Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine has resulted in Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 2 million people have entered Poland from Ukraine seeking safe harbor since the war began.
Leaving their homes under the sounds of air sirens to embark on an often days-long journey across Europe is deeply traumatic for all Ukrainian refugees. For members of Ukraine’s LGBTQ community fleeing the war, the homophobic environment in Poland can present new challenges.
Homosexuality is legal in Poland, but the nation has been consistently ranked as the most homophobic country in the European Union. More than 100 municipalities, a third of the country, have adopted so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ that declare they are free from aspects of LGBTQ ideology.
Most concerning for Ukrainian LGBTQ refugees, these regions are predominantly located in eastern and southern Poland — the exact areas where most border crossings take place.
“For many people that flee Ukraine, they happen to cross the border and appear in the LGBT-free zones,” explains Vyacheslav Melnyk, executive director of the Polish LGBTQ rights organization, Campaign Against Homophobia (Kampania Przeciw Homofobii or KPH).
Vyacheslav has seen first-hand the issues created by these zones. When his team distributed information posters with rainbow flags on them at border crossings and refugee reception centers, some staff refused to post them.
“They feared that they might face the consequences that they imagined might be applicable because their region declared themselves as LGBT-free zones,” Vyacheslav adds.
A trans man finds international support while moving on
As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, Vyacheslav and staff at KPH immediately began to support LGBTQ people crossing the Poland-Ukraine border by providing transportation and safe housing.
“We started to match people offering safe places for LGBT refugees and those seeking shelter, as well as supporting the medical and healthcare needs of people, especially for trans and intersex people,” he says.
With the war of aggression now raging for more than six months, the KPH remains committed to helping LGBT refugees to have a smooth transition into Polish society, despite the challenges they face.
Edward Reese, a queer activist who worked with Kyiv Pride in Ukraine, made the decision to leave the country in early March. After a long bus journey to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Edward was then escorted to the Polish border by aid workers.
He started taking testosterone to support his transition late last year, but Edward says the border crossing was smooth.
“It didn’t make any visible changes, so I kind of passed for a woman and I have female documents, although I’m trans. I didn’t actually have any questions from anyone,” he says. On July 5th, the Ukrainian military enacted a travel ban on men between the ages of 18 and 60, meaning Edward could have faced difficulties leaving the country.
Once inside Poland, Edward spent the first night in a small town close to the border, sleeping in a massive hall with lots of other people. The next morning, he took a bus to Warsaw. Thanks to support from a Polish LGBT organization, Edward was connected to a host in the capital who housed him for three days.
“The main reason for me to leave was that I couldn’t continue my transition in Ukraine. But I knew that Poland, Hungary or Romania, which are closer to Ukraine, are not the best in terms of LGBTQ rights and trans rights.”
Now living in Denmark, Edward has a strong community supporting him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that queer Ukrainians, like Edward, don’t spend long in Poland. They move to more progressive Western European nations when possible.
When compared to Western European nations — including Germany, France and Sweden — the lack of hate crime policies, anti-discrimination laws, civil partnerships, and marriage rights in Poland can make finding a job or housing a challenge.
Small pockets of relative safety near the border
In late June, KyivPride and Warsaw Pride joined forces to create the March for Peace that called for an end to the war and support for Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. Almost a dozen representatives from Ukrainian LGBTQ groups marched, with the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, giving his full support to the march.
Small pockets exist in Poland where LGBTQ Ukrainian people can feel safe, thanks in large part to the hard work of Polish LGBT activists and organizations. In 2020, Filip Kijowski moved from London to Lublin — a Polish city located around a two-hour drive from the Ukrainian border — to start a residency at Galeria Labirynt.
When the war started, Filip and the former director of The Labyrinth Gallery (Galeria Labirynt), Waldemar Tatarczuk, decided to take action and start a support center for LGBTQ Ukrainian refugees called Asylum Library (Biblioteka Azyl). One of the exhibition rooms at Galeria Labirynt was converted into a drop-in space where refugees could get support, have a drink, or simply have a chat with volunteers.
Raising more than $8,000 on GoFundMe, the small group of volunteers was able to organize transport from the border, help refugees find jobs, and even help them navigate the city of Lublin. Intended as a space to help guests get back on their feet and move on to other European countries, Filip still keeps in contact with some previous residents online.
“Almost all LGBTQ+ people we helped traveled onto Berlin, Canada, or other countries right away, they didn’t really stop here,” says Filip. “We will host a specific program, by inviting some people to teach a class and offer their experiences. The library still functions full time, and in September, we will offer some more support for our neighbors.”