Activists and Allies Offer LGBTQ+ Ukrainian Refugees a Lifeline

by Finbarr Toesland

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 2, 2022

Activists and Allies Offer LGBTQ+ Ukrainian Refugees a Lifeline

On an almost daily basis, horrific images and evidence of alleged war crimes are reported in parts of eastern Ukraine that are illegally occupied by Russia. Survivor testimonies provide an insight into the human impact of Russia's invasion, where civilian casualties are a regular occurrence.

As the war of aggression continues, new refugees are being created as homes are destroyed and areas of Ukraine are left uninhabitable. Since the early days of Russia's incursion, international organizations and individuals have sent aid, funding and vital supplies to at-risk Ukrainians.

While all people living through war face often extreme challenges and trauma, members of the LGBTQ+ community must contend with these problems as well as dealing with anti-gay discrimination and violence.

Grassroots organisation Safebow started in the weeks following the Russian invasion and works to evacuate people from Ukraine, with a focus on LGBTQ+ people and other vulnerable minority groups.

Rain Dove
Rain Dove  

Starting out on the social media profile of model and activist Rain Dove, Safebow has now helped facilitate dozens of high-risk border crossing and supported hundreds of Ukrainians that need help the most.

"When the invasion into Kyiv occurred, what ended up happening was people just started reaching out and saying, "Hey, I'm queer, or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), a foreign national or disabled. I need a ride out, can you help me?," explains Rain, who uses they/them pronouns.

Almost immediately after Rain started posting requests from Ukrainians on their Instagram account, people began replying offering up support. As the numbers grew, Rain created WhatsApp groups to make it easier for everyone to communicate with each other.

"All I did was start the seeds of connection and then other people started adding their friends and it became this wild situation where we had hundreds of people on WhatsApp," they add.

Money is needed to carry out many of the activities of Safebow, with Rain launching a GoFundMe to ensure that no-one would be left without assistance due to a lack of funds. Rain thought that around $5,000 would be raised. But as the organisation managed to successfully help people cross the border and get essential supplies to vulnerable Ukrainians, more than $100,000, and counting, has been raised.

Thanks to the fund-raising success, Safebow was able to buy-out buses to get dozens of people out of Ukraine at a time. Now the war of attrition has dragged on for many months, Rain is acutely aware that there was a risk of support for Ukrainians becoming a momentary movement.

Thanks to Safebow operating as a close-knit organisation that is deeply personal, it has managed to continue making an impact today. "People just stuck around," adds Rain.

"It's a very small operation at the current moment because the needs have changed. A lot more people are returning, and we found a lot of great legal routes to get people out that take a little bit more time."

Despite the much needed assistance that Safebow and Rain have provided for some of the most at-risk Ukrainians, they are modest about the role they have played in creating such an essential platform.

"I consider myself like a mascot for Safebow. But it didn't start on my platform - the people who made it were the people themselves. I'm just so floored by the people.

"We decided that we're going to focus on the most vulnerable groups. If you're a queer person, especially if you're a trans person or a person of colour, when you go to any organisation they may not know how to help you, at a minimum."

At worst, people who have already experienced a great deal of trauma are going to face new traumatisation when they try to leave to safety, says Rain.

Participants in the Pride Parade in Odesa in 2022
Participants in the Pride Parade in Odesa in 2022  

A complicated history

Homosexuality is not illegal in Ukraine but members of the LGBTQ+ community living in the country face challenges that heterosexual people do not. Same-sex marriages and civil partnerships are not legal and many cases of homophobic violence have been reported in recent years.

Far-right organisations in Ukraine regularly target LGBTQ+ people, with pride marches often being attacked by homophobic groups. Last year, the annual LGBTQ+ pride march in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa was violently attacked by dozens of members of  ultra-nationalist group Tradition and Order, with 51 members of this neo-Nazi group being arrested by police.

Countless other attacks have taken place in recent years in most Ukrainian cities where pride marches happen, including the capital of Kyiv. Community leaders also face attack across the country by anti-LGBTQ+ groups. Both before and after the Russian war, being openly LGBT in Ukraine can put a person at risk of attack.

Last year the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Ukraine 39th out of 49 European countries for LGBTQ+ rights, illustrating the legal and societal challenges faced by LGBT Ukrainians.

However, there are signs that Ukrainian's are becoming more tolerant of LGBTQ+ people. A recent survey earlier this year by the Nash Svit Center and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 63% of respondents agreed that  LGBTQ+ people should have equal rights, while just 25% disagreed.

A man draped in a Pride flag in Kyiv, 2021
A man draped in a Pride flag in Kyiv, 2021  

Unique support

The support that Ukrainian refugees require when leaving the country is not one-size-fits-all, with each person having a unique set of personal experiences that dictate their needs.

According to Anna-Maria Tesfaye, co-founder of Queer Svit, an organisation that helps Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian LGBTQ+ people who have been impacted by war, it's common that Ukrainians reach out for help as they don't know how best to leave the country and are confused about the options they have available to them.

"Usually what we do is just tell them "Okay, so these are the options we think are best for you. Here are the links [to resources], please take a look and read everything. If you have any questions, ask away," adds Anna-Maria.

Legal advice is often needed, especially for those people who haven't ever traveled abroad before and want to apply for the "Homes for Ukraine" scheme in the United Kingdom or other resettlement programs. Some Ukrainians who have managed to leave the country but urgently need temporary accommodation to work out their next steps also reach out to Queer Svit.

At the same time as helping organise short-term accommodation, Anna-Maria and the team at Queer Svit try to find out what jobs these refugees have experience in and if their expertise could be transferred to a role in their new country.


Like Safebow, Queer Svit also started out on social media. Once the Instagram profile for the organization was created to provide information and guides for victims of war, message after message came in from people in desperate need for support. In the first days after the war broke out, Queer Svit wrote guides for Ukrainians who wanted to cross the border and get to safety.

"For example, it's better to cross in smaller cities, because they don't often check as much as bigger cities or they may not have detailed data," says Anna-Maria.

Trans people are particularly at-risk when attempting to cross the Ukrainian border, as border guards may have questions or concerns if they do not believe the sex on a passport or other identification document matches the gender presentation they see.

"We always say that if, for example, a person is transitioning, people who don't know anything can make weird assumptions if a trans person may not look traditional or conventional. If people on the border are transphobic, it's better to just play by their rules for 20 minutes, and then just go on with your life."

Even when physically safe in a country with no conflict, many Ukrainians still have mental heath issues and PTSD from their experiences. Queer Svit have partnered with a coalition of therapists who work with people who have PTSD and have survived wars in countries like Chechnya, Georgia and Armenia.

"We do have a pool of therapists who live in different parts of the world from the United States to Australia, adds Anna-Maria.

Many organisations offer a great deal of advice and practical support to help people leave Ukraine, but once across the border and out of immediate danger, little help is provided. Queer Svit has a strong focus on helping people to stay and settle in new countries, as human trafficking and sex trafficking is a serious risk for refugees.

Usually people get into sex trafficking and human trafficking, not when they cross the border, but when they are already in a so-called safer environment but when don't have any money.

"What happens is that someone you don't know offers help, and it all seems pretty nice. People just think, someone is just nice, so I will go with them. Then that person is trafficked - you'll never hear about them again," Anna-Maria adds.

Finbarr Toesland is an award-winning journalist who is committed to illuminating vital LGBTQ+ stories and underreported issues. His journalism has been published by NBC News, BBC, Reuters, VICE, HuffPost, and The Telegraph.