Posted by Kent Klindera, June 12, 2013
I am now in Odessa, Ukraine, visiting our colleagues at Life+ —an organization by and for people living with HIV. amfAR supports a Life+ project that targets GMT individuals living with HIV and provides them with psychosocial counseling, group support, and “patient navigation” at the local AIDS Center. Patient navigation involves a staff member or volunteer accompanying clients to seek healthcare, thus helping them get comfortable enough with specific health centers to visit them regularly on their own.
Nic, Life+ program coordinator and patient navigator, and Marian, program director, in downtown Odessa. (Credit: Chris Vail)
Homophobia and HIV-related stigma are rampant in Ukraine, and in the past too many GMT refused to seek support and healthcare because of their own “self stigma,” as well as fearing intense discrimination from others, and subsequently died. Through the project, Life+ has also been able to engage doctors and social workers at the local AIDS center to help create a strong referral system to help GMT living with HIV obtain their life-saving medications. Additionally, the social support provided by Life+ clearly empowers these men to access healthcare and adhere to their medication.
And boy is it needed! After we had a support group session with about 15 GMT clients at the Life+ unmarked and nondescript office, I walked through Odessa with my colleagues Marian, Life+ program coordinator, Nic, a peer counselor/patient navigator, and Nikita (a good friend to both). I was shocked at the “in your face” homophobic responses that confronted us as numerous people made reference to Nic and Nikita’s somewhat effeminate presentation. At one point, several young men on bicycles were verbally hostile. Throughout the evening, whether on the street or in the pizzeria we dined in, people were pointing, staring and/or laughing. When asked, all three brushed the responses aside as normal and something they barely notice. They explained it is their defense mechanism to not engage at all, as clearly these acts are meant to disturb them.
Nic, Kent, Nikita, and Marian at the Life+ offices.
These three are self-actualized gay men—leaders in their community. However, they explained that their clients are in much worse shape and clearly need the support of Life+ to get by. Marian and Nic, who are both living with HIV, described a similar situation for themselves in the past, but they said that Life+ changed their lives – and thus motivated them to help others.
Unfortunately, the national Ukrainian government is showing no signs of challenging this homophobia. Currently, their parliament is debating an “anti-homosexuality propaganda” bill, modeled after the one recently passed by the Russian parliament. The bill focuses on banning the “promotion of homosexuality” within schools, but also goes much farther to challenge and possibly outlaw any work being done by NGOs that supports LGBT rights. It would seriously affect Life+ efforts to work with GMT individuals and cost many lives. There is a movement to advocate against the passage of such a bill, but more mainstream health authorities and other technical experts are needed to assist in these advocacy efforts.
In the end, both Nic and Marian will continue to support their friends the best way they know—being there. If Ukrainian policy makers are serious about addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, hopefully they will be there too – and defeat this bill.