By Greg Reynolds
On November 28, the United Nations World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe published an annual report on new HIV infections, and revealed Ukraine experienced the second-highest rate of new HIV infections in all of Europe.1 This may come as a surprise to those do not imagine Ukraine as a paradise of unprotected sex. I contend that the skyrocketing rate of HIV infections is not a statistical fluke, nor a result of Lindsey Graham’s visit to Ukraine in late December 2016, but is a result of attempts by the West (principally the U.S. State Department) to bring Ukraine into alignment with it’s interests.
One can become HIV-positive by contact with the bodily fluids of another HIV-positive person, through unprotected sex, sharing needles, or even through a mother’s breastmilk. Some have claimed this recent HIV spike is due the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region, but it’s not clear why one would cause the other. HIV can be spread through anybody, but the harsh reality is that male-to-male sex accounts for 78 percent of new HIV infections.2 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that 20 percent of gay and bisexual men are HIV positive and that only 44 percent of them are aware of it.3 Thus, if one seeks to understand the skyrocketing HIV infection rates, one could reasonably look at the push for tolerance of homosexuality in Ukraine during the same period, and infer that it may be a contributing factor.
Homosexuality was a crime and classified as a mental illness in the Soviet Union, and both ended once Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. The first “LGBT rights” group was created in 1998. Long before the State Department arrived, Hollywood attempted to influence perceptions through the arm of soft power. Sandi Simcha DuBowski (an American filmmaker) and Rabbi Steven Greenberg (the first openly-gay Orthodox rabbi) created the 2001 documentary “Trembling Before God,” which showed Orthodox Jews attempting to reconcile their sexuality with their faith, and brought it to theaters in Kiev and Odesa.4 Yet tolerance of homosexuality remained quite low compared to the rest of Europe. A 2007 poll by Angus Reid Global Monitor showed 81.3% of Ukrainians polled said that homosexual relations were never acceptable, and only 5.7% said they were acceptable.5 In 2017, a poll by Pew Research Center showed 85% of Ukrainians opposed same-sex marriage, and only 9% of Ukrainians said were in favor of it. The questions asked were different, but they create the impression that perceptions of homosexuality changed minimally during the intervening decade.
In 2003, the country experienced its first gay pride demonstration. Later attempts were met with resistance. In 2008, Ukrainian LGBT groups wished to participate in the International Day Against Homophobia, but religious leaders intervened to prevent this.6 A 2012 parade was met with beatings, tear-gas and was ultimately canceled.7 In 2013, Kiev city authorities banned any events beyond the traditional scope of Kiev Day. Instead, fifty or so participants, many of whom were foreigners, met at a private residence.8 In 2014, activists were able to conduct a march amid the chaos of the Euromaiden protests.9 The following year a group called Love Against Homosexuality and Klitschko Vitaly, the Mayor of Kiev, pressured the parade into cancellation.10 The parades had a poor record of even being held, with cancellations occurring in four out of the last five attempts. This pattern could have persisted for many more years.
Then the Ukrainian revolution occurred. The U.S. State Department was involved and backed Petro Poroshenko; Poroshenko met with officials as high-ranking as then-Vice-President Joe Biden. In June 2014, a new government was installed and Poroshenko became Ukraine’s President. In June 2016, a parade was once again planned, and the Mayor of Kiev once again called for it its cancellation, yet Poroshenko intervened. “I do not see any reason to interfere with this march, because it is the constitutional right of every Ukrainian citizen,” he said during a press conference.11 He may have sincerely believed this or he may have said it simply to please his liberal-minded Western backers, but his words had a real effect.
The parades have been held every year since, and they have even received the protection of the Ukrainian National Guard. The crowds have ballooned in size from a couple dozen up to reportedly between 3,500 and 5,000 participants during the June 2018 “Equality March” parade.12 If the march attracted men who were already HIV positive (as 20 percent of American gay men are) and put them into close contact with other gay men who were interested in engaging in sexual activity with them, then the parades may have facilitated the spread of HIV. We cannot know the number of gay men in attendance or how promiscuous they were; perhaps a more talented statistician could estimate the number of new infections. If one were an evil mastermind who wished to spread disease, allowing “Equality March” parades to occur could be one of the most cost-effective ways to do so, short of Poroshenko handing out used needles. Thus, Poroshenko- a man who defended these parades and allowed them to become a hundred times larger- is partly responsible for the spread of HIV in his own country, and his backers in the State Department may share some responsibility as well.
