This article is written by Mariia Klius, a human rights defender, activist, and lawyer. Born and raised in Ukraine, Mariia got an LLB and LLM in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She is currently a student at the International Human Rights Law program, at Lund University and an SI scholarship awardee. She works in the Parliament of Ukraine, where she drafts and advocates for bills on women’s and queer rights.
If you have Ukrainian friends, you know that each of us has our own story about “what were you doing when a full-scale war started?”. Of course, I am no different.
At 5 a.m. on February 24, 2022, I woke up in Lviv, in my parents’ house. There were no explosions or sirens. But the air of war had been around for weeks before, so the room was electrified. A quick glance through my WhatsApp chats. One of my colleagues was texting. He was monitoring the news all night. The situation was already obvious.
‘It has begun’ I thought. ‘What should I say to my family when I wake them up?’. Every possible option just seemed too unnatural to say out loud.
I texted my friends. Then I texted this girl from Tunisia, with whom I had an incredible date a week before, to ask if she was in a safe place. Because of war, she decided to leave Ukraine, so I never saw her again. The war has stolen our chance to even get to know each other.
A couple of days later, I was back in Kyiv, half surrounded by Russian troops at that point. A woman who works on the railway was very angry when I got on the train. She had just spent 30 hours trying to evacuate everyone from the capital and I was going in the opposite direction. But I just knew I had to be there. ‘This is my home. I will be useful here’ I kept repeating to myself.
A month and a half later, I was still in Kyiv. Russian troops had already withdrawn from this region, but the shelling of the city was ongoing. I was in a cafe downtown, sipping my triple espresso after another sleepless night. At that point, we already began to realize that this war would be long. I was meeting with Tymur, the head of the NGO Fulcrum UA back then, which focuses on protecting the rights of queer people. Naturally, our conversation ran back and forth between news from the frontlines and our emotions. At some point we started discussing how many queer couples got engaged in the past month and a half, and how unfair it is that their stories basically end there, so they don’t get any of the legal protections that opposite-sex couples have.
Because the situation with recognizing queer families in Ukraine is far from perfect. Since 2015, the government of Ukraine has been promising to draft and submit to the parliament the bill on civil partnerships. Regrettably, it has failed to fulfil this commitment. Marriage is also not available because the Constitution of Ukraine states that marriage is based ‘on the free consent of a woman and a man’. This provision is interpreted as that only opposite-sex couples can marry. So, same-sex couples in Ukraine continue to struggle with legal challenges as we don’t have any mechanism for official recognition and protection of our relationships. And with full-scale war, this basic right turned into a vital and urgent necessity. This concerns thousands of civilians constantly exposed to missile attacks, volunteers and medics in war zones, and military personnel whose lives are consistently at risk.
I don’t really remember at which point our discussions turned into action because my brain just wiped half of my memories from these months. But at the end of September, I was already drafting the most complex bill I have ever done to introduce gender-neutral civil partnerships in Ukrainian legislation.
Have you ever tried researching and drafting legislation when there is no Wi-Fi, no mobile service, and no electricity in your apartment for hours and even days? Definitely, cannot recommend it. But this is how it was in Ukraine last autumn and winter. You just had to find ways and continue working despite power outages, constant sirens, sleepless nights, and explosions overhead.
I finished my drafting just before Christmas. After intensive discussions with representatives of NGOs and several rounds of internal amendments, on March 13, 2023, for the first time in the history of Ukraine, a bill that provides mechanisms for the official recognition of queer families was officially registered in the Parliament of Ukraine. It establishes a procedure for registration and termination of a partnership, describes the basic rights and obligations of partners including a right to receive information in case of disappearance, identify the body, study causes of death, determine the procedure for the funeral ceremony, etc. It also includes provisions on inheritance and social protection measures for partners.
The bill got the number №9103 and it was registered by the MP I work for, Inna Sovsun, together with 17 other MPs from two parties in the Parliament. Usually, that would mean that I am pretty much done with my part of the job and now it’s up to those responsible for advocacy or PR to do their part. But this bill was an exception. With this one, my story has only started to unfold.
Together with my best friend Petro, who is a queer soldier, I created the petition and collected 25 thousand signatures in 28 days to get the bill considered as soon as possible. I wrote dozens of letters and publications, spoke to decision-makers, and gave numerous interviews and public speeches. For months I was just convincing, explaining, answering questions, and debunking myths. Our national public broadcaster also created a documentary in which I talked about my story and my work on the bill.
At this point we also joined efforts with several NGOs to advocate the bill, one of which was the LGBT+ Military NGO. This is the union of the queer military people, veterans, and volunteers that was founded in 2018 by Viktor Pylypenko.
After the beginning of a full-scale war, many queer people joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. And many of them joined the NGO that intensified its work. Nowadays, there are more than 300 hundred people in the organization, and they provide us with huge support. At the same time, their work and increasing visibility also mean higher risks for them in terms of SOGI-based hate crimes. They become the target of aggression not only from those who oppose queer people in general but also from those who want to preserve the status quo of the military.
Nevertheless, instead of resting after participating in hard and bloody battles and regardless of risks, they would do interviews to share their stories. Sometimes they did it even though their commanders were against it. So, they are fighting two battles at the same time: for Ukraine and for their rights.
…to look forward.
Nowadays our fight is still ongoing. The bill already got support from 4 out of 14 Committees in the Parliament. But at the end of summer, its progress has stalled. Different factors caused it. For example, several small local queerphobic organizations lobbied appeals from local councils to withdraw the bill. Also, the bill received a negative official opinion from the Ministry of Defence (mostly caused by their lack of information about the queer people in the Ukrainian army). Additionally, the Ministry of Justice, which was supposed to draft its bill since 2015, didn’t support ours in their official opinion.
Despite all of this, step by step we are changing this situation. We are communicating with members of local councils to prevent voting for other appeals to withdraw the bill. In Lviv local council we actually managed to convince them to remain neutral (I think it’s a win already).
Also, we were writing letters and holding meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice. So, on 18 October both Ministries finally changed their opinions and officially supported the bill.
A very important factor that helps us in our advocacy is that on 1 June this year, ECtHR held its decision in the case of Maymulakhin and Markiv v. Ukraine. The ECtHR decided that because Ukraine has no form of legal recognition and protection for same-sex couples, we are violating Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. So, now we can refer to this decision to persuade MPs to vote for our bill to end this violation. Which is very important considering our ongoing integration in the EU.
What also helps is that the public support is big and it’s only rising. According to the latest surveys, 56% of Ukrainians support the adoption of civil partnerships, and only 24% of society oppose it. And you can actually feel this, it is very tangible. More and more people refuse to remain neutral and start actively supporting us.
So, we are inspired, and we continue both our battles: for Ukraine and our rights. And as Taras Shevchenko once said, ‘Keep Fighting and You Will Prevail’.