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Ukrainian "unicorns" take to the battlefield

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Antonina Romanova (left) and Oleksandr Zhuhan wear a unicorn insignia on their uniforms — Photo by Edgar Su / Reuters
Antonina Romanova (left) and Oleksandr Zhuhan wear a unicorn insignia on their uniforms — Photo by Edgar Su / Reuters

As the war in Ukraine rages on, a surprising new group of soldiers is taking to the battlefield. They call themselves "unicorns."

"It dates back to 2014, when the Russian war started," Ukrainian volunteer soldier Oleksandr Zhuhan told Reuters media. "Lots of people said there are no Gay people in the army. [Gay soldiers then] chose the unicorn because it is like a fantastic, 'nonexistent' creature, and so it became the symbol of LGBTQ people in the army."

Zhuhan and his partner Antonina Romanova are two of Ukraine's "unicorn fighters." They wear a unicorn insignia under the Ukrainian flag on their uniforms.

While Ukraine is known for its intolerance of the LGBTQ+ community, Zhuhan and Romanova say their presence in the military was well received.

Like most who make up the Ukrainian army, Zhuhan and Romanova are not trained fighters. They were performers who met in the theater before the Russian invasion. They found their first tour of duty in Odessa terrifying. Zhuhan contracted pneumonia, and both experienced the horrific realities of war firsthand.

Despite their difficulties, the two found camaraderie among their fellow fighters. "There was no aggression, no bullying," Romanova reported. "It was a little unusual for the others. But, over time, people started calling me Antonina. Some even used my 'she' pronoun," she said.

Zhuhan's latest commander expressed his intolerance of homophobia to his recruits, saying that the only important thing on the front line is being a good fighter.

Zhuhan and Romanova are open about their identities as Queer and Trans fighters for the Ukrainian army. "I think people in Mykolaiv are going to ask questions, and we are not going to hide," Zhuhan said of his identity. "We are going to be very open about it."

Why defend a homophobic nation?
Although Ukraine is much more conservative around homosexuality, LGBTQ+ people are joining the fight against the Russian invasion, and the country is more than willing to utilize their support. Ukraine has no bans on Queer or Trans people joining the military, even though LGBTQ+ discrimination and conversion therapy remain legal.

Furthermore, Ukraine still has a ban on same-sex marriage and adoption. A recent opinion poll from Equaldex showed that 85% of the country opposes marriage equality, and 62% say there is no justification for homosexuality.

With such homophobic laws and practices still on the books, some wonder why unicorn fighters are willing to risk their lives for a country that won't recognize their own.

"This is our war, [as] Ukrainians, but we have also been fighting as LGBTQ people," said Viktor Pilipanko, a unicorn fighter and LGBTQ+ rights advocate on social media. "We are confronting a tyrannical, homophobic enemy."

While Queer people in Ukraine may not be "tolerated" by the vast majority or have equal rights to marriage and adoption, they are not actively hunted down and tortured like LGBTQ+ people in Russia. Many unicorn fighters fear that a Russian victory will mean death or torture.

Is Russia planning a mass "Gay purge"?
In February 2022, before the current war started, the United States warned that Russia had plans to execute and send "vulnerable populations" into work camps following an invasion of Ukraine. The US representative to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations, Ambassador Bathsheba Nell Crocker, issued a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concerning the safety of specific members of the Russian and Ukrainian populations.

"I would like to bring to your attention to disturbing information recently obtained by the United States that indicates that human rights violations and abuses in the aftermath of a further invasion are being planned," Nell Crocker wrote. "We have credible information that indicates [that] Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation. [Putin] will likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons."

Following Nell Crocker's letter, the Kremlin publicly denied any kind of list and accused the United States of disseminating misinformation to destabilize Eastern Europe. It also denied plans to invade Ukraine.

The Ukrainian unicorn fighters have reason to fear Russian law if Russia is victorious. Russia has famously violated international human rights laws with secret-police sweeps, interrogations, and torture of members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2019 Russia was exposed as taking part in a "Gay purge" in Chechnya, in the Caucasus region. Human Rights Watch reported on the purge, noting that Gay and Bisexual men were held unlawfully and beaten and humiliated in an attempt to get them to expose others. In 2017, reports surfaced of a similar "Gay purge" in the area.

Chechnya is known for being one of the more conservative and homophobic regions of Russia. It is not uncommon for police there to publicly condone "honor killings" of Queer men.

The reports obtained by Human Rights Watch from four Queer men held in unlawful detention tell of shock torture, beatings, humiliation, degradation, and even rape.

In each case, the men were taken by police who showed up at their homes or places of work after suspecting them to be homosexual. One of the men received a tip that the police were after him and fled for several weeks. When he returned, thinking he was safe, he was intercepted.

When the Russian LGBT Network reported the crimes in 2019, nothing was done. The police claimed the reports made by survivors were all fabricated.

Homophobic sentiments have been on the rise in Russia ever since the Kremlin instituted laws to defend "traditional Russian values."

Russian refugees join the fight
For many of these victims, the only escape from police-condoned torture is to flee to neighboring countries, like Ukraine.

"I know many LGBTQ people from Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan who moved to Ukraine in recent years because of discrimination in their home countries," the Ukraine Pride co-founder reported to Forbes.

In recent years, Queer Ukrainians and Russian refugees alike have been advocating for more LGBTQ+ tolerance and rights in the country, but, amid the Russian invasion, they are now just fighting to remain in a country that won't kill or torture them for who they are.

LGBTQ+ Ukrainians have been aiding the war effort however they can. For some unicorns, this has meant fighting. For others, like Veronika Limina, it comes in the form of education.

"I am angry," Limina told The Guardian when asked why she has set up a combat and paramedic skills training camp for LGBTQ+ fighters. "We will kill Putin," she continued. She explained that even if Ukraine doesn't support LGBTQ+ rights, Russia is not an alternative.

Ukrainian LGBTQ+ centers in Ukraine have now turned into military boot camps. Nash Mir in Kyiv, which was originally founded in 1997 to fight injustice and homophobia in Ukraine, has now shifted its focus to aiding the war effort.

"There is no time for disagreements now, and the Ukrainian LGBT+ community, as an integral part of our people, must do everything for our victory! In the Russian world, our existence — either as LGBT+ people or as Ukrainians — is simply impossible. Let us do our job in our places — in the army, in the Territorial Defense, in the workplace, as volunteers," the organization said in a statement.

"We are very conscious of the threats which we have faced — as both Ukrainians and LGBT+ people," added Andrii Kravchuk, a member of Nash Mir. "We understand that the Russian occupation would mean total lawlessness and repressions — we see it right now in the [Russian]-occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas."

The Ukrainian unicorns, while inexperienced on the battlefield, might be some of the country's most hardened fighters. The rag-tag groups of LGBTQ+ advocates have spent lifetimes fighting to be seen in a country that doesn't respect them and to escape another that is ready at the drop of a hat to torture and murder them.

Perhaps, by the end of the war, the people of Ukraine will see the unicorns as more than mythical creatures.