United in Courage: Sonic

United in Courage is a series of interviews conducted primarily in April 2023 by the Feminists of Kyiv team, featuring members of feminist and LGBTQ+ communities currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

We invited the participants of the series to tell us about their lives before the full-scale russian invasion and what motivated them to join the army. We also discussed the different experiences and challenges they face in the Armed Forces, as well as the sources of support that sustain their resilience in the ongoing war.

We hope that this series of interviews will mark the beginning of an anthology in which Feminists of Kyiv media will amplify the voices of women and queer people who are defending Ukraine. You can support us in this effort.

Editor and translator: Bozhena Makovska
Visual artist: 
Michael Tulsky

My call sign is Sonic. I am a 22 years old cis heterosexual woman and intersectional feminist. Before the full-scale invasion, I was involved in feminist and vegan activism. I conducted lectures in schools for girls on topics such as personal boundaries, security, and feminism. Additionally, I organised feminist film screenings and participated in protests. I also contributed to cooking vegan meals for those in need and initiated food distributions in my hometown in the East of Ukraine.

I wouldn’t say that these were big and impressive projects, although I wanted to develop in this direction. I was considering working in public service, contributing to the creation of shelters in Ukraine, or potentially becoming a local council member. I used to hitchhike a lot. I visited youth centres and discussed their approaches of combating gender-based violence and providing assistance to vulnerable groups, including homeless people. I dreamed of gaining as much expertise as possible and implementing it all at the local level, because for me, the development of the East and South is an idée fixe. I was also planning to join the army anyway.

In 2020, I enrolled in the military training department in Rivne, studying to become a mechanised platoon commander. I had thought that if I graduated from the military faculty and obtained an officer’s rank, I would go to the Joint Forces Operation, where I would be fighting in Donbas and reclaiming my home.

In 2021, I already attempted to join the army. I went to the military recruitment office and said that I couldn’t live like this anymore while someone else was fighting for our independence. This realisation had been growing within me since 2014; it seemed pointless to study while the country was at war. However, at that time, I was advised to wait, complete my military education, and make it easier for me, as a woman, to be truly involved in the war. I agreed, but with the beginning of the full-scale war, waiting became unbearable.

I joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in March 2022, almost a month after the start of the large-scale russian offensive, because no one wanted to take me anywhere. At that time, I was a final-year cadet at the military department and a student at Ostroh Academy, majoring in political science. I was able to complete both my studies remotely, thanks to a secondment from my military unit.

Since I was mobilised on the 23rd of March and graduated in July, I now have only a certificate of completion of the military faculty, but no rank. If I had been mobilised in the autumn, I would be a junior lieutenant now. However, at the time of mobilisation, I did not think about whether I would complete my education. It was important for me to stand up for the defence of my country.

People who studied at the military department are commonly called ‘blazers’ in the army. The majority of them lack battle experience and cannot always be effective combat commanders. Possessing an officer’s ID card wouldn’t have saved me from discrimination. Female officers are typically not appointed to roles directly involved in combat operations. Usually, they work in headquarters, in positions demanding minimal responsibility and logic, and even at the company level, they handle document-related tasks.

Any position in the Ukrainian army is inherently difficult. The crucial factor is that a person has the necessary competencies and the willingness to work in such conditions. When a battalion advances to the front, the headquarters is situated a certain number of kilometres away from the actual contact line. I am currently in the Bakhmut area. We have 18 women snipers in our battalion, and they are all on duty at the headquarters or in the permanent deployment point — because that’s what the order is. However, they are still exposed to danger. Sometimes, you may find yourself sitting in a basement when an S-300 flies in. The frontline is still the frontline, so claiming that commanders aim to protect someone is hypocritical.

This is hypocritical for several reasons. For example, I am often told that I am too young. At the same time, guys aged 18-19 are being killed. We have a woman, an experienced cartographer, but she holds a soldier’s rank. At the headquarters, instead of doing her job, she deals with paperwork and makes coffee for the commanders. It literally works like in the dumbest stereotype. Situations like this occur daily, and the struggle against such individuals persists every day. It’s important to understand that there are a lot of men working in the headquarters. They genuinely want to serve there — it’s true. All women serve voluntarily, and they are not here for what the army of the current model offers them.

