During World War II, at the height of the bombing in Great Britain, both King George VI and Winston Churchill stayed put in London, rather than flee to safer territory. History has treated both men with reverence for their courage under fire and for galvanizing the British people with their steadfast resistance.
Many historians and pundits are comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the king and Churchill as he defiantly stays in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv during the barbaric Russian invasion and bombardment.
The images of the mass destruction of Ukrainian cities caused by Russian artillery and the heartbreaking scenes of Ukrainian citizens fleeing their war-torn country are also causing flashbacks to the devastation and refugee crisis of World War II.
Watching families get slaughtered, seeing little children desperate and fearful, and witnessing the invalid and elderly cross treacherous, makeshift bridges in order to escape have all been gut-wrenching scenes.
In interviews of Ukrainians as they cross the border into neighboring safe havens, there is genuine hate for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has destroyed thousands of lives in his delusional attempt to restore the old Soviet Union.
However, to a person, not only in Ukraine or the countries where refugees have fled, there is a stoic admiration for Zelenskyy. He is revered not only by Ukrainians but the world over, giving us all a lesson in leadership.
He has shown humanity the importance of fighting for freedom. He has boldly recorded video of himself in the streets of Kyiv and in his office, and held news conferences with global journalists in his bunker. He pleads for help to anyone who will listen. His speech to the U.K. Parliament this week was spellbinding, and the legislators gave him a rare standing ovation.
Many are surprised by Zelenskyy's fortitude. After all, he has very little in the way of political experience. He was primarily a performer and comedian, guest-starring in his country's version of Dancing With the Stars, and creating, producing, and starring in a television comedy series. He's Ukraine's answer to Ricky Gervais.
In Zelenskyy's first year in office, Donald Trump did everything he could to get the Ukrainian to crater to his demand to dig up dirt about the Bidens. Zelenskyy took on an almost impossible balancing act, trying to placate Trump without giving in to him, while at the same time pleading with Trump to resume U.S. military aid to the country as it battled Russian-backed separatists on its eastern front.
Zelenskyy held firm and eventually had U.S. aid restored while maintaining his resoluteness and dignity.
Many were surprised at how he stood up to Trump, just as they are surprised at how he has singularly confronted Putin, perhaps the most dangerous man on earth at this moment.
But for us in the LGBTQ+ community, his bravery comes as no surprise. While Ukraine has a history of not being a bastion of LGBTQ+ liberation -- the country doesn't recognize same-sex marriage -- Zelenskyy became Ukraine's first presidential candidate and first president to acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community and publicly state his desire to do more about equality.
During his campaign for president in 2019. Zelenskyy became somewhat of a global star when a video of him shouting down anti-LGBTQ+ hecklers went viral. While the protesters yelled, Zelenskyy angrily said, "Won't say anything bad about gay people to you, because [we are] living in a free society. Leave those people alone, for God's sake!" He was universally applauded for his bravery in defending our community.
Moreover, after meeting with President Joe Biden last September in Washington, the two leaders issued a joint statement in which Zelenskyy pledged to do more about ensuring equality for LGBTQ+ individuals.
"With U.S. support, Ukraine will continue to advance respect for human rights, civil liberties, and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international standards and obligations, as well as to fight racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community. Ukraine plans to strengthen accountability for violence against all persons regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political views, including through legislation," the statement said.
Remember, this wasn't easy for him to do because, in many Eastern European and Eurasian countries, there's still the sentiment, as ABC's James Longman told me last week, that being queer is a "Western import."
The fact that Zelenskyy is young and comes from the entertainment world purportedly made him somewhat more familiar with LGBTQ+ people than his predecessors, who still harbored ambivalence toward our community and did little to nothing to acknowledge our existence.
Now, with the Russian invasion, all hope is being destroyed that Zelenskyy's 21st-century pledge to finally address LGBTQ+ rights will become reality. In an interview with The Daily Beast, a Ukrainian activist lamented about the horrendous days ahead for the LGBTQ+ community if Russia succeeds.
"The main fear at this moment is that if they will be successful, that we lose everything that we have," said Jul Sirous, the volunteer coordinator of KyivPride, which organizes Ukraine's annual Equality March and works for LGBTQ+ rights in the country. "Unfortunately, if this city will be occupied like other cities, then there will be some persecution against LGBT people."
Virtually the entire world is following and supporting Zelenskyy, and none more so than members of the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community and the global queer community at large.
It has been tough for us to see the hate of Putin as well as that of state legislators and governors who have used queers as political pawns in the most cowardly and hateful of ways.
Similarly, the world during the last several years has seen a steady erosion of trust in government leaders, who have exhibited trepidation about standing up for freedom, resulting in the rise of extreme nationalism around the world.
President Zelenskyy's background -- or lack of one -- reminds me of President Harry Truman, who had to replace the giant that was Franklin D. Roosevelt after Roosevelt suddenly died.
Truman was the unlikeliest of leaders. He was nearly blind, grew up poor, and spent years as a haberdasher in a small men's clothing store. He suddenly found himself in the U.S. Senate, then was the surprise choice to be Roosevelt's vice president, and then had the presidency thrust upon him.
The U.S. and the world cringed because Truman seemed so unsuited -- pardon the pun -- for the presidency, and yet he made brave and bold decisions that shaped so much of the 20th century. He helped end World War II, opened the military to people of color, and recognized the state of Israel.
More recently, the House bill to restore transgender military service, and prohibit the U.S. armed forces from discriminating against LGBT service members, was dubbed the Harry Truman amendment, modeled after his 1948 executive order desegregating the military.
At this moment in time, we are all watching President Zelenskyy carve out his own place in history, and we are all collectively hoping and praying for his safety and his success, against all seemingly insurmountable odds.
It is shocking and unfathomable that war is back in Europe and that the people in Ukraine are being subjected to such tyranny when most of us thought wars of this nature were a thing of the past.
Is it right to mention Zelenskyy in the same breath as King George, Churchill, and Truman? Perhaps another famous and fearless leader answers this question:
"You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership." -- Nelson Mandela
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate