The special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad on Friday said she and her office continue to provide support to advocacy groups in Ukraine and in countries that border it.
Jessica Stern told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that she has held “multiple roundtables” with Ukrainian activists and organizations “to make sure that my office and I both have the relationships and then getting information directly from people on the frontlines.” Stern also noted she has also spoken with LGBTQ rights organizations in Poland, Hungary and other countries that “would be receiving LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees” and regional and international groups “that are closely monitoring and supporting LGBTQI Ukrainians in this incredibly difficult time.”
“The first and most important thing that the U.S. has been doing has been establishing contact with people who are advocating for and servicing LGBTQI Ukrainians, and then in all instances, trying to find ways to support them,” said Stern. “One of the things that’s been really important has been to identify the sort of patterns of human rights abuses, violations and vulnerability that they’re tracking that we need to be aware of.”
Stern said the State Department has “activated” its grant mechanisms to provide financial support to LGBTQ organizations in Ukraine and in surrounding countries.
“One of the things we’ve been focused on has been ensuring that LGBTQI Ukrainian organizations and LGBTQI organizations in the surrounding countries have the financial resources to provide emergency support to this population that finds itself facing double and triple discrimination,” she said.
Stern told the Blade a “top priority” is to ensure that humanitarian assistance to Ukraine “is distributed without discrimination.”
“One of the message that my office has been conveying and with working with others at the State Department to convey is that LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees are at heightened risk and that they should be supported and that anyone providing humanitarian assistance should actually be on the watch for instances of discrimination or violence they may be subjected to.”
Stern said her office has not received “too many stories of (discrimination) incidents, but we have to been able to sound the alarm.”
“The institutions and partners, we work with have been taking that seriously,” she said.
Russian airstrike kills Kharkiv activist
Stern spoke with the Blade less than a month after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
A Russian airstrike in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in the eastern part of the country, on March 1 killed Elvira Schemur, a 21-year-old law student who was a volunteer for Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride. A group of “bandits” on the same day broke into the Kyiv offices of Nash Mir, an LGBTQ rights group, and attacked four activists who were inside.
“The case of Nash Mir was really horrific and really demonstrated the kind of opportunistic violence that LGBTQI persons, human rights defenders and organizations can be subject to right now by both state and non-state actors,” said Stern.
Stern told the Blade that activists have also said many transgender and gender non-conforming Ukrainians have decided to remain in the country because they cannot exempt themselves from military conscription.
“What I’ve been told is that many trans and gender non-conforming Ukrainians are sheltering in place, and even in some cases staying in places where they are at risk of being attacked by missiles and bombs and definitely in harm’s way simply because they’re concerned that they don’t have a way of being exempted from military conscription,” she said.
Stern cited the case of a trans man who tried to leave Ukraine and “in an effort to prove who he was who he said he was, he was actually forced to remove his shirt and show his chest” at the border.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the only humiliating and potentially violent incident that I’m hearing us,” she said.
Stern expressed concern about safety of gay men who are conscripted into the Ukrainian armed forces. Stern also noted “all women are at risk in times of war and conflict.”
“There’s absolutely a concern about the safety and well-being of lesbian and bisexual and trans and intersex women,” she said.
Challenges for LGBTQ Ukrainians ‘will be enormous’
Stern told the Blade the State Department is “working to provide as much support as possible for all Ukrainians that want to leave the country.”
She noted many LGBTQ activists in Ukraine with whom she spoke immediately after the invasion began said they did not want to leave. Stern acknowledged some of them have now fled the country.
“The invasion has just been so violent that even the most committed activists that people we both know have had to change their strategy,” said Stern. “So, in every instance where I’m hearing of an individual or a group that is at risk and wants to leave, we’re doing everything we can to help give them the support they need.”
“Most people do not become refugees,” she added. “You know, most people cannot leave … the global community should do everything we possibly can to affirm the human rights and provide support for Ukrainian refugees.”
President Biden shortly after he took office issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights around the world.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last November pledged his country would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after he met with Biden at the White House.
Letters that Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality and Ukraine Caucuses sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the eve of the invasion noted Ukraine in recent years “has made great strides towards securing equality for LGBTQ people within its borders and is a regional leader in LGBTQ rights.” These advances include a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and efforts to protect Pride parades.
Stern reiterated the challenges for LGBTQ people inside Ukraine “will be enormous” as the conflict drags on.
“In all war and conflict, anyone who is vulnerable and vulnerable before the conflict remains at heightened risk and even becomes at greater risk,” she said. “Where people have access to weapons and LGBTQI people are unsafe. In a context where the rule of law is weak, LGBTQI people are at risk as the Nash Mir case showed us immediately.”
“I’m very worried that discrimination and violence will rise for LGBTQI people in Ukraine,” added Stern. “I’m extremely concerned that the track record from the Russian government on these issues is a harbinger of danger for LGBTQI Ukrainians in Russian occupied parts of the country.”