For more than a month, a bill has stirred debates and discussions in Ukrainian society.
No. 9103, as the draft law is known via the registration number, is an attempt at ensuring equal opportunities for same-sex and different-sex couples in Ukraine.
While the idea is years in the making, this is the only document registered in the Verkhovna Rada [parliament] that is currently intended to make it a reality.
The draft law defines a registered partnership as a voluntary family union of two adults of the same or different sex. It is not marriage and does not provide for adoption or custody of children, but instead regulates legal status, joint property, inheritance and social protection – issues that have become more acute for many couples during the war.
LIGA.Life looks into why legalisation of registered partnerships could change the lives of same-sex and different-sex couples in Ukraine, including civilians and military personnel.
The first attempts to ensure equal rights and opportunities for heterosexual and homosexual couples in Ukraine were made in a government resolution back in 2015. It included a commitment of the executive to drafting a law on civil partnerships by mid-2017 – something that never happened.
The drafting and adoption of the bill was postponed year after year until, in the summer of 2022, a petition on the Ukrainian president’s website requesting the legalisation of same-sex marriage gathered necessary 25,000 votes.
In his response to the petition, Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that it is impossible to legalise same-sex marriages under martial law, when amendments to Ukraine’s constitution are prohibited. He added, however, that the government was working on registering civil partnerships.
More than seven months have passed since the Verkhovna Rada registered bill No. 9103, titled "On the institute of registered partnerships". It has received feedback – both positive and negative – from non-core committees and ministries.
Throughout April, the parliamentary youth and sports committee supported the bill and recommended that it be adopted. Ukraine’s defence ministry, however, criticised the draft law.
"For us, the legal policy committee [of the parliament] is a core committee, but there are thirteen additional committees, some of which are ready to discuss the document," explains Inna Sovsun, an MP who initiated No. 9103.
"Their decisions are not binding, but it is important for us to hear opinions from different perspectives, as we are talking about creating a new institution in society. In addition, discussions in non-core committees allow us to engage MPs who have not previously dealt with these issues and often acted and thought within the framework of their own ideas."
"Therefore, it is an opportunity for us to tell more about the problems faced by LGBT people."
Ms Sovsun believes that the bill is unlikely to be voted on in parliament by June, as discussions in parliamentary committees take time. At the present stage, she doubts the initiative would not get the required number of votes, since not all MPs understand the problem and the demand from society.
"We are not yet at the stage where we can submit the draft law to the Verkhovna Rada and hope for a positive outcome," Ms Sovsun says.
"And of course, the will of the president's office is needed to get any issue on the agenda now. Especially when it comes to such sensitive bills. The current situation is that Bankova [the president’s office] has not yet spoken out clearly on this issue. So we need to draw their attention to the draft law," she adds.
Ms Sovsun notes that support for the registered partnerships bill is needed not only for Ukraine itself, but also to improve the position in dialogue with international partners who provide assistance to Ukraine during the war.
According to her, the Ukrainian president’s support for the bill may be positively received globally.
Taya Gerasimova, a communications manager at Insight, a Ukrainian NGO focusing on support for LGBT+, says that No. 9103 provides a number of rights and social guarantees to same-sex and different-sex couples.
These include family leave, joint ownership of property, and identification of the body or social assistance in the event of the death of one of the partners during military service.
Issues of adoption and child custody are omitted, however.
"If a person has a child, his or her partner will not have the right to adopt that child, no matter how long they have lived together as a family. And in case of death or disability of the mother or father, the partners will not be able to take care of the child," Ms Gerasimova explains.
"This is a big problem and risk for same-sex families, something which politicians are not ready to address because they are afraid of the public's reaction instead of raising awareness."
Inna Sovsun explains that the current focus is "on solving problems that can potentially be solved".
"If this issue [child adoption and custody] was in the draft law, how would it affect the likelihood of its adoption? I think everyone understands this perfectly well. So let's try to do at least something instead of demanding everything and getting absolutely nothing."
An electronic petition, created to draw the attention of the Ukraine president's office to bill No. 9103, has been signed by more than 24,400 people by now.
Inna Sovsun calls the petition an important communication tool that allows the community to speak out and show the importance of the issue.
The petition was created by Petro Zherukha, a Ukrainian soldier, and supported by dozens of human rights NGOs. In an interview with LIGA.net, Mr Zherukha said that he had not dared to publicly declare his sexual orientation for a long time but wanted to support the initiative.
"I told my friend that I wanted to support the draft law because it concerns me. So I decided to create an electronic petition, and NGOs helped me with this."
"I had never told anyone about my bisexuality before, but for the first time in my life, I was ready to take this step," he says.
Before the petition, Mr Zherukha had been mulling telling his parents about his bisexuality for a long time, but public support encouraged him to act: he called his parents and told them everything.
The next day, the soldier came out in a Facebook post, which his comrades read as well. While the reactions were mixed, most often he was asked to delete the post and not to draw attention to the issue of LGBT rights anymore.
Mr Zherukha admits that his fellow soldiers and commanders reacted mostly neutrally to his coming out and the bill, and he expected a similar response from the defence ministry.
