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On June 6-12, 2016 Kyiv celebrated Kyiv Pride Week, a campaign to promote human rights. Kyiv Pride was different from Gay Pride celebrations happening elsewhere in the world in that it was designed as an educational activity, featuring press conferences, public lectures, workshops, and film screenings throughout the week, culminating in a peaceful walk in downtown Kyiv. This event sparked much public debate, revealing, once again, the fragility of human rights in Ukraine. In Post-Maidan Ukraine, ultra-right movements are trying to usurp public opinion and dictate their values to the rest of society, which often results in violence. “Ne na chasi” is the new slogan they chant. This means, “it’s not the right time” to discuss LGBTQ rights amidst the war with Russia and an economic crisis.
In this essay, I argue that today’s timing is not only right but critical to discuss queer rights in Ukraine. Ensuring protection of the LGBTQ community from discrimination is not only a basic human right – it carries enormous benefits for public health. In effect, the promotion of LGBTQ rights in Ukraine would be beneficial in reducing both direct and indirect health costs. In this case, defending the rights of a minority also means improving the greater well-being of the country’s entire population. Most importantly, my argument seeks to demonstrate the benefit of a rational and pragmatic discussion of LGBTQ issues. It also shows that discussions that are based on religious considerations and ideological platforms, not only contradict some of the basic principles of Ukraine’s constitution (such as equal rights for all citizens, or the division between state and religion), but are also counterproductive and divisive, effectively weakening Ukraine at perhaps the most critical point of the state’s existence. By uniting around the issue of human rights for all of Ukraine’s citizens, without any exemptions, Ukrainians would be better poised for fighting off the dangers of the country’s dismemberment and occupation by Russia.
One of the main arguments of ultra-right-wing groups against LGBTQ rights is that homosexuality and bisexuality is something that did not “traditionally” exist in a family-oriented, Christian Ukraine. I will limit the discussion of history here to the 20th-century, although descriptions of homosexual behavior in Ukraine can be found much earlier than that.
Article 995 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Empire made homosexual acts between men punishable by total property confiscation and forceful resettlement to Siberia for four to five years. It is worth noting that only anal intercourse between men was punishable according to this law, while other forms of homosexual behavior were ignored. The church, similarly, only persecuted male homosexual behavior. It totally omitted female homosexuality from its concerns, because a woman was not perceived to be an independent social actor.1
It appears plausible that the current negative emphasis on gay men in public debates in today’s Ukraine must originate – at least in part – from this patriarchal logic. In the course of my qualitative research, the idea that non-heterosexually identified men shoulder the most burden of anti-LGBT hatred in Ukraine came up more than once. Here is how one of my key informants, a gay man living in Kharkiv described it:
It would be hard to name many derogative phrases directed at female LGBT representatives – whether it be in prison slang or filthy language. Even hetero-men sometimes have fantasies about [lesbian women], consider this to be something beautiful and interesting, however, when they think of the same [same-sex behavior] among men – there is rejection, hatred, and all of that… Again, when we discuss Equality Marches or similar events– most hate speech is directed towards men.2
When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government in 1917, they sought to distance themselves from the norms of “bourgeois morality” and the shame that that morality had attached to bodily acts.3 Hence, different kinds of homosexual behavior were not included in the newly adopted Criminal Code of 1926.
Eight years later, Joseph Stalin’s ideological subordination of citizens’ intimate lives to the interests of the state led to a massive anti-homosexual propaganda campaign. The campaign was launched by Maxim Gorky, Stalin’s favorite author. Juxtaposing fascist Germany to the communist Soviet Union, he wrote: “In the country where the Proletariat is a brave and successful master, homosexualism that ‘perverts’ the young has been recognized as socially unacceptable and felonious, while in the ‘cultured’ country of the great philosophers, scientists, and musicians, it exists freely and with impunity.”4 The article was printed in both State newspapers, Pravda and Izvestiia, on the same day, May 23, 1934. That same year, the Soviet Criminal Code was updated to include voluntary homosexual intercourse as a legal offense. This was followed by massive arrests and forceful resettlements to Siberia of those found guilty of violating the code.5
Criminalization did not end homosexuality in Ukraine, of course; it just pushed it into hidden spaces (called pleshkas) such as public restrooms (an analogue of Western “tea-rooms,” where homosexual activity occurred in toilet cabins). The fact that such spaces existed only in urban environments – that in traditionalist and often peasant imaginations were already associated with deviation from and destruction of Utopian, bucolic space – strengthened the popular view of homosexuality as “perversion” and contributed to its further stigmatization. The peak of pleshkas in the USSR came in the 1970s, when industrialization ended and a period of “stability” came.6 The official silencing of homosexuality was at odds with its de facto flourishing in specific public spaces, which was typical for the late Soviet Union, where the law was enforced only selectively.
