As volunteer fighters Oleksandr Zhuhan and Antonina Romanova pack for a return to active duty, they contemplate the unicorn insignia that gives their uniform a rare distinction — a symbol of their status as an LGBTQ couple who are Ukrainian soldiers.
Members of Ukraine’s LGBTQ community who sign up for the war have taken to sewing the image of the mythical beast into their standard-issue epaulettes just below the national flag.
The practice harks back to the 2014 conflict when Russia invaded then annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, “when lots of people said there are no gay people in the army,” actor, director and drama teacher Zhuhan told Reuters as he and Romanova dressed in their apartment for their second three-month combat rotation.
“So they (the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community) chose the unicorn because it is like a fantastic ‘nonexistent’ creature.”
Zhuhan and Romanova, who identifies as a nonbinary person with she/her pronouns and moved to the capital from Crimea after being displaced in 2014, met through their theater work.
Neither was trained in the use of weapons but, after spending a couple of days hiding in their bathroom at the start of the war, decided they had to do more.
“I just remember that at a certain point it became obvious that we only had three options: either hide in a bomb shelter, run away and escape, or join the Territorial Defense (volunteers). We chose the third option,” Romanova said.
Russia says its forces are on a “special operation” to demilitarize Ukraine and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists. Ukraine and its allies call that a false pretext for a war of aggression.
For Zhuhan and Romanova, their vocation gives them an added sense of responsibility.
“Because what Russia does is they don’t just take our territories and kill our people. They want to destroy our culture and ... we can’t allow this to happen,” Zhuhan said.
Their first tour of duty around Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, about 135 km (80 miles) from the port of Odesa, changed their lives. They fought in the same unit and found it terrifying, Zhuhan contracted pneumonia, but, the couple says, their fellow fighters accepted them.
“There was no aggression, no bullying... It was a little unusual for the others. But, over time, people started calling me Antonina, some even used my she pronoun,” Romanova said.
There was much back-slapping as they joined their new unit at Kyiv’s central station for a second three-month stint. Some of the team Zhuhan and Romanova knew but the commanders were not at the station.
“I’m a little worried about that,” Zhuhan said, the mood becoming more somber as the unit headed towards their train as dusk fell. “I know that in some units, the rules are more strict ... It wasn’t like that in our (first) unit.”
Zhuhan’s unease lifts as one commander makes clear his refusal to tolerate homophobia, and a more senior officer says the only important thing on the front line is to be a good fighter, he subsequently tells Reuters by phone.
But one overriding fear, voiced back in their apartment, remains.
“The thing I’m worried about is that in case I get killed during this war, they won’t allow Antonina to bury me the way I want to be buried,” Zhuhan said.
“They’d rather let my mum bury me with the priest reading silly prayers ... But I am an atheist and I don’t want that.”