What is Holy About Seeing Millions Die of AIDS?

When AIDS first hit public consciousness twenty years ago, it was as a mysterious illness affecting North American gay men in urban centres.

They contracted strange sicknesses, like fatal strains of pneumonia, or disfiguring Kaposi sarcoma lesions. They quickly became virulently ill and died. Though it would soon spread to the heterosexual population, early on, the disease was so identified with gay men that it was briefly dubbed GRID: gay-related immune deficiency.

A disease that killed gay men, and one that was spread via sex, was not one that captured public sympathy or medical and political attention. It's difficult now, in an era of explicit education campaigns and glittery benefits, to fathom the intense stigma attached to the disease in the 1980s.

Hundreds, then thousands, died and yet, for years, governments were unconscionably silent. Doctors and nurses treated AIDS patients while dressed in anti-contamination space suits. Men were denied access to their lovers' deathbeds by hospital staff. Every gay man became suspect. There was a horrible joke in circulation at the time that summed up perfectly the era's attitude: What does "gay" stand for? Answer: Got AIDS Yet?

Even as AIDS began to infect people outside the gay community, the stigma persisted. Heterosexual women infected by bisexual lovers, and male hemophiliacs treated with tainted blood, became the disease's "innocent" victims, the implication being that gay men deserved it.

The response of those in the gay community became one of the 20th century's most significant political movements. They fought back. Along with their allies, they lobbied researchers, governments and public health offices. They raised funds for community-care programs, established AIDS education programs and clinics, distributed condoms, staged political "die-ins," stormed policy meetings, fought for better, cheaper, more accessible medication. By the early 1990s, they had radically altered the way the disease was viewed and treated. Every victory, every step forward, in the now global battle against AIDS - community education programs, support groups, medical clinics, research facilities, medication, drug trial programs, and so on - can be attributed to these pioneering gay activists.

Which is why the treatment of the gay community at the groundbreaking United Nations special session on HIV/AIDS earlier this week in New York City, was so deeply unsettling. Citing cultural and religious sensitivities, several Muslim states held a filibuster on Monday to prevent the participation of Karyn Kaplan, of the U.S.-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, in a roundtable discussion. Libyan ambassador Abuzed Omar Dorda told the General Assembly: "Homosexuality is one of the main causes of this disease. In fact, God sent the prophet Lot with a clear message preventing such practices and banning them."

And in a battle that has been waged for the past few months, Muslim delegates on the committee drafting a global declaration on goals for fighting AIDS also attempted to eliminate references to homosexuals, prostitutes, drug users and prison inmates.

These cultural and religious objections run deep. Earlier this year in Nigeria, the nation's often battling Christian and Islamic leaders, found common cause in opposing Western-style AIDS education. Islamic council chair Umar Kabo said: "We will not allow the West to use the AIDS issue as a gimmick to spread immorality in our society." A similar education program targeting young people met opposition by Zambia's Roman Catholic Church, which denounced it for promoting "moral decay."

Similar arguments are voiced when the question of empowering women is raised. Gender inequality in many developing nations accounts for the huge disparity in AIDS infection rates. For instance, teenage African girls are six times more likely to contract HIV than boys. In Uganda and Senegal, Africa's most successful examples in stopping the spread of AIDS, the political and economic empowerment of women is instrumental in their anti-AIDS programs and policies. Yet at an international women and AIDS conference last June, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Sudan and Pakistan opposed sexual education and empowerment programs for women.

Here are just a few of the dire figures on AIDS: 20 million already dead; 36-million AIDS cases internationally, 22 million of them in Africa, 3.7 million in India; one of five adults infected in Botswana; a projected 4-million children to be orphaned by the disease in South Africa by 2015.

In the name of their principles and their God, religious leaders would rather watch millions more die, watch developing nations crumble, and watch children lose their parents, than provide the vulnerable with the tools and information they need to protect themselves. Can someone please explain to me what's holy about that?

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