Less than a month ago, Viktor Pylypenko lived a peaceful life raising awareness of gay rights issues in Ukraine. Now he’s on the front line of a war, dodging Russian forces who may be out to capture and kill him.
Warning This report contains graphic descriptions of injury
Warning This report contains graphic descriptions of injury
“If I disappear suddenly, it may be because we’re being shelled,” Viktor casually tells me after he answers my call. I’m in my apartment in London, he’s on the front line of the war in Ukraine.
From the undisclosed location he’s video-calling from, I can see the sky is a beautiful clear blue. I also see 35-year-old Viktor, perched beneath some trees in his uniform.
The location is peaceful. Much like Viktor’s life was until Russia invaded his country last month. A trained soldier, he is the leader of a group for Ukraine’s gay military men, and over the years made huge steps in improving the attitude towards LGBT people in Ukraine.
But as the Russian invasion now rages on, gay Ukrainian troops are fighting in defence of their country. Viktor made time to speak to Treasure Island Media during a rare moment of quiet on the front line.
“The first night when Putin attacked with missiles I arrived to the military commissariat as a volunteer,” he says.
“It was a real disaster because nobody expected it to happen. I know it sounds weird – there were 170,000 Russians on our borders, but nobody understood how mad Putin is. But still he did it.
“Now Russians are dying by hundreds. They are invading by columns and Ukrainian side is effectively exterminating these columns. They are bringing more and more military men as cannon-meat for slaughter. Ukrainian soldiers are also dying but in much lesser quantity.
“We [are] very angry about the bombings of peaceful cities. We are furious about that. It gives us drive to fight.”
On the front line, Viktor has seen those losses first hand. He’s both an infantryman and a medic, often battling to save the lives of his squadmates.
If they capture me, I will be tortured and killed in a very brutal manner. I think I would rather kill myself than give myself into captivity.Viktor Pylypenko, Ukrainian soldier and gay rights activist
“Recently we had a shelling of our positions,” Viktor says. “There were two guys. One received a wound in his leg. Second guy I couldn’t save because his wound was really great. There was a piece of shell which hit the back of his skull. He literally vomited his brain out of his mouth. We couldn’t save him.”
Ukraine’s armed forces continue to hold their ground, but the stakes are high. For gay soldiers like Viktor, they’re even higher.
His position as a prominent gay rights activist makes him a target for enemy forces. US officials have even warned that Russia has compiled a ‘hit list’ of people like Viktor they want captured or killed.
“I am an LGBT activist in the military,” he says. “They can arrest my parents, torture them or kill them. So I am really afraid for my parents and I am trying to convince them they should leave but they don’t want to.
“I’m afraid of captivity. If they capture me, I will be tortured and killed in a very brutal manner, especially if I am captured by Chechens. There will be no mercy. I think I would rather kill myself than give myself into captivity.”
These well-founded fears are a far cry from the more peaceful life Viktor was leading until the Russian invasion began just a few weeks ago. Being gay in Ukraine was not always an easy life, but Viktor and his colleagues were making great strides in encouraging acceptance of LGBT people among their countrymen.
“We changed a lot,” Viktor adds. “We changed the perception of the whole Ukrainian society towards gay people and even now I am openly gay in my military unit. Guys are really inclusive. Of course there [is] some homophobia in other units which we should tackle in the future. But now it’s not the time for that. We are all united in one battle for the whole country.”
Unsurprisingly though, life as a gay man in Ukraine is not so different from anywhere else. And there are more than a few things gay Ukrainians have in common with the rest of us around the world…
“Our community is based on exchanging dick pics and sex!” Viktor says, laughing. “The main thing that united us was a lack of sex in military units and sexual hunger. Lots of guys in 2018, when we started our community, had trouble with self-acceptance. They were really grateful for us creating secret chats where we could exchange photos and arrange hook-ups.”
One day though, Viktor says a far-right spy infiltrated their group and attempted to damage them by outing their private photos. But the soldier says the consequences were nowhere near as severe as they feared.
“It didn’t damage our community at all because we are defenders,” he says. “We are risking our lives and people just were saying – guys are having sex, so what? That doesn’t matter in any way.”
A leading gay rights campaigner who has himself seen the brutality of the Russian regime today praised the heroism of Viktor and his fellow gay soldiers. Peter Tatchell was beaten and arrested in Moscow in 2007 for protesting a ban on the country’s gay pride parade.
The British campaigner told Treasure Island Media: “It is inspiring that LGBTs are joining the fight against Russian imperialist aggression. Gay soldiers like Viktor are helping to debunk myths and stereotypes about LGBTs being weak, immoral and not true Ukrainians.
“Hopefully, their heroism will help break down prejudice and win new respect and rights for LGBT+ people. It is sickening the way Russian propaganda is attacking the recruitment of gay soldiers by Ukraine and using it to smear and besmirch the Ukrainian war effort.
“Ukrainian LGBT+ soldiers rightly fear that Putin will impose homophobic persecution, like already exists in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbass.
“They know about the jailing, torture and murder of LGBTs in the Russian republic of Chechnya, with Putin’s collusion. Reports that LGBTs are on a Russian ‘detain and kill’ list, along with Ukrainian political figures, are very worrying.”
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to falter, no-one yet knows how the war will end. But regardless of the outcome, Viktor and the other gay men bravely fighting there will be honoured by the world as heroes who defended their country.
This story is part of the TIM News series of stories produced by Treasure Island Media.
For over two decades, Treasure Island Media has captured authentic sex between men on film. In many ways, our porn is like journalism – we’re just documenting what comes naturally.
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