Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Pasha Iagoyda has been on the battlefield fighting for his country, shooting at Russian warplanes as an anti-aircraft gunner. But if he is injured or killed, his partner won’t have the right to visit him at the hospital or retrieve his body. As a same-sex couple, they are not legally related to each other under current Ukrainian law. Like many other gay men and women defending Ukraine against Russia, Pasha hopes his service will help push Ukraine towards recognising same-sex partnerships, and one day marriage.
In Ukraine, only family members currently have the right to go to the hospital to visit injured soldiers or retrieve their bodies if they die. Given that Ukraine’s constitution defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, same-sex couples have no legal rights if something happens to one of them on the battlefield.
An online petition to legalise same-sex marriage in Ukraine has received more than 25,000 signatures –enough to require consideration by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. In response to the plea, Zelensky noted on Aug. 2 that it’s impossible to amend the constitution during wartime. But he promised to explore the possibility of civil unions, which could serve as an alternative to marriage to ensure visitation rights for same-sex couples as the war continues.
The petition was launched in June by Anastasia Svenko, a 24-year-old English teacher who was upset that same-sex couples could not get married before heading to war. She told The Observers on August 7 that she was satisfied with Zelensky’s proposal.
At least we get something now for our soldiers and citizens to be happy and protected by law. I hope it’s just the beginning of what we can get later, after the war.
‘If I die, my boyfriend won’t be able to take my body home’
Iagoyda was 20 when he first enlisted in the Ukrainian army in the spring of 2021. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he was transferred to a volunteer detachment, and now serves as an anti-aircraft gunner targeting Russian warplanes. His partner, Vladislav, fought for Ukraine in 2014.
My boyfriend previously fought in the Anti-Terrorist Operation in 2014, during which Crimea was captured. He is not fighting against Russia now because I didn’t allow him to do so.
At the moment, we communicate with each other via phone or video calls. He gives me a lot of mental support even though he worries about me.
If something happens to me, my boyfriend will not be allowed to take my body home because we are not married. We need to legalise same-sex marriage in Ukraine.
Our president is a wonderful person, and he is doing everything possible for us to get legally bonded despite the fact that we are under martial law. I understand his logic, and whatever decision he takes, I will accept it. I’m just happy that he’s taking the issue seriously instead of ignoring our calls for change.
Iagoyda says that while he has never experienced homophobia in the army, many of his heterosexual comrades share stereotypes about gay people that are common in Ukrainian society. He hopes his service in the military, and that of other gay men and women fighting against the Russian attack, will help alter those stereotypes.
I am not afraid to be openly gay in the army! It is just that many people still have a mentality that does not fully understand what homosexuality is. This is why they still ask stupid questions. The most common ones are: “Do you not like being with girls?”, “How do you have sex?” and “How can you love penises?”
In Ukraine, gays are usually believed to be weaker. Some people here have stereotypes that we are unable to stand up for ourselves.
‘Gay soldiers are destroying stereotypes’
In a 2019 survey, only 14% of Ukrainians surveyed said they believed that homosexuality should be accepted by society – significantly lower than elsewhere in Europe.
During peacetime, Sergey Fontantskiy, 40, is a navigator on merchant ships. He volunteered to serve in the army in 2014 as a machine-gunner, and is once again defending Ukraine since the 2022 invasion. Fontantskiy, who is openly gay, shared with the Observers some common stereotypes in Ukraine against LGBT+ soldiers.
I know other gay soldiers in the army, and we even have our own brotherhood, a group that allows gay soldiers to communicate, discuss their personal lives, and meet up, both online and in person. There are as many gay people as in other professions, I would say 5% approximately.
I do believe that the percentage of Ukrainians who are ready to accept LGBT+ people is much higher than 14% as indicated in the survey done in 2019. Of course, it is my personal experience, but I have never encountered homophobia.
There are however outdated stereotypes about gays in Ukraine. Perhaps the most common ones are that gay people are too timid and not courageous enough to defend their home country with weapons, or that they are too selfish and only concerned with their own gain.
But gay soldiers are destroying these stereotypes. The war is showing that LGBT+ Ukrainians, like our heterosexual brothers and sisters, are also defending our homeland.
This petition on same-sex marriage is very important, especially now that every day could be my last. I completely agree with Mr. Zelensky that civil union is currently more expedient.
‘After all, we are protecting the country in the same way as heterosexuals’
Selfie of Aleks Shadskykh in uniform
Aleks Shadskykh, a gay Ukrainian soldier, in the field fighting against Russia.
Aleks Shadskykh, a junior sergeant serving as a platoon medic. He was a medical student before Russia’s invasion.
I joined the army as a medical volunteer. Since March 10, I have been on the front line, treating soldiers’ injuries and saving their lives.
I heard that at the beginning of Russia’s invasion some Ukrainians believed that LGBT+ individuals did not want to fight and all fled the country. But this was not true. Many of our community joined the war effort as volunteers, and are serving as soldiers or, like me, medics.
In the past, LGBT+ people were not well regarded in Ukraine. However, the level of acceptance has increased now. After all, we are protecting the country in the same way as heterosexuals. I believe conditions for LGBTQ people will improve in Ukraine.
Our society has become more LGBT+-friendly. For instance, when I told my comrades in the army that I’m gay, no one beat me up. The other day, I saw two guys walking in the park while holding each other’s hands, and no one even made a comment. After same-sex marriage is legalised, I believe we will be able to have the same rights as heterosexual couples.