Sarah Ashton-Cirillo

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Sarah Ashton-Cirillo
Ashton-Cirillo, in a black top and white cardigan, with her hair red, purses her lips.
Ashton-Cirillo in October 2021.
Born1977 (age 44–45)
NationalityUnited States
Other namesSarah Ashton, Sarah Cirillo
OccupationJournalist, activist, political operative, political candidate, combat medic
Years active2020–present
Employers
Political partyDemocratic
MovementDemocratic Socialists of America (until 2021)
Children1
Military career
AllegianceUkraine
Service/branchArmed Forces of Ukraine
Years of service2022–present
UnitNoman Çelebicihan Battalion

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo[a] (born 1977), also known as Sarah Ashton and Sarah Cirillo, is an American journalist who enlisted as a combat medic in the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the Russo-Ukrainian War, having previously worked as a war correspondent in that conflict. A self-described "recovering political operative"[3] from Las Vegas, Nevada, she was active in Nevada politics from 2020 to 2021, including an abortive run for Las Vegas City Council.

Ashton-Cirillo drew national media attention in 2021 when she released records of conversations from her time working with Republican candidates, documenting efforts to "get the Proud Boys out" for a planned "Brooks Brothers Riot"[4] as part of efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election.

Starting in March 2022, Ashton-Cirillo reported on the Russian invasion of Ukraine from Kharkiv, Ukraine, primarily for LGBTQ Nation. A trans woman, she is thought to have been the only transgender journalist covering the invasion.[5][6] In Kharkiv, she worked closely with the Ukrainian military and police, and after witnessing the October 2022 Kyiv missile strikes resigned from LGBTQ Nation to become a combat medic in Ukraine's armed forces. She also serves as a representative for the Ukrainian village of Zolochiv, Kharkiv Oblast, appointed by its mayor to advocate with aid groups.

Political journalism and advocacy[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo has described herself as a progressive activist[7] and "leftist libertarian"[8] when she was active in Nevada politics, and has since referred to herself as a "recovering political operative";[3] she has been described in The Washington Post and The Nevada Independent as a liberal activist[4][9] and in the Las Vegas Review-Journal as "unapologetically left-leaning".[8] She was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America until her expulsion in December 2021.[10] She was a registered member of the Democratic Party as of February 2022.[8]

Nevada Republican Party and Proud Boys[edit]

In September 2020, Ashton-Cirillo began working as an opposition research operative with Republican candidates in Nevada under the name Sarah Cirillo.[4][8] She later told the Post and Nevada Current that her initial purpose in switching parties was to conduct research for her book on extremism and help her friend, Nadia Krall, get elected to a local judgeship as a Republican.[4][11] According to The Daily Beast, Ashton-Cirillo convinced Krall to change her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican in order to pick up endorsements from Ashton-Cirillo's high-profile Republican contacts.[7] Taking on a hard-right, Trumpist persona, Ashton-Cirillo developed ties with Nevada Republicans by attending and hosting rallies organized by prominent party figures.[4] She commented to the Post that her record as a liberal activist was available on the internet,[4] and told the Beast that "these guys were too stupid to look into my progressive politics, because they were so eager to tokenize me".[7] She was open about her transgender status. Some were indifferent to it, while Republican attorney Sigal Chattah saw it as a positive and referred to Ashton-Cirillo as a "unicorn".[8]

Following the 2020 United States presidential election, Ashton-Cirillo became involved with efforts to bring the Proud Boys to a rally in front of the Clark County election department, part of nationwide efforts to overturn the election's outcome. The day after the election, Ashton-Cirillo received a message from the vice president of McShane LLC, a firm hired by the Republican Party to investigate electoral fraud. The message, given to The Washington Post in 2021, claimed that Republican Congressman Paul Gosar was planning a "Brooks Brothers Riot" in Arizona, and that Ashton-Cirillo should start planning something similar in Nevada; the McShane vice president commented that they should "get the Proud Boys out".[4] This led her to contact a group of far-right activists, at least one of whom was a member of the Proud Boys. The proportion of those wearing Proud Boy colors in the crowd was relatively small, and the protest remained peaceful.[4][11] Gosar denies having discussed any protests with the McShane vice president.[4]

