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Some LGBTQ Ukrainians are fleeing Russian occupation. Others are signing up to fight

Bohdan Moroz, left, and Vlad Shast are LGBTQ Ukrainians. Moroz was evacuated to Berlin before conscription took effect. Shast is in Kyiv gathering supplies for the Ukrainian soldiers.
Bohdan Moroz, Vlad Shast
Bohdan Moroz, left, and Vlad Shast are LGBTQ Ukrainians. Moroz was evacuated to Berlin before conscription took effect. Shast is in Kyiv gathering supplies for the Ukrainian soldiers.

Updated March 13, 2022 at 3:11 PM ET

LVIV OBLAST, Ukraine — A few weeks ago, Vlad Shast was sashaying in a slinky pink gown and thigh-high boots. Shast was working as a stylist, and performing on the drag queen circuit in Ukraine's capital Kyiv.

That was before the Russian invasion.

Now, Shast is pushing a grocery cart from shop to shop in Kyiv, filling it with supplies for soldiers on the front lines.

"My life is like before and after," Shast tells NPR. "My life has changed completely."

Even before getting called up for mandatory conscription in Ukraine's military, 26-year-old Shast volunteered this month for Ukraine's territorial defense force, a civilian corps that reports to the military.

Shast is a prominent member of Ukraine's queer scene, who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as nonbinary. They fear what might happen under Russian occupation. Inside Russia, LGBTQ people have faced persecution, even torture.

For some LGBTQ Ukrainians, it's an added reason to flee the war. But for others including Shast, it's a reason to stay and fight.

In the lead-up to the war, U.S. intelligence officials warned that Russian forces might target gay Ukrainians specifically. They've done it before, in parts of eastern Ukraine that Russia has occupied since 2014.

That's where Kyrylo Samozdra grew up, and joined a pride group online, when he was in college. One day in the summer of 2018, he was walking down his street in Russian-occupied Luhansk, when he says Russian security agents accosted him.

"I was interrogated. They took my phone, took passwords," Samozdra tells NPR.

Samozdra says Russian forces tried to get him to inform on fellow LGBTQ activists. Homosexuality is a criminal offense in Russian-occupied Luhansk. Samozdra refused to cooperate, went into hiding — and eventually fled to Kyiv, where homosexuality is legal, and where gay life has thrived, especially in recent years.

When a homophobic heckler interrupted a news conference by Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019, the president told the man to shut up and leave gay people alone.

But when Zelenskyy announced wartime conscription, some LGBTQ Ukrainians fled the country.

"I knew that if I stayed, then the border would be closed to me, and they would obligate me to serve in the military," says Bohdan Moroz, 23, a gay designer from Kyiv whose company evacuated him to Berlin before conscription took effect.

Moroz wasn't breaking the law by fleeing Ukraine. But he still feels conflicted. He believes the war is important for people like him.

"I believe that Ukraine is a European country, that has equal rights for everybody," Moroz says. "So fighting for freedom now means fighting for LGBT people as well."

That's why that drag performer Vlad Shast joined the territorial defense.

"I am a legend in the Ukrainian queer scene! And you know, now I'm living with straight, hetero men, and they don't even care about my homosexuality, about my queerness — because now we are united."

Olena Lysenko contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.