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Ukraine's LGBTQ community mobilizes to set up safe houses, evacuations

Posted at 1:10 PM, Mar 18, 2022

A narrow hallway, a stairway and a sanctuary. The small room in a building that once housed a restaurant and microbrewery is now Denys Kratt's home away from home.

Kratt left eastern Ukraine just before the Russians destroyed his apartment building.

The former restaurant is more than a refuge. It's a safe house for people like Kratt, his boyfriend and a number of their friends who can't leave the country because of the restrictions on men leaving Ukraine, and who can't fathom the idea of living under Russian occupation.

In happier times — really, just a few weeks ago — this was a place of celebration. In addition to food and drink, the space also includes a stage for shows and celebrations of life events.

Kratt managed marketing for the restaurant's location in Kharkiv. Those marketing skills are going to good use — now, he's pitching this place on social media to friends, friends of friends and total strangers in need of shelter or donated clothes, food and medicine.

Last Saturday, Kratt and Polish volunteers were frantically organizing vans to help people get out of Ukraine and into Poland.

Vadyn Savescu is from Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine that's been hard hit by Russian airstrikes, including one strike last week that hit near a kindergarten. Savescu says he was forced to consider the possibility he'd be living under Russian occupation.

"Since I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, I know that we are kind of first to be dealt with by the Russians because we are, like, enemies of [president Vladimir Putin's] system, of his ideology," he said.

He said he believed Russians would target gay people specifically.

"Yes. If there is no proper police force and no rule of law, just Russian occupation troops, some people would just go after us," Savescu said.

Gay rights groups have established several small safe houses in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

"We try to provide them with (a) place where they can get food, clothes, sleep," said Tymor Levhuk, the executive director of Fulcrum UA.

One of those shelters is an old dive bar. It will soon host up to 18 people, exclusively men and transgender people. Lesbians and other women are being encouraged by LGBTQ leaders here to leave the country.

Savescu hoped, on Saturday, he would be allowed to get to Poland as well because he has a documented, chronic medical condition. Reporters later learned that he did successfully make it out of the country.

For Kratt, leaving is not an option. Right now, he considers Lviv to be safe. But if Russia takes full control of Ukraine, he fears what would become of his country, his community, and himself.

"It's a very dangerous mix for me, being [an] activist for LGBTQ and activist for Ukraine," Kratt said. "It's so dangerous for me being under the Russian occupation."

Kratt thinks the Russians know who he is. He knows they know Zhanna Simeiz — his drag character that made headlines at Kyiv's 2017 gay pride.

There, Simeiz said that once Ukraine liberates Crimea from Russian occupation, pride would be celebrated there. Or, as Russian state media put it, "Kiev transvestites scare Crimea."

Kratt says that before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, gay people were out there.

"People from all over the world, from all [Ukraine], from Russia, [from] international countries, come to relax (in Crimea)," Kratt said.

Now that Russia controls the region, he says members of the LGBTQ community no longer travel to the region. 

Kratt maintains a sense of humor about his situation. Entertaining, if Ukraine wins the war, ideas of the party they'll throw.

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