Ukraine's 'unicorn' LGBTQ soldiers head for war

STORY: At their home in Kyiv, Ukrainian volunteer fighters Oleksandr Zhuhan and Antonina Romanova pack for a return to active duty.

Their uniform bares a rare distinction - the image of a unicorn sewn into its standard-issue epaulets, just below the national flag - a symbol of their status as an LGBTQ couple who are Ukrainian soldiers.

The pair would not describe themselves as LGBTQ activists, but they are both open about their sexuality - Romanova identifies as non-binary and uses she/her pronouns.

Zuhan says the mythical beast carries an important message for LGBTQ soldiers.

“It dates back to 2014 when Russian war started, and lots of people just said there are no gay people in the army. And so the LGBTQ community chose the unicorn because it is like a fantastic non-existent creature and so it became the symbol of LGBTQ people in the army.”

Neither trained to use weapons before the conflict in Ukraine began, but after spending a couple of days hiding in their bathroom at the start of the war, Romanova said they decided they had to do more:

“I just remember that at a certain point it became obvious that we only had three options: either hide in a bomb shelter, run away and escape, or join the Territorial Defense. We chose the third option.”

The couple's first tour of duty around Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, approximately 84 miles from the port town of Odesa, changed their lives.

They fought in the same unit - Zhuhan contracted pneumonia and they risked death from Russian artillery. But, they say their fellow fighters accepted them.

“There was no aggression, no bullying. A slight surprise, it was a little unusual for the others. But, over time people started calling me Antonina, some even used my “she” pronoun.”

However one overriding fear, voiced back in their apartment by Zuhan, remains.

“The thing I'm worried about is that in case I get killed during this war, they won't allow Antonina to bury me the way I want to be buried. They'd rather let my mum bury me with the priest reading the silly prayers and doing those religious things. But I am an atheist and I don’t want that.”