The majority of the Armed Forces consist of infantry units, and my unit is also infantry. When we’re not on the frontline, we call it ‘drying off’, which allows time for both rest and self-education. People engage in training, participate in patrols and combat missions, and then take a break. The headquarters, on the other hand, operates continuously, especially now, when there are a lot of losses and a huge amount of lost property. People work without days off. Therefore, appointing women to headquarters positions is not about caring; rather, it is about distrust and the reluctance of male commanders to accept that women are fully capable of performing the same tasks as they do.

When it comes to the path of women in the military, there are very different stories. It’s not that there are no women on the front lines; they are present. However, to secure a combat position and eventually make it to the front, you need to show the highest performance in training, to impress everyone with your skills. Only then will trust be placed in you.

I had to lie when I was mobilised. When I signed up for the Territorial Defence, it was just a list of volunteers. Initially, I wrote that I was a cadet of the military department. But when I got the call and came to the formation, everything was very chaotic. No one checked anything — neither documents nor phones. They began to give us positions, for example: ‘You are a clerk’. I realised I needed to play the deception card and claim to be an officer. I understood that if I told the truth, I would be like all the other girls without military education: either a clerk, a cook, or a nurse. I was assigned to the position of a rifleman.

It was a Kyiv-based territorial defence, and when the order came that the TDF was now operating nationwide, our unit was relocated from Kyiv to another location. There we were divided again. I recall a certain major reading out surnames, and, for some reason, all the women ended up in positions at the medical unit and field kitchens. I interrupted him and said: ‘On what basis do you have no women in combat positions?’ He replied in a rude manner that he was just reading out the list and didn’t know who was a man and who was a woman. I was not on the list at all. In such a scenario, you either have to remind yourself or go back to where you came from. I chose the second option. I got into the car returning to the deployment point in Kyiv, and we drove away. I probably could have just gone home, but I didn’t want to.

I enlisted in the military unit as an officer, but informed the commander that I was still in the midst of my studies. I took a secondment to my military department, returned, and that was the end of it. I retained my position as a rifleman, which I got by deception.

Only volunteers fought in the spring and summer. During company briefings, we were asked who was willing to go to the front line, and I, along with a few others, raised our hands. But they laughed at me. Later on, I raised my hand on several occasions. I was then dispatched to a battalion situated in the village of Berestove, above Soledar. I spoke to the commander and said that I did not want to sit in the headquarters, and I needed guarantees that I would take part in combat operations. He asked in great detail about my knowledge, skills, and competences. It all sounded like it was some elite unit, and we’ll see if there’s a place for me there. But what happened was that we spent a long time in the rear. Yes, we patrolled, we worked as air defence groups. But I didn’t gain any combat experience.

Everything changed when I managed to transfer to another territorial defence battalion. We found common ground with the company commander, and as a result, he appointed me to the position of squad leader, commander of an infantry fighting vehicle that I studied at the military department. However, when we went to the east, and we are still here, it occurred that the first group left, the second group left, and I remained on patrols under fire, but not in Bakhmut itself. I asked: What’s wrong? And received the answer that the problem was not in me; it just so happened. At the battalion level, the commander asked me who I was and what I was doing here. His first phrase when he saw me was: ‘Who recruited you, fuckheads?’ Further, the chief of staff said that I reminded him of his daughter, who is also about 20 years old, and that I would never go anywhere with this battalion. Now, I am actively seeking another place for a transfer.

My desire to serve in the infantry is driven by the fact that I want to be on the front line. This is what the best of people do; it’s something one cannot help but undertake given the current circumstances. And this is a reality the greater part of society will need to confront. I believe every Ukrainian should undergo such an experience to grasp the context of the future. For instance, the processes of state-building that one can contribute to by working in NGOs, political analytics, civic activism, or journalism; t’s an experience that enables a profound understanding of the majority of people. This is the first reason.

Another reason is that, after our victory, as we join Prides and Feminist marches on March 8th, there will be veterans who will inquire where we were while they were defending our freedom. The thing is, I don’t want my freedom to be achieved at the expense of someone else’s, apart from my own. I also don’t want women in a nation that has endured war to be excluded from public discourse because they were not actively involved. They didn’t participate not because they didn’t want to but because they had no other choice. Because men were the ones who forced them into the headquarters.

