Life

Ukraine’s only transgender correspondent has become a local legend

LGBTQ Nation journalist Sarah Ashton-Cirillo poses with members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces
LGBTQ Nation journalist Sarah Ashton-Cirillo poses with members of the Ukrainian Armed ForcesPhoto: Provided

I was shocked when I learned of LGBTQ Nation reporter Sarah Ashton-Cirillo – the only openly transgender war correspondent working in Ukraine.

It was May, and I was in Kharkiv, a large Ukrainian city by the Russian border, which, at this point, was being shelled every day. Distant explosions often reverberated through the sky like thunder. I came across Ashton-Cirillo’s Twitter one night when trying to verify rumors of an impending airstrike.

She was also reporting in Kharkiv but, unlike myself, had been there since the outset of the war, staying even in the worst periods when almost every foreigner had fled. Her apartment wasn’t nestled in the relative safety of downtown but rather was out in the northern suburbs, which were still being blown to bits. A no-go zone for most journalists.

Ashton-Cirillo’s Twitter was a torrent of videos and photos testifying to the visceral realities of war – abandoned neighborhoods, dead civilians, and explosions in the darkness. She gave visibility to forgotten communities and seemed incredibly brave, maybe even a little crazy. The two traits often go hand-in-hand.

We connected online, but shortly afterward, Russia launched a counterattack against Kharkiv, and shelling of the city intensified, creeping back into downtown neighborhoods that had, until that point, enjoyed a few weeks of safety. I had to leave abruptly before we could grab a coffee.

Over the ensuing months, we conducted a few phone interviews and I wrote several articles about her. She was candid about the fear that occasionally paralyzed her when she arrived in Ukraine. Sometimes, she thought she would die, but the war had transformed her. There was no bravado or ego – just earnestness.

Her journey to Ukraine was, in some ways, redemption for past failures, which included an aborted book on Syrian refugees. As she had transitioned only a few years ago, her voyage to Ukraine was also a test: could she be a war journalist while being her authentic self?

It was a test that was passed with surprising ease. Ukrainians didn’t seem to care about her being trans. They had more important things to worry about and primarily saw her for her humanity and allyship. It was a revelation that Ashton-Cirillo has often tried to raise awareness about – the fact that, in many ways, it has been easier for her to be trans in Ukraine than in the United States. War vaporizes prejudice.

As her fame grew, so did her infamy among the Russian government and its supporters, who deluged her with death threats. Ashton-Cirillo has been personally targeted by the Russian foreign ministry and ridiculed on Russian state television. However, in early autumn, despite these threats, she joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a Senior Medic – a career shift that, unfortunately, required her to take a journalistic hiatus.

However, her direct involvement with the Ukrainian war effort also gave her greater legitimacy. This week, she is speaking to Congress about the situation in Ukraine. It is the cumulation of almost nine months of brave, dangerous, and necessary work.

Before Ashton-Cirillo had to pause her journalism, her articles painted a portrait of LGBTQ life in Ukraine – not only of the queer Ukrainians who bleed for their nation, but also of everyday activists whose advocacy has turned Ukraine into a relatively accepting place. Homophobia and transphobia, though still an issue, are only a fraction of what it was a decade ago.

Though Ashton-Cirillo doesn’t often draw attention to it, her life is now a part of that portrait. When I returned to Kharkiv in October, a month after she left the city to join the frontlines, the impact of her work and the hole left by her absence were palpable.

At a cafe, I bumped into Malcolm Nance, an eccentric American media superstar who, in the 2000s, had famously exposed the U.S. military’s use of waterboarding. Like Ashton-Cirillo, Nance had also taken the extra step of joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces. To his knowledge, they were the only two journalists to have done so.

When Ashton-Cirillo was mentioned, he lit up. According to Nance, she was a local legend. Everyone seemed to know about her.

“Kharkiv was literally being blitzed by the Russians, and she refused to leave the city. She stayed, which I thought for a journalist was just stupid and foolhardy – but it shows a level of commitment that a lot of journalists don’t have. The mainstream journalists have security minders which prevent them from going to dangerous things. They have insurance. They say they’re on the frontlines, but they’re not. But Sarah was a frontline journalist.”

According to Nance, Ashton-Cirillo’s work was a hybrid of journalism and activism, and she distinguished herself through her volunteer work.

“She started providing food while running the local media center – running food up to little old ladies and men that wouldn’t leave their homes. Shells would come crashing down, but they wouldn’t leave. Some have been here since before WWII, and they survived that, so they think they’ll survive this. Sarah thanklessly brought food and medicine to these people.”

Mixing journalism and activism is a practice that is criticized by many journalists, who feel that it undermines objectivity. Yet, on the other hand, local Ukrainians have often privately criticized traditional journalists for their detached and voyeuristic relationship with the country, which has, at times, come off as insensitive – as if war is a safari.

What Ashton-Cirillo lacks in detached objectivity, she makes up for with her deep community connections. Her networks eclipse what other, more transient, journalists can pull upon. With that comes a keener appreciation for what kind of behavior is appropriate or exploitative. According to Nance, many humanitarian aid workers and journalists have made a spectacle of being near the frontlines – a kind of bravado that Ashton-Cirillo has assiduously avoided.

