How LGBT Groups in Kharkiv Help The City Fight Back
By Brian Dooley and Vasyl Malikov
This week’s stunningly successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian soldiers against Russian forces in the northeast of the country led to terrible retaliatory attacks by Russia against civilians in the city of Kharkiv.
Russia missiles attacked water, gas, and electricity infrastructure in and around the city, and at least three more civilians were killed. Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, has been hit particularly hard by the invasion. It is only 25 miles from the Russian border, and sits directly in the line of fire. Hundreds of people have been killed by Russian missiles in the city since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Many more have been wounded.
For marginalized and vulnerable communities, the situation is particularly dire.
Last month, a home for the deaf was destroyed in missile attacks, people have been forced to live in metro stations for months to survive, while many others are dependent on humanitarian aid. At times, the city’s authorities implement long curfews in an attempt to minimize casualties. These are usually overnight, but can be as long as 36 hours. The bombings and curfews are difficult ordeals for marginalized people who lack support systems and basic supplies.
But local volunteers are responding to the crisis, including activists from the LGBT community.
Kharkiv has been a historically difficult and hostile place for the LGBT people. The first pride march the city hosted in 2019 was attacked and tear gassed by alt-right groups. Hate crimes against LGBT people still happen, and they remain scapegoats in a city under immense pressure.
Activists from groups including Alliance.Global and Spectrum Kharkiv have been part of a mass mobilization of civilians, organizing clothes swaps and blood donation drives. LGBT activists are an integral part of the war effort. From gathering supplies for the city’s social centers and military hospital to distributing hundreds of food and hygiene packages in the last few months (many of which come by road from groups in Lithuania and Germany) to working with local medical authorities to source anti-retroviral drugs and other medicines, including PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, a drug that helps prevent HIV.
Aside from medical and physical needs, loneliness and isolation are major problems during the war. It is crucial that vulnerable communities are given support – legal, moral, and medical. LGBT activists offer counseling and run a drop-in center where people can come for a cup of coffee, play a board game, or just connect with others to battle the isolation.
This work is not only saving lives, but challenging negative stereotypes and shifting perceptions.
The war is redefining Kharkiv’s social structure, dissolving old lines of division in the fight against the common Russian enemy. This newfound solidarity will be crucial as the coming months as the winter approaches. Locals will require long-term endurance, taking one night of rocket attacks at a time. Freezing temperatures towards the end of the year will make the distribution of food and social interactions much harder.
If Kharkiv is to survive the coming bitter winter, and if the progress made by LGBT groups is to be maintained, international humanitarian aid must continue to reach the far eastern part of the country, no matter how cold things get.
The city spent most of December, January, and February 2021 in sub-zero temperatures. The giant iconic thermometer on Constitution Square warns that it is ready to measure temperatures as low as minus 35 Celsius. Keeping Kharkiv warm, especially for vulnerable communities, during the winter war will be difficult but crucial. Russia has already started attacking the city’s heating infrastructure.
As of now, thanks in part to the efforts of local LGBT activists and support from abroad, the city has coped. But the coming six months will offer fresh challenges, and more civilians are almost certain to be killed in rocket attacks. As the war grinds on, the continuing supply of humanitarian aid, and the international solidarity it represents, are vital to Kharkiv’s survival.
Vasyl Malikov is Director of LGBT NGO Spectrum Kharkiv, member of National MSM Consortium, and case man