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The Odyssey of Trans Women Trying to Flee Ukraine

Since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian authorities have barred trans women from leaving the country. Laws in Ukraine are restrictive when it comes to accessing documents with the correct gender identity, and the war has further exacerbated the discrimination suffered by LGBTQ+ people.

Pablo Herón

April 13, 2022
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Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zi Faámelu, a 31-year-old trans woman, tried to flee the country, but the Ukrainian authorities would not allow it. The reason? Her identification documents list her gender as male, and Ukraine’s wartime law forbids men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. Since the war began, more than 4 million people, mainly women and children, have fled.

Faámelu’s story was shared in the media, and her plight was repudiated as an example of anti-trans discrimination. Ukraine is one of many countries that requires trans people to receive a psychiatric diagnosis and irreversible surgical intervention in order to access identification documents with the correct gender marker. Many countries in Europe continue to pathologize trans identities, which ultimately sustains the stigmatization of trans people. Before 2017, Ukrainian law required that trans people be admitted to a mental health facility to begin the process of changing their personal documents.

All these requirements pose a huge obstacle for thousands of Ukrainian trans people who are seeking refuge. Faámelu was able to flee to Romania by crossing a reservoir, a difficult and dangerous task that required her to swim upstream. “I knew that this was my last chance for survival, and I had to do something like this very quickly,” Faámelu shared with ABC News. The trek was exhausting, she said, and she almost drowned, but “somehow I got to the other side.” She left everything behind in Ukraine, carrying only her passport wrapped in a bag. The treatment she received at the border was similar to what she faced in Ukraine.

Another case that resonated in recent weeks was that of Judis, publicized by the Guardian, who was discriminated against by Ukrainian border guards. Her birth certificate identifies her as a woman, so even on paper she meets the legal requirements to be able to leave the country. But when she arrived at the border checkpoint, she was taken to a room and physically examined.

“Ukrainian border guards undress you and touch you everywhere,” she said, adding, “You can see on their faces they’re wondering ‘what are you?’ like you’re some kind of animal or something.” The guards prevented Judis from crossing the border to Poland and told her, “You’re a guy, so get the hell out of here,” and that she “should be grateful they didn’t call the police,” even though she has a legally valid document that states that she is female.

Alice, 24, recounted experiencing the same situation with her partner, who is nonbinary, in front of three guards. “They told us to take off our jackets. They checked our hands, arms, they checked my neck to see if I had an Adam’s apple.” Another problem she addressed is that she and her partner are running out of hormones due to pharmacy closures, which “is extremely harmful to your health,” especially when done suddenly, she said.

LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations warn that the situation trans women are facing is “very difficult.” Igor Medvid from the HPLGBT, an NGO based in Ukraine, shared that even before the war “the LGBTQ+ community felt marginalized and discriminated against.”

In Ukraine there is no equal marriage law, which also leads to other problems, such as the one reported by Olha Raiter, who traveled to Berlin with her ex-partner Uliana and their seven-month-old son. “We are all discriminated against in Ukraine because we cannot get the same rights. We have Damien together, but officially, she’s nobody to him, even if she’s a mother the same as me … and she was there from the very beginning and she was there when I was delivering him. But she still, according to Ukrainian law … she’s nobody.”

In Ukraine, the Christian Orthodox Church, which considers homosexuality a sin, is a powerful and influential institution. This also the case in Russia, where Putin has been systematically persecuting LGBTIQ+ people for years through anti-gay propaganda laws. Likewise in the United States, the ultraconservative Right has been systematically stripping away the rights of LGBTQ+ people, especially trans youth, and strengthening criminalization of identities.

The war between Russia and Ukraine shook up the international chessboard, evidencing Putin’s reactionary interests and the warlike policy of NATO (the United States and the European Union), with Germany approving a historic military budget.

After a month of conflict, complaints continue to emerge in Ukraine about the government’s refusal to let transgender people leave the country. Their fight for their basic rights — not to be discriminated against because of their gender identity — deserves to be heard.

Originally published in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Allison Noel.

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