“I hear those people brag all the time and it makes me nauseous, and you wouldn’t hear that from Sarah. She’s a role model. I’ll be the first one to defend her. A lot of guys who come up on Twitter will criticize her gender identity. Artillery shells don’t give two fucks about your gender identity. A bullet does not care what pronouns you use. Cold starving people don’t care. They just know good humanity when they see it, and that’s what I feel she embodies.”

I spent much of my autumnal visit to Kharkiv at the local media hub – Ukraine operates four such hubs, spread across the country’s largest cities, to assist visiting journalists. In Kharkiv, the media hub was located in a bunker-like basement beneath a university building. At night, electrical shortages plunged the city into darkness so viscous and all-encompassing that any sense of distance disappeared. The door to the bunker was like a portal in space.

At the media hub, I met Billy, a Ukrainian press officer who had worked closely with Ashton-Cirillo. He was a grizzled middle-aged man – a thick beard and tired eyes, dressed in standard camouflage military attire. He sent me a series of videos the media hub had produced with Ashton-Cirillo, featuring her interviewing foreigners in the bunker. When asked about her, Billy smiled.

“Everybody, all the journalists who came here, it was rush time for them. They needed to use all of their time. And she was the first one who stopped and asked us what are we doing here. What is important to us. How do we see our mission. It was unbelievable.”

He said that locals resonated well with her earnestness. “It was about her commitment, how sincere she was during her journalistic activities. How she helped people who asked her to help. Simple people. She helped everybody who asked her. Other journalists, too. She never stopped and spread energies so widely.”

In August, Kharkiv Pride, unable to host a traditional march due to the war, organized a mobile pride throughout the city. Local LGBTQ activists and community members rode the metro together, waving flags, and then drove around the city in decorated cars. Billy noted that Ashton-Cirillo ultimately skipped the event, despite wanting to go, to focus on her volunteer work.

He called Ashton-Cirillo a symbol of “free America” and an example of what the United States could bring to the world – individual freedom and a keen appreciation for democracy. “Even simple villagers, without real knowledge of English, were so grateful. They said hello every time she came. They called her ‘Saravchka’ – it means ‘our little Sarah.’ You know, she’s not really little. She’s a tall person. It’s so nice. You see how radiant she is and she made people cheerful.”

“I trust her. I trust her with everything.”

Shortly after a Ukrainian counter-offensive liberated most of the Kharkiv region in September,  Ashton-Cirillo helped a small group of journalists tour the area. They were among the first to visit newly-liberated towns where charred corpses of Russian soldiers still littered the roads. Among these journalists was Arnaud De Decker, a Belgian journalist and acquaintance. I called him and asked about Ashton-Cirillo.

De Decker, too, spoke glowingly of her. “She’s a very interesting, fascinating person. Very intelligent, especially on a social level. She knows how to handle people,” he said. “The more time we spent with her, the more we discovered about her past and her previous life. She’s a closed book and it takes time to open this book – she talks a lot but does not speak a lot about herself and her past.”

Ashton-Cirillo’s past is indeed complicated. In a summertime phone interview with her, she revealed that she had struggled with suicidal thoughts prior to her transition and said that, had she not transitioned, she would not be alive right now.

De Decker said that, unlike other journalists, who were known to bend the rules to get their story, Ashton-Cirillo paid close attention to official regulations. “It was inspiring and sometimes a little intimidating because we know if we fuck up that she will be there to look at us.”

The more I get to know Ashton-Cirillo, the more I respect her. Anyone can speak highly of themselves, but it is much harder to be the kind of person others praise uniformly.

Her work in Ukraine has been groundbreaking and is demolishing not only stereotypes about trans people, but about Ukrainians, too. Over the past decade, Ukraine has radically transformed itself in pursuit of European integration. While prejudice still exists, it’s a shadow of what it once was. LGBTQ people and racial minorities I’ve interviewed have consistently noted that today’s Ukraine is nothing like the Ukraine of the early 2010s. Most foreigners are unaware of this cultural transformation, but Ashton-Cirillo is fixing that.

Her work has also created a rare opportunity for bridge-building in the American culture wars. I previously wrote a profile on Ashton-Cirillo for the Washington Examiner, a conservative media outlet that tends to be critical of trans issues. The Examiner was happy to feature her, which shocked some LGBTQ political pundits. Slate even published a story dedicated to discussing the Examiner piece.

Yet the fact that Ashton-Cirillo’s story has bipartisan appeal should be unsurprising. She is a conservative-friendly figure whose journalism and public advocacy are steeped in patriotism. Her approach to trans rights prioritizes individual liberty and her worldview has classical liberal overtones.

As she speaks to congress this week, one can only hope that she will help American politicians see the war through her eyes and impart an understanding of the human cost of Russia’s colonial invasion – obliterated villages and hungry civilians. Hopefully, her earnest passion can break through some of the cynicism that has infected American discourse around Ukraine and simultaneously show legislators that trans people can fight for justice on the frontlines, too.

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