Meet the queer fighters Of Ukraine
Watch the trailer for Huck Docs' forthcoming film Queer Fighters of Ukraine above.
Scrawled on walls across Kyiv, graffiti harks back to a more innocent time: ‘Queer Sex,’ ‘Make QueerPunk Again,’ and ‘Be Queer, Do Crime, Hail Satan,’ among others. These provocative pronouncements were painted by the subversive collective, Rebel Queers, their way to resist the heteronormative and patriarchal world that so suffocated them. One night in mid-February 2022, on the wall outside K41 (or ∄), a club that has helped put Kyiv’s queer techno scene on the global map, they painted a slogan that would prove darkly prophetic: ‘Your dancefloor is Putin’s battleground.’
It was meant as a ‘Fuck you!’ to the ‘techno tourists’ who flooded in from Berlin and elsewhere to enjoy Kyiv’s no-limits party scene in recent years, largely ignorant of the context into which they were swaying. K41 and other clubs in the Podil neighbourhood had previously been attacked by the police and far-right groups (many allegedly funded by Russia). In early 2022, the threat of invasion loomed ever-heavier over the whole of Ukraine but when they painted those words, Rebel Queers, like most of the rest of the world, believed the war could never happen.
In the early hours of February 24, 2022, those illusions were shattered as cruise missiles rained down on Kyiv. Over 30,000 Russian troops crossed the Ukraine-Belorussian border with thousands of armoured vehicles. For Rebel Queers, graffiti became irrelevant; a pre-war indulgence. And nobody was thinking about partying anymore, except perhaps the Russian soldiers who packed dress uniforms for their planned victory parade in central Kyiv.
Every Ukrainian was faced with a stark choice: What are you going to do? What are you going to do to resist? K41 and other queer spaces were transformed into shelters, volunteering and mutual aid hubs, or centres for collecting supplies for civilians and the military. Many in the queer community joined the Territorial Defence or Armed Forces of Ukraine within days of the invasion.
Angelika Ustymenko is a non-binary and neurodivergent artist and filmmaker, and the driving force behind Rebel Queers. After volunteering in the early days, they left Kyiv in March and settled in Berlin, where they organised a fundraising and solidarity show featuring queer Ukrainian artists. Geographically, they were in Berlin but psychologically still in Kyiv. Unable to find peace outside Ukraine, they returned in April 2022 after the Russian assault on the Ukrainian capital had been decisively repelled. They then wrestled with how they could resist the Russian invasion, support their community and continue queer resistance.
After much soul-searching, Angelika resolved to document the experiences of queer soldiers fighting to defend Ukraine. They travelled across the country, filming interviews with queer soldiers in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv. “The stories I have recorded really resonate with me,” Angelika explains. “We have different stories and different experiences but it’s like we’re all in the same book. Each person’s story is unique and when you hear them speak, you can feel this emotional connection. I just had to tell these stories and show Ukrainian society that queer people are also fighting. It’s important for the world to understand our context better and see what’s going on here.”
Queer visibility has been hard-won in Ukraine. Queerness was aggressively suppressed by the Soviet Union and many rights were still denied after Ukraine voted for independence in 1991. Until relatively recently, the far-right would often attack LGBTQ+ events and claim: “Gays cannot be patriots.” But this narrative began to be overturned thanks to Viktor Pylypenko, who became the first Ukrainian soldier to come out publicly in 2018. In just a few short years, Viktor and other activists have shifted attitudes immensely. Gay, lesbian and trans soldiers now serve openly in the Ukrainian military, which would be impossible in Russia. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has even shared social media posts from LGBT Military, Viktor’s NGO.
On the first anniversary of the full-scale invasion, Angelika began a new phase of the documentary project; collecting soldiers’ reflections after a year of war and broadening the focus to include other forms queer of resistance. They interviewed queer artist Maria Pronyna, whose satirical collages celebrate Ukrainian culture with an irreverent tone and call for the liberation of her home region of Donetsk. Maria also works on creative projects with teenage refugees from Russian-occupied Mariupol.
Angelika travelled thousands of kilometres across Ukraine on trains and rickety local buses to interview Alina, a medic stationed near Ivankiv, north of Kyiv, formerly occupied by Russian forces; Daria, an activist from Kharkiv now stationed in Dobropillya in Donetsk Oblast; Andrii, a military psychoanalyst in Dnipro; Mark, a non-binary DJ and producer in Pokrovs’ke in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast; and Alexia, a trans soldier recovering from her injuries at a hospital in the Netherlands over Zoom.
Each soldier took time away from their units, many near the frontlines, to share their stories. “We got our arms on day one, we were ready to die on day two,” Andrii recalls. “We thought either that we would be destroyed or the international community would do something powerful to stop Russia. For the first two months, defending against the enemy and doing our duty, we managed on very little food or sleep. Now a year has passed. We know it’s impossible to serve at such intensity as in those first two months. We prepared ourselves for a sprint but this war became a marathon and we must adapt ourselves to that reality.”
LGBTQ+ activists have been pushing unsuccessfully for civil partnerships for years now. A petition for marriage equality gained so many signatures that the president was forced to comment in August 2022. Zelenskyy declared support in principle but declared it to be impossible to change the constitution under martial law. Yet, with so many queer people serving in the military, pressure has been building because partners are currently denied legal recognition in case of death or serious injury – a burning injustice. In March 2023, MP Inna Sovsun introduced a bill to the Ukrainian parliament that would give partnership rights to same-sex couples, with many queer soldiers publicly declaring their support.
Since the full-scale invasion, Angelika has struggled: with what to do, how to earn a living, where to be and how to make a difference. But above all, with the guilt that perhaps the only fight that matters is the one in uniform. Before the war, Daria was an active participant in Kharkiv Pride and other movements.
Now she’s stationed in a logistics battalion in Dobropillya in Donetsk Oblast. Around 50km from the frontlines, many residents have left. Daria explains that the military rely on civilians, too, for donations of supplies and equipment, but most of all, as a reminder of the way of life – the civil society, the activism, the art and so much more – that they’re fighting to defend. Everyone contributes in their own way and everyone has a role to play.
Outside the abandoned bus station in Dobropillya, waiting to return to Dnipro, Angelika reflects on Daria’s words. As air raid sirens echo throughout the empty village, after months, finally they know what to write. Pulling out a paint pen, they scrawl on the locked waiting room wall: “Борітеся – поборете!” It’s a famous line from 19th century Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko: “Keep fighting – you are sure to win!”
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