Inside Ukraine’s queer resistance

Inside Ukraine’s queer resistance
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s queer community has been fighting back on many fronts, from art to activism and rave culture.

The bass rolling through this former industrial complex is so deep you can almost reach out and touch it. Flashes of light illuminate snatches of mesh, leather, sunglasses and flesh dappled with sweat. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and the energy is intense but joyous. Each glimpse of a facial expression or body movement caught briefly by the lasers reveals a sense of ecstasy and release. Surveying the darkness, surrounded by people displaying a broad range of style influences, sexualities and gender presentations, this could be a bumping club night anywhere in the world. But this is wartime Kyiv, Ukraine and we’re at Shum.Rave, which was born in Slovyansk in Donetsk in 2019 as a platform for new electronic music and a brighter, more open future for young people in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

The heat on the dance floor tonight at Otel in Podil feels like it could easily go on till dawn. But all will soon come to an end before the midnight curfew. Revellers will go home, to have their nights likely interrupted by the haunting sounds of air-raid sirens and Russian missile strikes or drone attacks. While the dance floor is packed, there are some significant absences, including Mark Panghoud, a rising queer non-binary post-club DJ from Kharkiv. Mark helped build Shum into the vibrant, open and queer-friendly space it has become but now, like many other members of Ukraine’s queer community, they volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian military following Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

Photo by Nicola Zolin

Two years into the largest and most destructive war in Europe since the Second World War, Ukraine’s queer community is continuing to fight on multiple fronts. The challenges of maintaining a semblance of normal life under these conditions – least of all a vibrant queer art, activism and rave scene – are immense. But doing so has never been more important. It is one of many ways Ukraine’s queer community is continuing to resist Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Queer Ukrainians know that Russian occupation would mean the total erasure of their community, culture and the hard-won advances of recent years – perhaps even death, for many artists, activists and those with a public profile in civil society. This is why so many queer people have joined the armed forces and serve openly, which would be impossible in Russia, where even public discussion of LGBTQ+ topics can land you in jail.

On the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion, with the fall of the fortress city Avdiivka in Donetsk and faltering western support, Ukraine’s prospects haven’t felt this uncertain since Russia’s assault on Kyiv in the early months of the war. As the war enters a difficult new phase, Ukraine’s queer community is still very much present in the ranks – aware they have even more to fight for – and even more to loose. They have not let up the pressure within Ukrainian society, either, fighting for a more equal, open and and inclusive future. For example, the passage of a marriage equality law is being pushed hard by both queer soldiers and civilians.

“Shum.Rave is a big and valuable part of my life,” Mark explains over messenger. Despite serving in a frontline unit, Mark has tried to continue making music, using whatever device is available to them, and has two forthcoming collaborative releases with Kyiv-based artist Midiseason on Kyiv’s Blood Money Pool and a solo appearance on Kobud, originally from Odesa. Shum.Rave continues but Mark’s own queer party СОБРАНИЕ, in their hometown of Kharkiv, is on indefinite pause. Like many other queer people serving in the military, Mark’s promising and joyful life is on hold, for now at least.

Many lives have been tragically cut short by this vicious and unnecessary war – much has been lost and many things will never be the same again. But there are also new shoots of life, too. One such example of queer culture continuing to develop, despite the ongoing war, is the appearance of Sunny Bunny LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, the first queer film festival in Ukraine, which held its inaugural edition 22-28 June 2023 and returns this year, April 19-26. Sunny Bunny actually dates back to 2001, when it was introduced as a strand within the Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival and became the second major international film festival to introduce a separate programme and special award for LGBTQ+ filmmaking, after the Berlinale.

“Sunny Bunny was growing every year and became the most popular programme at Molodist, so it only seemed natural to develop it into something bigger,” explains film curator and festival director Bohdan Zhuk, who has been programming Sunny Bunny for the last decade. “It was a challenge to launch the festival now but it makes absolute sense. It’s essential to be talking about human rights, equality and queer and LGBTQ+ rights in particular during wartime. Often these matters aren’t considered a priority when we have martial law, there are many restrictions, and so on. But we don’t want to be reduced to merely trying to survive. Our fighting can continue on many levels.”

