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"A war within a war": Transgender woman says transphobia and discriminatory laws keeping her hostage in Kyiv during Russian invasion

"War within a war" for transgender woman
"A war within a war": Transgender woman says transphobia, discriminatory laws keeping her stuck in Kyiv 02:18

Zi Faámelu was born and raised in Crimea, an area of Ukraine that was invaded and taken over by Russia in 2014. Now the 31-year-old lives in Kyiv, the capital city that has been under Russian siege for nearly a week. She is running out of food and hasn't left her house for days as gunfire erupts outside.

And she says she can't leave. 

Faámelu, who is transgender, said that transphobia is pervasive in the city and neighboring countries, and fears that if she leaves, the tension of the ongoing conflict will make her more susceptible to violence. Faámelu was previously a popular contestant on the Ukrainian singing competition show "Star Factory." 

"Sometimes we think it's just all a dream, that we're stuck inside some kind of a 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." 

For days, Faámelu said, she has had to keep the lights off in her apartment and keep the windows closed. She lives alone, her friends have all left the city, and she said it seems like she may be one of the only people left in her building at all. She lives near a building in Kyiv that had been hit by a missile. 

She fears what could await her outside. 

"Many people have guns and weapons. ... 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 doesn't face violence on her way to the border, she has no idea whether she will even be allowed to leave the country.

"There's no way Ukrainian border people can let me through," she said. "There's no way." 

If she makes it to the border of a neighboring country offering refuge, she's not even sure if they'll let her in, as her passport identification does not match her gender. The LGBTQ community has become more visible and accepted over the years, but for transgender people, it's more complicated. 

"This is not a very rainbow-friendly place. ... Lives for trans people are very bleak here," Faámelu said. "If you have a male gender in your passport, they will not let you go abroad. They will not let you through."

For years, transgender people in Ukraine who wanted to be legally recognized had a long list of steps they had to go through to do so. According to Human Rights Watch, the government mandated that transgender people undergo extensive psychiatric observation and under gender reassignment surgery to get legal documents that aligned with their gender. 

Legislation was introduced in 2017 to lessen the process, but still would require that transgender Ukrainians undergo outpatient psychiatric examinations. There is no indication that legislation was ever implemented. 

"I don't want to go through that. This is like, humiliating for the world," Faámelu said. "...I decided to keep my passport, keep male in my passport, and now I cannot leave this country." 

"[it's] a war within a war, truly," she said.

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

Faámelu's fears are shared by some others in Ukraine who identify as LGBTQ. 

"In Russia, LGBTQ people are persecuted," Iulia, an 18-year-law student in Kharkiv, told CBS News' Haley Ott. "If we imagine that Russia occupies all of the Ukraine or just a big part of the country, they won't allow us to exist peacefully and to fight for our rights as we are able to do that in Ukraine right now." 

Adding to the difficulty of the situation for Faámelu are her parents. They still live in Crimea, and according to Faámelu, don't believe that Russia has even invaded their daughter's city. 

"They are literally brainwashed. The world sees the picture, but they are simply blind in this case," she said. "My parents think it's all fake, that we bomb ourselves, that we try to create some drama."

For now, Faámelu is focused on being optimistic — that she will find a way to get out safely, and that Ukraine will succeed in defending itself against the Russian invasion. 

"There's something about Ukrainians, they are very optimistic and joyful people. ... They never give up," Faámelu said. "...You don't know if you're going to be alive the next morning. So what are you going to do? I just prefer to dance in the kitchen, to be honest. Because if this is the last moment of my life, I just want to celebrate. I just want to dance." 

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