For some reason I fell off the media mailing list for last week's Port-of-Spain "Caribbean Faith Leaders Consultation" on HIV and AIDS organised by the Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP) and the Planning Committee of Religious Leaders and have only now received a wordy press release.
I know a bit about PANCAP from its early days almost 16 years ago when its Caricom founders thought that engaging a press freedom and media development organisation, such as the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), was the same as co-opting "the media" for free, sympathetic publicity. In the end, the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV and AIDS was established as the preferred option to achieve such an objective.
Fair enough. However, free publicity is not the same as having a cadre of journalists equipped with the knowledge to maintain a critical eye on the interventions designed to address this serious challenge to the future of the region.
Indeed, during the period we were welcome, we were able, among many other things, to point to the fact that the "shock tactics" of AIDS awareness campaigners in the 1980s had generated neither the personal nor social concern required to effect any significant level of behaviour change. Fear was not found by studies-in countries that rely on science-to have had any impact on awareness levels leading to lifestyle changes.
I remember doing the secondary research and writing the papers. Nobody seemed interested in listening, except when some of our views appeared to coincide with their own, especially our assertion that Caribbean media enterprises needed to pay greater attention to several important "survival issues" such as the fact that the incidence of HIV and AIDS remains among the highest in all the regions of the world. But this does not necessarily constitute journalistic endorsement or advocacy of the strategies being employed by this sector, some of which have in the past been found to be flawed, as mentioned before.
It must probably be even more problematic these several years later when dealing with "regional faith-based organisations" alongside an entity such as the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC) which has a focus on ensuring that people especially vulnerable to HIV and AIDS gain access to appropriate treatment and care and, through a recent project, the legal services to counter threats to their human rights. CVC is a regional civil society organisation formally associated with PANCAP. I use the CVC example if only because its most recent initiatives in the field of pro bono legal services come up against an environment made hostile by, among other things, the hate agenda of organised religion, revealingly expressed by exponents as resistance to a so-called "gay agenda." It is no secret that the "bun batty man" refrain of the dance hall on Friday night accurately summarises what is frequently heard from the pulpit on Sunday morning.
So when I perused the press release produced at the end of last week's meeting in T&T, I was quite easily able to pick up the contentious, grey areas and the politically-correct, linguistic codes.
From pointed reference to "family values" to the double entendre of "age appropriate sexual education" and the need to "engage representatives of key populations including men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug users and others in programmes aimed at identifying respective rights and responsibilities involved in the process toward the elimination of AIDS-related stigma and discrimination" there was evidence of creative tension and Caricomesque wordsmithing.
I am of the view that the juxtaposing of rights with responsibilities with respect to what people DO is sometimes a conceptual trap to ensnare the freedom-minded, but when you consider who people ARE through their gender identity, for example, the issue of being "responsible" takes on an entirely different meaning. What does a lesbian do to exhibit a sense of responsibility?
This is not an esoteric argument. It had actual, working meaning in a Guyana court where a magistrate once demanded that the transgender accused on his case list needed to be "properly attired" in order to make a court appearance. The case arose out of laws that prohibit men from dressing in women's clothing-in public at any rate.
Heading the opposition to a repeal of such laws were some of the faiths represented by the assembled, ecumenical brotherhood in Port-of-Spain last week.
That theological interpretation should form the basis for the crafting of criminal law remains one of the most significant obstacles to resolving the destructive ostracism of some citizens; in the process denying people through stigma, bigotry and discrimination equal access to all our societies offer.
A meaningful discourse on improving the overall quality of life of people living with HIV and AIDS and other vulnerable communities would not have been silent on the question of equality of opportunity. It is also true, as the deputy executive director, UNAIDS Luiz Loures said last week. that "HIV is a virus not a moral judgment," but it would have been far more impactful had such words emerged from the religious folk present.
South African church leader Rev Phumzile Mabizela, herself a person living with HIV/AIDS is reported in the press release as saying the clergy should be a "positive force for change" and should advocate for removing policy and legislative barriers to effectively deal with HIV.
What this would mean is a dramatic about-turn in the direction strenuously defended by many who would have been in the room at the time of such a declaration.
What makes me less than hopeful about the outcome of all this? Well, I have no doubt that "bun batty man" will continue to prevail as the clarion call of the hate agenda. Code for sustained anonymity, continued concealment and, in the process, a denial of the right to access some important means to continue living as healthy human beings.
In many respects last week, no one would have truly been preaching to the converted.