Ukraine decriminalized same-sex sexual practices in 1992, a year after its proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union. This was hardly a sign of a sudden increase in tolerance, however. In the two decades that followed, Ukraine made no progress in social attitudes towards queer people, or towards securing equal human rights for all. In 2002, 21.5% of respondents in a nationally representative survey supported the right for homosexual people to raise children, but in 2007 this number decreased to 17.1%. At the same time, the share of negative responses to this question grew from 49.2% to 60%.7
Homophobic rhetoric in Pre-Maidan Ukraine peaked in 2011-12, when, over the course of one year, three pieces of legislation designed to silence the discourse around sexuality were introduced in the parliament. This occurred under Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency and the pro-Russian parliament of the time. The laws were a clear imitation of the Russian legislation that had been modified several months prior.
Draft Law #8711 / #0945 (passed in the 1st reading on October 2, 2012) was designed to introduce sanctions for the import, production and distribution of products that would “promote homosexuality,” while conveniently failing to define that concept, thus allowing the law to be applied at will. Draft Law #10290 (proposed in March 2012, removed from parliamentary review on Feb 28, 2014) specifically prohibited any discussion of homosexuality with children under 18 years of age. This included school lectures, talks, games, elective classes, and any other dissemination of information about homosexuality. Draft Law #10729 (under review in July-December 2012, but not passed) sought to outlaw any “propaganda” of homosexual, bisexual, or transgender targeting of audiences of any age. The first of these draft laws enjoyed wide support from Viktor Yushchenko’s “Our Ukraine” party, Yuliya Tymoshenko’s BYuT party, Petro Symonenko’s Communist Party, and Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
These laws share at least two crucial characteristics: first, they were proposed just before the October 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine with the aim of distracting the voters from economic and political debates, while garnering support from heteronormative society. Second, they caused severe damage to conversations about LGBTQ rights by alienating the heterosexual majority from minority groups and preventing the dissemination of evidence-based information about LGBTQ Ukrainians.
One of the major drivers of health disparities between the heterosexual majority and the LGBTQ minority is “minority stress.” The concept of minority stress was adopted by Ilan Meyer to help identify the catalysts of a variety of mental disorders in LGBTQ populations, which are attributable to the increased stigma, prejudice, and discrimination these groups face.8 This concept emphasizes the fact that mental health is indeed influenced by peoples’ encounters of prejudice, concealment of their sexual identity, expectations of rejection and discrimination, and internalized homophobia. With every episode of identity-based discrimination (or threat of their hidden identity becoming public), LGBTQ people experience additional stress that eventually builds up and contributes to mental-health problems.
What does cumulative stress look like? Picture a situation in which Ivan, a “down-low” (i.e. closeted) gay man finds himself if he were told by a colleague in their office’s kitchen something along the following lines: “Don’t think that we don’t know about your sex life.” Even though that statement from a colleague did not imply physical hostility, from this moment on, Ivan’s life at work would revolve around figuring out who of his colleagues knows what about him and how this could affect his status in the office. He would be constantly braced for jokes about his sexuality. He would begin to avoid office parties and other social events. All this stress would compound the stress he could already feel if, say, his partner were sick and uninsured. Ivan wouldn’t be able to add him to his employer’s health insurance plan because same-sex partnerships are not legally recognized for these purposes. He would also have to lie to his landlord and neighbors, pretending that he and his partner were just roommates. Ivan would have to constantly find new ways of explaining to his parents why he is not yet married or dating at 40, because there is no way they would ever understand his sexual orientation. Sometimes, when a female colleague would be complaining that she cannot go out on a date because there was no one to take care of her 4-year-old son, Ivan would offer to babysit the boy. In response, he would get a suspicious look and a cold “thank you, but no thank you.” (Derogative language to signify homosexuality in popular discourse – pider – contributes to the widespread association of male homosexuality with pedophilia (pederasty) in Ukraine.) Going down the escalator in Kyiv metro, he would see a “Perverts out of Kyiv!” sticker slapped across a poster announcing Kyiv Pride. Sometimes he would wonder if being homosexual was indeed a perversion, and if it was really curable (there are ads out there by traditional healers about a cure)… But on this particular evening he won’t think about it because he’ll just get drunk and try to forget about all these problems in his life. Why wasn’t he born a “normal” guy, after all, he would ask.
These are the difficulties faced everyday by hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Every one of these examples comes from interviews and observations I have collected as part of my research in Ukraine. I have spent the past few months interviewing health care workers who provide HIV testing to MSM (men who have sex with men) clients, as well as LGBTQ activists in Ukraine. They described how constant stress and fear of being “outed” or discriminated against impacts the lives of queer people, their mental and physical health, and their decisions on whether or not to seek medical services. Ivan’s fictional story above represents a compilation of reports from real people in Ukraine.
