‘A war within a war’: Transgender woman speaks out about transphobia and discriminatory laws holding her hostage during Russian invasion of Kyiv

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Zi Faámelu was born and raised in Crimea, a territory in Ukraine occupied and taken over by Russia in 2014. Now the 31-year-old lives in Kyiv, the capital, which has been under Russian siege for almost a week. She’s running out of food and hasn’t left her house in days when gunfire erupted outside.

And she says she can’t go.

Faámelu, who is transgender, said transphobia is pervasive in the city and neighboring countries and fears the tensions of the ongoing conflict would make her more vulnerable to violence if she leaves the city. Faámelu was previously a popular contestant on Ukraine’s Star Factory singing competition show.

“Sometimes we think it’s all just a dream that we’re stuck in some kind of video game. Because you just live in a quiet society, and then you hear bombings and you wake up to the sound of bombings,” she said. “…A few hours ago I heard bombings and my windows were shaking. … I’m literally scared for my life.”

According to Faámelu, she has had to turn off the lights in her apartment and keep the windows closed for days. She lives alone, her friends have all left town, and she said it seems like she’s one of the few people still in her building at all. She lives near a building in Kyiv that was hit by a rocket.

She fears what might await her outside.

“A lot of people have guns and guns. … It can be an excuse for violence,” she said. “…This is a very scary situation.”

And Faámelu doesn’t know what to do. Even if she is not confronted with violence on the way to the border, she has no idea whether she is even allowed to leave the country.

“There’s no way Ukrainian border guards can let me through,” she said. “There is no possibility.”

If she makes it to the border of a neighboring country that offers refuge, she isn’t even sure if she’ll be let in because her passport ID doesn’t match her gender. The LGBTQ community has become more visible and accepted over the years, but it’s more complicated for transgender people.

“This is not a very rainbow friendly place. … The life of trans people is very bleak here,” Faámelu said. “If your passport says a male gender, they won’t let you go abroad. They won’t let you through.”

For years, transgender people in Ukraine who wanted legal recognition had a long list of steps to go through in order to achieve it. According to Human Rights Watch, the government has mandated that transgender people undergo extensive psychiatric evaluation and gender reassignment surgery in order to obtain legal documents that match their gender.

The law was introduced in 2017 to slow the process but would still require transgender Ukrainians to undergo outpatient psychiatric evaluations. There is no indication that laws were ever implemented.

“I don’t want to go through this. It’s like a humiliation for the world,” Faámelu said. “…I decided to keep my passport, keep male in my passport, and now I can’t leave this country.”

“[it’s] a war within a war, really,” she said.

In 2021, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said the country’s adoption of a new trans health protocol had stalled and that the LGBT community in Ukraine was facing attacks and intimidation from far-right groups. Out of a list of 49 European countries, the organization ranked Ukraine 39th for its overall treatment of LGBTQ people.

Faámelu’s fears are shared a few others in Ukraine who identify as LGBTQ.

“In Russia, LGBTQ people are persecuted,” Iulia, an 18-year-old law student in Kharkiv, told CBS News’ Haley Ott. “If we imagine Russia occupying all of Ukraine or just a large part of the country, they will not allow us to exist peacefully and fight for our rights as we can now in Ukraine.”

Adding to Faámelu’s difficult situation are her parents. They still live in Crimea and, according to Faámelu, do not believe that Russia has even invaded their daughter’s city.

“They are literally being brainwashed. The world sees the picture, but in this case, they’re just blind,” she said. “My parents think it’s all wrong that we’re bombing ourselves, that we’re trying to create drama.”

For now, Faámelu is focused on being optimistic – that she will find a way out safely and that Ukraine will successfully defend itself against the Russian invasion.

“There is something about Ukrainians, they are very optimistic and cheerful people. … They never give up,” Faámelu said. “…You don’t know if you’ll be alive the next morning. So what are you going to do? I just prefer dancing in the kitchen, to be honest. Because if this is the last moment of my life, I I just want to party. I just want to dance.”



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