It is always exciting to see Churches become involved in the social issues of our time. In the Philippines there are many, and to see the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) engage in HIV is truly heartening. For me, it is however not all good news. What I refer to is a slightly distorted view of the current situation around HIV in the Philippines.
Are HIV cases in the Philippines “booming”? YES! The recorded 646 new cases for February 2015 are truly alarming. Last year, 2014, saw a monthly average of 421 by end of February. In other words, year on year there is a more than 150% increase in people newly tested as being HIV positive. That in itself is frightening enough, but when you consider that only 8% of MSM and a mere 0.76% of the general populace in the Philippines actually know their HIV status this figure then holds the potential of being anywhere between 10 and 100 times higher. So yes, HIV cases are BOOMING in the Philippines.
Is there a correlation between “Distorted concept of sexuality” and risk of being infected with HIV? ABSOLUTELY, but not for the reasons highlighted by Fr. Dan Vicente Cancino MI. The distorted concept of sexuality is one which maintains that sex is purely for procreation and not for pleasure, and that the only legitimate expression of human sexuality is heterosexual. And here the blame has to rest not only with families but also with the church herself. If we teach negatively about human sexuality then we must expect people to develop negative self-images relating to human sexuality, particularly if their own natural sexual expression is not heterosexual.
I was blessed to be raised in a very stable family. My mother and father met at University, and they then got married two years after both finishing University. I never heard them quarrel, not once, and they remained happily married until my mother died of cancer after they had been married for almost 40 years. We all went to church every Sunday, and never did we eat without praying first. But this is not the whole story. I was raised in a church which made it quite clear that sex was dirty, not to be spoken of, and that homosexuality must surely be the greatest of all sins. Having remained a virgin till I was 30 (yes it is possible!) I got married to a young lady from the church. I met her while finishing my studies in seminary. Somehow I thought that by getting married I could “fix” what was not broken. By getting married to a woman I could change who I was. I knew HIV was about promiscuity and sex work and drugs – that’s what I had been taught! And the only prevention messages I had heard were related to heterosexual sex – abstain till you get married (tick); if you can’t abstain then be faithful in a marriage (tick); if you can’t be faithful (didn’t apply to me) then use a condom. Well, it didn’t work! I’m living positively with HIV, even though I am in a faithful relationship.
In an exhaustive study conducted amongst men who have sex with men (MSM) over a number of years in Bangkok, it was found that a syndemic construct of factors giving people negative self-image lead to a much higher risk profile in terms of HIV. So:
- If you are taught that your sexuality is wrong, and experience rejection from your faith community because of your sexual orientation or gender identity then your risk factor is already heightened.
- If, in addition, you are rejected by your family the risk factor is more than doubled. This negative self-image can frequently lead to behavior which then further increased vulnerability to HIV, like using drugs or abusing alcohol; doing sex work, having abusive relationships or even attempting suicide. The study found that the more negative self-image factors a person encountered the higher the chance that they considered themselves unworthy of protection. If you combine with that the negative teaching about using condoms which comes from some faith communities then it is faith communities which are significantly contributing to the vulnerabilities experienced by people in relation to HIV.
Please don’t get me wrong, I agree with Fr. Cancino that we should go back to basics, but we may well differ on what the basics are. For me they are:
- Respond to people with the love of God – treat people living with HIV (PLHIV) first and foremost as brothers and sisters in Christ, and not as patients or clients. Make sure PLHIV know they are loved by God for who they are, and make sure they are supported in getting necessary medication, good nutrition and strong spiritual and social support;
- Tell the truth – HIV is about vulnerability and we can teach people how to protect themselves from HIV through wholistic prevention strategies like SAVE (Safer practices; Access to treatment and good nutrition; Voluntary counseling and testing; Empowerment). Moralizing about HIV creates stigma, and in the life and death challenge of HIV stigma simply increases risk exponentially;
- Affirm people for who God created them to be – when God creates any individual, gay, straight, transgender, intersex, God celebrates. We too need to celebrate the rich diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression which God has gifted us with;
- Family values – yes I believe in family values, but families are many and varied. The child headed household of siblings who have lost their parents due to HIV is a family; the two men in a loving relationship raising children is a family; the grandmother raising her grandchildren because the parents can’t is a family; the single mother working by day and caring for children by night is a family, the monks or nuns living together in community sharing everything in common is a family; and the heterosexual couple married with or without children is a family. And all these families together, cherished and loved become the family of God, the Church. And the rich tapestry of difference is a strength not a weakness, and reflects the glorious diversity of creation.