If you find the link between the State Department, Poroshenko, parades and infections to be tenuous and unconvincing, consider this: the U.S. Department directly promoted gay rights in Ukraine. Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2013-2016, played a prominent role in this cultural exchange. You may recall him from his leaked conversations with Victoria Nuland (then Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs). These conversations were uploaded to YouTube and created a diplomatic embarrassment. In June 2016, this same Ambassador enthusiastically introduced Potomac Fever, an 14-member a cappella ensemble from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, before the prestigious Philharmonic in Lviv. At the time, Ambassador Pyatt posted to the Embassy’s official blog: “For the U.S. Embassy, the program represented a unique and important opportunity to introduce Ukrainians to gay Americans not solely because they are gay Americans, but because they represent to the best of America – with all of its talents and diversity.”13
One performer for this group, Chase Maggiano, helpfully described this process for The Washington Blade: “Earlier this year, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine called us up and said they loved what we did in Cuba, and would like us to bring that kind of diplomacy to Ukraine — a country that is deeply in need of unity on LGBTQ and other issues.”14 Maggiano notes the group’s participation in a cultural and security briefing with the U.S. Embassy before their performance, which underscores the importance the State Department placed on this event. Another report at Ukrayinska Pravda describes how the performance included stories of the performers about their coming-outs and weddings.15 Maggiano also notes that they performed under an alternative name; some Ukrainians may have been tricked into attending a performance of what they assumed would be the best music that America had to offer but were instead subjected to stories of gay weddings. We cannot know the precise effect it had on its audience, but some may have been moved by images of happy gay marriages and felt emboldened to act upon their sexual passions, and unwittingly contracted HIV or helped to spread it.
Last year, 15,680 Ukrainians tested HIV positive, adding to about 145,000 overall. About 13 percent are newborns who are infected by their mothers’ breast-milk. About 47,000 have developed AIDS, and about 3,000 Ukrainians will die from AIDS each year.16 The U.S. State Department is not innocent here. It has backed a President who has allowed annual gay parades to proceed and increase a hundred-fold in size; it has used it’s Embassy to glamorize coming out and gay marriage. If the State Department were responsible, it would reassess how its own Western assumptions have contributed to this health crisis.
Western thought has been influenced by Freud and regards different sexuality as something to be liberated and has been elevated to become a core component of one’s identity. Westerners may have good intentions and imagine themselves as helping a repressed identity group, but they are imposing their ideas on a population that regards homosexuality more as a mental illness, a sin or a character flaw. Do a significant number of Ukrainians even identify with the “LGBT” label? A large city like Kiev (home to 2.8 million) could only attract a couple dozen people to its early pride parades pre-Poroshenko. Westerners may think they have made Ukraine safer for oppressed sexual minorities, but they have also made it safer for the spread of HIV. If the State Department truly cares about global health and wants to contain the spread of HIV, it could begin with a withdrawal of its activities in Ukraine.
- New HIV diagnoses at alarmingly high levels in the European Region despite progress in EU/EEA. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. 28 November 2018. http://www.euro.who.int/en/media-centre/sections/press-releases/2018/new-hiv-diagnoses-at-alarmingly-high-levels-in-the-european-region-despite-progress-in-eueea. ↩
- HIV Infections by Route of Transmission” (PDF). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/2012/hiv-infections-2007-2010.pdf ↩
- Prevalence and Awareness of HIV Infection Among Men Who Have Sex With Men — 21 Cities, United States, 2008. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5937a2.htm?s_cid=mm5937a2_w ↩
- Trembling in Ukraine. The World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews. https://web.archive.org/web/20090729053446/http://www.glbtjews.org/article.php3?id_article=168 ↩
- Ukrainians Decry Shoplifting, Drunk Driving. Angus Reid Global Monitor. https://web.archive.org/web/20080513173948/http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/view/ukrainians_decry_shoplifting_drunk_driving/ ↩
- Stars back gay-bashing campaign for “traditional love” in Ukraine. Pink news. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2008/11/18/stars-back-gay-bashing-campaign-for-traditional-love-in-ukraine/ ↩
- Kiev’s first Pride marred by threats and violence. Bay Area Reporter. https://www.ebar.com/news///242565?ch=news&sc=&sc2=&id=242565 ↩
- Ukraine’s gays fear coming out of the closet. Al Jazeera English. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/05/2013531133953629232.html ↩
- Despite a move toward Europe, LGBT Ukrainians face new hurdles. Al Jazeera America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/5/despite-a-move-towardeuropelgbtukrainiansfacenewhurdles.html ↩
- Klitschko urges LGBT community to cancel gay parade in Kiev. interfax-religion.com. http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=11379 ↩
Ukraine’s president voices LGBT support in a first for the country. 2015-06-05.
- Thousands March For LGBT Rights In Kyiv. Radio Free Europe. https://www.rferl.org/a/lgbti-activists-gather-in-central-kyiv-for-march-of-equality-/29293367.html ↩
- Potomac Fever and the Importance of LGBT Pride Month. U.S. Embassy Kyiv Blog. June 24, 2016 https://usembassykyiv.wordpress.com/tag/ambassador-pyatt/ ↩
- Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington travels to Ukraine. The Washington Blade. May 27, 2016. https://www.washingtonblade.com/2016/05/27/gay-mens-chorus-of-washington-travels-to-ukraine/ ↩
- God Is Love, or a Few Words about the Equality March. Ukrayinska Pravda. 31 May 2016. https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/columns/2016/05/31/7113492/ ↩
- Ukraine has second highest HIV infection rate in Europe. The Kyiv Post. November 29, 2018. https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/ukraine-has-second-highest-hiv-infection-rate-in-europe.html ↩