By Natalie Vikhrov
KIEV, Feb 17 (Openly) - Ukraine army veteran Viktor Pylypenko kept his sexuality a secret for years, worried that the men he had fought alongside would turn against him if they knew he was gay.
When he finally came out publicly in 2018, two years after leaving the volunteer Donbas Battalion he had served with, Pylypenko realised his fears were unfounded.
"When you take part in combat and then people find out that you're gay, in principle, the majority of your fellow service members don't have any problems because they saw you were effective in combat," said Pylypenko.
The 33-year-old was one of the first military veterans to come out in Ukraine, where a separatist conflict has raged since 2014 in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbass region.
In doing so, he inspired a movement of LGBT+ veterans who want to use their public profile to change attitudes in Ukraine, where discrimination against gay people in the workplace was only banned in 2015.
Ukraine decriminalised same-sex relations in 1991, but homophobia remains widespread.
In a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based think-tank, 69% of Ukrainians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society.
Human rights organisations say violence against LGBT+ people, often carried out by far-right groups, remains an issue and largely goes unpunished.
There is no bar on gay people serving in Ukraine's military, yet many are still afraid to do so openly.
But when they returned to civilian life, few LGBT+ servicemen and women spoke out publicly about their sexuality and gender identity.
In 2018, Pylypenko set up a Facebook group for LGBT+ soldiers and their allies that has attracted dozens of service members and veterans.
Tymur Levchuk, executive director of LGBT+ rights group Tochka Opory, believes veterans' groups can be powerful allies for the movement.
"People have respect for the military, they're grateful for what they're doing," he said.
"Even when we speak to government institutions, they (veterans) are received more positively (than LGBT+ activists)."
Nick Buderatsky, a volunteer military paramedic and one of the Facebook group's administrators, said about 10 people had written to him so far, some on the verge of suicide.
"They're scared their comrades will find out (about their sexual orientation) and treat them badly, they're scared their parents will find out and reject them," said Buderatsky, who came out in 2015.
"They're scared of society, which is still very homophobic today."
In war though, veterans and volunteers say attitudes to sexuality often took a back seat as they faced life or death situations.
"There is constant shooting, constant battle," said Nastya, a former volunteer military cartographer and drone operator who came out publicly after Pylypenko.
"Who's sleeping with who is the last thing people are interested in," said Nastya, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear of reprisals.
Vasyl Davydenko joined a volunteer battalion after his partner was deployed to the front line when war broke out in 2014.
"I was ready to sacrifice everything just to be near him," the 41-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
They kept their relationship a secret, but when his partner was killed months later Davydenko, who found out on social media, broke down and opened up to a small group of close comrades, and found they were accepting.
"They treated me like a brother," he said.
No one knows how many of the tens of thousands who volunteered to fight for their country when the conflict broke out were gay.
According to Pylypenko, the army needed people to fight, and it did not much matter who they were.
There are positive coming out stories, but veterans have said homophobic attitudes also persist – including among some holding senior positions.
Yuzef Venskovich, spokesman for Ukraine's armed forces, said military officials had not received any complaints about limiting service opportunities for LGBT+ people.
The National Guard, into which a number of volunteer battalions including the volunteer Donbas battalion were integrated, did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
Last June, Pylypenko organised the first military column at Kyiv Pride, with about 30 veterans, volunteers and allies taking part.
Months later, he was attacked by another veteran during a military commemoration event in Kiev. He said the man struck him from behind and then beat him repeatedly, yelling homophobic slurs.
The following month Davydenko was assaulted outside of his apartment by a group of five people.
The men reported the two separate incidents to police, who said criminal proceedings had been started in both their cases.
Oleksandr Zinchenkov, an expert at the LGBT Human Rights Nash Mir Center, said that in recent years there has been an increase in the number of crimes committed against gay, bi or trans people.
Yet activists such as Nastya believe moves by LGBT+ veterans to come out are helping to change attitudes.
"When you speak about these things society changes," she said. "We exist, and we're going to show our faces more and more."
(Reporting by Natalie Vikhrov @natalievikhrov; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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