Of course, it is possible to benefit the state in other ways. My point is that our predecessors fought for the rights of women to be in the army in the positions that are now available to us, for example, combat medics. Similarly, my mission may be to pave the way for women who will join the Armed Forces after me.

After more than a year of service, I realised that this fight is very important. However, the saddest thing is that with such a mission, it is not enough to be yourself and do a meaningful job. I’m unsure of the origin of this expression, but it is 100% true: a man in the army is considered normal until he proves otherwise, and a woman is considered abnormal until she proves otherwise.

War is the place where you can die or make a significant mistake, not due to incompetence, but merely because luck is not on your side. It’s not an art, a science, or a craft where you can show remarkable results solely through your effort and work. Preparing for the current circumstances, for the horrors that the russians are planning, is impossible. My biggest interest at the moment is to be of service and assistance, not to fight the patriarchy. Which is why I occasionally consider joining the military medical service to be useful where I will not be disturbed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.

From a legal standpoint, or on paper, women in the army have absolutely the same opportunities to serve as men. Our regulations do not include gender divisions; they treat individuals as combat units. The Ukrainian army is a scaled-down reflection of society because the vast majority are volunteers without prior military experience before the full-scale invasion. Abuse of authority, sexism, and so forth, are not perpetuated solely by those who served in the Soviet army. Instead, these actions are carried out by new officers and soldiers who embrace the system to gain acceptance within it.

I see education as a method of addressing this issue: educating personnel at all levels of the defence sector with a particular emphasis on gender equality. It is also crucial to establish a feedback system, enabling people to report problems like mine. If the command collectively shares these values, advocates for equality, and receives feedback, it will be an effective mechanism for influencing the decisions of individuals.

On the one hand, I don’t want women to go through all that. I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience discrimination or feel unwanted in the army. But I understand that the only way to resist is to become part of the patriarchal structures. The more people with a feminist perspective, women, nonbinary people, those who are discriminated by society, join the army, the quicker and more it will change. This is the only way.

As for creating separate women’s battalions, I think it’s a great idea. Probably, before I joined the Armed Forces, I would have said that it could separate us, create prejudice against women, as if we couldn’t fight alongside men. Now, I would certainly join such a battalion. It would suit me to think about how good I am as a fighter and improve my skills in modern combat systems. Women in the army should focus not on fighting sexism but on fighting the enemy.

Before the full-scale invasion, I often mentioned that you need to be conscious of your privileges. You have to understand that in some societies women don’t have basic rights. However, I’m not a fan of a gradual approach. I believe that any activist agenda should advance in its most contemporary form across all societies. Even in a society where a woman lives dependent on a husband she hasn’t chosen herself.

But now, considering the war, I wish for one thing: for the feminist community, and the world community in general, to comprehend that our struggle is not local. It is not a fight between Ukrainians and some neighbours who look like Ukrainians. No. It is a struggle between freedom and oppression. It is a battle between cannibalistic orders and humanistic values. It is a war waged by a totalitarian society against democracy.

I wouldn’t want people to read this text and think that they should cease supporting us because their donations will go not to me but to some man who said that women have no place at the front. As our victory approaches, so does the freedom of all women. The closer our victory is, the less suffering civilians, especially mothers, will have to endure. The longer this war goes on, the more women who either went to fight, or left Ukraine, or stayed, endangering themselves and their children, will suffer.

This war is a femicide. I want the global community to know that what is happening now concerns all countries, all people. Although, of course, there will never be such a level of perception. Similar to how we were able to not react to conflicts occurring in distant lands in the past. Now, somewhere far away, people are not responding to the ongoing war. But having lived through the experience of war, we develop a stronger sense of solidarity with the victims of conflicts worldwide.

The more people contribute to our victory, send aid, come out to protest, promote the message that Ukraine needs to be supported, Ukraine needs to be armed, Ukraine needs help to defeat russia, in their local communities, at work, in public services, in their home countries, the sooner the suffering of millions of Ukrainian women and girls will end.

