Late Thursday evening, Viktória Radványi, communications director of Budapest Pride, drove with his girlfriend to the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. They were picking up four LGBTQ refugees and bringing them back to Budapest to provide them with safe housing, food and mental health resources.
But Radványi is not part of any humanitarian group, nor does he have experience in resettling refugees. She never thought she would have to witness a war so close to her home country. Yet when she heard about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she immediately knew she had to help.
“We know that people who say that everyone suffers from war in the same way, that this is not true. And we know that in situations of enormous crisis, vulnerable groups in society will become particularly vulnerable. So it was already in our hearts and minds,” Radványi said.
She added that LGBTQ people in her country gave whatever they could to help – a spare bedroom, a couch.
Armed conflict and war aggravate the vulnerability of many minority populations and increase the likelihood that they will be exposed to abuse. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, LGBTQ people are likely to face violence, denial of basic services, arbitrary detention and abuse by security forces, among other types of discrimination.
In Ukraine, many transgender women cannot leave the country because their government IDs still show them as men – and men are forced to stay and fight under the country’s conscription laws. Women also fight in the Ukrainian army and people are not expelled for being gay or transgender, although they are not necessarily welcome.
Many Ukrainians are fleeing to Poland and Hungary, and activists say they will face particular challenges there, as the European Union has condemned both countries for having anti-gay laws. In Poland, homosexual couples cannot marry, enter into a civil union or adopt children. In 2019, an opinion poll found that nearly a quarter of Poles think homosexuality should not be tolerated, and there are so-called “LGBTQ-free” areas across the country.
Julia Maciocha, a Warsaw Pride activist in Poland, said her organization was quick to help the refugees because it wanted to protect them from possible discrimination.
“We don’t want them to be held in refugee camps or in big buildings or huge places where they’re not safe because, of course, homophobia still exists in Poland. We want to make sure that ‘they are placed with people who understand their needs,’ she says.
Machiocha believes fear of possible discrimination will lead many LGBTQ refugees to leave Poland and Hungary after a few weeks or months. She said she thinks it’s likely they will move to Western Europe, where the laws are friendlier. “So what we can do here is just welcome them and help them in the first place,” Maciocha said.
Aaron Morris of the US LGBTQ rights group Immigration Equality said it was a pattern he had seen too many times before. LGBTQ refugees fleeing Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and Central America have always faced attacks and discrimination.
“Often when they flee through another country in the hope of getting to a place where they will feel safe, they are ostracized. They don’t have the same access to family support, to religious support, as other minorities,” he said.
He said this is an issue that requires the support of governments like the United States, which could take in LGBTQ refugees or ask other countries to protect them. But LGBTQ organizations in Europe don’t rely on outside help; activist groups have started meeting to discuss how they can provide shelter, medical aid and transport to friendlier countries on a larger scale.
Even then, these activists fear for the future of LGBTQ refugees and those who remain in Ukraine. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Radványi said, “So this uncertainty, these very, very unpredictable circumstances are making it really, really difficult.”