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GRASSROOTS: The GMT Initiative Blog

Grassroots reports on the work of amfAR-supported research teams and advocates responding to the devastating impact of HIV among gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender individuals (collectively, GMT).

The Catholic Church and HIV in Antigua and Barbuda

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Posted by Lucile Scott, November 7, 2013

In September, Pope Francis made global headlines when he stated that the Catholic Church had grown “obsessed” with gay rights, contraception, and abortion, and called for it to “find a new balance.” The majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics now reside in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia—many in the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. And the Catholic Church is also the largest private provider of HIV care in the world. However, until 2010, 30 years into the epidemic, the church condemned the use of condoms in any circumstance, including for the prevention of HIV. And the Holy See did not publicly speak out against homophobic violence and anti-gay laws until 2008.

But while Francis’ September statement was a momentous and high profile shift for church, it was far from an isolated event. Church officials have been increasingly using the pulpit to advocate for sound HIV policies for all populations in their communities for years. amfAR spoke to Craig Rijkaard, acting executive director of the Antiguan Resilience Collective Inc. (ARC)—a GMT Initiative grantee partner—about how the Catholic Church in Antigua and Barbuda’s efforts to combat HIV and the anti-gay policies that fuel new infections have impacted his organization’s HIV outreach and advocacy work.

craig antiguanCraig Rijkaard, executive director of the Antiguan Resilience Collective Inc., visit’s amfAR’s New York offices. Even before Pope Francis spoke, back in Benedict’s time, we got a new bishop in Antigua, Bishop Kenneth Richards, who within I think the first month after he got ordained went on the radio and said publicly that he is not to judge what happens in an adult bedroom. And that got the ball rolling. Now we have a lot of discussion surrounding this issue on talk shows and in the churches. Some churches are now inviting people from different organizations and from the Directorate of Gender Affairs to come in and talk to their congregations about it.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) are criminalized in Antigua and Barbuda, and that can make it very difficult for them to access health services. In the churches, they talk about gay rights in terms of HIV. They say that everybody has the right to healthcare and that we need to make access easy for everyone, because if it’s not, it means the faithful housewife could be infected by her husband, who maybe goes out sleeping with a sex worker, be it male or female.

At ARC, we provide trainings for healthcare workers and a referral system so GMT can see a doctor who won’t treat them differently, and we’ve been invited to talk on the air about these programs to ensure that people in same-sex relationships have the same access to health services as everyone else. Currently, an individual might go to the public health service and say they have MSM-related health issues, and first they have to tell the person at the counter, and then then nurse, and then the doctor, and they may experience stigma or discrimination. So we find that a lot of clients end up self-medicating and aren’t getting the care they need.

We are not at a place where everyone is going to say, oh yes, we totally accept homosexuals and lesbians, but we’ve seen a shift in how people have been behaving recently, since all the discussions. In the past, we had bad situations where homosexuals were stoned or beaten, and they couldn’t go certain places, and now we are seeing it’s more normal. I think this has made the healthcare workers more receptive. Recently, I met with a head nurse about doing a workshop to help the community nurses provide better care for MSM and she said, ‘Just let me know when you want to have the workshop and how many nurses you need and how we can work with you.’

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