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Many of us who survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the USA will reflect on how difficult it was to walk through the cloud of stigma and discrimination as we reflect on World AIDS Day this weekend.
We lost many brave friends who taught us how to love fearlessly and safely. Straight allies and health care professionals began to understand LGBT more than before and that our love was good. How we cared for our partners and friends and created organizations that were open to everyone is an enduring tribute to the indomitable spirit of that difficult chapter of our lives.
For most of my 30s, I worked professionally in the AIDS world and it was full of death and dying and winning hearts and minds in the battle for inclusion and access to services for everyone from cramped but comfortable offices in Los Angeles and Pasadena. Although this was a difficult time, nothing I experienced compares to the challenges facing LGBT people in 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT.
In some places, LGBT people are more 300% more likely to get AIDS because they do not have equal access to information and prevention, testing and health services. A recent report issued MSM Global Forum gives some hard data on the fierce battle that is raging in countries all over the globe. Stigma and discrimination remain as deadly as the virus itself.
At least we were not tortured
One young African HIV expert, university educated and working on MSM programs (Men who have Sex with Men) recently returned from the International AIDS Conference in Washington (he was sponsored by St. Paul’s Foundation and amFAR) was arrested and tortured by the police. It is illegal to be LGBT in his country and although his mission was to educate and save lives, his own life was threatened for merely practicing his vocation.
Another straight woman ally wants to extend her home health care program to LGBT people in Uganda, but the threat of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (which will require her to report any known homosexuals or face jail time herself) means she cannot do the right thing. As a Christian, she is following Jesus example of loving and healing anyone who crosses her path, but her government may soon make it an offence for hundreds of thousands of caregivers and even parents to be subjected to mandatory reporting of known LGBT people.
Uganda claims to be a Christian nation but deliberately isolating one section of the community from another and making it a crime to assist them is a pernicious form of evil that no religious community can support. These are the same tactics used to divide Hutu and Tutsi, Jews and “real” Germans, that preclude genocide.
When a country legislates for citizens by deliberately isolating and demonizing other citizens, that country is in serious peril. Not only will that country fail in its attempts to decrease numbers of people infected with AIDS, but it will inevitably become a seedbed for civil war.
Uganda is full of small ethnic communities that have periodically turned on each other and within living history, a million Ugandans perished in a civil war and 600,000 Ugandan Asians were forced to leave their homes by Idi Amin over six weeks! The Ugandan economy has never fully recovered from this ethnic cleansing. Every family has been tragically touched by the AIDS epidemic, but obviously Uganda has not learned from its own history and the negative effects of any form of stigma on sound public health and a robust economy. There is a recurring madness in Uganda and it is about to have another episode.
The role of Americans
Uganda, however, is not alone. She helps us see the other hidden epidemic of rampant homophobia that is happening all over the world. Deliberate misinformation and religiously motivated propaganda, heavily funded by American Religious Right churches and development organizations, is killing people too. While hiding behind AIDS orphan programs and outreach to the sick, they appeal to their anti-gay donors in the USA to keep up the pressure on governments to pass draconian anti-gay laws.
Even the president of World Vision, Richard Stearns, a highly respected organization doing a lot of good all over the world, spoke during a meeting at Georgetown University during the World AIDS Conference about “protecting marriage” (code phrase for an imagined gay agenda) and the need to promote “abstinence only” programs around the world to stop the spread of HIV. Some faculty at Georgetown were so appalled, they walked out.
In the face of scientific evidence that this policy has tragically failed, how can we as American donors still financially support organizations that are deliberately misinforming millions of vulnerable people? Standing beside pastor Rick Warren (who has still not come clean on his position on decriminalization of LGBT people or “ex-gay” therapy), these titans of American overseas development work give Ugandans both a false sense of security and more tragically, the moral framework to punish homosexuals at any cost.
Speaking at a COMPASS to Compassion conference last year at Union Theological Seminary, Jeff Sharlet’s theme “The Sex Tourism of the American Fundamentalism” reminded us that Rick Warren will say and do one thing in the USA while doing something else in another country that would be totally inappropriate at home. http://compasstocompassion.org/videos/jeff-sharlet-1-2. I would love to introduce my tortured AIDS prevention specialist (who had to flee for his life) to the president of World Vision and pastor Warren. His purpose-driven life was significantly influenced by their ministries in Africa.
