Oleksandr Zhugan is an openly gay man who, until February 24, could not imagine that he would one day pick up a weapon. Before the full-scale invasion, he worked as an actor in a theater and taught acting. But when the first Russian missiles fell on Kyiv, he and his partner decided to join Teroborona. Zaborona spoke with Oleksandr about what it’s like to be openly gay in war and why homophobia will not soon disappear from Ukrainian society.
There were talks about the beginning of a full-scale war long before February 24: some believed, and some did not. What happened to you then? Did you plan to go to the front?
Until February 24, I, like many people, thought that, at most, they [Russians] would rattle their weapons. Therefore, I entered this stage of the great war as unprepared as possible.
And when, in fact, the full-scale invasion began, I realized that I had no other options. My partner and I were numb on the first day, unable to do anything but read the news non-stop. Then my partner went to donate blood at the blood bank, and there were huge lines. We went to see the bomb shelter in our house — sat there, got cold, and got to know the neighbors. And somehow it happened by itself that we realized that we should probably go.
No one called us. I didn’t even have any military experience. Therefore, we decided to go to Teroborona. Then they took everyone there: both with experience and without. We walked to their assembly center. I was scared, even scarier than of rocket attacks, because this is a purely masculine community in which you must fit in as much as possible.
That same evening we were enrolled in some unit, and we became a part of a platoon, a company, a team — I finally understood the whole hierarchy. We got out machine guns on the third day. Our benefit was probably negative. We saw how volunteers work, how they deployed their volunteer network, and how they clothed, shod, and fed us, but we were just useless pieces of meat without guns.
There was no training?
Teaching you something on your fingers is challenging when you don’t have a machine gun. They showed us: this is a machine gun, it works like this. Then it turned out that it is actually super easy, and in general, the weapons we are working with within the mortar troops are very primitive and easy to understand. But then it seemed to me that it was something incomprehensible, I don’t want to understand it, I won’t.
First, we were in the south, and then there was a rotation to the Kyiv region again. Now we are in the Kharkiv region, on the border with Russia. It was a conscious choice because some guys stayed in the same battalion. They were in the Kyiv region all this time, and they were terribly bored there. They just stood there in some village, and nothing happened.
So your expectations from the service were primarily mythical?
I had fantasies about what the service should be like. I filled out documents where it was necessary to indicate whether I had experience or a military specialty. We understood that if you do not have military service experience but still want to serve, you should probably train at least minimally. And they taught minimally: to assemble-disassemble, lubricate the machine gun and shoot, some minimal tactical training — it was there, but it was very unsystematic. I definitely felt that I was not ready to go to hot destinations right now. But simply standing and guarding is also not a great option.
Every day I thought: damn it, Sasha, why didn’t you think about volunteering? Why did you think the only way out was to pick up a weapon? I realized that I could be much more helpful by volunteering. But in April, when we went to the Kyiv region, we were asked who could cook. My partner and I raised our hands: this is how we cooked for 150 people for a month. And, frankly, it was the most difficult experience during these ten months of the war.
The fighting in the South, constant shelling, you are constantly climbing the trenches, everything around you stinks of corpses — all this is not as difficult as opening the dining room at five in the morning to start cooking breakfast and at ten in the evening, close the kitchen after dinner and sleep so that you have no strength left for anything. But at least you feel helpful at the moment.
How did you end up on the front line?
We were asked who wanted to go to the South in early May. It was necessary to transfer to another battalion, and there was a lot of paperwork. First, they sent us to Mykolaiv: we just dug trenches for a month, but it was better than nothing. And then, completely unexpectedly for my partner and me, they pushed the two of us into a mortar troop. And we knew absolutely nothing about mortars. I never even said the word mortar.
I remember how the platoon commander came to pick us up, we got into the car and drove to the Kherson region to some dilapidated village. And so I go and watch on YouTube how the mortar works. We seemed to be pushed as ballast on this commander. However, there were no complaints about our work. I can’t say that it was scary in the Kherson region. You get used to everything quickly. It flew, whistled, flew very close, and injured people nearby, but not us. At least you understand: well, there is a war, and you are important here, somehow intermediate.