As demonstrated by the example above, awareness of the forms minority stress can take is crucial to understanding the overall prevalence of substance use and mental disorders in LGBTQ populations.9
In addition to the damage done to their individual quality of life, there are real financial costs associated with discrimination against LGBTQ persons. Preliminary results from a World Bank study of the economic costs of homophobia in India, for example, suggest that stigma and discrimination of LGBTQ people may be responsible for the loss of as much as 1.7% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product10. The costs measured were the results of violence, imprisonment, job loss, discrimination, family rejection, harassment in school, and pressure to marry. This is at best an underestimation, however, as these figures do not include other costs associated with decreased access to education, and costs to families, which are harder to model. Applying this to Ukraine, the country may have lost as much as 3 billion USD to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in 2013 alone.11 Over the five years in 2009-2013, Ukraine lost over $13 billion due to LGBT discrimination – which is about 40% of the country’s public spending on health care, or a quarter of all public funding of education! Given this, it is reasonable to conclude that the economic damages anti-LGBT social groups are causing Ukraine by continued attacks on the LGBTQ community are substantial.
Just as Ukrainian laws protect citizens against discrimination based on ethnic origin or religious affiliation, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity must be included in all protected clauses (so far, this has only been achieved in the Labor Code, in an attempt to fulfill the conditions for the EU Association agreement; however, there is no reason to not include identical provisions in other areas of legislation where protection clauses exist). Over time, people usually become more accustomed to a dialogue about rights of minorities and abstain from violent attacks on LGBTQ activists. The birth time cohort analysis in the U.S. and Canada of attitudes towards LGBTQ populations showed dramatic positive changes between 1981 and 2000. It also showed that remarkable change occurred over time within cohorts, and not just in younger compared to older cohorts.12 Only once we achieve positive change in attitudes within birth cohorts will society be able to move on to the next stage in improving public health in Ukraine, where researchers are able to collect reliable data about the well-being of the LGBTQ population in Ukraine.
Currently, sexually transmitted disease clinics are the only health care facilities routinely collecting data on sexual orientation and diverse sexual practices in Ukraine. Public health leaders rely on self-reports, which, in a discriminating society, often means that most LGBTQ individuals will decline to identify themselves as such. It is for these reasons that, as of today, Ukraine does not have any population-based survey data reflecting the health and circumstances of these individuals. Once there are more opportunities for public dialogue and fewer grounds for fear of persecution, LGBTQ people will be more likely to report their true sexual orientation. This would allow for a better implementation of basic public health functions, such as epidemiologic surveillance, prevention, and case detection. In turn, this would promote a better understanding of the true population proportion of LGBTQ people and the specific health issues they face. Society never exists in a bubble, and the problems of minority health eventually become the problems of the majority (we can think of the fast pace with which the HIV/AIDS epidemic expanded in Ukraine between 1995 and 2006), and isolating minority populations in hope that “they will die” is not going to work.
Available data gives a sense of the potential impact of this issue: out of all newly-detected HIV cases in men who experienced self-reported heterosexual transmission between 2006 and 2011, 8.3% might have been misclassified men who have sex with men.13 For public health this indicates a lost opportunity for targeted, sensitive prevention interventions and linkages to care.
Contrary to popular myth, homosexuality and bisexuality have always existed in Ukraine. Historically, these orientations have been more visible (and punishable) among men. This can explain why gay men are especially targeted in violent attacks. Regardless of one’s sex assigned at birth or their sexual orientation, non-heterosexual minority groups are just as entitled to the same basic human rights (including health, economic, and social rights) as the heterosexual majority. Using hate speech and prohibitive legislation to deal with LGBTQ issues contributes to minority stress and increases the burden of mental and physical health problems experienced by the LGBTQ minority. All of this, in turn, leads to higher costs for the government.
Introducing explicit legislation to protect LGBTQ people would help their partners get employment-based health insurance, visit their loved ones in hospitals, inherit property, enjoy equal employment opportunities, and live without shame or fear (this would not be a quick result, because in Ukraine, like in other post-Soviet countries, the journey from adopting laws to achieving their full, unbiased implementation is very long; but we need to start somewhere!). An accepting social and clinical environment would allow for the collection of more reliable, population-based (rather than case-based) information about sexual orientation and gender identity, which would help to better assign health resources to the areas where they are needed most. This won’t happen in a year or even five years. But Ukraine needs to work towards making it happen. In Ukraine, timing has always been bad to discuss minority rights; but today it has become a necessity, as citizens need to unify around fundamental human rights in order to be able to fight off an existential threat to their country.
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