As strange hands searched her body and pulled back her hair to check if it was a wig, Judis looked at the faces of the Ukrainian border guards and felt fear and despair.
“Ukrainian border guards undress you and touch you everywhere,” Judis says. “You can see on their faces they’re wondering ‘what are you?’ like you’re some kind of animal or something.”
Judis is a transgender woman whose birth certificate defines her as female.
Legally, there is no reason why she should not be allowed to pass with the thousands of women who are crossing Ukrainian borders to safety every day.
Yet, on 12 March at about 4am, after a long and humiliating search, border guards determined she was a man and prevented her passage into Poland.
When Ukraine imposed martial law on 24 February, all men aged between 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country. Since then, it is estimated that hundreds of Ukrainian trans people have attempted to cross the border. The Guardian has been told by activists and aid workers that, despite their legal status as women, dozens have been mistreated and pushed back at the borders, with many fearing for their lives in the event that Russia’s transphobic regime takes over.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Ukraine ranks 39th out of 49 European countries for its overall treatment of LGBTQ+ people. Gay marriage is not allowed in the country, the Christian Orthodox Church considers homosexuality a sin and there are no anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ people.
Since 2017, trans people in Ukraine have been legally recognised, but must undergo extensive psychiatric observation and a lengthy bureaucratic process before their gender can be reflected on formal documents. Caught up in this complex process, thousands of Ukrainian trans people had no personal identity document or certificate when war broke out.
“Martial law says all males are obliged to serve in the military, so they can’t leave the country,” says Olena Shevchenko, 39, a human rights defender and the chair of Insight, a Ukrainian LGBTQ+ organisation and one of the few public organisations in the country that works with trans people. “Technically, the law applies to trans people as well, including both certified trans men and trans women who had not changed their documents. But it sounds like Ukrainian border guards are preventing even trans people with a valid certificate reflecting their new gender from leaving Ukraine, and nobody knows why.”
Judis is from Svatove, in the Luhansk region, which is controlled by Moscow-backed separatists; she fled to Kyiv before Russian forces took her home town.
“As soon as I arrived in a village near the capital, my grandma’s house in Svatove was destroyed by a missile,” she says. “[After I left] I had no money and lived in a basement in a village on the outskirts of Kyiv. One day, a rocket hit about 150 metres from the house I was living in. Since then, I have had nightmares about how my limbs were blown off by a bomb.”
In their haste to leave bombed villages, thousands of Ukrainians did not stop to gather up documents such as passports, or had never applied for one before. Recognising this difficulty and the urgent need to help people travel to safety once the Russian shelling began, the Ukrainian government instructed officials to recognise any ID certificate or document – original or photocopy – at borders.
But as soon as Judis arrived at the border crossing last week, two guards stopped her and asked her to follow them to a room beside the customs office, where they physically examined her.
“Afterwards, one of the guards said, ‘you’re a guy, so get the hell out of here’, and told me I should be grateful they didn’t call the police, even though I have a legally valid document that states I am female.
“‘Go to the war’, they replied, adding that more than 3 million people had already fled the country and they weren’t going to let me out.”
Alice, 24, a trans woman from Brovary, a town near Kyiv, recounted a similar experience. She and her wife, Helen, a 21-year-old who identifies as non-binary, were stopped by border guards during an attempt to cross into Poland.
“They took us to a building near the border crossing,” recounts Alice. “There were three officers in the room. They told us to take off our jackets. They checked our hands, arms, checked my neck to see if I had an Adam’s apple. They touched my breasts. After examining us, border guards told us we were men. We tried to explain our situation but they didn’t care.”
LGBTQ+ associations and human rights defenders are warning that, since the beginning of the invasion, trans people are running out of hormones because of pharmacy closures and lack of medicines across the country. “If you stop taking hormones suddenly, it is extremely harmful to your health,” says Alice.
Bernard Vaernes works for Safebow, an organisation helping to evacuate vulnerable people to safety. He and Safebow founder Rain Dove Dubilewski were with Alice and Judis when they attempted to cross into Poland.
“This is the moment where we need to show that there are people suffering, not only from the war, but because of sexism and transphobia, and yet [those at risk] cannot leave,” says Vaernes.
Vaernes says that Russia’s discriminatory and hostile approach to LGBTQ+ rights is terrifying Ukraine’s trans community. In 2013, a “gay propaganda” law was introduced in Russia, making it illegal to promote gay rights. President Vladimir Putin has described gender fluidity as “a crime against humanity”.
“Many of the trans people I have talked to in Ukraine are afraid of Russia,’’ Vaernes says.
A few days before the invasion, US ambassador to the UN, Bathsheba Nell Crocker, warned in a letter of Russia’s plan to continue human rights abuses in the parts of Ukraine it already occupies.
“These acts (killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, unjust detentions and the use of torture) would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons,” Crocker wrote.
Soon after war broke out, the UN urged Ukraine to take a “compassionate and humane” approach to the enforcement of martial law after multiple reports of Ukrainian men defying orders to stay and attempting to flee into neighbouring countries.
“I want to be free to do what I want in life,” says Judis. “I will try again to cross the border because it’s my right to leave and to live. And I will not remain silent. I will not be held prisoner.”