NGO Sphere Provides Resistance and Aid in Kharkiv
Only 30 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second biggest city and was a key target of Russia’s invasion last year, when it was almost encircled. Towns and villages around the city were occupied by the Russian military until they were driven out late last year. Kharkiv is still regularly bombed by Russian missiles.
Crucial to Kharkiv’s resistance to the Russian invasion has been Sphere, an NGO that “since 2006 has been uniting women of Kharkiv, including lesbian and bisexual women.” Sphere works “for freedom, equality, and safety.”
Tucked in a small office near the city center, some of Sphere’s activists described how their work has adapted to meet the challenges of the war.
“We’ve been providing aid for those forced to flee their homes because of the war,” says Yevheniia Ilinska, a long-standing member of the organization. “We’ve raised money from abroad – including from LGBTQ+ groups – to distribute basic supplies. We’ve been handing out clothes, including socks, and have provided some to our military.”
Sphere’s activists say that beyond its obvious damage and destruction to the city, the war is causing “a social revolution”: many men are away from their homes fighting in the military, and many family dynamics are changing dramatically.
“The full-scale war significantly aggravates some of the problems that existed before, including gender-based domestic and sexual violence, and discrimination at work,” Sphere notes on its website.
The war has also helped change some attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine. Last September, when the dangers from rocket attacks made an open-air parade impossible, Sphere helped organize a successful Pride event in the city’s metro system.
“We dressed wearing national symbols and LGBT flags,” says Ilinska, “and the public reception was very positive.”
The reaction is more evidence of a positive shift since last year’s invasion in public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, in part because the community’s contribution to the war effort is increasingly seen and valued. Hopes are high that Ukraine will soon legalize same-sex civic partnerships, and eventually same-sex marriages.
But for many women and LGBTQ+ people in Kharkiv, the city still holds many dangers.
Sphere used to run The Hub, a safe space in the city for the LGBTQ+ community and for women, but was forced to close its doors due to a combination of aerial bombardments and homophobic neighbors. Some of the hundreds of events at The Hub were disrupted by attacks from far-right groups.
Sphere is now raising funds for a new site so that “in the event of rocket attacks and power outages, LGBTQ+ people will be able to stay warm indoors, have a hot drink, take a shower, and do laundry.”
“They need a place where they can meet their basic needs for safety, support, and acceptance, receive humanitarian and psychological assistance, and socialize with like-minded people.”
“We’re constantly adapting our work,” says Ilinska. “Adapting our advocacy and our public events, and our projects on targeting humanitarian aid. Kharkiv is changing and so are we, we have to react to this dramatic crisis, to the invasion, and we’re proving that we and our community can resist.”