"When I came out, one of my commanders said that the military should be completely apolitical. If you are on combat duty, you should not engage in discussions or take sides," he says.
"And although I never managed to adopt this approach, I expected a similar neutral position from the ministry of defence."
In its response, the ministry criticised the bill, stating that the data on thousands of LGBT+ people in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, mentioned in the bill’s explanatory note, "require further study".
While it is indeed difficult to estimate the number of LGBT+ people in Ukraine and in the Armed Forces in particular, Mr Zherukha notes that after coming out, he personally spoke with about a hundred such soldiers on social media.
"This is only my experience and those people who have posted something on social media. But there are many LGBT people who hide their identity for one reason or another," he explains.
"This is especially an acute problem among the military. Some are in no hurry to come out, and this is used by their adversaries to confirm their own homophobic judgements. This is how society gets the impression that there are no LGBT people among us."
Mr Zherukha adds that even a hundred queer people in the Armed Forces should not be ignored, because they want to defend their country despite all the risks and hatred. In addition, members of the LGBT community among civilians may also become military sooner or later, and it will be much better if their rights are protected.
"I often receive letters from queer people who have already registered with the military enlistment office and are waiting for a call," the soldier says.
"They are not running away, but have expressed their readiness to join the army, in the worst environment that an LGBT person can choose. They don't care that they will be hated, because they want to defend their country."
In his opinion, legalisation of registered partnerships will solve many small problems that LGBT military personnel face on a daily basis, the simplest being a family leave or indicating the contact of a partner to whom the command will be obliged to report an accident.
"There are a lot of small things that only LGBT couples notice. I'm not currently in a relationship, so I haven't faced these problems, but as a military man, I want to be able to plan any development of my personal life," Mr Zherukha adds.
"If I fall in love with a woman, I can marry her. But if it's a man, what then? How will we live, will they recognise us? It's a huge pressure that seems to make me want relationships with men less. That's why I want to have legal protection for myself and my friends."
Bill No. 9103 is intended not only for LGBT couples but also for heterosexual partners who – for one reason or another – do not want to get married at the moment, but still want to have legal rights in relation to each other.
One such couple is Dmytro Derkach and Sofia Popovych, who recently spoke out in support of registered partnerships, saying that they themselves plan to enter into such a union as soon as the bill is passed.
"In our opinion, marriage is something more sacred and valuable, it has a more serious and official character, so we are not yet ready to take this step," Mr Derkach told LIGA.net in an interview.
"A partnership gives us a rather important list of rights that we would like to have. For us, it's more like a transitional stage before marriage. I do not think that partnership can somehow devalue the institute of marriage."
He believes that legal protection of relationships is primarily related to possible risks caused by the war. The bill provides for the status of close relatives to partners and, in the event of death, identifying the partner's body or accessing all information related to the death – which is currently not possible without a legally enforceable partnership or marriage.
"Now, unfortunately, this risk is hanging over us every day. That's why it's very right that the draft law does not separate marriage for heterosexual couples and partnerships for everyone else. Registered partnerships will be beneficial for everyone," Mr Derkach adds.
In his opinion, legalisation of registered partnerships will be an important civilisational step towards the European Union and a democratic society, testifying to the freedom and equality of all citizens. In particular, it will help protect the military who are defending Ukraine and already need the rights provided for in the bill.
"I have a lot of friends from the LGBT+ community, and I really want them to not be afraid that they can be humiliated, beaten or killed because someone doesn't like their sexual orientation," Mr Derkach explains.
"If the Verkhovna Rada passes this bill, it will send a powerful signal to society that same-sex partnerships are normal, not scary, and that LGBT+ people are the same people who love in the same way."
Apart from legal protection for civilians and the military in Ukraine, No. 9103 is a step towards public recognition of LGBT+ couples in Ukraine, says Iryna Khapalova, a psychologist. She had to keep her sexual orientation secret for almost seven years since it was considered ‘wrong’ at the time.
"My first relationship and first sexual experience was with a girl. When my mother found out about it, she was absolutely against it. Since then, this topic has been forbidden in our family," Ms Khapalova tells LIGA.net in an interview.
"The lack of understanding in society that homosexual relationships are also a norm did not allow me to accept myself and my orientation right away. So for almost seven years, I lived in a sort of shadow, and it ate me up from the inside."
At 21, Ms Khapalova came out as a lesbian and has not hidden her relationship since. A few months ago, she got engaged to her partner Anastasia, and the couple plans to get married in the future.
"This bill is very important to us because it is a full-fledged opportunity to call ourselves a couple. It means no fear of holding hands while walking around the city, no need to lie about being friends when travelling together or renting a house," she believes.
"We now have our own home, car, business and want to be legally protected. In the future, we are thinking about having children."
In Ms Khapalova’s opinion, Ukrainian society has made a huge step towards recognising LGBT people over the past decade. While she was rather sceptical about the idea of legalising registered partnerships six years ago, believing society was not ready, the situation is radically different today.
"During this time, our society has been transformed, and the war has given a great impetus to rethinking everything. Many proactive, responsible people have emerged who feel involved in the changes in the country," the psychologist says.
"That is why I really hope that the registered partnerships bill will be passed, and that current and future generations will be able to feel free in a free Ukraine."