OPINION: LGBTQ+ Ukrainians need humanitarian NGOs to provide more help and less bureaucracy

by Evelyne Paradis | ILGA-Europe
Wednesday, 22 February 2023 18:00 GMT

Activists hold a rally demanding state support for the local LGBTQ+ community outside the presidential office headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine June 5, 2021. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the humanitarian sector is still leaving LGBTQ+ people out of its responses

Evelyne Paradis is executive director of ILGA-Europe.

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, LGBTQ+ organisations have been working day and night to address the specific needs of people in their communities.

While general humanitarian aid in a war-torn country is about providing shelter and necessities such as food and medication, fuel and power supplies, LGBTQ+ people have particular needs. One of the most prominent of these in Ukraine has been the provision of hormones for trans and intersex people. But there is so much more to it than that.

Before the war, Ukraine was hardly what you would call a safe haven for people who were less conforming to sexual and gender ‘norms’.

Many of the negative attitudes are still in place and have not gone away because of the war. LGBTQ+ organisations have been running shelters, against huge odds, to ensure that all those who didn’t feel safe in general shelters would have a place to go, where they know they won’t be threatened or discriminated against.

These safe places have also acted as a rallying point for more isolated LGBTQ+ people who either don’t know about the general emergency aid available or can’t access it.

One year on, with few exceptions, all of the specific aid is provided by small LGBTQ+ organisations and groups at their own expense, both financial and personal. If financial or other tangible support for their efforts comes from outside Ukraine, it’s mostly provided by LGBTQ+ organisations.

That’s not to say that LGBTQ+ people in general have not benefited from the wider humanitarian aid, from setting up and running shelters for LGBTQ+ people, establishing routes for delivery of medications and hormones, ordering and distributing food, blankets and basic necessities, LGBTQ+ organisations have been at the forefront of humanitarian aid delivery in Ukraine.

This is simply not sustainable.

Supporting LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine is the job of the larger humanitarian aid agencies, but, at the moment, they’re adding to the burden of those small organisations who are actually doing the work, not alleviating it.

The UN protection cluster is a focal point for coordination of humanitarian agencies which meets every week. As far back as last May it dedicated a full hour of its meeting to LGBTQ+ issues.

They worked closely with ILGA-Europe to bring in activists to speak about the realities on the ground, and to develop clear guidelines as to what was specifically needed. This document gave visibility to the issues, but that was about all. It didn't translate into significant, concrete actions.

Instead, almost one full year into the war, humanitarian agencies are still repeatedly, one after the other, asking LGBTQ+ organisations in Ukraine what they should be doing. Not only is it time-consuming to pull the information requested, but when they do respond to the questions asked by the large organisations, LGBTQ+ activists don’t see tangible results follow from it.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis, they’re still securing supplies of food and medication and they’re still organising volunteers to distribute supplies in the right places.

They’re still driving people across borders to safer countries or finding ways to organise cash assistance for those from the community who are in the most precarious situations. They’re constantly firefighting, and in between all that, taking care of people’s mental health along with their own, and doing all this work in the midst of ongoing bomb alerts.

They don’t have time to fill in Excel sheets that will result in nothing.

People will see some headlines about commitments from big organisations. They’ll see the glamour of it and think things are being done. But very little action has been taken beyond the statements.

It’s all very well saying that you’re going to do the work, but such declarations are the tip of the iceberg.

For now, there are easy, immediate answers to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine, starting with actively and meaningfully supporting what LGBTQ+ organisations in Ukraine have put in place already. Whether it’s large humanitarian NGOs or institutions like the UN, the way forward is to start with valuing the local initiatives that work for, and are trusted by LGBTQ+ communities – and build from there.

Another key priority has to be building trust. Every time a large organisation calls an LGBTQ+ community group in Ukraine, asking them their needs, they build up expectation. Then when they don’t deliver anything, confidence in them is lost. And that’s a major opportunity lost. Creating expectations and then failing to meet them, builds a deficit in trust.

What LGBTQ+ people need from the humanitarian institutions is responsiveness, more agility and openness to different processes, more thinking outside the box.

The humanitarian aid agencies need to invest in the work that’s already being done on the ground and to regain the trust of LGBTQ+ organisations in Ukraine.

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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