The Clark County Republican Party subsequently banned seven people from participating in Republican county affairs, citing racist and anti-Semitic texts disclosed to them by Ashton-Cirillo. Some of those banned were on the list of far-right activists who helped turn out Proud Boys at the Clark County rally.[4]

Las Vegas City Council run[edit]

By the spring of 2021, Ashton-Cirillo decided to run for Las Vegas City Council as a Democrat,[12] under the name Sarah Ashton.[4] She initially planned on running in the second ward against the Republican incumbent, Victoria Seaman. In June, she switched her candidacy to the sixth ward, challenging Michele Fiore, also a Republican.[12][8] Ashton-Cirillo told the Current that she had provided the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with "copious amounts" of correspondence between her and Fiore, as part of an ongoing FBI probe into Fiore's campaign finance spending.[13]

Ashton-Cirillo withdrew from the race in October, saying she wished to focus on a political news portal she had created, Political.tips.[8][14]

Other activities[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo worked to coordinate the defense of Leo Blundo, a Republican[15] Nye County official accused of unlawfully voting to give his own business CARES Act funds. Blundo denounced the accusations as "deep state, swamp behavior" and Ashton-Cirillo haled him at a press conference as "an innocent man", to applause from the crowd.[16] The Nevada attorney general's office declined to bring charges against Blundo.[17]

Aaron Ford, smiling, in a black suit and bowtie.
Aaron D. Ford, Attorney General of Nevada.

Sigal Chattah, then a Republican candidate for Nevada Attorney General and a former friend of Ashton-Cirillo, faced controversy after the latter posted a text exchange between the two in which Chattah said her opponent, Aaron D. Ford, "should be hanging from a fucking crane". Ford is Black, and some saw the remark as racist; Ashton-Cirillo stated that she does not think Chattah is racist nor intended to allude to Ford's race, and that her goal in releasing the texts had been to criticize Chattah's temperament.[8] Ford ultimately won re-election; HuffPost highlighted the leak exchange as a major controversy in the race.[18]

Through Political.tips, Ashton-Cirillo reported on Nevada-related aspects of BlueLeaks, a set of law enforcement data released by Distributed Denial of Secrets in June 2020.[19]

Foreign journalism and military service[edit]

Syrian refugee crisis[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo went to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey in 2015 to report on the refugee crisis, having been afraid to enter Syria itself.[5] She wrote a book about the experience, Along the Tracks of Tears,[20] but was unhappy with its quality.[5]

Invasion of Ukraine[edit]

As a freelancer affiliated with LGBTQ Nation, Ashton-Cirillo traveled to Ukraine on 4 March 2022, early in the Russian invasion, to cover the refugee crisis. Having transitioned since her time in Syria, she was initially hesitant to enter the country based on things she had heard about LGBT rights in Ukraine. Ukrainian border authorities made her remove her wig when they reviewed her travel documents, a decision she has said she understands. She went to Lviv, and from there, wanting to be closer to the front lines, to Ivano-Frankivsk. There, two men invited her to come to Kharkiv, saying other journalists were fleeing it.[5]

Journalism and activism[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo settled in Kharkiv, renting an apartment in North Saltivka, one of the more heavily bombed parts of the city, where she has housed journalists visiting the city.[5][21] She developed close ties with the Ukrainian army and police, sometimes delivering food to them. After she visited the Russian-speaking Ukrainian village of Zolochiv, Kharkiv Oblast, 15 miles (24 km) from the Russian border, to report on relief efforts, the village's mayor made her its official representative[22] so that she could advocate on its behalf with aid groups.[5]

From Kharkiv, Ashton-Cirillo has reported for LGBTQ Nation on the impact of the war on LGBTQ people, including interviewing gay men fighting for Ukraine[23] and documenting Russian war crimes against LGBTQ people.[24] She appeared on the BBC's Ukrainecast to discuss the Russian army's use of castration to terrorize Ukraine's population.[25] Ashton-Cirillo also reports on the war on Twitter, and in a serialized book titled Trans at the Front, published over Substack.[26]

Ashton-Cirillo was present for the Russian strike on Kyiv on 10 October 2022 and was one of the first journalists to report on it. Her footage of the aftermath, which showed a dead body in the street, was widely shared on social media subsequently.[27]

Military career[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo in uniform, her hair blonde, either a hood or a large collar pulled halfway up the back of her head. The camouflage uses a pixelated style. The name on the left side of her chest reads "BLONDE".
Ashton-Cirillo in uniform in November 2022.

