WARSAW—This weekend, for the first time ever, Warsaw Pride (Parada Równości) was headlined not by queer people from Poland but, instead, by a group from out of town: LGBTQ Ukrainians.
After the Russian army began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the last thing on queer Ukrainian minds was what to do about Pride. They were focused, instead, on survival. Survival not just from the constant shelling and even mass executions and other probable war crimes in places like Bucha but also survival on a different level. Ukrainian queers knew that, should the Russian army capture any town they were living in, they would become one of the army’s first targets.
By early March of this year, once it became clear that President Zelenskyy wouldn’t flee the capital and Kyiv wasn’t going to immediately fall to the invading Russian army, the Kyiv Pride committee began to think ahead to June 2022. Even though the government in Kyiv has been very supportive of the annual Marsh Rivnosti/Pride March for several years now and they might have been able to get a permit, the danger that Putin would specifically bomb a Pride march in Kyiv was too real. So this year Pride was held this weekend 500 miles away, in Warsaw.
Lenny Emson, the director of Kyiv Pride, said before the march that “Russia denied us Pride, our march of equality that we are holding every year since 2012 in Kyiv” and that, in response, they had to look for a place other than Kyiv to hold the march.
Poland, which has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country, seemed like a natural place to hold the march. The Warsaw Pride committee readily agreed to play gracious host.
Julia Maciocha of the Parada Równości/Warsaw Pride committee for 2022 said: “We want to stand together against war, to walk for Ukraine’s freedom, for liberation, for equality, tolerance and acceptance.”
The Warsaw Pride Committee stressed that this weekend’s Pride march was not a celebration but an anti-war march: “For us in the Equality Parade, community means standing in defense of others. Community means marching arm in arm for the safety and freedom of those who have had it taken away. We are proud to join Kyiv in their march for Ukraine’s victory.” And, thus, one of the most unusual Pride marches in the 50-plus year history of Pride marches was born: a joint Ukrainian/Polish Pride march hosted in Warsaw with the Kyiv Pride float leading from the front.
Between this weekend’s Pride march in Warsaw and the beginning of Russia’s invasion, the queer community in Kyiv has transformed from a general advocacy group to one that provides services for internally-displaced queer Ukrainians.
A manifesto from Kyiv Pride was posted on their Instagram: “We call on the brotherly and sisterly queer communities of Europe and the world to show the maximum solidarity with Ukrainian LGBTQI+ people—solidarity in values, ideology, and politics. Affected by Russian aggression, we are still in need of your help.”
Emson said that “when the invasion started, we had to find out what the community needed and that was direct services because suddenly so many of us were on the edge of poverty, right? We originally had our office full of sleeping bags on the floor but, as time went on and donations began to pour in, we were able to rent a facility that with no cost can have up to 25 people. We are now a shelter and community center.”
One worry expressed by Emson and others was that, as people abroad become bored with watching the progress of the war, donations might flag. They have set up a donation link on their website and are hoping that one of the results of holding such a large Pride march in Warsaw—some 85,000 people were said to be in attendance—will be increased funds for their ever multiplying needs.
Though there are many Ukrainian queer people serving, often openly, in the Ukrainian army (mostly gay men but also some trans people and lesbians as well), they were not able to march in Warsaw. Recently they have made an informal “unicorn” group and even have an Instagram and Facebook page where they tell their stories.
Deniel Johnson, a Ukrainian gay man who serves openly and wears the unicorn patch on his uniform, said on Instagram recently that he has fallen in love: “The most beautiful thing is I met my loved one during the war. I'm very happy about it, I love him a lot but constantly worry at the same time. For the moment I crave for our victory and to meet my darling one. I wish we could go to the sea side, drink a glass of red wine and watch the stars till the sunrise hugging each other.”
Emson told The Daily Beast that although she is very proud of Ukrainian queers in the army for speaking out so freely, the Russian army has used the existence of “unicorn soldiers” in their propaganda, even falsely suggesting that there are “gay battalions” in the Ukrainian Army.
Like many LGBTQ populations around the world, those at Warsaw Pride said being visible was integral to fighting for their rights. A girl who gave her name as Holly told The Daily Beast: “I'm here to fight for our rights because the Polish government is not supportive. We are here to just show that we are here and we are not going anywhere and they can't get rid of us. I just graduated from high school. My school was kind of supportive but, because the government is the way it is, they could not show full support. I'm scared, actually, because of what's happening, all the anti-trans bills and the abortion bills in the U.S. - the same thing is happening here. I just hope that everything will work out.”
Her friends concurred: they were here not only to celebrate and fight for their own rights but also to support Ukrainian queers who are, very literally, fighting for their lives.