People Living with HIV (PLHIV) in many parts of the world are judged, stigmatized and marginalized. The discrimination against PLHIV bears many similarities to the discrimination against persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ), or persons who do not follow societal norms of how men and women “should be and behave.” Those of us who have experienced, or are experiencing, such condemnations bear the responsibility of carrying in our minds, hearts and actions all others who are unjustly condemned. In particular, those of us who identify both as LGBTQ and Christian need to understand and adopt a vision of PLHIV in life-giving ways that reflect the person and message of Christ.
HIV and AIDS
The “human immunodeficiency virus”, or HIV, first appeared in the 1980s in various places around the world. The disease appeared among various groups of people who were infected through sexual activity, intravenous drug use and blood transmission. HIV in the United States was first widespread among gay men. The disease was first called the “gay compromise syndrome,” but it was eventually changed to “AIDS” or “acquired immunodefiency syndrome” in 1982. When HIV and AIDS cases were first reported, there was a concern among many that HIV and AIDS would be known as “the gay disease.”
In Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, HIV first appeared in 1986. Although 28 years have passed since the first reported case, false assumptions connected to HIV and People Living with HIV continue to proliferate. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak signed the Asean Human Rights Declaration during the 21st Asean Summit at Pnomh Penh, Cambodia in November 2012. This Declaration affirmed the rights of all human persons in terms of “race, gender, age, language, religion and political opinions.” Nevertheless, the Prime Minister claimed that Malaysia “had its own norms and values,” and excluded the rights of LGBTQ persons from the Declaration. Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister declared her support for the decision but added a wholly unexpected retort:
To me… human rights (are) the rights of an individual based on what you believe in, based on your culture and your religion. Fine, you want to recognize (LGBTQ rights), you think that’s right, you don’t want to follow what is in your bible, fine, I’m not condemning that … but this is the way we want to run our country … based on… high morality. You know why HIV and AIDS occur… how it is being spread. Now the number of people suffering from HIV is alarming. What is it you want? Do you want to allow this … or do you want to contain it – then this is the way we all should live.
According to Rosmah, supporters of LGBTQ rights are contradicting the Christian scriptures. It is evident that she was referring to countries in North America and Europe that support same-sex marriages, and which she perceived as “Christian” countries. She also implied these countries are immoral in contrast with Malaysia, which she claimed is “based on … high morality.” She also insinuated that countries which endorse same-sex marriages and LGBTQ persons spread HIV. For Rosmah, HIV is a disease that is caused by LGBTQ persons. Her words reflect how LGBTQ persons are made the scapegoats of undesirable elements in Malaysia.
Yet what Rosmah failed to understand is that HIV is not an LGBTQ disease. In 2012, the highest rate of HIV transmission in Malaysia was among heterosexual persons, and registered at 1538 reported cases. Intravenous drug users came second at 1014 cases, followed by homosexual and bisexual persons at 654 cases. As a total of 268 cases of HIV infection were detected among housewives, it is becoming evident that women are also becoming vulnerable to HIV due to their husbands’ extramarital sexual activities. Since 2006, Malaysian citizens have been entitled to free first line Highly Active Anti Retroviral Treatment (HAART) medication from government hospitals and clinics. At present, most Malaysian People Living with HIV who are on HAART are carrying on with their lives, and are no longer in danger of falling ill and dying from AIDS-related complications. Although HIV cannot be seen either as an LGBTQ disease or an affliction that visits those who are considered “immoral” or “promiscuous,” PLHIV are still subjected to discrimination, prejudice, judgment and condemnation.
Irrespective of our geographical locations, I believe that our perspectives and responses as Christians to HIV and AIDS must be centered on the person and attitude of Christ. Although many of us may identify as LGBTQ persons who have experienced discrimination, prejudice and judgment, it does not mean that we are automatically exempted from discrimination, prejudice and judgment towards PLHIV. It can be easy for us to be judgmental or to take pride in ourselves as “good” LGBTQ persons and Christians. Yet such an attitude belies a serious blind spot in our Christian vision. As followers of Christ, we remember his injunction: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (Luke 6: 37, RSV). This injunction is a call to be humble, non-judgmental and non-condemnatory towards all human persons, including PLHIV. It is also a mandate to avoid the tendency toward condescendingly seeing PLHIV as needing compassion and pity. Instead, we are called to treat PLHIV with respect and dignity simply because they are human persons. This respect and dignity must also prompt us to speak out against judgments or condemnations towards PLHIV. We are called to be in solidarity with PLHIV not just in thought and word, but more importantly in concrete action.
As followers of Christ, we are called to reflect the teachings and example of Christ, not only in the scriptures, but as exemplified in the lives of human persons who pursue what is good and just. A little while ago, I emphasized the avoidance of seeing PLHIV as people who warrant pity and compassion in a condescending way. To be condescending is to be arrogant, because it is to presume that one is superior to others. Again, the words spoken by Christ come to mind: “‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (Luke 6: 37, RSV). To avoid judgment and condemnation is to be humble, because it is to recognize that every single human person is loved unconditionally by God and has something to teach us. PLHIV can teach us that suffering cannot break us unless we allow it to. They remind us that more defines the value of a human person than just a disease. They reinforce the reality that life, in all its forms, is precious. In adopting a Christ-like vision, we will be more amenable to understanding that PLHIV can help shape our vision of all human persons in ways that challenge us beyond our usual comfort zones.
Joseph N. Goh is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Gender, Sexuality and Theology with the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University, Malaysia. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, CA. An ordained minister with the North American Catholic Ecumenical Church (NACEC), Goh is also a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars (EQARS) and the editor of the Queer Asian Spirit E-Magazine (QAS E-Zine).
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