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Feminist Lodge

26 January 2023
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translators: Bozhena Makovska, Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Feminist Lodge was founded in 2017 as a grassroots cultural and educational initiative by feminists, with the aim of supporting young women in a peer-to-peer format.

Nastya: When I was in 10th or 11th grade, I discovered feminism and it became my optics in life. At that time, “feminist” was an insulting word. I wanted to have some kind of supportive environment so that we could get together and do something cool. That’s how the Feminist Lodge was born. My friends and I came up with the project and the name for it when we wanted to give a lecture on feminism at the university. We felt the need to share what we were interested in.

Nastya. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: I met Nastya at the youth camp for feminists. I remember the motivation I had back then to create a grassroots initiative. Most of the events in Ukraine that claimed to be feminist – whether cultural, educational or any other kind – were disrupted by groups of right-wing radicals. I wanted to resist this, to fight back, to show that it won’t stop such events from happening, and in fact, there will be more of them. I wanted to engage in activism, and an opportunity presented itself when I found a circle of like-minded people.

Nastya: In 2018-2019, we travelled all over Ukraine, organising a series of screenings featuring feminist short films. It’s a great way to introduce people to feminism because, in just an hour and a half, you can showcase numerous different experiences and discuss them. We visited Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Kremenchuk, Zaporizhzhia, and held screenings in Kyiv three times. It was an extremely exhausting project. That’s when we realised that we didn’t want to burn out. Currently, we’re considering registering an organisation to simplify our communication with donors, but we don’t want to turn our activism into a job.

Lesia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: We take extra care to ensure the safety of everyone attending our events. We have a protocol in place where we work closely with the police. While it may not align with our ideological beliefs, the safety of our attendees takes precedence over the desire to stay “true”. This algorithm worked well during the solidarity rally with Polish women, where we were able to avoid clashes with opponents who supported the ban on abortions in Poland. This is also a matter of education; those guys would not have been dragged there to “beat feminists” if they had a basic understanding of what abortion is. That’s why it’s important for us to promote feminism and discuss our activities, even now, when humanitarian work has become such a significant part of our lives.

The war has changed our focus to the basic needs of women and girls, who are the most vulnerable in a humanitarian crisis. Survival becomes a priority when basic needs are not met.

Zhenia: I joined the initiative during the full-scale war. It was the war that motivated me to take action and help people. That was such an eye-opening experience for me. You may know that the world is malfunctioning and that the system is not working properly. But when you experience war personally, you realise that the system is not just dysfunctional. It is actually designed to work this way. Wars are not some extraordinary situations; there are many injustices and oppressions in life in general. It was painful for me to come to this realisation.

Zhenia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: When the full-scale invasion began, we were shocked for the first few weeks. But then we realised that we had certain opportunities and contacts within the feminist community and that we could apply for grants and help people. Initially, we planned to collect general supplies such as medicine and hygiene products for women. We sent parcels to Kherson, Kramatorsk, and other cities. And then a post about us was published in a group, and we started receiving numerous individual requests. We decided to try and fulfil them, so we asked volunteers for help.

Zhenia: These parcels often end up in rural areas where IDPs or simply women who have been struggling to make ends meet live. Humanitarian aid typically doesn’t reach such places, so I think it’s really great that we’re able to reach out to those people.

Nastya: Big foundations like UNICEF are helpful, but only in big cities. They would never send aid to the occupied territories. Through our connections, we’ve found individuals who drive there themselves and wait in lines at russian checkpoints. The grants we received were flexible, thus we took a chance and sent some expensive medication, hiding it in a box between the pads, hoping that the russians wouldn’t steal it. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer funding opportunities like these. While we want to address immediate needs, we also need to consider what will happen when the war ends. It’s time to start thinking strategically about how we can be involved in rebuilding the country. However, the war persists, and the demand for aid is not decreasing.

Feminist Lodge. Photo by Michael Tulsky

The role of the grassroots volunteer movement in Ukraine is hard to overestimate, in fact, it is the circulatory system of the whole country. We want to add a feminist lens to this movement to meet the needs of women and girls.

