Ukrainian Oleh Kopko, 31, was summoned to war in August 2014 and spent a year fighting against the Russian-separatist forces in an artillery battalion in eastern Ukraine.
Kopko has been in some of the hottest spots of the conflict: He’s been to Debaltsevo, Illovaisk and at the Russian border. He has the warmest memories of his comrades, who were “a real brotherhood.”
His commanders even invited him to rejoin the army as a professional soldier. But Kopko doubts that the invitation will still stand after this story is published.
That’s because Kopko is gay.
He wasn’t open about his sexuality while serving in the army (“For obvious reasons,” he says), but decided it would be right to open up about it now.
When Kopko was summoned to war, he was living with his boyfriend of 6.5 years in Zaporizhzhya. When he went to war, the couple broke up. The service was one of the reasons.
Kopko says he never considered dodging the conscript, although he knew that Ukraine’s army was a mess. He got a proof of it very soon: When he and other fresh troops arrived to a training base near Dnipropetrovsk, they weren’t fed for 24 hours.
After some 1.5 months at the training center, the conscripts were sent to the frontline – first, to protect the border near Luhansk, then to Artemovsk.
Kopko served in the artillery and says he has never been in a close fight and rarely even saw his target. It didn’t make it safer, though.
“Near Debaltsevo and Starobeshevo we were shelled 10 to 15 times a day,” Kopko recalls.
Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko talks about his service in the army and his experience of hiding his sexuality from his comrades on Jan. 22.
Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko speaks with the Kyiv Post on Jan. 22. (Pavlo Podufalov)
The soldier says a lot of strange things were happening at war.
“Sometimes we would be sent to a fire position and then be ordered to leave without shooting and without an explanation. Or we were ordered to leave a base suddenly, and minutes after that the base was shelled,” Kopko recalls. “There were a lot of things that I couldn’t explain.”
Even though artillery mostly works in the rear, Kopko says they experienced the horror of the war to the full extent. He saw the death of two of his comrades during the shelling and feared for his life in Ilovaisk.
“There was one day when we were constantly shelled and were waiting for the order of some kind, but no order would come. This indefinite waiting was the most horrible thing to me,” he recalls.
Despite all of that he says he never regretted the decision to serve his country.
“Even when you are on a leave you feel like you should come back to war as soon as possible, because your friends are there and you need to be with them,” he says.
Sexuality at front line
Kopko didn’t tell his fellow soldiers that he was gay. He didn’t say that he was straight, either. The man says his homosexuality wasn’t an issue, because “there were a lot of other things to worry about at war.”
And war psychologist Olena Batyrskaya agrees.
“There is no homophobia in the army, simply because there is no sex life in the army,” she says. “Be youheterosexual or homosexual, private life is not a matter for discussion thereat all. There, it is all about war.”
Batyrskaya is a war psychologist at Psychology Crisis Center and has been working with Ukrainian soldiers for two years now. She says that she hasn’t heard of any scandals regarding sexuality in all this time.
But in Ukraine’s peaceful life, the homophobia outbursts are frequent. In March, the right-wing radicals dispensed a human rights forum in Lviv just because the gay rights were on the agenda, and tried to do the same to a similar event in Kyiv in March.
In 2015, anti-gay activists threw petards into the participants of a gay march in Kyiv, wounding several police officers. Representatives of the Right Sector radical group threatened to repeat the attack at this year’s gay pride on June 11.
Danylо Blinov, a Ukrainian serviceman, has never met Kopko or any other gay soldier at the war front and is surprised to be asked about his attitude to homosexual soldiers.
“If a gay is a good soldier then let him serve. What is worse: gay or an alcoholic?” he says, adding that drinkers are the worst problem at the war front.
Batyrskaya doesn’t deny that being openly gay in the army might cause a problem.
“There are a lot of brutal men who don’t have enough knowledge about the matter. And if you come and say: ‘Hey, I am your company commander, guys, and I’m gay!’ - believe me, that company won’t be very effective,” she says.
Kopko agrees that the main problem with homophobia in Ukraine is the lack of knowledge and says that it is probably better not to talk about one’s homosexuality in the army.
“Soldiers are just the same as everyone else, and there are gays among them,” he says with a smile.
Kopko says that Hornet, a popular smartphone application for dating, is just as popular among soldiers as anywhere else. The app shows all the people nearby with an active search status. Kopko used it during his service – without mentioning to his fellow soldiers that he was looking for same-sex matches.
He says that he even got date invitations from Russian soldiers deployed in the area nearby. He declined them.
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic andother minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities andthose living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.