During the last half-decade, the queer community in Ukraine has seen great strides in acceptance inside the country, but halfway through the Russian invasion, but the humanitarian crisis facing millions of refugees who fled the country continues.
To get a clearer understanding of the situation for both refugees and members of the country’s LGBTQ community after 180-plus days of full-scale war, we spoke with Rissana Shytu, a female and a queer person of color who was born and raised in western Ukraine. She is now a successful business owner residing in Valencia, Spain helping other expats, including Ukrainians, settle there, either permanently or as they bide their time escaping the ongoing horror in their homeland.
LGBTQ Nation: When we spoke of the progress for the LGBTQ community in Ukraine, you mentioned how quickly it unfolded. Where do you see the right’s situation going in the future?
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Rissana Shytu: I hope that the situation is going towards full marriage equality and the ability to adopt children and recognition of hate crimes for queer people and so on. I very much expect Ukraine to adopt legislation that will make the life of its queer citizens easier and protect the trans community and not just to become part of the EU, but to make sure all of its citizens have the same rights and are equally protected because its important.
When was your queer awakening? When you came out in Spain, did it surprise you? Did it surprise friends?
I’d had a few girl crushes during my life, but they didn’t go anywhere and I never pondered on them until I was in Spain and had a few lesbian friends. None of them were romantic interests, but they must have unlocked something. I just basically woke up one morning and realized that I can see myself in a relationship with a woman as well as a man and that was that. My queer friends were overjoyed at my coming out, my straight friends didn’t care either way and nobody expressed any surprise to my face. The queer community has been the most welcoming and definitely made me feel at home from day one and I’m doing my best to do the same.
You mentioned that Valencia, and Spain as a whole, were not just tolerant but welcoming of queers and other minorities. Why do you think this is?
I’m not sure I know the answer to this one, but my educated guess would be: Valencianos in particular, but it seems to me like Spain as a nation, are very courteous people. Politeness is extremely important to them. So they are polite and friendly and keep appearances as part of daily life. When Franco fell and Spain turned to democracy the society was very split and they made an effort to heal and move forward. Some of those choices are a little odd and questionable for the outsiders (like not teaching the Franco era in schools at all) but overall they made Spain work while also maintaining a lot of regional and local identities.
So they generally have respect for diversity; it’s an important part of what Spain is. They made same-sex marriage into law in 2005, way ahead of many other places, they have an institute of Women, as part of the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality and they work hard on ensuring that on all levels everybody has equal rights. There’s a strong LGBTQ+ community, and our pride events are amazing. Madrid hosted World Pride a few years ago. Plus punishment for harassment and attacks on LGBTQ+ people are pretty serious and that also helps. There are not many of those, but when they happen they get a lot of attention, discussions, and public outcry.
The understanding of how the intersection between race, gender, and sexuality has become pronounced over the past decade. Now colonialism has also found its way more often into the conversation. Do you find the burden of carrying the possibility of so much trauma and discrimination eased when it is interwoven, or do you find it more manageable to address the difficulties associated with being a POC, a victim of colonialism, and a queer female by looking at them as individual parts of your identity?
Firstly and most importantly, I am not a victim. While I do feel like we are all being raped by Russia, some quite literally, others by being dragged into this horrid war in all the ways that we are, we are survivors more than we are victims because we are fighting back, every day, nonstop. At a horrible cost of lives lost of our people. At a horrible cost of collective trauma of the war. But we are fighting. The trauma is real and I can’t even begin to process it, so for now I keep it locked away to allow me to function and do everything I can to fight. Once we win, I will mourn and process and hopefully eventually heal. But now is not the time for that.
As for me, being Ukrainian, queer, POC, and female are all interlinked parts of me that together with my experiences make me the human that I am. I’m still wondering what makes me a woman, as it’s not my vagina or boobs, maybe brain chemistry? I think about it every now and again and genuinely don’t have an answer. Things like skin color are easy to place, but being Ukrainian for example not so much.
I’ve been in relationships with both men and women, and while my epic love is with a man, I’m a loud and proud bisexual who doesn’t allow people to erase my identity. None of what I am is a burden to me other than having Russia for a neighbor). I embrace myself with all the good, quirky, and needing improvement. In my first few years in Spain, I’ve learned a lot about internalized misogyny, and judgmentalism (sorry, really can’t find a better word for needing to constantly judge people against some impossible standard), and worked hard in getting rid of them. I became a better and happier person because of it. I have also realized that Ukrainian society was going through a similar process, of being more open and tolerant and recognizing that diversity and openness are our true values and strength, as opposed to those pushed on us by colonization.
When did you become aware of Russian imperialism and, as an extension, colonialism?