Don’t kill the messengers
I remember speaking to some executives from World Vision about AIDS in 1987 in All Saint’s Church in Pasadena as the AIDS Service Center began its ministry to the stigmatized in World Vision’s backyard of the San Gabriel Valley. It was the first time the subject of AIDS was ever raised from these men. Many of World Vision’s chief development staff members were members of our congregation and decent people. AIDS relief is now one of their largest programs.
I also introduced the Archbishop of Uganda to Christian Children’s Fund in the early 1990s and this organization has equally benefitted from millions of dollars raised for AIDS relief. It is immoral for organizations with this influence and respect not to set an example of inclusion and zero tolerance for stigma in the countries where they operate in the 21st century. To turn a blind eye to the suffering of criminalized populations while simultaneously using actual or implied anti-gay rhetoric to raise funds bears no resemblance to the ministry of the master their organizations claim to emulate. Jesus triumphed over suffering, torture and death that, according to the Bible, were a direct result of the encouragement of the religious establishment who turned him over to the state for execution. Some processes do not change.
“Jesus in a distressing disguise”
Mother Teresa once described people living with AIDS as “Jesus in a distressing disguise.” We cannot be “one with the crucified” when we are deliberately appealing to anti-gay sentiment for money and power. We can hide behind our good works of caring for AIDS orphans and the sick, but as Paul said to the Corinthians, if we do not have love, we are nothing.
Although the head of World Vision Uganda made a significant courageous statement against the “Kill The Gays” Bill in 2010, nothing has been said in response to an array of anti-gay legislation peppering many countries where World Vision International has enormous influence employing 45,000 people in 90 countries.
This is particularly disturbing to me as a gay Christian who introduced their Monrovia-based executives to the AIDS issue in the first place. There are other large overseas development organizations in this country that are equally afraid to speak out against anti-gay legislation because they may lose part of their donor base. What is also disturbing is to discover a 2009 report that the largest religious development agency in the USA has specific anti-gay personnel policies. Although World Vision receives 25% of its $2+ billion revenue from the Federal government, it still requires all U.S. employees to be Christians. Non-celibate LGBT people are not permitted to work there. All employees have to sign a code of conduct that they will not engage in extra-marital or homosexual sex as this is grounds for immediate dismissal. The language and rationale is often couched in terms of “no sex outside of marriage” but would they employ a gay person who was married, I wonder?
Gay people in Africa are just like me. We are children of the same God and deserve the same respect as everyone else. To watch legislation like the Anti-Homosexuality Bill emerge from Christian Uganda and say nothing from comfortable offices in the USA is simply unacceptable and many of their executives know this. Many of their colleagues in Africa also know this also. LGBT people work within these organizations too but can lose their job at any point if they try to raise the issues.
What does the Lord require of you?
So, as we remember World AIDS Day this weekend, I challenge organizations like World Vision to meet some of my friends who as just as passionate as they are about saving lives, but their governments tortured them until they had to leave. Some of the African interfaith religious councils that World Vision helped to set up now actively support criminalization of homosexuality.
Why are American taxpayer dollars being used to do this? Imagine what it would be like if our government created legislation that stopped organizations like World Vision from doing their work and what they believe to be the “Christian “ thing to do? If the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passes in Uganda, it will be illegal for World Vision staff to serve everyone as their Red Cross inspired code of conduct confirms. Maybe Monrovia executives will finally speak out, but maybe not?
C.S. Lewis once commented that war and genocide needs organization and efficiency. He noted the polished fingernails and starched cuffs that were present in carpeted offices with filing cabinets and pictures of church-going families on desks. It was from these offices that the “Jewish question” would be solved once and for all. There is madness in all of our histories, not just in Uganda’s.
The St. Paul’s Foundation is providing support to our tortured AIDS expert so he can continue his work in Africa with other criminalized activists. He is working remotely and is as passionate as ever as to what needs to be done to redress the injustices described in the MSM Global Forum’s chilling report. Even torture has not stopped him from doing the right thing. If you want to support him and his work with others who face similar dangers, check out our new website and if you are a donor, invite World Vision to publically speak out against criminalization of LGBT people and remove their anti-gay employment practices.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.