Ashton-Cirillo asked to enlist in the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU or UAF) shortly after witnessing the missile strike on Kyiv,[28] and announced her enlistment as a senior combat medic on 12 October 2022 by tweet.[29][30] She then resigned as a correspondent at LGBTQ Nation.[2] She has said she had to pass physical health, psychological, and IQ tests in order to enlist;[31] in an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, Adam Zivo—who had previously profiled Ashton-Cirillo for Xtra Magazine[5]—verified that "the UAF only admits enlistees who meet health standards and have relevant specialized skills".[32] Ashton-Cirillo completed her combat medic training on 27 October and is fighting in a Crimean Tatar battalion,[33][34] identified as the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion by journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev [uk; ru] in a blog post with Ukrainska Pravda.[35] According to Ashton-Cirillo and Muzhdabaev, the unit is led by Lenur Islyamov [uk; ru];[36][35] Ashton-Cirillo says that its objective is to retake Crimea.[37]

According to Zivo, Ashton-Cirillo had initially sought to enlist in July, but had delayed her plans in order to support other foreign journalists during the September Ukrainian counteroffensive.[32] He quotes her as saying, "Taking the values of the greatest country in the world, the USA, and taking them with me to Ukraine is one of the greatest privileges of my life."[32] In an interview with Croatian TV channel N1 two and a half weeks into her enlistment, she proclaimed, as she had before,[2] that "Ukraine has already won" and called for a return to the 1991 borders.[38] She said that she has been issued an AK-74 in addition to her equipment as a medic and that she would use it to suppress enemy fire.[39] She vowed not to be captured, and said that Russian soldiers should either "surrender now or die on the battlefield".[40]

Impact[edit]

During her time as a war correspondent, Ashton-Cirillo was thought to be the only transgender journalist covering the invasion.[5][6] According to Ashton-Cirillo, many local Ukrainians do not realize that she is transgender, while the soldiers and police officers she works with are aware but unconcerned,[5] seeing it as a "non-issue" even when she joined the military.[41] She has favorably contrasted her experience as a trans person in Ukraine to her experience in the United States:[5]

In the United States, people want to objectify trans folks, and the entire LGBTQ+ community, as a wedge issue. And in Ukraine? If Sarah is willing to fucking go to Russia, we don't care that she's trans because there's nobody else here. She's come on missions with us where we've been shelled. Or she kept on filming as a rocket hit behind her. That's what matters to them.

Gonzalo Lira squinting in a red hat, his face scruffy.
Gonzalo Lira in 2022.

After Ashton-Cirillo reported the detention of pro-Russian commentator Gonzalo Lira by Ukrainian security forces, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) falsely accused her of being in league with Nazis and celebrating Lira's supposed murder; Lira was released unharmed the next day. The MFA's statement highlighted that Ashton-Cirillo is transgender and referenced "liberal queers and 'honest' Western journalists".[42] Ashton-Cirillo experienced significant harassment on Twitter from supporters of Russia as a result, including rape threats and death threats;[5][43] Ashton-Cirillo sued an American conservative commentator for defamation after he repeated conspiracy theories that she had had Lira murdered.[44][45] InfoWars, misgendering Ashton-Cirillo, accused her of "palling around with the neo-Nazi Azov battalion members",[2] in what Zivo described as "a hit piece on her that parroted Russia's discredited claims".[32]

Zivo's piece about Ashton-Cirillo in the Examiner, which is often perceived as hostile to trans people, led Evan Urquhart in Slate to remark on the piece's uncharacteristically positive tone.[46] Zivo countered in the National Post that Ashton-Cirillo, as a "conservative-friendly ... patriotic, brave and non-identitarian" trans person, presented an opportunity "to show that human decency can transcend the culture wars", even if "she considers some of [the Examiner's] content to be hateful".[47]

Personal life[edit]

