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RGOD2: “If I were a rich man” ... I could change the world

With the music of “Fiddler in the Roof” playing in the back of my head, this week I have been dreaming about what we could do with $1.5 million to win global equality.

My international network of friends has been working on a three-year grant proposal focusing on the intersection of LGBT oppression with HIV. For every person we place on life-saving medications (ARV’s), two people become newly infected somewhere on Earth. Meanwhile, draconian laws remain on the books of 76 countries where it is illegal to serve criminalized populations including LGBT people.

How do you even begin to design a prevention and health delivery system that is already working to kill us all off, by HIV infection or by languishing in some God-awful prison cell? These are some of the challenges we struggled with in Washington, D.C. last month at the International AIDS Conference. The only way you can eat an elephant is to do it one bite at a time. So we are creating our own plan to bring global equality to the international LGBT community before we are all needlessly infected by HIV.

The issue truly comes home to all of us in the USA when we discovered through a leak of platform priorities from the Republican Party this week. The GOP is not concerned about the effects of LGBT criminalization in 76 countries and, if they win the election, will roll back any international initiatives that appear to be advancing LGBT human rights.

The Christian Right will support this “hands off” approach while they secretly funnel millions of dollars to anti-gay causes all over the planet. So we all have a responsibility to make sure the effects of these policies are brought to light.

Last month, St. Paul’s Foundation sponsored 26 leaders to attend the International AIDS Conference. We selected individuals who have a proven track record within their own communities where LGBT people are criminalized and have created integrated approaches to these issues – particularly in the intersections of faith, health, development and rights.

During the two-week intensive training in Washington, delegates from “The Spirit of 76” shared models of prevention, education, care and advocacy. These were gay and straight allies, some working in youth programs, some specializing in gender equality issues, some with a background in journalism and communication and many were part of extensive local and international networks. The team also worked on a comprehensive approach to the global pandemic, using their experience and imagination. The team remains in contact with each other and has collaborated on this proposal while also dealing with the challenges of their own professional roles within difficult contexts.

Already, one participant was fired from his job when the authorities found out he attended the conferences and was advocating for LGBT inclusion in his countries response to HIV.

An integrated approach-creating gay/straight alliances

Several of the proposed projects focus on the expansion of existing services to HIV-affected individuals particularly the Lungujja Community Health Project of home-based care in Uganda and the proposed project in Namibia to create a national men’s network of support groups resulting in a more strategic engagement with HIV prevention.

These target populations will be heterosexuals, with the additional hope that education and building relationship with marginalized LGBT people will create “gay/straight alliances” as modeled by the St. Paul’s Centre in Kampala. This safety and inclusive approach is essential at the grassroots level so stigma and discrimination can be transformed in specific neighborhoods and in the workplace.

Several of the projects link economic development with access to education, prevention and health care. The Women’s Art of Activism project in Kampala will employ women artists to design clothing and crafts for the Global North market and be the engine to employ more women who are lesbian, transgender and mothers caring for AIDS orphans. We are seeking matching funds for several of these projects and it is our hope a Peace Corps volunteer will give the Ugandan project the business planning skills it requires to take it to a new level over three years.

Many of these women are also victims of domestic violence and some are sex workers, so easy access to HIV testing and prevention is critical if we are to make some headway with the higher levels of infection among women and young girls. The Project from Zambia (African Women’s Millennium Initiative) is seeking to design an effective gender equality program that could also be used in places like Uganda so we have tried to combine direct services in one country with public policy education in another.

Youth initiatives

Another most at risk population is our youth and many of our delegates come with a strong commitment to educating and protecting youth who make up half of the HIV-infected population globally. There are several proposals that integrate social media with HIV education.

The project from Singapore will augment the public education system’s sex education program with 10 videos dealing with LGBT and HIV issues for ages 18 to 25. The web-based platform proposed by Zimbabwe will allow a cyberspace for debate on controversial issues, presenting both sides of the discussion and allow for deeper dialogue and research for a younger Internet-savvy community. This component is a missing piece where in many countries, the debate on issues of sexual identity and criminalization is dominated by only a conservative narrative.