Zhenia: Volunteering is how I choose to spend my free time, so I prefer to work with people who share my political views. When the struggle has a broad focus, a lot of messages are lost. What’s important to me is being part of a team that collectively identifies problems and develops strategies to solve them. I have always advocated for non-governmental organisations. I thought that institutions could solve all the problems, but now I see that grassroots activism is much more efficient and effective.

Nastya: We are all intersectional feminists, focusing on diverse experiences and acknowledging their non-monolithic nature. First of all, we try to help those people who are most vulnerable and oppressed. Humanitarian work is an example of how we put our values into practice. In our opinion, sharing, caring and solidarity look like this in the context of war. We have been actively expanding our network. For example, we’re collaborating with FemSolution and Bilkis. We are thinking about how we can move from chaotic assistance to a more structured approach. This is our strategic vision. I think there are even more challenges ahead. We have to survive, and we have more joint actions in mind.

Zhenia: With the beginning of the full-scale war, anti-colonial narratives have definitely become more relevant to us.
Nastya: Even though we were aware of the neo-colonial influence, this topic was not in the first place for us before.
Lesia: We also share the same anti-capitalist views.

Feminist Lodge. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: The month before the start of the full-scale war was like an art house film for me. You’re sitting in Karma with your friends, discussing what the war will be like. You understand that it will happen, but you don’t want to believe it. I vividly remember driving home from a feminist stand-up show in a taxi on the eve of the invasion and seeing an armoured personnel carrier. It made me reflect on how my old life, which I knew would never come back, was actually amazing. I think I used to focus on what we lacked and how to do more, better, and cooler. At that moment, I realised how much has changed in my life over the years of our activity, and that I want to preserve it to prevent our society from regressing.

Lesia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: There were a lot of different news stories that made me anxious, so I didn’t keep up with them. The only thing I did to feel better was to prepare an emergency backpack. On February 24th, 2022, I didn’t hear any explosions. I woke up at 9 am, read about what had happened in chats with my girlfriends, and then walked around the apartment and cried. It was very difficult to decide whether to leave Kyiv or stay. I was afraid that if I didn’t leave that day, I wouldn’t be able to leave the next day. Eventually, my parents decided to leave, so I got in their car and we drove to the west of Ukraine. I spent three months in Khmelnytskyi and then returned to Kyiv.

I don’t know if I’m coping mentally. It’s really tough now. I started playing computer games for the first time in my life, and I’m trying new things. I go to yoga and hike. I used to just enjoy going on hikes, but now I feel like going on a hike this weekend could help me.

Zhenia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Zhenia: I spent four months in evacuation in Lviv and returned to Kyiv in the summer. On the first day of the invasion, I woke up at 5 am to a call from my sister. By 6, a bunch of friends had already gathered in my apartment. We had an idea to set up a survival squat, but by evening my optimism had dissipated, and my partner and I headed to the train station. We got to Vinnytsia on an evacuation train, and at that very moment Vinnytsia was being bombed.

It’s hard to recall my thoughts, but I had a sense that it wouldn’t happen to us and if it did, Europe had to act. For a long time, I had worked in the field of Holocaust studies, which is infused with ideas about “commonality against a common enemy” and the struggle against authoritarian regimes. But when Russia attacked us, government leaders started expressing their concerns, as they had already done in 2014, and as they had done with other countries – ours was no exception.

Nastya. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: Since I stayed in Kyiv after 24 February, I constantly felt like I could die any moment. I gave Lesia the password to my card so that in case of a missile attack, she could withdraw the donated money.  Every day was like my last, so I really wanted to communicate my experience. And I had this opportunity since activist networks were constantly calling for discussions. Unfortunately, some prominent feminist activists only supported Ukrainian women in words. When I told them about the facts of my life, they simply ignored them because they didn’t fit their perception of the world.