Ashton-Cirillo was born in 1977.[48] According to her byline with the Independent, she has lived in Las Vegas since 2004;[10] according to the Current she "established residency [there] in 2016 to be closer to her teenage son and ex-wife".[12] She has said her friends and family support her work in Ukraine but "don't necessarily understand what's happening".[49] She has previously been an investment analyst,[3] real estate analyst,[8] and poker player.[7]

Ashton-Cirillo has said that her transition does not define her, and "is just an added aspect of who I happen to be".[2] She started taking feminizing hormones "on and off" in 2018, before deciding to transition in May 2019 after what she described as a "35-year wait to embrace myself".[50] Her transition has included sex reassignment surgery.[51] She wrote a novel as she was coming to terms with her gender identity, and rushed to finish it for fear that she would kill herself. After beginning her transition, she removed both the novel and Along the Tracks of Tears from circulation, explaining:[5]

I realized in hindsight that I hated myself and wasn't true to myself as a writer. A lot of what was going through my mind, especially in the refugee book, was, "What would these people say if I was trans? What would they do?" I felt like a liar because I wasn't living authentically.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ /sərɪl/ sə-RIL-oh;[1] Ukrainian: Сара Ештон-Кірілло.[2]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Passoth 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e Owen 2022.
  3. ^ a b c Ashton-Cirillo (LGBTQ Nation profile).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Scherer 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Zivo (Xtra) 2022.
  6. ^ a b O'Brien 2022, 7:18.
  7. ^ a b c d Sollenberger 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dentzer 2022.
  9. ^ Smith 2021.
  10. ^ a b Ashton-Cirillo ("Expelled!") 2021.
  11. ^ a b Gentry ("Consultants") 2021.
  12. ^ a b c Gentry ("Masqueraded") 2021.
  13. ^ Gentry ("FBI") 2021.
  14. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Withdraws") 2021.
  15. ^ Appleton 2019.
  16. ^ Hebrock 2020.
  17. ^ Appleton 2021.
  18. ^ Shuham 2022.
  19. ^ Smith 2022.
  20. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Everyone Is Affected") 2022.
  21. ^ Beecher 2022.
  22. ^ Smart 2022.
  23. ^ Passoth 2022, citing Ashton-Cirillo ("Gay Men") 2022.
  24. ^ Owen 2022, citing Ashton-Cirillo ("War Crimes") 2022.
  25. ^ Derbyshire & Shevchenko 2022.
  26. ^ Zivo (Xtra) 2022, citing Ashton-Cirillo (Twitter profile) and Ashton-Cirillo (Substack).
  27. ^ O'Brien 2022, 0:46, excerpting audio from Ashton-Cirillo (Kyiv attack tweet) 2022.
  28. ^ Ladisic 2022, 1:26.
  29. ^ Owen 2022, quoting Ashton-Cirillo (enlistment tweet) 2022.
  30. ^ O'Brien 2022, 1:09, 8:01.
  31. ^ Ladisic 2022, 5:29.
  32. ^ a b c d Zivo (Examiner) 2022.
  33. ^ Raczkiewycz 2022, p. 3.
  34. ^ Ladisic 2022, 2:59.
  35. ^ a b Muzhdabaev 2022.
  36. ^ Ladisic 2022, 3:01.
  37. ^ Ashton-Cirillo (unit tweet) 2022.
  38. ^ Ladisic 2022, 2:38.
  39. ^ Ladisic 2022, 6:13.
  40. ^ Ladisic 2022, 8:36.
  41. ^ O'Brien 2022, 8:01.
  42. ^ Young 2022, citing Ashton-Cirillo (Lira tweet) 2022 and Zakharova 2022.
  43. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Propaganda Machine") 2022.
  44. ^ Beedle 2022.
  45. ^ Bradbury 2022.
  46. ^ Urquhart 2022.
  47. ^ Zivo (NP) 2022.
  48. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Death") 2022.
  49. ^ Ladisic 2022, 6:40.
  50. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Every Day") 2022.
  51. ^ Ashton-Cirillo ("Credentials") 2022.

Sources[edit]

Pertaining to Ashton-Cirillo

Interviews

By Ashton-Cirillo

Other sources

External links[edit]