Ukraine: We Should Not Look Abnormal. How The Lgbt Community Survives In The Occupied Kherson

Kherson is a city in southern Ukraine with a population of 300,000 that Russian troops occupied in the early days of a full-scale invasion.

There were no safe corridors for evacuation, so many residents remained in the city even though it was hazardous. Both because of the announced battles for the liberation of the Kherson region and the terror of the invaders. Russia, like many authoritarian states, publicly takes a patriarchal stance. Fem-LGBT organizations are associated with the Western world, which the Russian Federation has decided to oppose. And on the eve of the invasion, the media published “shooting lists” of those who, in the event of the seizure of Ukraine, the Russians plan to liquidate. Among them were leaders of LGBT organizations. Therefore, the activists who found themselves in the occupation feared for their safety.

Socportal asked the head of the Kherson organization Insha (Other) Marina Usmanova, to talk about the situation in the region.

Marina Usmanova: The feminist queer-inclusive organization “Other” was founded in 2013. We worked on women's rights and the rights of LGBT people and organized an LGBT march and a queer forum in Kherson. We had a big beautiful community center. We did a lot of creative projects. At the moment, almost everyone has left Kherson. Two people remained. Among them is a woman with four cats and a transgender guy who can't go because they strip at checkpoints in search of tattoos. And he has no tattoos, but he is a transgender guy. The rest of the organization is in Berlin, a little bit in Portugal, a little bit in Poland, and a little bit in the territory controlled by Ukraine.

S: Before the war, did you encounter those in Kherson who might not like LGBT events? Local rightists?

Marina Usmanova: There has always been a shortage of ultra-rightists in Kherson. I won't say they weren't. For example, a deputy of the city council from the Svoboda party (a conservative party that did not make it to parliament in the last elections - ed.) went to our march, broke through the cordon of cops, and pulled the rainbow flag out of my hands. He needed him.

I caught up with him and took the flag back. He again broke through and again took the rainbow flag.

And he was supported by screaming grandmothers brought by him. This is how the ultra-right expressed itself.

And we also have the "Right Sector" (a nationalist militarist party that did not enter the parliament in the last elections - ed.) in Kherson, headed by a woman. She even came to watch movies with us. There was a film about female soldiers called "The Invisible Battalion." And since we are a feminist organization and we have a hall in which it is convenient to watch a movie, we decided to show it and advertise the show around the city. And two women came, sat with stern faces, watched a film, did not stay for a discussion, and left.

And then I googled - for sure, the head of the "Right Sector" came to us to watch a movie.

Kherson is Kherson. We even have some right ones. Although, I have a personal hater. She filed a complaint against me twice with the police. For the first time, the fact that I promote communism. This is when on March 8, a lecture was about Rosa Luxemburg. The police came in, asked: “What are you doing here?” neighing, and left. The second time she sued the police for distributing pornography. Our exhibition was about physicality. And there were nudity exhibits. But the police were also neighing and left. I have since realized that we need to invent porn communism urgently. She came out to oppose our LGBT march with a banner "Homodictatorship is the rashism" (a combination of the words Russia and Fashim, ed.).

S: What do you know about the situation with LGBT rights in Russia?

Marina Usmanova: In general terms. In Germany, I met many of those who left there recently because I understood something terrible was happening.

S: What are the current threats to LGBT activists in Kherson?

Marina Usmanova: Firstly, it is simply impossible to look abnormal now. Secondly, they strip on the streets, looking for "Nazi tattoos." Many representatives of the LGBT community have tattoos that speak of belonging to the LGBT community. Some rainbow flag, some girls-boys kissing.

And it's not very clear if they don't find "Nazi" tattoos, but they find gay-tattoos, how they react.

In addition, many also have the coat of arms of Ukraine.

S: Are there known cases when they were repressed and interrogated?

Marina Usmanova: Yes. One of our activists was detained, taken away, and kept for two months. The man has been released but is not very mentally preserved. Therefore, now he goes around and says that he works for Russia, that they explained to him what can and cannot be displayed. He says that he gave everyone. And all of us are shocked about this. Now people who want to leave are afraid because they think they were arrested and are on the filter lists. And I don't know which of these is true and which is just panic.

On the one hand, why do Russians have gays? Why put them on some lists and not release them? On the other hand, what they have in their heads is generally not very clear.

Another threat worth mentioning is the situation with transgender people. There are constant patrols in Kherson, checking your passport. And there are people whose appearance strongly does not correspond to passport data.

That is if it says in your passport that you are Vasya, but you are a beautiful blonde in life, then you're screwed.

Therefore, people with a substantial discrepancy between passport data and appearance do not go out too often.

S: You are organizing an evacuation. How is this possible?

Marina Usmanova: We have gathered drivers who already have experience in this matter. One of these drivers took us out. There is also a girl from the community who takes out. She also has many animals and does not go out herself but takes people out. It's good to take guys out with a girl. Men are generally harder to evacuate.

We try to export to Zaporizhzhia. At one time, they were taken to Odessa. Export of one person - from 300 euros. Because it is hazardous for the driver anyway, and drivers, among other things, are shared with these "comrades" at checkpoints.

Some people had to be taken out through Crimea (earlier, the head of the Ministry of Reintegration, Irina Vereshchuk, called on residents of the Kherson region to leave the area by any means, including through the temporarily occupied Crimea, ed.). We contact Russian activists who help people quit. There are two ways - one to Estonia, the other - to Georgia.

Q: What happened to your office? I read that it was broken into and looted.

Marina Usmanova: Of course, we left the office. It was closed.

Security cameras recorded that dudes opened the lock in military uniform. They stole all the equipment and spoiled something.

We have a volunteer who passes by the office periodically. After that, he took out everything he could from the office. Another girl, an art historian, did exhibitions with us. And after them, we had artwork. And she took out of the office everything that has to do with art. And hid it at home. However, there were pictures of such a size that hoo. One artist did several significant works; they also stood in our office. And somehow, she made it through.

Sofas and ottomans were also taken out. Gave them to a nearby cafe. Let them use it better. They just opened a summer terras. And after that, our volunteers invited a welder; we transferred money to them for this business. And the welder just welded up the office.

S: How can you comment on the petition for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which received the required votes?

Marina Usmanova: Perfectly, we got 25,000 votes for the petition. Because it speaks of a change in the discourse in public opinion and that the LGBT community has mobilized and can finally sign the petition. And I saw so many non-community volunteers circulating this petition and signing it. It's all great.

But to introduce same-sex marriage in Ukraine, it is necessary to amend the constitution. It is impossible to make changes to the Constitution in wartime.

Our constitution says marriage is a union between a man and a woman, which should be changed. But now, this cannot be done. Therefore, I do not think that the legalization of same-sex marriages is now somehow possible. We will listen to what the President has to say about this. But at the moment, it doesn't seem real to me. But on the whole, expanding freedoms, including marriage, is valuable.

S: What are you doing now being in the EU?

Marina Usmanova: I was at the Berlin anarcho-passage; I told the Germans about Makhno (the creator of the anarchorepublic in the south of Ukraine in the first half of the twentieth century, Nestor Makhno, ed.). We go to discussions, speak at rallies, talk about Ukraine and Kherson, fundraise, and collect money. On the one hand, we take out Kherson residents; on the other hand, we send help to those who do not leave.

There is no work there; the prices are inhuman.

That is why we collect money here and direct our primary efforts to Kherson. To my community and to women who find themselves in difficult situations. There are also rapes; the wives of soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are now in that still risky category. So now our target audience is also the wives of soldiers.

S: There is still a long way to go before the victory. But if you imagine, what would you like to do in Ukraine after?

Marina Usmanova: I would like that after that, firstly, Kherson would be Ukrainian. Secondly, Kherson was. So that it was physically, not like Mariupol. I want to return to pre-war Kherson and do everything I did. But that won't work. Therefore, it will have to be raked and restored.