptibility for violence even before the invasion, like transgender people.
“Activist groups in the Ukraine have championed trans and LGBTQ rights and now a majority of the Ukrainian population supports those rights,” Nowland explains. This increased support still has some ways to go in terms of total acceptance, however.
Trauma and Acceptance
When transgender individuals have to revert to the person they were before, a person they are not, it can be a traumatic experience. In life or death situations like war, decisions are made every second: stay or go, fight or flee, kill or be killed. Transgender people are deciding to be who they are or pretend to be someone they are not to save their lives. The unique situation that transgender people are finding themselves in will follow them long after the war is over. The decisions made that are carving trauma into their psyche will need to be addressed in the years to come.
“Obviously, no one should have to resort to these kinds of tactics to ensure their well-being. I can only imagine that having to do so would weigh heavily on one’s emotions for a long time,” says Nowland.
According to Transgender Europe, trans people face a higher chance of harassment and violence if they are recruited to fight in the war, regardless if they are transgender women or transgender men. Valid IDs are needed to access assistance in any way, from food to shelter for refugees. When IDs don’t match the person, there can be additional issues of accusations of fraud and harassment.
So far, the success rate for getting trans people out of Ukraine has been high. It requires a massive amount of bravery on the part of transgender individuals. Knowing that discrimination can happen wherever they end up can be a daunting reality. However, knowing that a tyrannical regime wants one dead goes beyond daunting into terrifying. When up against terror, human beings are amazingly resilient. The stories of the transgender Ukrainians and their near-impossible decisions will illustrate that resilience and be written into the annals of history.
About Wynne Nowland
Wynne Nowland, the CEO of Bradley & Parker, transitioned at age 56. She came out as trans to her entire company in an email—featured in the WSJ—saying “You’ve all known me as Wayne, but tomorrow morning I will arrive to work as Wynne.” She was already out to her family and many friends, but coming out at work was her final step to being who she truly was. As one of very few trans CEO’s, Wynne provides unique insight on trans issues and topics as a trans business leader and entrepreneur.