Sunny Bunny’s home is the historic Zhovten cinema in Podil, which dates from 1931 and is the oldest movie theatre in Kyiv. Zhovten has also been a site of conflict. Protests against the Sunny Bunny programme at Molodist in 2014 turned violent when an incendiary smoke bomb was thrown inside and the cinema was gutted by fire. Last year’s inaugural Sunny Bunny required a heavy police presence to guarantee security after threats were made, which deterred many in the community from attending. Just this month, far-right, anti-LGBTQ+ protestors in Kharkiv, a city near the Russian border, unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt a screening of Lessons of Tolerance, a comedy which depicts a Ukrainian family overcoming their homophobia. Homophobic graffiti was also scrawled on the wall outside Zhovten cinema this month.

Acts like these prove that much still needs to be done to ensure that the queer community is safe across Ukraine. But these far-right and homophobic views are increasingly out of step with the rest of Ukrainian society. Attitudes have shifted immensely since the Revolution of Dignity (known as Euromaidan outside Ukraine), with delegitimisation of the far-right and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people rising considerably in recent years – a seismic shift, which has continued, perhaps even accelerated, since the full-scale invasion. In a 2021 poll, 37% of Ukrainians pledged support for equal marriage rights. When the same question was asked this year, polling showed that 73% of Ukrainians are now in support.

“The visibility of queer people fighting in the military has been instrumental in changing attitudes in Ukrainian society,” Bohdan explains. “War has also changed mindsets, with respect to attitudes towards life. A lot have people have realised there is one enemy and it’s Russia. It’s not gays and lesbians who are sending missiles to your house, destroying and killing.”

Few people have done more to make visible the Ukrainian queer perspectives than artist curator, and writer Anton Shebetko. Born in Kyiv and now based in Amsterdam, his photographical and archival work explores themes of memory, loss of identity and the multiplicity of history. Through his photograph and archival work, Anton has attempted to fill in the blanks of Ukraine’s queer history and his work has had a profound impact on Ukrainian society.

In 2018, Anton created We Were Here, a multimedia exhibition that revealed the many queer people serving in the military during the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Russia-backed separatists in the East. At the time, the far-right was ascendant and attacking Pride and the LGBTQ+ movement as ‘unpatriotic’ and an ‘enemy within.’ Queer soldiers agreed to participate but only on the condition of anonymity, such was the climate at the time. So, Anton used a number of striking visual techniques to conceal their identities, such as smoke and camouflage – a comment on the social camouflage queer people are forced to wear in their everyday lives to conceal their identities.

During the process of creating the work, one soldier grew increasingly frustrated with having to hide his identity. “I knew I was gay and I was fighting, so I was enraged when people called me the inner enemy,” Viktor Pylypenko told Huck back in 2021. Viktor came out publicly in the exhibition and became Ukraine’s first openly gay military veteran. He faced ferocious far-right attacks but his grace and eloquence established him as one of the most effective advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in Ukraine. He founded the NGO LGBT Military in 2021, which continues to support and fight for Ukraine’s growing army of queer soldiers.

With so many queer people serving openly in the military today, pressure for civil partnerships has been building because queer couples are currently denied legal recognition in case of death or serious injury – a burning injustice. LGBT Military has been one of the key supporters of Draft Law No. 9103, which would establish the legal status of registered partnerships as “a voluntary union of two persons of the same or different sex who are not married.”

After its introduction in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in March 2023, both the Defence Ministry and Justice Ministry have dropped their initial opposition and now support the bill. If 9103 does become law, it will be a significant victory for the queer community and an important indicator that despite the ongoing conflict, they continue to make advances.

From Simeiz series by Anton Shebetko

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Anton had two major projects underway: To Know Us Better, a group portrait series that reveals the diversity and confidence of a new generation of Ukrainian queer artists and activists; and A Very Brief and Subjective Queer History of Ukraine, a book expanding on his master’s thesis.

With the eyes of the world now focussed on Ukraine, Anton doubled-down on both projects, eager to dispel outdated Western perceptions of Ukraine as homophobic, church-dominated and backwards, as many of its Eastern European neighbours remain. Both projects celebrate the vibrancy of Ukraine’s queer community and their role in the immense social changes that have been underway since The Revolution of Dignity. Like many of Anton’s projects, To Know Us Better is built around a series of portraits – but this time, the tone could not be more different than We Were Here.

