One summer day in Zolochiv, Ukraine, a rocket fell from the sky and exploded in a building in front of journalist Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, who filmed the explosion on a cellphone. The artillery, one of many seen around the country for weeks, didn’t just dig into the sidewalk.
It also led to Ashton-Cirillo – the world’s first openly transgender war correspondent – being struck with a new perspective.
“There was this crazy shift in my perception of my place in the war,” she said. “My mind had undergone a metamorphosis because it was no longer me covering the war, I was essentially living the war. … I had become very conflicted about my feelings about where I belonged.”
In Ukraine, she had seen the bodies of wounded or killed civilians, transported supplies for the military effort, and had befriended many servicemen, which led her to reflect on her work and ultimately move on. from photography and writing about gunshots to being part of it. .
Now a member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, first as a combat medic and now focused on hybrid warfare, the 45-year-old Las Vegas native is unwavering in the cause of Ukrainian freedom.
“If I knew now what I knew nine months ago, I’m not sure I would have chosen this path,” she said. “But because I’ve chosen this path, the only way to move forward is to move forward, focused on the mission, focused on my beliefs and values as to why I’m doing that.”
A story of pivotal moments
Ashton-Cirillo had previously covered the aftermath of the war, reporting from the Syrian-Turkish border on the refugee crisis during the country’s civil war in 2015. With hesitation but no regret, she stepped into the area of war in Ukraine.
“When I went ahead and saw that the invasion had taken place, I thought to myself: am I really going to do this?” she says.
Even before entering Ukraine, Ashton-Cirillo faced expected obstacles to entering the country as a transgender woman. She intentionally flew to Berlin on her original flight, aware that the city might be more progressive about her gender identity not matching her passport photo and details. At the Ukrainian border, she brought press clippings to prove her identity, fearing she would be expelled from the country.
But within an hour, she heard all she needed: “Welcome to Ukraine.”
“I was essentially living the war”
Initially without a combat helmet, chest protector or press plates, she made an impulsive decision to enter the city of Kharkiv, further into a dangerous area of the war zone. Ashton-Cirillo said at the time the risks of her decision weren’t something she could handle, but she now knows the choice was crucial to her future.
In Kharkiv and later in Zolochiv, she witnessed bombings and rockets digging into buildings, hid in bomb shelters with Ukrainians and shared photos, videos and news reports about his Twitter account.
Working as a freelancer for LGBTQ Nation, she has largely focused on the effect of war on LGBTQ Ukrainians, including Russian military forces targeting LGBTQ civilians in Ukraine and the expression of LGBTQ acceptance among Ukrainians through the arts.
She bonded with members of the Ukrainian forces and served as an army volunteer delivering supplies. In Zolochiv, the village mayor even appointed her as the official outreach coordinator so she could advocate for citizen aid.
How the war gave Ashton-Cirillo a new perspective
The gradual change of Ashton-Cirillo’s place in the war, from professional to personal, had her pondering the steps that would be necessary for her to join the Ukrainian military. In August, Ashton-Cirillo was working so closely with the Ukrainian Armed Forces that she quit reporting for LGBTQ Nation to avoid a conflict of interest.
She began writing policy papers and analysis for Ukrainian government units, while considering how she could become more involved in the war effort.
Il’ko Bozhko, a former press secretary for the Eastern Operation Command for Ukraine and close friend of Ashton-Cirillo, said he shared his own experience and motivations for joining the armed forces with her then. that she made the decision and accompanied him to apply officially. to serve.
“We had many conversations about it. It wasn’t an impulsive decision for her,” Bozhko said.
She enlisted in the armed forces in October.
“The whole question of gender”
In her days as a journalist and now in the military, Ashton-Cirillo says, she has been largely unpunished about her gender identity by Ukrainians, whose country has made slow but gradual progress in gender equality. LGBTQ inclusion.
The country, like many in Eastern Europe, has a long history of sexual oppression and expansive gender expression. But in recent years it has become something of a haven for those looking for gay nightlife and a slightly more tolerant environment. Being LGBTQ is legal in Ukraine, but same-sex marriage is not.
Ashton-Cirillo said he has seen progress in LGBTQ acceptance in the country due to the equity created by the war and does not believe that will be reversed.
As for how being transgender comes into play for her in her everyday unit, Ashton-Cirillo called her gender identity a “non-issue” for those around her in Ukraine.
“It wasn’t considered a big deal that I was a trans soldier and that I was in Ukraine,” she said. “That turned out to be the easiest part of my time there. … You are judged on your character, you are judged on your courage and you are judged on your belief in freedom and your loyalty to Ukraine . I mean, nothing else matters.”
An unexpected role: the liaison between the United States and Ukraine
Ashton-Cirillo also initially did not fully understand the informal role she would play as a sort of liaison between the United States and the Ukrainian Armed Forces due to her enlistment.
When she returned to the United States for the first time in December, she made two trips to Capitol Hill to speak with more than a dozen legislative offices, including members of the Security and Cooperation Commission. in Europe, also known as the American Helsinki Commission.
Politicians, regardless of party or view of the LGBTQ community, trusted her to deliver an unvarnished message to the other side, she said.
“Where we are right now, right now, the Ukrainian government has given an American soldier the mandate to represent them in Washington, DC, in the middle of the war,” she said. “And oh, yeah, she’s transgender.”
Ashton-Cirillo hasn’t completely given up on writing. She writes about her perspective on the war as a columnist for the Resolute Square website.
After the war, Ashton-Cirillo hopes to work on veterans’ rights in the United States or elsewhere with her knowledge of the challenges of reintegrating into life after a war zone.
“It’s easier to fight a world war against Russia as a transgender woman than it was in the United States, trying to live a life where my gender identity is the #1 thing that comes back what let it happen.”
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