In 2008. Their war in Georgia. I was still not sure of the terminology, but that was a moment at which I realized Russia was not just a shitty neighbor, but a dangerous one. That is when I decided that I’m not setting foot in that country ever again (I’ve had friends and visited Moscow multiple times before). Fully though it was in 2013-14. Euromaidan and Crimea. This is when I stopped using Russian 100% and fully switched to Ukrainian and English. This is also when I slowly started relearning about the history of Ukraine and figuring out colonial narratives in my head. However much I did, it was not nearly enough. Since February I have found whole new layers of damaging stories in my head about Russia, Ukraine, culture, traditions, and perceptions of all those things. And I’m generally a very self-aware and introspective person that grew up in Lviv. How much more work lies ahead for people who were more exposed to all the propaganda and colonial narratives?
Do you believe Russian society is inherently LGBTQ Phobic? Racist? Imperialistic?
Yes, all of those things. Russian society is terrifying to me in its adoration of power and prison culture. The hierarchy is real and brutal. So the further you are from the ideal: male, cis, straight, white, and blonde, the worse off you are. The little power someone has, they will use it to put down whoever doesn’t have that power and it’s vicious.
Which steps would take to stop the influence of Russia in Ukraine?
Personally, the only way Russia stops being a terrorist state and danger to the world is when it is isolated and locked in and implodes on itself fracturing into smaller states and shaking off Moscow’s colonialism. As it is now it’ll never let the rest of the world be. But in an ideal world, there would be a beautiful ocean on our easter border.
Please discuss your work in assisting during the events of the Maidan uprising, also known as the Revolution of Dignity.
I was providing help on the sidelines. We had a kitchen in the hostel, so we made food for the people protesting and we offered free accommodation to those who needed it during those rough winter nights. My hostel team was the real star of all of that, as they did the welcoming and cleaning and made sure everyone was taken care of. I did some of the cooking and deliveries to maidan.
Tell us about your business life and moving from owning a hostel to what you do now, which is navigating Spanish bureaucracy on behalf of other foreigners.
I was looking for a business opportunity outside of Ukraine, preferably somewhere warmer and closer to the sea and Spain offered me one. I’m extremely grateful for things happening the way they did, as Valencia has definitely turned into a home for me. I moved to Spain in March 2014, though things were set in motion in the summer of 2013. We closed down and gave back the keys to the hospitality business on February 1, 2020, though the decision was made in November 2019, around our last visit to Ukraine.
You went from hospitality to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is notoriously bad in Spain. Do you see the administrative state in Ukraine being overhauled for the better as one of the fallouts of the Russian invasion?
Oh, the notorious Spanish bureaucracy! In reality, it’s more confusing than anything else. Even in the years that I’ve been dealing with it, it’s gotten way better and easier to navigate in many ways because they are trying to improve things. But this also means requirements change very often and this results in frustration for people who deal with it only every now and again. As for Ukraine, yes, absolutely. I’ve already seen some examples of progress and I have full faith in things being efficient and better as we move forward!
Do you see Ukraine getting admitted to the EU?
The optimist in me screams “Yes!” But the realist in me is concerned about how long and complex the process will be for that to pass. So I’d firmly say yes, eventually.
We discussed you thinking more and more of a return to Ukraine, and that most refugees plan to return as well. What do you think is the cause of this? Both in your more unique case, and the wider case of the people who had to take refuge in Spain?
Because it’s home and they miss it. It’s as simple and as complex as that. As for me, I don’t know what it is, but the pull is real and while Valencia has my heart and is home, I feel something in my soul calling me to go back to Ukraine. I’m not ready to answer that call just yet, but it’s definitely there.
What do you want the LGBTQ Nation audience to know…about anything?
You know, we have these conversations with my partner, who’s from the US and very liberal. Every time I say it’s Russia’s war and every Russian is guilty he disagrees because I’m grouping people by a single criterion. And I hear that – and the slippery slope fallacy that follows that line of thinking.
There is no slippery slope. Things are very black and white in this war. Every Russian is guilty: Every person that holds a Russian passport and has the right to vote is guilty. Whether they actively support the war or really don’t care, they are supporting the war. Those few that feel the guilt and help are the exception that actually confirms the statement. They feel guilt and inability to change things in Russia. So they admit to it and help however they can. Be it donating to Ukrainian causes, hosting refugees, but most importantly not hijacking the conversation and making it about themselves.
Because it truly is not about Russians. I wish the world would stop caring and guessing this much about how Russians feel. It’s about Ukrainians being murdered for just one single criterion. Being Ukrainians. And the reason I am not dead now is sheer luck. Nothing else, because they want to kill every single one of us. Just because we are Ukrainians. For no other reason. And that is the definition of genocide.