Prejudice, stigma, stumbling blocks to spirituality and true religious expression – have been my personal lifelong experience, and a target of my life work for the last 42 years, 22 of them in the Philippines. After years of personal experience in psychotherapy for the stigma of being gay, and then earning a doctorate in clinical psychology, I devote my life to helping others with these issues.
It is only right that I should express in advance that I can only speak from my own perspective as a Christian, and a priest. I do not hold prejudice against other perspectives, which I hope will be expressed here.
I came to the Philippines 22 years ago to address the same concerns that you are addressing in this dialog. I opened the first openly gay and lesbian organization in the country. It was an affirming Christian church, within the organization, MCC, founded by Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968. When I started MCC here, TLF was already doing great work in the field of AIDS.
My experience with HIV started in the early 1980s. Before scientists discovered the virus in 1983, I saw 50 of my friends die from what was thought to be a strange gay disease. We were helpless then. All we could do was be with them. Now we know we can do more.
Ever since then, I have been trying to add my little bit to make a better, healthier, longer life for persons living with HIV. And that was given a big boost recently, I think you can understand my emotion, when my gay son, emailed me, “Dad, I am HIV positive.” Then I worked even harder to develop healing programs instead of just saying, “Do everything right.” I went to work to show him and my growing number of HIV positive friends what is “doing it right” to handle the virus.
The AIDS Society of the Philippines gave me a chance to be the coordinator of their Faith-based program. I met and dialogued with many sincere and compassionate church people who wanted to see an end to the stigma which not only distressed many vulnerable people especially in the LGBT community, but even contributed to the cause of the spread of HIV. At a forum similar to this I gave a prepared speech on this subject in 2005. It was published by the AIDS Society along with the other presentations given at the Forum.
It came to the attention of the Vatican. An emissary from Rome contacted me and sat down with me. He opened, “You are hard on the church.”
I replied, “Monsignor, I am not hard on the church. I love the church, the Mass, the sacraments. I find it necessary to fight the harmful, destructive sex-negative theology of the church which leads so many to AIDS or suicide, or lives of hell on earth.”
“What do you mean sex-negative theology?” he asked.
“I mean a theology of sex, of God’s supposed attitude toward human sexuality, which makes sex forbidden to vast segments of God’s people. It is based on St. Augustine’s theology of sex which in short is, All sex is bad except for a married couple once a year, under the blankets, with the clothes on; get in there fast, make the baby fast, and get out of there fast, and don’t enjoy it. Our modern description of that is: NO MASTURBATION, NO CONDOMS, NO SEX EXCEPT WHEN MARRIED TO MAKE BABIES, AND NO SEX EVER IN YOUR WHOLE LIFE, ANYWHERE, IN ANY WAY, IN ANY POSITION IF YOU ARE AN LGBT PERSON.”
The monsignor agreed to take my concern back to the Vatican. Hehe. To the Vatican where it will be archived in the vast Vatican library.
There is much love and compassion in the Catholic Church. The Camillians and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other orders have long exemplified it.
In another age, Jose Rizal spelled out the problem in his own expressive way. In a letter to Blumentritt, he said bluntly, “The Friars are the root of all the problems of the Filipinos.”
But, to the credit of his greatness and wisdom, he did not throw out the baby with the bath water. He condemned abuses, but he clung to the faith his mother taught him. Throughout the final four years of his life in exile in Dapitan he regularly and consistently attended Mass with the Jesuits at St. James Church there.
How sad he would be to see that the problem still persists in the official sex-negative church theology today.
Of course Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful theology of the body – for married couples. BUT the rest of us are forever condemned to celibacy, not even masturbation.
Where does the stigma come from? Stigmatizing persons with HIV is not the only stigma in our country. Seeing a psychological professional causes raised eyebrows. Having many wives can cause election after election – mayor, senator, president, mayor. And how do you think dark-skinned human beings from the mountains feel when they are shunned and pushed around in our cities. A person with leprosy is avoided because of a physical condition. People with HIV are victims not only because of their perceived physical condition, but because of the perceived disgusting sexual angle.
Are these not concerns for faith-based people?
In 2005 I spoke to a faith-based forum on the same subject. What progress has been made in this area in the last eight years? Today we have heard excellent, positive, thought-provoking presentations from each of the speakers: Fr. Dan Cancino of the Camillian Fathers and the CBCP, Commissioner Salem Demuna of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, Pastor Kakay Palparan of MCC Quezon City, Merceditas Apellado of UN AIDS, Bicbic Chua of Catholics for RH. The concerns about the spread of HIV and the stigma attached to persons living with HIV have been well expressed.