You and your partner serve side by side. Do you remember the first time your co-workers said you were a couple?
We were lucky all this time. When I say “lucky,” I mean very relative luck: lucky you got one arm ripped off instead of two. We were lucky that, for example, we were not beaten. Fortunately, people were understanding. But then we found out from friends with whom we were in Mykolaiv company why we were transferred to mortars. It turns out that they didn’t want us in that company. The company commander said it was a shame for the army. Although people who had problems with alcohol or with discipline went there — but the main thing is that they are not gay.
I would never go to Teroborona in my life, and even if I did, I would see this huge pile of men and think: “Oh, no, I’ll probably go to a medical center somewhere to volunteer or do something else.” I wouldn’t go to the South. There are many things we did because we did them together. There was a moment on the first day when we stood in line to receive kalash. Then one guy asked, “You hang out together all the time, are you brothers?” I wanted to explain to him, I opened my mouth to say something, but he turned away. Was that a question that didn’t need an answer, or what?
There was no big coming out, and we didn’t line up in front of the whole company and say we were a couple. But we started making friends with people, they found us on Facebook, and we are quite open there, we don’t hide our relationship. People understood everything themselves, and no one asked any additional questions.
A few months ago, Zaborona published material with two openly LGBT soldiers — a gay and a lesbian. They said that they did not feel discriminated against during their service because of their orientation. How about you?
My partner is a non-binary person and uses the pronoun “she” for himself, even though he is physiologically male. It is very unusual for people. Our first company’s commander said this was wrong and should not be like that. But this is not his zone of influence. He cannot tell people what pronouns to use for themselves.
In another platoon, which was the most combat-ready, there were many boys from the nationalist organization. A chaplain approached us and began to tell us that we were sodomites. He really believed it: “If God burned Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality, then the boys are afraid that mines will fall on them because they are in the same unit with you.” He said that the other fighters have “relational tensions” with us.
Everyone knows that we work normally: we know how to lock on target and work quickly and accurately. We never complained that it was difficult for us. But all the same, you constantly have to prove that you are the same person who can do the same and that you do not demand any special conditions or privileges for yourself. We have to keep ourselves in good shape because we represent the whole gay party; that is, we have no right to lose our temper, and we have to keep our brand constantly.
There was also a good attitude: when we first arrived in Mykolaiv, the deputy commander came to meet us and said that he knew there were gays among us. I raised my hand, and he laughed and told me to lower my hand. He said that he would not tolerate homophobia and that it is important to him what kind of soldiers we are. There were times when a story about my partner and me appeared in the media, and the commander was interested in whether anyone was touching or insulting us.
It seems that Ukrainians are becoming more tolerant, and the LGBT community is experiencing a new stage in achieving equality: the creation of the civil partnership institute is widely discussed, and the Istanbul Convention is ratified. How do you feel the community is coping with the war, and what has changed?
First of all, the LGBT community’s perception of itself has changed. Two homophobes attacked my partner and me last autumn, and I had no intention of resisting them. Eventually, we fought back, but our first emotion was the fear that we would be physically hurt. Homophobes will not go anywhere after the war — they will still be, as they exist in all world countries. But now I have become bolder and more determined, I think: “Try to attack me now; you will get so excited that you will never want to attack again.” I may be physically weaker, and I may not always be able to fight back. But I no longer feel cornered, I don’t feel like a victim like I used to. It seems that many people from those who joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine or Teroborona may also have such feelings.
We have become stronger. During the Revolution of Dignity, we did not raise LGBT flags, although many people from the LGBT community were on the Maidan. We thought there should be no flags — neither political nor public organization. And now we see a discussion that there were no LGBT people on the Maidan, and in general, we are pro-Russian, because many people from the LGBT party spoke Russian and listened to some Russian pop music. Now there is a unicorn patch among the LGBT community, which we wear with pride so that later no one will say we were not there.
It creates a narrative about “right” and “wrong” soldiers.