Zhenia: In spring 2022, I got involved in another volunteer initiative, and my friend and I were invited to a feminist conference in Berlin. Being there, abroad, already felt surreal. It was strange to see the white stripes under passenger planes in the sky, like “Wow! People are flying somewhere!” It was very challenging to get there, but here we are. I went to the first event of the conference, and the speaker talked about how shameful it is to involve the police when conflicts arise in the community. Another example of unworthy behaviour they mentioned was when Ukrainian queer people ask for help. “If you are vegan and queer, it doesn’t mean we are the same” — they said. We were all wearing face masks, and I thought, guys, a day and a half ago, a rocket almost hit me in Lviv. Of course, we are not the same. I couldn’t help but cry into my mask and leave. Here in Ukraine, I see that people understand what self-organisation is and how to show solidarity. Overall, one of the revelations of this war for me is that people actually know a lot.

Nastya: This experience gave me a sense of freedom and emancipated me in some way. I realised that no one has the right to dictate anything to me from a patronising position and that I have my own agency. In the past, I learned about feminism through translations of Western activists and scholars, and I always felt a sense of inferiority, as if everything was so feminist and cool elsewhere, and that we should aspire to that. Now, I want to learn more about countries that have a similar colonial experience, because even from the information I have, their struggles are fascinating. The feeling that I am not a victim, that I am helping people, and that I can do something about this situation, helps me to cope.

You can support the humanitarian work of Feminist Lodge through PayPal ([email protected]) or using the bank details found on Instagram.

Feminists of Kyiv is operated by a team of volunteers. We would like to produce more English-language interviews with feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, and other Ukrainian change-makers. You can support us with a one-time donation via PayPal ([email protected]) or on Patreon.

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Nonbinary Activist

On the Journey of Gender Transitioning

Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Edward Reese shares his insights on the challenges and developments in his life since our last conversation, focusing on his gender transition as a nonbinary individual in Ukraine.

“Previously, we discussed my plans to create a theatrical project about my experiences with domestic violence. Interestingly, my journey took a turn when I attended my first consultation for gender transitioning in preparation for the project. I’ve long wanted to take steps in this direction, but I lacked the opportunity while in an abusive relationship. Although financial constraints remain, I can no longer delay my transition. In Ukraine, trans individuals must obtain a psychiatric diagnosis. My visits to Pavlov Hospital not only highlighted this requirement but also inspired me to pivot my project towards a performative exhibition on transness and psychiatry.”

Edward emphasises the common misconceptions about trans individuals. “Often, discussions about trans people focus on surgeries, influenced by their portrayal in films, predominantly about trans women due to their higher visibility. The real-life experiences of trans men and nonbinary individuals remain largely unrecognised. I aim to document my journey, in hopes that Ukraine will soon adopt the ICD-11, which no longer classifies transness as a psychiatric disorder. This change would simplify the process, requiring only consultations with a psychotherapist and sexologist.”

Despite facing challenges at the psychiatric hospital, Edward’s activism provides him with a unique platform. “My experience, while traumatic, is not the worst. I’ve heard from younger individuals who faced mockery and bullying during their visits. As an activist, I can use platforms like TikTok to raise awareness and foster discussions, which is crucial since not many are speaking out.”

Addressing the invisibility of nonbinary and queer individuals in medical practices, Edward shares his personal adaptations during his transition. “I am a nonbinary person but for our medicine, nonbinary and queer people don’t exist at all. I’m going through the FTM transition because it is the only option. I had to present myself in the most masculine way possible, fearing that any deviation might be misconstrued by medical professionals. This included not shaving my facial hair and avoiding makeup, which are not practices I maintain in my everyday life.”

Edward also reflects on the differences in handling gender transitioning in Norway. “I spoke with a Norwegian psychotherapist, also a trans individual, who informed me about the adoption of ICD-11 principles there. Unlike in Ukraine, where individuals are expected to ‘cure’ other conditions before transitioning, in Norway, treatments can occur simultaneously, preventing additional psychological distress. My experience in Stockholm, attending a training for trans activists and visiting a gender clinic, highlighted the stark contrasts in treatment and options available, making it feel like two different worlds.”

Edward’s experiences navigating the complexities of gender transitioning in contrasting environments underline the profound need for a global shift towards more inclusive and understanding healthcare practices. As he continues to advocate and educate through his art and activism, Edward’s story serves as a beacon of hope and a call to action, inspiring not only empathy but also the necessary change in how society and medical institutions worldwide perceive and support the trans community.

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Solidarity action with Polish women in Kyiv
On the Journey of Gender Transitioning