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LGBTQ refugees fleeing Ukraine face discrimination in countries with anti-gay laws

An activist's silhouette is seen through a rainbow flag during a gay pride parade in Kiev on May 25, 2013.
Sergei Supinsky
AFP via Getty Images
An activist's silhouette is seen through a rainbow flag during a gay pride parade in Kiev on May 25, 2013.

Updated March 4, 2022 at 5:42 PM ET

Late on Thursday night, Viktória Radványi, communications director for Budapest Pride, drove with her girlfriend to the border between Hungary and Ukraine. They were picking up four LGBTQ refugees and taking them back to Budapest to provide them with safe housing, food and mental health resources.

But Radványi isn't part of any humanitarian group, nor does she have experience with refugee resettlement. She never thought she'd have to witness a war so close to her home country. Yet, when she heard about the Russian invasion in Ukraine, she immediately knew she had to help.

"We know that people who say that everybody suffers from war the same way, that that's not true. And we know that in situations of huge crisis, vulnerable groups of society will become especially vulnerable. So that was already in our hearts and minds," said Radványi.

She added that LGBTQ people in her country have been giving anything they can to help — a spare room, a couch.

Armed conflict and war aggravate the vulnerability of many minority populations, and increase the likelihood that they will be exposed to abuse. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, LGBTQ people are likely to face violence, denial of basic services, arbitrary detention and abuse by security forces, among other kinds of discrimination.

In Ukraine, many transgender women are unable to leave the country because their government IDs still mark them as male – and men are forced to stay and fight under the country's conscription laws. Women also fight in Ukraine's military, and people are not expelled for being gay or transgender, although they are not necessarily welcomed.

Many Ukrainians are fleeing to Poland and Hungary, and activists say they will face particular challenges there, since the European Union has condemned both countries for having anti-gay laws. In Poland, gay couples can't marry, form civil unions or adopt children. In 2019, an opinion poll found that almost a quarter of Polish people believe that homosexuality must not be tolerated, and there are so-called"LGBTQ-free" zones across the country.

Julia Maciocha, an activist with Warsaw Pride in Poland, said her organization was quick to help refugees because it wanted to protect them from potential discrimination.

"We don't want them to be kept in refugee camps or in big buildings or huge places where they are not safe because of course homophobia is still existing in Poland. We want to make sure they're placed with people who understand their needs," she said.

Machiocha believes that fear of potential discrimination will lead many LGBTQ refugees to leave Poland and Hungary after a few weeks or months. She said she thinks it's likely they'll move on to Western Europe, where the laws are friendlier. "So what we can do here is just welcome them and help them in the first place," said Maciocha.

Aaron Morris, from the U.S.-based, LGBTQ-rights group Immigration Equality, said this is a pattern he's seen too many times before. LGBTQ refugees fleeing from Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and Central America historically have been victims of attacks and discrimination.

"Often when they flee through another country in hopes of getting to a place where they will feel safe, they are ostracized. They don't have the same access to family support, to religious-based support, that other other minorities might," he said.

He said this is an issue that requires support from governments like the United States, which could welcome LGBTQ refugees or ask that other countries keep them safe. But LGBTQ organizations in Europe aren't relying on outside help; activist groups have started meeting to discuss how they can provide shelter, medical help and transportation to friendlier countries on a wider scale.

Even then, these activists fear for the future of both LGBTQ refugees and those who remain in Ukraine. "Nobody knows what's going to happen," said Radványi, "So this uncertainty, these very, very unpredictable circumstances make it really, really hard."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miranda Mazariegos
Miranda Mazariegos is NPR's 2021-2022 Reflect America Fellow. She has worked with NPR's history podcast Throughline and with Weekend All Things Considered. She is now doing a rotation with the Culture Desk.