I don’t wear this patch because I want to promote same-sex relationships. The rhetoric of nationalist organizations is similar to Russia’s rhetoric in this regard: there, and here, there is “propaganda of homosexuality.” If you see a patch with a unicorn, you will immediately start liking men. It is, of course, a delusion, but for some reason, it is combined in someone’s head, and there is no way that people believe in the same thesis that Russian propaganda is currently pushing.
Now society strongly idealizes the military. But a few years will pass, and we will start talking about the other side of the coin – that not all military heroes are heroic and militant soldiers. There are people who are stupidly slowing down the army, sitting and drinking. It’s the same among the LGBT community: not all people want to hug, and there are absolutely disgusting characters you don’t want to hug. Some people are traumatized, contused, etc., and they are now saying things that they would never say or do in an adequate state.
The LGBT community is currently going through a very painful period of change, just like the entire Ukrainian society. But we are transformed not only as citizens of the country but also through our own personal process of change and awareness. For example, I’ve always thought that using the word “fag” to refer to a bad person is not okay, it’s homophobic rhetoric. It is not just homophobic, but Russian homophobic rhetoric because this word is rooted in the Russian prison vocabulary, and we cannot say that it has no relation to gays — it does! Now more LGBT people have realized that it is not okay to use such words.
Ukrainian media have repeatedly used the topic of LGBT to discredit the Russian army. For example, the famous video from the Russian trenches with two gay men, which Russian propaganda called “an act of prayer.” It works as a discredit — to our advantage. But at the same time, it affects the narratives among Ukrainians that LGBT is shameful.
Yes, and it’s terrible. With that video, it’s all trash. I tried to distance myself from it as much as possible because I had no sympathy for the Russians. There are gays among them, okay, so what?
People come out of that frame of reference where being gay or being a lesbian is terrible in and of itself, and that it’s like when you put this gay label on someone — on a politician, on a soldier, on anyone — it immediately stigmatizes them. In addition to being Russian, he is also gay. All of them are such assholes! It is absolutely homophobic rhetoric, it was before the war, it continues during the war, and it will be after the war.
But at the same time, changes are taking place in society: LGBT people are accepted. These changes are happening to those who were ready for these changes even before the full-scale invasion. I have no illusions that a certain nationalist organization, with which I was lucky enough to be and serve in the same unit, will be waiting for us gays on the other side of the barricade with the anthem in condoms after the war. They will not change, it will never happen.
But I love that people who haven’t thought deeply about these issues are really starting to understand that we deserve the same rights as everyone else. On the other hand, many unbreakable people say, for example, something like, “I wish all these gays went to war.” First, war is not a place where you can send everyone you don’t like. What is this trend: you don’t like someone and immediately send them to the front? It is a place where you want to see people who want to fight and work hard to reduce the number of Russians in the world.
Many still believe that there are no gays on the front lines. If you don’t see them, take a closer look. Maybe they are hiding because society is still hostile to the presence of gay people in any strata of society. We are not so few.
As you mentioned, many members of far-right organizations defend the country. Is there a risk that a war veteran’s status will help them promote their political rhetoric after the victory?
I think that will be the least of our problems after victory. Let’s look at the statistics: what kind of support did far-right movements have in society before the full-scale invasion? 2% representation in parliament? It was a meager indicator compared to other European countries. Accordingly, we did not have as much support for far-right movements before a full-scale invasion. I don’t think it will change dramatically after our victory.
Now many LGBT military personnel give interviews, they are constantly doing something: some are medics, some are mortarmen, and some are gunners. It suggests that the community cannot ignore us, and the more visible we are, the less aggression and rejection there will be from the far right as well.
And what is the biggest problem?
Populism. While proactive people are at the front, everything in the world is constantly “out of time” in the rear: human rights, transparent and honest courts, and fair public procurement. Everything is not on time. And I think that these are the main problems — that in the wave of hype, in the wave of heroization, in the wave of the fact that Zelensky read a beautiful speech on the New Year, and everyone cried and peed with boiling water, people will forget about tricks, criminal orders, about how laws were passed, about how people were imprisoned for displeasing someone, about nepotism.
I think it will be like this: after we defeat the Moscow lice, we will have to conquer our Ukrainian nits.