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More than 3 million Ukrainians have been displaced across Europe since the onset of Russia's invasion — and among them are countless LGBTQ individuals who have come up against unique roadblocks as they’ve attempted to flee for safety.
That's especially true for transgender people, many of whom have passports displaying only their assigned sex at birth, which creates issues when trying to cross the border, says Rain Dove, a London-based nonbinary model and activist leading a grassroots effort to get LGBTQ and other vulnerable people out of Ukraine.
"Even bombs outside their window have not shaken the homophobia out of people," Dove tells Yahoo Life via a video call from the Ukraine-Poland border.
In a little less than three weeks, Dove says, their newly formed grassroots organization, Safebow, has cobbled together a remarkable network of hundreds of volunteers while raising over $100,000. In partnership with local organizations, Dove (who uses the pronouns "they" and "them") says their team has been instrumental in the evacuations of nearly 4,000 people; Yahoo Life can verify at least 1,000 names, as seen in a spreadsheet shared by Safebow organizers.
"I'm working with some of the most incredible queer people on the ground," says Dove, who entered Ukraine through Poland in early March in hopes of forming a small rescue mission. "I'm humbled by them because they had been living this [fighting discrimination] their entire lives. It's just a little bit different because there are bombs now."
Part of what's fueling fear among many queer people, Dove explains, is the country's martial law prohibiting men between the ages of 18 and 60 from exiting the country, leaving many to fear they'll either be forced to fight or left to languish under Russian rule.
"In order for the military to work, you have to trust the people around you with your life. And these people couldn't do that during peacetime. Do you think they're going do that during wartimes?" asks Rain. "How do you trust that they're not going to send you to the front of the line, you know, to be picked off first? Because [as an LGBTQ person] you're the least cared about intersection of the society. Of course, they're going to want to leave." Certainly it's not true for all queer Ukrainians, some of whom say they are staying to take up arms exactly because of the fear of what might happen under Russian occupation.
While there are some antidiscrimination laws in place for LGBTQ people in Ukraine (in areas of housing and employment), marriage equality and gay adoption rights do not exist. Equaldex's recent World Values Survey, exploring LGBTQ rights worldwide, found that 62.4% of respondents in Ukraine believe homosexuality is "not justifiable." And the advocacy NGO ILGA-Europe ranks Ukraine at 40 out of 49 (the higher number being the less tolerant) in its list of LGBTQ rights in Europe. However, seeking to have gender reassignment surgery, through legal and not surgical means, is permitted, Equaldex notes.
"I never thought I would ever do this," says Dove about the ballooning effort, initially thinking they’d raise a few thousand dollars to help "10 to 20 queer kids" find shelter outside the country. But when they got unexpectedly pulled into a mission to deliver HIV meds, connecting with additional organizations and volunteers, they saw the reality and knew more had to be done.
How Dove's efforts have grown
"I went into this LGBTQ bunker, which is this underground bomb shelter. It was filled with queer people. I was shocked," says Dove. "That's how we ended up in this situation now, where we have so many people to get out instead of just the few that I came for."
What happened next was a word-of-mouth social media campaign by queer activists and allies around the world who have, in the past three weeks, connected volunteers on the ground with host families and people in need of transportation, financial support and necessary items such as SIM cards.
"Once people started saving people, other people then started trusting us, and now it's become this word-of-mouth thing," Dove says of Safebow's efforts, now operating with a team of 300 including those on the ground and those working remotely.
Safebow has spent a vast amount of its raised funds on buses hired via a private company, organizers point out.
"We have over, I think, 2,000 pending cases right now," says Dove, who says that people in Ukraine needing Safebow's assistance can request it directly through its website.
Those being helped by the organization go beyond the LGBTQ spectrum as well, with elderly, disabled and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) individuals being pulled into its efforts, with dozens of caseworkers laboring 16 hours a day, says Dove.
Those involved with Safebow's mission believe that many of the vulnerable people they are assisting might otherwise have been overlooked. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, LGBTQ people are likely to face violence, denial of basic services, arbitrary detention and abuse by security forces, among other kinds of discrimination, while fleeing wars and other humanitarian crises.
Mary Galloway, a queer Indigenous filmmaker based in Canada who’s been managing operations for Safebow, argues that larger refugee and human rights organizations often lose sight of the specific needs LGBTQ people face during urgent times.
"We are really the most basic, grassroots, unofficial organization doing really incredible things," she says. "I think it just goes to show that all of the red tape, and all of the proper, sort of, more established organizations that are in existence, have a lot to learn and a lot to do to improve their systems to be more inclusive."
Taylor Hirschberg, a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researcher who has led efforts to extract queer Afghans to safety, tells Yahoo Life that the issue is systemic.
"There are groups that support women, there are groups that support people living with disabilities, there are groups that support, of course, white men," Hirschberg, who's been working remotely with Safebow and other organizations in Ukraine, says. "It's time for the world to stop forgetting the LGBTQIA community when it comes to being forcibly displaced from their homes."
Safebow is keeping that top of mind in Ukraine, where, says Galloway of the 24-hour network of volunteers, "we have researchers updating our caseworkers, who are literally talking directly to people we're extracting and telling them the latest news on the buses and on the trains."
Dove says of the LGBTQ people unable to get out of the country, "You have to understand that if Ukraine comes under Russian rule, there are serious consequences for these people."
Although queer life has thrived in Ukraine in recent years, especially in the capital, Kyiv, there are certain areas — like the Russian-supported rebel republic of Luhansk — that still criminalize homosexuality. Many LGBTQ Ukrainians fear what might happen to them under an occupation by Russia, a country where queer people have long faced persecution, including numerous attacks. The country has also been accused of being complicit in Chechnya's long record of kidnapping queer people and torturing them.
In 2013 Russia passed a law against "gay propaganda," banning any positive mention of LGBTQ issues in venues accessible to minors. The law has been used against Pride parades, protests and even public displays of the rainbow flag. It was also a point of focus during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Punishment can vary from fines to prison time, even for foreigners.
The work on the ground has been extremely emotional for Dove. "It feels selfish to cry," they say, fighting back tears. "You just can't, you know? You have to keep doing stuff because the consequences are really unpredictable."
It's also been highly personal.
"I was homeless for four and a half years," Dove says. "I made decisions that weren't necessarily good or bad. They just came from a culture of 'fake it till you make it.' And then when you make it, you ask for forgiveness. But the thing is, I didn't feel forgivable. No matter how much you do for the community, no matter how much of my money I gave away, or how much I tried to serve, I never really felt forgivable."
Dove is also quick to acknowledge that they've made mistakes in the past that they've apologized for, including highly publicized moves such as selling TMZ incriminating texts from Asia Argento related to the #MeToo movement (when Dove was famously dating Rose McGowan); falsely claiming to have graduated from the University of California, Berkeley; and going undercover as a male firefighter in Australia, something they recently addressed on Instagram. They say their mission in Ukraine is not an attempt to erase all of that but to move forward and make a difference.
"What I see when I see people in this situation is a mass homelessness situation," they continue. "A lot of people are doing whatever they can to survive, and there's a relatability that comes in there. And these people — queer people, Black people, disabled people — when they go to the borders, they're seen as a burden. They are people who do all kinds of things to 'fake it till they make it' to make it to the other side. And there's this kind of kinship."
That kinship continues to fuel their work. "I feel, for the first time in my life, I deserve to be here and I feel really inspired. This has been a very spiritual journey about understanding on a deeper level, like how we can be of service and how the community operates in creating a new chapter in life," says Dove. "And I'm willing to die for that."
— Video produced by Olivia Schneider