A vocal minority in Ukraine’s east wants to join Russia, and Kiev has so far been unable to put down the separatists.
Kiev, Ukraine – On a chilly Kiev night Maxim, a 37-year-old gay man from the eastern city of Donetsk, waited for a cab to take him to the only shelter in the country for internally displaced LGBT people.
After Russia-backed separatists took over his hometown last summer he said life for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community became much more difficult. He held out another six months, deciding to flee only after his apartment block was shelled.
Maxim is one of the nearly one million people estimated by the UN to be displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Easterners who flee west often face housing and employment discrimination and are blamed for the conflict.
LGBT individuals face double discrimination for hailing from the area and being LGBT.
Insight, a Ukrainian LGBT organisation, set up the shelter over the summer after receiving requests for help from people who wanted to leave eastern Ukraine and Crimea, but did not have the means to do so and faced difficulties in traditional shelters.
“First we had four people and once word got out we were up to our ears in applications,” said the head of Insight, Olena Shevchenko.
So far the shelter has housed 18 IDPs, providing each with up to three months of housing, in addition to food, medicine and legal services.
The shelter has faced considerable challenges, as displaced individuals, particularly LGBT, are undesirable tenants.
Insight’s shelter coordinator Olga Olshanskaya explained that after a long search they eventually found an apartment, but paid an above-market rate calculated in dollars at a time when the Ukrainian currency has rapidly lost value.
It has also been a challenge to convince Western donor organisations that usually support LGBT civil society projects, to commit to financing a wartime shelter.
The ‘irony of fate’
The shelter itself is located in a grey apartment block on the outskirts of the capital Kiev.
As Maxim’s cab pulled up he said arriving at an apartment building so much like his own was like something out of the “Irony of Fate”, a Soviet-era film in which a man wanders into a stranger’s apartment in another city without realising it because of the identical styles and layouts.
After Maxim moved his things into the un-renovated building that would be housing eight people, he anxiously awaited his new roommates and explained why he left Donetsk.
“I don’t see a future in the people’s republics [Donetsk and Luhansk]. I don’t support their views, I don’t think Russia will save us or that Putin will save us, so the whole thing was completely foreign to me from the start,” he told Al Jazeera.
After he decided to leave eastern Ukraine, Maxim first got his mother and grandmother on a bus out of town, sending them to Slovyansk, about 100km north of Donetsk.
He took only a few things with him, and worried that a new permit system announced by Ukrainian authorities would keep him from getting out.
According to Maxim – who like others interviewed for this article asked that their surnames not be published – gay social life in once-cosmopolitan Donetsk came to an abrupt halt over the summer as separatists tried to establish a new moral order.
Maxim described how the gay club Babylon, which he frequented, was raided by separatists, who beat up and extorted money from the people there. After the attack, the owner closed the club. Maxim said his gay friends were also preparing to leave.
Still, things are complicated.
“I have a friend in one of the battalions who is protecting the young republics,” he said. “He is gay and he is there with the separatists. They can’t imagine how he hit the clubs.”
A railroad engineer, Maxim was trying to find a job with the Ukrainian railroad in Kiev.
Even if he gets a job, salaries remain low despite massive inflation, and discrimination against eastern Ukrainian residency stamps make employment and apartment offers evaporate.
A new identity
Another LGBT going through a job-search process while living in the shelter was Max, 36, a handsome and muscular person with tattoos of Chinese characters on his forearm which he says represent love, fortune and happiness. He fled to Kiev from a small town outside of Donetsk just before Christmas.
Max is transgender. He was born a woman but after hormone treatment his appearance is strikingly masculine.
Max began the complicated process of legally changing his gender in 2006, but the move was riddled with red tape and required full gender reassignment surgery before the application can be approved.
The situation had destroyed my nerves. There was no work, I had no money, stores were closed and there was no food.
That situation has left Max with a passport that identifies him as a woman. No one believed it was his passport at a time when people regularly had their documents checked on the streets.
For months Max only left home at night to buy food before quickly returning home.
Leaving the Donbas region was not an option because passports were thoroughly checked by separatists and Ukrainian forces at the checkpoints.
Desperate, Max reached out to Insight’s transgender coordinator Yuriy Frank who got in touch with contacts at the UN.
“The situation had destroyed my nerves. There was no work, I had no money, stores were closed and there was no food,” said Max.
Four months later Max was able to get out by following a UN car across a checkpoint in a taxi he hired as artillery blasted nearby.
The UN had coordinated his leaving with separatist and Ukrainian officials.
Now Max is in Kiev adjusting to life in the big city, which continues to be challenging as he still only has a passport identifying him as a woman. That makes it hard to find work, which would provide the money needed for the surgery to legally change his gender.
“I like it [in Kiev], but my difficulties stayed, no work, no money,” he said.
Aleksandra Nemchinova, 33, is all too familiar with what happens after fleeing to Kiev. She was part of the first wave of IDPs at the shelter and now rents a room with a friend for $110 a month.
“We try and earn money, but obviously money is constantly short and we don’t have very basic things. There is nothing to eat, nothing to wear,” she said.
The clothes Aleksandra wears are donated. She was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt covered in Egyptian motifs a few sizes too large.
Before she fled, Aleksandra was an activist and open about being a lesbian.
In Donetsk she worked for Yulia Tymoshenko‘s party Batkivshchyna for a time, but also participated in protests organised by the feminist group FEMEN, and at one point was arrested with them in Belarus.
In May and June she was active in the pro-Ukrainian movement in Donetsk.
Though a Russian speaker, she identifies closely with Ukraine and the Ukrainian language, inspired by one of her school teachers.
Over the summer, when expressing Ukrainian identity was quickly becoming a taboo in Donetsk, she felt the need to get a tattoo of one of Ukraine’s national symbols, the trident, in the form of a falcon. She had to go to three tattoo parlours before someone agreed to do it.
In June things got more dangerous and she began receiving threatening phone calls.
Later, a friend reported seeing a picture of her at a separatist checkpoint labelling her a “Banderite lesbian”, referring to right-wing Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.
Finally, armed separatists along with Donetsk police came to her apartment to seize her documents and arrest her. She said a neighbour returning early with a small child as she was arguing with them saved her.
The armed men said they would return later taking her documents. She decided it was time to go.
Now in Kiev, Aleksandra is thankful for the assistance the shelter gave her, but despite her pride in Ukraine she is hesitant to say life is better for the LGBT community since the Maidan Square protests.
She said for LGBT people it is a balancing act with right-wing homophobic groups such as Pravy Sektor on the one side and separatists on the other.
“They both beat gays on the street. We are between the two and have to balance, not to provoke aggression from one side or the other,” Aleksandra said.
Follow Ian Bateson on Twitter: @ianbateson