LGBTQ+ soldiers and military service personnel in the United States are becoming more common in the US military with mixed results on their general level of acceptance. Since 2011, people in the LGBTQ+ community have been permitted to serve in the military, with the transgender ban lifted in 2021.
The same cannot be said with Ukraine, unfortunately. While the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine has definitely been more visible throughout the years, many are still persecuted for their gender as the society in Ukraine is guided by their defacto state religion practiced by 70-80% of the population, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Tolerance and acceptance for the LGBTQ community have been slow coming as a result of the deeply conservative moral views of this ancient branch of Christianity which traces its roots back to the Eastern Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.
Territorial Defence members Oleksandr Zhygan, 37, and partner Antonina Romanova, 37, show a unicorn insignia on their uniforms symbolizing the LGBTQ community, on the day of their departure to the frontline, at their home in Kyiv, Ukraine https://t.co/lghYoTrIJO 📷 Edgar Su pic.twitter.com/ApCmyoatJZ
— Reuters Pictures (@reuterspictures) May 31, 2022
As you may know, military service in Ukraine is compulsory for men. Homosexuals cannot be exempted from military service. Transsexuality in Ukraine is classified as a psychiatric disorder, but sex reassignment surgery is legal for those over 25 years old. In fact, in 2011, the Ukrainians amended their civil code to allow transgender people who have gone under the knife to change their gender to also change their name after a lengthy process. We’re not exactly sure how this affects their military service as one may assume there’s a hodgepodge of legalities that trans people need to undergo, but the Ukrainian Armed Forces do have openly LGBTQ+ servicepeople.
Despite this, LGBTQ+ orientations, as well as transgenders, remain taboo subjects, with Orthodox and Catholic Churches viewing them as “cursed” people and a “sin” that is the same as “manslaughter.”
Ukraine’s Unicorn Soldiers
With this out in the open, it has been reported that a bunch of volunteer fighters have identified as LGBT+ and have been on active duty. Two volunteer fighters, namely Oleksandr Zhygan and Antonina Romanova, a couple, have used a Unicorn insignia while fighting the Russians.
They share with various media outlets that the Ukrainian service personnel who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ add a unicorn insignia to their military uniforms, a symbol of their status as LGBTQ+ fighters.
They shared that these unicorn patches were sewn onto their uniforms just below the Ukrainian flag. According to Zhygan, the practice originated in 2014 during the Russo-Ukrainian War, when Russia annexed Crimea. Back then, people in the Ukrainian military would say that “there are no gay people in the army,” so gays in Ukraine’s military adopted the unicorn as a mythical creature that didn’t exist. Furthermore, the unicorn is also associated with the LGBTQ+ community around the world because of its association with rainbows and other stuff.
Both Zhygan and Romanova identify as non-binary but use she/her pronouns. According to them, they wanted to serve and fight the Russians because they wanted to do more as Ukrainians. They did not just want to run or hide in a bomb shelter. According to them, this gave them a sense of responsibility toward their country and other Ukrainians that they needed to protect.
“I just remember that at a certain point, it became obvious that we only had three options: either hide in a bomb shelter, run away and escape, or join the Territorial Defense (volunteers). We chose the third option,” Romanova said.
“Because what Russia does is they don’t just take our territories and kill our people. They want to destroy our culture, and… we can’t allow this to happen,” Zhygan added.
Queer Ukrainian soldiers sew a unicorn patch onto their uniforms below their national flag as a response to those "who say they are no gay people in the army”
We "chose the unicorn because it is like a fantastic 'non-existent’ creature,” per volunteer Oleksandr Zhuhan 🇺🇦🦄 pic.twitter.com/AqYdEpxZBl
— Hunter Schwarz (@hunterschwarz) May 31, 2022
According to them, not being accepted by their peers is the least of their problems compared to getting killed by the Russians. Though, to the Ukrainian forces’ credit, there seems to be no aggression toward their community, likely because they are all up against a far larger problem – the Russians who are gaining ground in Donbas.
“There was no aggression, no bullying… It was a little unusual for the others. But, over time, people started calling me Antonina. Some even used my she pronoun,” Romanova shared, both of whom were deployed to Mykolaiv and Kyiv.
Their commander also did not tolerate homophobia within their unit, giving them a sense of relief. According to Zhygan, the commander said that the most important thing on the frontline is to be a “good fighter,” which does make sense. Even men in the traditional biological definition would run away from the fight, as was seen with some of the Russians who hightailed it back to the nearest border.
Their country called for help, and they answered it without hesitation. They get the job done, and at the end of the day, what matters is that they serve with the guts to take on their enemies head-on and without fear.