Jamaican clergy fret: Hate sin but treat LGBT sinners?

AIDS fighters and religious leaders are at loggerheads in Jamaica, but they are at least  trying to find common ground that will allow them to cooperate in the fight against HIV / AIDS.

Major Richard Cooke (Photo courtesy of The Gleaner)
Major Richard Cooke (Photo courtesy of The Gleaner)

From the public health viewpoint of the United Nations anti-AIDS agency, religion-based stigma and discrimination against at-risk populations such as LGBT people obstruct HIV/AIDS prevention programs from serving them.

But for many religious leaders, it is difficult to contemplate the idea of eliminating stigma and discrimination against gays and lesbians without that sounding like abandonment of  church doctrines opposed to homosexuality.

They also tend to equate removal of stigma against gays with acceptance of gay rights.

At a recent meeting of church leaders and UNAIDS officials, religious leader Major Richard Cooke, president of the faith-based Joy Town Community Development Foundation, said, for example: “The perception is that the homosexuals have used AIDS to push their agenda. … When we feel that our help is linked to a gay agenda, we do not want to be a part of it.”

The Gay Jamaica Watch blog commented, “In other words, the clerics are suggesting that the gay-rights agenda has stigmatised the HIV/AIDS prevention programme, and, consequently, has alienated the religious community.”

A recent study ordered by the Jamaican Ministry of Health explored the attitudes toward AIDS and homosexuality among 41 leaders of faith-based organizations  in 35 denominations.  It found that in dealing with the subject, religious leaders believe they have a  “responsibility to uphold moral values and hold society accountable to those values.” The study added that some faith groups need further education about HIV / AIDS: “A related finding is the faulty association of HIV/AIDS with sexual promiscuity (which is not always the case) by some church leaders and congregations.”

The Rev. Al Miller
The Rev. Al Miller

The blog added, “Despite their caution about doctrinal and moral issues, as well as their objection to twinning HIV/AIDS prevention messaging with gay rights activism, [church] leaders have expressed and demonstrated a willingness to support the overarching objective of helping to arrest the spread of the epidemic.”

Church leader Keith Ellis said faith-based organizations should work with the findings of the study and “communicate it in a way that is not offensive and is more palatable, such as with a message of love, respect, and compassion. Then we can achieve progress.”

The Rev. Al Miller added about homosexuality and HIV / AIDS, “You have to be careful that you are not selling that ‘this is good, this is normal, this is an acceptable lifestyle’.” But also, “Let’s push the message of ‘test and treat’ rather than ‘stigma and discrimination.’ ”

In addition to religion-based stigma, Jamaican law currently calls for prison sentences of up to 10 years for male homosexual activity. Because gay men are categorized as criminals, they often get left out of AIDS prevention programs.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]


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