“Are you scared?” Olena Shevchenko asked attendees at the second EuroCentralAsian Lesbian* Community (EL*C) Conference in Kyiv, back in 2019. Outside, a belligerent crowd of far-right demonstrators, bearing “Homosexuality is a Disease” and “We are Against Gays” banners, attempted to break into the hotel that hosted the conference. The Ukrainian police fortified the hotel, as the mob hurled pepper spray bombs into the lobby where people were registering.
The conference was sold out; 350 people from 42 countries, spanning from Brazil to Kazakhstan, alongside 80 scholars and leaders from Ukraine. As attendees took their seats and soothed their nervous systems – many still wiping milk on their pepper sprayed eyes – the crowd responded to Shevchenko’s question with a unanimous and unequivocal, “No!”
“It was a really powerful moment in the conference,” Ilaria Todde, EL*C’s Advocacy Dykerector tells GO over the phone. “We showed that in the face of this very clear, very strong, very dangerous oppression, we found a unity that was extremely powerful.” The EL*C represents – and is led by – lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer women. The asterisk is indicative of the organisation’s “broad and inclusive” reclamation of the word lesbian, Todde explains, noting that non-binary people who relate to the lesbian struggle are very welcome too.
2019 was, of course, a different reality in Ukraine and Europe in general, but EL*C had firmly grasped the country’s significance back then. “We chose to go to Kyiv that year to offer support and strength to our community… in a very complicated geopolitical situation,” says Todde, referring to the 2014 Euromaidan protests, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in particular, the country’s anti-gender movement.
“We knew that lesbians in Ukraine were struggling,” she says. “The anti-gender movement has this double impact: on one side it has a direct willingness to impede the advancement of LGBTQI+ rights, but it is also a strong backlash on women’s rights. And of course, lesbians being at this intersection, we’re especially complicated.”
As a “complicated” minority group, in an immensely complicated part of the world, one doesn’t need to be too verbose to impress the urgency of the situation for lesbians in the region right now.
Shevchenko – who asked if people were scared at the 2019 Kyiv conference – is a leading Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist, a board member of EL*C, and until last week, a resident of Kyiv. With Russia edging closer, she moved – along with many of her fellow citizens – to the safer town of Lviv, in western Ukraine. Shevchenko has set up a shelter for internally displaced community members there. Those who need to make the journey across the border are given the phone number of other key members of the EL*C, who have set up two safe houses on the Polish border. Co-Chair Evgenia Giakoumopoulou, Co-Executive Dykerector Dragana Todorovic, and Board Member Helena Vukovic – are all out on the ground, on neighbouring soil, waiting to collect lesbian and queer refugees and deliver them to safety. Since the beginning of the war, they have assisted 61 LBT refugees and their children; half have been hosted in EL*C’s shelters.
“In the safe houses, we are able to provide the first basic support you would need after such a complicated journey,” says Todde. “We are now also trying to bring humanitarian aid inside Ukraine, because the situation is starting to be very complicated, basic needs need to be met in these shelters in western Ukraine… and we need to make sure the aid is reaching them, and Olena.”
When we spoke over the phone, Todde didn’t pause for breath. She spoke with great conviction, awareness, intelligence and compassion – a reflection of the EL*C itself. This firecracker activist energy is the exact force one would want in their corner, at the border of a land in such a moment of despair and chaos.
Todde was in Bulgaria when we spoke, alongside Silvia Casalino, Co-Executive Dykerector of EL*C. The pair had just left Romania. They had been connecting with Queer Sisterhood Cluj, who are also providing humanitarian help to LGBTQ+ shelters in Ukraine. Next, they were off to connect with Genderdoc in Moldova. “We are seeing how we can collaborate… the objective of this week is to really build strong ties with the region, because we know there is going to be a huge pressure on this area, because of the war, because of the Russian invasion.”
Further afield – and thinking in the more medium term – EL*C have created a Lesbian Hosting Network, gathering over 300 availabilities: spare rooms, sofa beds, and second apartments in just a week. They are currently relocating lesbians in Spain, Bulgaria, Germany and the UK, and have helped two lesbian families (plus their pets) get to the Netherlands, and a lesbian couple to Portugal.
Then there’s the long-term advocacy work. “We know already that LBT women will be faced with a level of risk of discrimination and violence, which is bigger than the refugee in general,” says Todde. “So our efforts are going to be very focused on providing people with clear, accessible and correct information, maybe in terms of same-gender relationship recognition… legal recognition of gender and recognition of parenthood,” she says, noting that the landscape and law vary greatly across European countries.
This is on top of the general information: how to gain temporary status in host countries, medical and social assistance, employment services and housing. Many members of the EL*C have worked with refugees, while some of their board members have been refugees themselves. Throughout our conversation, Todde demonstrates the organization’s deep knowledge and empathy in their short, medium and long-term strategizing at this time of crisis in Europe.
For many of us, many miles away, we scroll on in helplessness as refugees fall through the cracks of national borders (in Ukraine and in countless other places in the world). Let’s remember that minority groups like lesbians, like ourselves, can often fall through deeper cracks… cracks that many can’t even see.
It’s time for us to put our money where the most in need in our community are. It’s time to show the EL*C, an organization that has mobilized on and around a war-zone, that they – like the people they take to safe houses – are not alone.
You can donate to the EL*C’s Lesbians for Refugees Fundraiser here. Also consider joining the Lesbian Hosting Network and of course, lez spread the word – as the EL*C tirelessly demonstrate – our community is small but mighty.