But what will be our action plan? What will be the positive action that results from this very thoughtful dialog? I perceive we are one in spirit. I was particularly impressed by the quotations from the prophet of Islam about caring for the sick shared with us by the Commissioner.
Let me continue with a bit more background before I conclude my challenge to us today.
The church movement I set in motion in MCC Manila in 1992 to address the very same issues of discrimination and equality within God’s love that we are talking about today has now expanded to almost a dozen churches, several of which are represented here today by Pastor Kakay, Fr. Regen Luna, and myself.
They continue the Christian tradition in the sex-positive theology of Jesus and the Rev. Troy Perry. But they can reach only a small portion of the population. Even the Roman Catholic Church with its vast resources in the wonderful programs described by Fr. Dan cannot reach all the people.
Through the years, in my small circle, I have contributed in the Philippines with a cyber seminar in sex-positive theology. For counseling individuals from my perspective as a priest, I have boiled it down to Seven Spiritual Truths for LGBT Christians to guide them to know what God is really like: that God is Love.
My second contribution in recent times is The Well. Our servant leader counselors have moved beyond theorizing about the causes of stigma, and they offer direct hands-on life-saving support for persons who already have HIV. Other groups represented here today, such as long and wonderful work of the TLF do well with the prevention and testing aspects of HIV.
Our Prayer Partners decided that after four years of prayer, it was time to balance prayer with action. We invited persons already living with HIV to come together and support each other in living with well-being. In individual and group support, persons living with HIV joyfully support one another in wholistic wellness with resources provided by The Well and its Method – a sure way to conquer the power of the virus. And likewise The Well has programs for other serious life difficulties such as come with drugs.
I invite you to refer your friends for the free support offered by The Well, or email me for resources I will gladly share with you to evaluate for setting up your own HIV wholistic well-being support group or groups.
Anyway, in short what do we do about the stigma, the apathy, the inaction?
I do what I can in my little world. In New Zealand I was asked to coordinate the Interfaith Aids Ministry Network there. We came up with a plan for the country, a very clear action plan for the churches and society to work for the elimination of stigma and prejudice and they were successful. The National Council of Churches acknowledged that the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, had dealt with human sexuality poorly, and they made a plan for change.
In this country it is clear we are one in spirit, with similar prescriptions from Jesus and the prophet. Can we also be one in action to solve this societal problem?
Rizal made an action plan and wrote the Noli and Fili to get the plan started. In his day, the objects of stigma were “Filipinos.” Today there are new objects of stigma within the Filipino people – and the stigma now comes from Filipino people towards Filipino people.
I hope in this dialog today you will find the solution, for once and for all — to all the stigma and oppression of sex-negative theology.
Maybe we have to ask ourselves what is “faith-based”? Faith in whom? In what? For Christians, does the Jesus who never in his life showed prejudice have anything to do with our faith? The Jesus who defied his religion and talked with the Samaritan woman at the well? The Jesus who made Samaritans, hated by his religion, the heroes of his stories as in The Good Samaritan? The Jesus who healed the homosexual lover of the homosexual Roman Centurion – without prejudice? The Jesus who said that people were more important than the rules of his religion? Where does the example of Jesus fit into a faith-based ministry?
St. Matthew and St. Luke, for example, tell of many interactions of Jesus with persons with leprosy.
We must continue the healing processes started 120 years ago by Rizal.
But what does that mean to us today especially with regard to the marginalized, modern-day LGBT people of our religions? Perhaps it means some brainstorming, some study, some caring, some work.
For us Christians, it could mean no more statistics, just the compassion of Jesus put into a modern-day plan. Thoughtful, compassionate, Biblically-based approaches. It starts out with, “Here’s what we believe about equality, human dignity, and the Way of Jesus.” It then spells out, “Here’s what we are going to do about equality, human dignity and the Way of Jesus in order to eliminate stigma and build a better world.”
I don’t know your processes for making such plans. Committee? Task force? In the workshop that follows immediately after these remarks, you have a chance to make an action plan that has never been made before. I hope today finds the answer. The response of people of faith will be a testimony to our faith.
God bless you all for what you are doing to build a better world and a longer happier life for God’s beloved marginalized, stigmatized LGBT people living with HIV.