Sarah Ashton-Cirillo: Trans, American and Ukraine’s most famous soldier
The U.S.-born former reporter enlisted as a sergeant in the Ukrainian Army and is fighting the Russians on the front line and on social media
Her military code name was Blonde, but she had to stop using it because the Russians have put a price on her head. “If they intercept our radio communications, hear my name and pick up the position where I am, they will come after me,” says Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, a Florida-born sergeant in the Ukrainian Army. Ashton-Cirillo has become the most famous soldier in the Ukrainian military, and she has been repeatedly singled out by Russian state television as an enemy to be eliminated. In January 2022, a month before the Kremlin launched its invasion, she was working as a financial analyst in Las Vegas. But, to her regret, that is not the only reason she is headline news: Ashton-Cirillo is also an exception as a trans fighter on the front lines of the war.
“The media is important, but they need an audience and they are sensationalizing the fact that there is a trans soldier here,” Ashton-Cirillo says during an interview with EL PAÍS in a hotel in Kharkiv. It was the third interview she had given that day. She is one of the most significant voices for Ukrainian propaganda, due to her vehemence when speaking about what she considers a battle between democracy and tyranny, because of her unique profile in a context such as the Ukrainian war and because, despite her lack of military experience, she has taken up arms to join the infantry as a combat medic. In February, she was wounded by a shell near Bakhmut, where the bloodiest battle of the war has been raging for months. Ashton-Cirillo concedes that, for the Ukrainian authorities, her prominence is an important asset in attracting international attention. The price for this is that Russian forces have added her name to its list of priority targets.
In an interview on April 30, a Spanish volunteer soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine told this newspaper that it is common practice for Russian commanders to offer rewards to anyone who captures Ukrainian soldiers who have been gained prominence on social networks, or at the front. A Ukrainian soldier who had become known for sharing his exploits at the front on TikTok was killed in 2022 in an attack by a Russian platoon, which recorded the execution.
Ashton-Cirillo temporarily left her position near the Russian border to travel to Kharkiv to pick up four reconnaissance drones that had been donated by a supporter from Germany, which will be distributed to different units. Her support for the Ukrainian cause goes beyond joining the military: she shares images from the front on a daily basis, posts anti-Russia messages and asks for increased support for the Ukrainian Army. Since the beginning of the invasion, by her calculations, she has raised over $250,000 in humanitarian and military aid.
Such an honor to represent the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the halls of Congress.— Sarah Ashton-Cirillo (@SarahAshtonLV) May 16, 2023
It was an honor to speak with Representative Mike Quigley, Co-Chair of the Ukraine Caucus. pic.twitter.com/a6wYjTKP0N
At the hotel in Kharkiv where the drone handover took place at the end of April, the receptionist told EL PAÍS it was the first time he had ever seen a trans woman. Ukraine is a conservative society, where rights such as same-sex marriage are not recognized. Ashton-Cirillo, however, says there is another trans woman, a Ukrainian, fighting for Kyiv. They are exceptions, as they would be in any other army. She acknowledges that their high profiles may be helping to normalize gender diversity among a population that is not yet accustomed to it. Ashton-Cirillo stresses that she has never experienced any problems in Ukraine because of her gender identity, citing as an example the first defining experience she had in the country, which in turn led her to join the army.
During the early days of the invasion, Ashton-Cirillo was in Germany writing articles about the wave of refugees fleeing the war for LGBTQ Nation, a U.S. media outlet specializing in reporting on LGBTQ+ rights. In recent years, Ashton-Cirillo had reported on the humanitarian crisis caused by the exodus of refugees from Afghanistan and Syria to Europe. In Germany, she met a Ukrainian doctor who had to return to her hometown of Ivano-Frankvisk in the west of the country. She was her only local contact.
Ashton-Cirillo crossed the border through Poland, thinking she would stay for a little over two weeks before returning to the United States. But when she arrived in Ivano-Frankvisk, at the copy shop where she went to print her press accreditation, she met two men who identified themselves as intelligence agents. They explained that they were on their way to Kharkiv, which at that time was besieged by Russian troops, and that there were hardly any foreign journalists remaining there. They offered to take her with them and the decision changed her life: “I got into a car with them, just two hours after meeting them. I crossed the country with two strangers who treated me just like anybody else. And that’s where the question of gender identity during the war stopped making sense. I understood then that it was my responsibility to pour myself into my work and leave gender identity aside,” Ashton-Cirillo recalls.
She underlines this point because, in her opinion, what she has found in Ukraine is the good fortune of being part of a historical event and being involved in a greater cause. “I had a very full life before the war, in Nevada. I didn’t come here looking for something, but something was unlocked, I felt the need to fight for the values of freedom. It is a war for the liberation of Ukraine, but also for the freedom of human beings.”
Becoming involved with the Ukrainian cause was progressive: Ashton-Cirillo began by working with the press services of a municipality north of Kharkiv and with the city’s press office. She then performed volunteer work and eventually her level of involvement led her to enlist: “For six or seven weeks, I lived with the secret service people. And while I was reporting, I was helping civilians and the military. I saw a side of the war that isn’t on the news or on Twitter. I spent two months watching the bombings, the fighting, civilians being killed, villages razed to the ground; a genocide.”
In an interview with Times Radio in March, Ashton-Cirillo was asked if she was surprised when Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling — who has faced criticism over her stance on trans issues — shared a Twitter message of hers about the war. Two months later, Ashton-Cirillo smiles at the memory of that interview, and stresses that the “culture wars” over issues such as gender identity seem secondary to her today: “We’re not fighting for any particular collective here, we’re fighting for the freedom of everybody. There is no demand for more acceptance or tolerance, there is a demand for the freedom of each person. I don’t care if someone hates trans people if they support our battle for freedom in the world,” she says. “Because that means we will live to have debates about it, something we can’t have with Russians or Chechens. We’re willing to die so that people like Rowling have the right to express themselves freely.”
The morning after the interview, Ashton-Cirillo returned to her infantry unit, patrolling on the front lines. She signed off with a memory from another life, before the war, a defining moment for her, during a business trip to Barcelona in 2019. She took advantage of a free afternoon to visit a studio specializing in makeup and cross-dressing. It was the first time she had presented herself in public as a woman: she later went out to dinner and called her family to announce that she was going to begin the transition. Sarah was born in Barcelona.
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