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Meet the woman helping some LGBTQ Ukrainians flee the country as others stay to fight

Soldiers on a transgender flag
Photo: Shutterstock

At least 53 transgender people, 125 LGBTQ folks, and too many of their family members to count have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February thanks to the assistance of Gender Stream, an organization focused on helping the queer Ukrainian community.

Over the course of several weeks, working through concerns over safety, anonymity, and navigating the logistical challenges of a war zone, LGBTQ Nation was able to glean an inside look into the operations, and success, of Gender Stream.

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Under the leadership of Olha Poliakova, the group’s executive director, Gender Stream launched multiple projects that have had long-lasting benefits, including an agreement of cooperation with the regional government of Dnipro Oblast, a phone helpline with accompanying psychological services for women, and an LGBTQ security program based on the stringent framework of the European Union. Yet nothing prepared Polyakova and her team for the challenges they would face as war spread across their nation.

Based out of the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, the first decision Poliakova made after the commencement of hostilities was to relocate Gender Stream to Transcarpathia, an area nestled in the shadows of the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. This region, home to an already operating LGBTQ wartime shelter, became the new base of operations for the organization.

In addition to taking over and expanding the already existing shelter’s operations, Poliakova and the team went to work servicing the needs of LGBTQ Ukrainians whose lives were in immediate danger despite Gender Stream’s own personnel eventually being scattered across multiple cities and countries.

While discussing the heroic actions of Gender Stream during our interview, she spoke on a wide variety of topics that touched on the lives of Ukraine’s queer population.

Poliakova made clear that since 2014, “respect towards the LGBT+ military has increased.” While unable to discuss any specific soldier because “cases of homophobia” still exist, she reiterated that “respect and acceptance,” is on the rise as a whole within the Ukrainian Army.  Although gays and lesbians can serve, Poliakova clarified that for the transgender community opportunities were less defined. With no formal system in place to provide trans-specific medical care, there were few if any, out transgender Ukrainians in any branch of the military, however, according to Poliakova, that is about to change. A paramedic in Kyiv is now transitioning while on active duty.

The discussion then focused on Russia and the LGBTQ-centric abuses taking place in that nation.

Poliakova relayed a horrifying moment as “Z” troops entered the besieged city of Mariupol. As the Russians marauded through Mariupol’s streets, they stumbled upon a co-working space that belonged to, and welcomed, queer artists and contractors. Enraged by posters and art indicating pride in the diversity of gender and sexuality which is beginning to thrive across Ukraine, the Russian military made it a priority to find the owners and prosecute them. Or worse.

In one of the few bright spots emanating from the destroyed port hub, after days of fruitless searching, it was revealed that those being hunted had escaped.

As the conversation moved deeper into the subject of escaping the wartorn region, we spoke about the Ukrainian transgender community, specifically, those transitioning from male to female.

Controversy, covered previously in LGBTQ Nation, arose in the early days of hostilities when a decree was issued forcing almost all men between 18-60 to remain in Ukraine. This law ensnared those in the midst of transitioning, specifically if their government documents had not been changed to indicate their preferred gender marker.

When asked how Gender Stream assisted the 53 who left, Poliakova’s response was both forthcoming and illuminating.

“At the beginning of our work we encountered a lot of homophobia and transphobia from both the government and civilians. Those whom we have helped to cross the border faced strict requirements.”

Poliakova continued with examples of the specific challenges.

“First of all, those with either a male gender marker and/or those with a masculine appearance faced scrutiny from border guards. This required us to make certain all needed documents were in order. The entire process could take between one day to two weeks, depending on how far along in the process an individual was.”

She then touched on the attitude of those issuing the necessary paperwork.

“Attitudes varied. Some were tolerant and respectful, but we heard a lot of humiliating statements towards the trans community. This was addressed to both our clients and us as activists, and advocates for those leaving. Ultimately, however, documentation was normally issued, with the help of our network of doctors and allies in the government.”

With her organization’s work never-ending and the specter of an extended war looming, Poliakova reflected on the last several years and where life for the queer community in Ukraine was headed.

“I volunteer for the Army, however even me, I was verbally assaulted by a soldier in 2018. And his colleagues stepped up for me and educated him on why he was wrong. Then in 2020, we entered into an official connection with a regional government. Now during the current conflict, the nation is united as one: We are all Ukraine. I’m certain my country will continue along this path toward acceptance for all of us.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Olha Poliakova’s name.

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