Trinidad and Tobago hardly seems a likely battleground for America’s culture wars. But recent months have seen a drama there involving visits by American pastors with an anti-gay agenda, a response by locally based rights groups, and engagement of international organizations, especially UNAIDS, which coordinates international responses to HIV/AIDS. At a United Nations training session in Turin, Italy, last month, the Trinidad and Tobago story was presented as a case study of challenges and tentative success. In this case, an intelligent response seems to have cooled what threatened to be a nasty confrontation.
The story begins with announcements of a planned visit by American pastors sent by His Way Out Ministries (HWO), a group based in Bakersfield, Calif. and Guyana. As reported in a Trinidad and Tobago newspaper, the visit’s purpose was pretty clear: “Local Christian groups, under the umbrellas of The Hospital Christian Fellowship, Lawyers for Jesus and the Emmanuel Community, have declared war on the issue of same-sex attractions. In what they describe as the first phase of the war to be fought, through media sensitization, the groups have invited to Trinidad and Tobago, Pastor Phillip Lee of the United States for a series of talks on the issue.” HWO and other groups are seen to be targeting Caribbean countries because homophobia is very much present and relationships between churches and governments are often close.
Meanwhile, a local group, CAISO (The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation), had opened a dialogue with faith groups about inclusion and acceptance of diversity. CAISO and the community working to combat HIV/AIDS were especially concerned by HWO’s plans to target young people with an anti-gay agenda. CAISO feared that its positive messages and outreach, which were garnering a positive response, could be spoiled, and anti-gay sentiment could be fueled. CAISO was aware of the devastating impact U.S. evangelical groups had in Uganda, where a legislator proposed an anti-gay bill imposing the death penalty for some forms of gay sex.
What was the best tactic to pursue? Trying to prevent the HWO visit seemed unwise and probably futile. Instead, CAISO alerted public health, HIV, and youth welfare officials to their concerns about the likely damage the visit could do to sexuality education and the effort to combat stigma and discrimination. They challenged leaders to stand up. However, Trinidadian faith leaders were reluctant at first to enter into what promised to be a nasty and contentious fray. Their worries were fueled by earlier faith-linked public debates where positions advocating openness and inclusion (for example on gender rights) had been linked to spiritual doom and the invasion of foreign values.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the National AIDS Coordinating Committee has a good relationship with faith-based groups, and interreligious organizations have been part of a seven-year effort to build alliances. As part of the effort, Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest with AIDS, has visited the country. Their longer term goal is to reframe the national conversation on sexual culture to one that embraces sexual rights and autonomy and considers sexuality as a part of personhood. Despite initial doubts, the alliance, including faith-linked partners, came together to support a proactive response to the HWO visit.
So when the HWO pastors arrived (in October), young people associated with CAISO themselves financed youth participation at two HWO activities. They almost outnumbered the supporters at one event. In radio and television interviews, CAISO spread the message that these young people were engaged in public advocacy, demonstrating commitment to a cause bigger than individual self-interest. It contrasted action by young people to protect each other’s rights from violation, to those of adults who were declaring war on vulnerable young people. In short, the threat of the HWO visit helped to motivate a new level of advocacy–from NGOs, the youth who took leadership on the issue of sexuality, and U.N. agencies.
There is a heartening message here about how far the dialogue about faith and HIV/AIDS has traveled. What was clear from this case was that a wide spectrum of faith-linked organizations now understand the reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and value their partnership in the national AIDS response. This year World AIDS day on December 1 also seemed to reflect a more thoughtful debate about how faith and AIDS are and are not linked. The lowering of the temperature is heartily welcome.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
December 6, 2010; 12:14 AM ET
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