Participants appear open, unrestrained and there’s a tone of celebration, which speaks to the huge progress Ukraine’s queer community has made in just a few short years – and a generational shift that has taken place. The change in tone and the narrative is amazing. “I’m very hopeful about the younger generation,” Anton explains. “Most of the people I interviewed for To Know Us Better are much younger. They possess this fearlessness. I think it comes from seeing the world and Ukraine from a very different perspective than myself or people ten years older than me. The period between independence and 2014 was very shaky, with a very weak civil society. Even some of the older activists from that era didn’t know how to represent LGBTQ+ people, they were very heteronormative, you know? But the younger queer artists and activists, they were growing up when the Revolution of Dignity happened. You can see this generational change in activists and their views or how they communicate, what kind of instruments they are using for the fight, so it’s very different.”

Before the full-scale invasion, subversive collective Rebel Queers would defy the heteronormative and patriarchal world that so suffocated them by scrawling on the walls of Kyiv: ‘Queer Sex,’ ‘Make Queer Punk Again,’ and ‘Be Queer, Do Crime, Hail Satan,’ among others. The driving force behind Rebel Queers is Angelika Ustymenko, a non-binary and neurodivergent artist and filmmaker, who also featured in To Know Us Better.

When their country and their community came under attack, Angelika resolved to document the experiences of queer Ukrainians during wartime. On the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion, they began a new phase of their documentary project, collaborating with Huck to collect queer soldiers’ reflections after a year of war and exploring the many forms of queer resistance. The resulting film Queer Fighters of Ukraine had its international premiere at the first Sunny Bunny Festival – and Angelika continues shooting, to record queer perspectives of the conflict.

“When I first started working on this project, I wanted to show that the youth of my generation was stolen from us,” Angelika explains. “Two years into the war, I feel like we are the lost generation. We lost so much and we are damaged in so many way that I feel that there is no hope for us to have any resemblance of a normal life, ever.”

“In the interviews recorded in 2022 we still had hope and the memories of peaceful life were still fresh,” Angelika continues. “Now we are full of pain, without seeing an end to this war. However, many of my friends keep doing the best they can to end this war, save lives and consolidate the struggles we began years back. I think it’s important to document their experiences as there is still so much to fight for.”

Bohdan recognises the immense trauma the full-scale invasion has inflicted on the queer community – and Ukrainian society as a whole. But he also highlights there have been many achievements to celebrate. “There’s a dichotomy: on the one hand, Ukrainian queer culture is thriving, people are very active and it’s increasingly vibrant, despite the full scale war,” he reflects. “Yet, at the same time, we have lost a lot: people who left the country or those we have lost during the war. I would say that Ukraine’s cultural community in general has risen up, to try to compensate for those we have lost and the work they will never be able to do – although these are loses that can never truly be replaced, of course.”

This April, Sunny Bunny Film Festival will return to Zhovten Cinema and other locations around Kyiv, with an even more ambitious programme of over 60 films, including a new international competition for queer short films and a focus on queer filmmaking from other countries in the region. “We want to reach more people with the films,” Bohdan explains. “We will maintain the strategic, long term goals of the festival, which are to uncover and to reclaim Ukrainian queer culture and queer identities. We also want to support LGBT Military and be increasingly socially visible and influential when it comes to political decisions, such as the the civil partnerships bill.”

With so many battles of different kinds raging today in Ukraine, cultural events like raves and film festivals might not seem like the most significant priorities. But they offer a glimpse of the Ukrainian queer community’s dynamism and its determination to never stop fighting. “Most Ukrainian media don’t understand how essential this is for Ukraine; creating a meeting point for the queer community is really important,” Bohdan explains. “Some people told us the event changed their lives. There are young queer people who maybe didn’t have any opportunity to reach the community, to become part of it; they found their friends, their allies, their connections. Demonstrating your identity, especially one that is not in compliance with the universal identity, is already an act of resistance – during wartime it is even more so. Joining a festival attended by lots of queer people demonstrates that we are very different from Russians, from those who are trying to inflict genocide on Ukrainians. It’s an opportunity to show our unique Ukrainian queer cultural identity; to uncover it because it has mostly been obscured until now.”

Sunny Bunny LGBTQIA+ Film Festival’s second edition will take place in Kyiv, April 19-26.

A 30-minute extended festival cut of Huck’s documentary Queer Fighters of Ukraine will be screened at BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival, March 15 and 16.

Latest on Huck

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now