Another project in Jamaica also targets LGBT youth who are largely influenced by their Christian pastors. A series of educational conferences and designing a strategy to engage fundamentalism through the youth movement will help Jamaica to move towards decriminalization and inclusion of LGBT people. Another youth-focused project from the Youth2Gether Network will expand existing models of engagement and intervention into Eastern Nigeria, which is a completely underserved region. These young leaders are in communication with each other through our network and will continue to evolve effective models of engagement with youth and the wider community using many 21st century tools.

Faith leaders

Several projects are focused on the important role the faith community plays towards public policy. With 40% of African health care provided by religious organizations, “the Spirit of 76” is interested in the intersection of oppression with faith. There needs to be a secondary narrative within the African churches that can effectively challenge the current levels of hostility towards LGBT people.

Amplification of inclusive religious voices is a theme coming not only from Uganda, but the proposed project in Malawi draws on the extensive network of 7,000 faith leaders living with HIV (INERELA). We all had some helpful training from I AM in South Africa and the network is well resourced to develop clergy specific training and educational opportunities throughout Africa. Botswana also wants to carry out more detailed research on messaging and effective engagement with the faith community and intends to document a series of interactive focus groups with clergy and the LGBT community with a goal to presenting a model for decreasing anti-religious homophobia and stigma. Tunisia is also seeking to create a safety and support system for its hidden and deeply persecuted LGBT community and its supporters and engage the complex issues around Islamic law and homosexuality. A key component to their strategy is to expand the Muslim network of alternative and inclusive voices.

Additional theological and development resources will be made available to the team and wider public through the proposed “Seminary Without Walls” website. There is a demonstrated need in many countries for a deeper grounding in inclusive theological principles. This resource could also carry practical information on the development and governance of non-profit organizations and best practices. This resource (a kind of practical theology) will be based in San Diego and all partners will be encouraged to contribute to it and use it as needed.

Theological education, (particularly on issues of gender equality and human sexuality) needs to have a more African and inclusive foundation, given the current dominance of fundamentalism and patriarchy within the churches. The resource will also include Muslim scholarship and best practices and will work to being an interfaith model. There is a need for courses to be available online that could be used by seminaries and local congregations who are interested in learning more about alternative biblical interpretation and other holy texts, particularly used so negatively against LGBT people. These resources are needed if the religious community is to transform the current hostility and fear of LGBT people and work towards full access to constitutional rights and health services in countries where LGBT criminalization often has a theological meta- narrative.

Engaging the business community and other change agents

Another target population is the business leadership community, and Swaziland is proposing a series of educational opportunities to reduce the higher levels of infection (30%) in working people by creating a professional business network where taboo issues can be discussed more openly.

The Gay Kenya Trust is also interested in expanding its relationships with business, religious and public officials to move Kenya towards a more informed and inclusive society, given the recent advances in constitutional rights and quality of citizenship. Their plan is to create 15 local advocacy organizations and a human rights committee for the LGBT community to monitor human rights abuses particularly around access to HIV prevention and care.

Cameroon is proposing a similar community education project with two complementary facets — outreach by peer educators to the city’s sexual minorities and educational programs for opinion leaders and members of the health service sector and the religious community at the CAM-FAIDS educational center. In its first year, it will reach an estimated 3,000 members of the sexual minority community in Cameroon and will build on that achievement in order to reach similar numbers in the following years. It will inform them about their rights and how to respond when their rights are violated, as well as informing them about the need for behavior change to avoid HIV infection. Social and religious leaders will be educated about sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender diversity, and will also be invited to discuss the value of loving rather than judging one’s neighbor, with the objective of promoting non-discriminatory behavior within the general population.

“The Spirit of 76” overall collaborative model requires a balance of advocacy and educational processes while raising up innovative examples of prevention and care that reinforce the need for good public policy and laws. We believe these next steps will move us in the right direction towards interdependence, cross cultural awareness and professional competency. The plan will not only save millions of lives but help to bring dignity and hope.

Knowing this vibrant cohort of activists as I do, we can begin to eat the elephant one bite at a time. This is San Diego’s contribution to the enormous international challenge before us, so please keep supporting the work of the St Paul’s Foundation. So if you have a million or two dollars lying around and want to invest it, we have a plan for you!

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.