May 23, 2013

May 23, 2013
PEPFAR at 10: Turning Back the Clock

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Thursday and I hope you are having a beary safe and great week so far. It is another busy week for Dab the AIDS Bear and me.

On May 14th, I attended an event at one of the Senate office buildings commemorating the 10th anniversary of the establishment of PEPFAR. This event was co-hosted by organizations such as UNICEF, UNAIDS, Medical Teams International, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, World Relief, World Vision, Children's AIDS Fund, and Christian Connections for International Health. Sen. Lindsey Graham was among the speakers, touting the immense progress PEPFAR has made in the fight against AIDS. Also there were representatives from Saddleback Church to lead us in a singing of Amazing Grace.

I think I am usually pretty respectful and appreciative of the good intents of groups like this, but yesterday I actually was deeply troubled by what I was hearing and seeing. There was a lot of self-congratulatory talk, of talk about being on the cusp of having no new transmissions (with the goal of 2015 being only 1000 days away), and talk about the important role the faith community plays in doing this work.

Here are some of the things I found disturbing, mostly for what was not said:

This gathering seemed to be turning back the clock, somehow thinking that we can really bring an end to the AIDS pandemic while maintaining some "moral purity" that avoids talking about sex and homosexuals. Many speakers talked about stigma, but only one speaker (from the Methodists) mentioned the word "homo", and it was in the term "homophobia". That's it.

Meanwhile, Uganda was mentioned as a few times as a glowing example of what can happen when the church reaches out to the community to address HIV/AIDS. What was not mentioned is that HIV/AIDS statistics are going the wrong direction primarily because of increasing moves to criminalize homosexuality in that country which is impacting HIV-testing programs, and much of the funding for these anti-gay initiatives are being funded by US churches who see that they are against the tide on gay rights in the US.

Sen. Graham, while touting PEPFAR and receiving thanks for his leadership, is considering withdrawing his support for the immigration bill that he helped co-write. Why? Because of a possible amendment that would extend rights to same-gender, bi-national couples.

While touting the success of PEPFAR getting treatment to 5 million people, it was not mentioned that, at best, for every person getting on treatment, 2 people are infected.

Health experts around the world are saying that community-wide testing is vital to knowing who needs treatment, but this was completely neglected. I can't help but think that part of this is because communities where being gay is not accepted, something would have to give in order to achieve the goal, and many of these faith communities continue to stubbornly ignore the gay factor.

There was talk of treating women and children "holistically", addressing other health issues as well as HIV. "Holistic" includes relations as well. Given the fact that gay men are exponentially more likely to get HIV than any other group (some of this has to do with the risk factors of anal sex - a taboo word yesterday, for sure), and in places where homophobia is high, these men are likely to be living dual lives, there can be no holistic approach while carving out relationships.

There was talk about how the church has a role and a responsibility to be a loving and reconciling presence and force, but the fact is this: the church's response to HIV/AIDS throughout the first 2 decades is one of the reasons things are so bad. It was the "church" that proclaimed AIDS to be God's punishment for immoral behavior, and this continues to influence policy and attitudes. As one church leader said to me a few years ago, they prefer to do their AIDS work in Africa because people are victims there, whereas people with HIV in the US deserve it. I've heard similar sentiments from some of these global organizations (such as World Vision) who may internally not share the belief but don't want to offend their donors.

If we want to be serious about achieving no new transmissions, we have to stop the feel-good pretenses and get serious. What I saw yesterday was not it. If the "church" wants to be taken sersiously at its word that it can be a force for reconciliation and good, it should look to apologize to those of us in their midst who were told that AIDS is God's punishment. Not only is this the right thing to do, morally, but it is this spirit of love, openness, acceptance and trust that is needed if we are to achieve the goal we share. To continue to be silent to this while we sit in your midst is only affirming how far there is to go.

Hope you have a beary safe and great Thursday!

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab