HIV/AIDS, Bishops Kevin Dowling, and Me

One of the oddities of my personal journey as an out gay man is that, entirely by chance and without any credit on my own part, I found myself twenty five years ago organizing what I believe may have been the first ever public meeting on HIV /AIDS awareness in South Africa –  two of them! I have had a deep and personal interest in the “progress” (and anger at the lack of progress) of Aids prevention in the country ever since.  This gives me a particular interest in the story of Bishop Kevin Dowland, and his courage in speaking the truth on the topic.

Soon after I first came out nearly thirty years ago, I found myself meeting socially with a group that called itself “Gasa Rand” – (Gay Association of South Africa, Witwatersrand Region), which at the time was one of the only two organised groups of gay men and lesbians in Johannesburg’s then deeply closeted society. (The other was a sports group) . I quickly found myself co-opted onto the committee, and also used to help out in the office on Saturday afternoons, manning a telephone information line. At this time, news of the “Gay plague” / Grid / or Aids was only just starting to hit the news, and was mainly identified with foreign gay men – and people like male air crew, who were assumed to be in close contact with Americans.

I was in the office one day, when I fielded a call from San Francisco, from Dr Glen Margo, a South African doctor who was then working there, and had become heavily involved in public health, education and Aids prevention in the ‘Frisco community right from the beginning of the epidemic. He was then preparing for a family holiday back home, and wanted to use the opportunity to help us to prepare the Johannesburg gay community for what would surely hit us in time, and to offer some guidance from the US experience. Because I was the one on the spot, and because it meshed well with my responsibilities on the committee, I ended up in short order organizing two public meetings for the gay community. The first was in our community centre to hear Glen tell of the disaster that had fallen on San Francisco and was headed our way,and what he urged us to do as a community response. The second was in a downtown bar to hear a local doctor talking more of the purely medical issues, and personal precautions to safeguard our own health.

The lessons I took away from those meetings were two- fold. One was the urgency of serious public education and public health services, which would contribute to reducing STD’s more generally, and not only HIV/AIDS. The other was the importance of changes in behaviour to avoid personal infection, including the practice of safe sex and avoidance of all “risky” behaviour.  I also learnt that at that time, although the reported figures for HIV new infections in San Francisco were continuing to rise, the rates for other STD’s were already declining, proving that the community was responding to the need for behavioural change.  It appeared that the increasing figures for HIV were just a time lag, and so it proved. Later, the rates of infection for HIV followed other STD’s downward.

Soon after that, I became professionally involved in some basic monitoring of African economies and development issues for South African market research clients, and watched closely what was happening with HIV Aids across the continent. Uganda was a major problem area, with one of the highest rates of infection anywhere – but reports were that government efforts to contain it were following pretty well the recommendations and practice I had heard from San Francisco. I predicted that Ugandan infections would similarly begin to decline – and they did.

In my own country, government response was initially almost non-existent, beyond some paltry funding to AIDS research division at the Medical Research Council. Initially, the disease was seen as simply a problem for white gay men, who were numerically insignificant and in any case simply reaping the wages of sin. As it became clear that it was also a heterosexual problem, especially for Black South Africans,  well – Black public health was never a major priority for the minority White government. So nothing was done.

With the start of the path to democracy in 1990 and  the new government in 1994, there were high hopes for a major intervention it what had already become a major crisis, but the new government had many other crises to deal with as well, and a health minister whose own concerns were, to put it politely, elsewhere. Still nothing was done, and the problem got simply worse. Meanwhile Uganda, which had made a serious attempt to deal with its own problems, was achieving some good results.

When Thabo Mbeki replaced Mandela, there was hope that finally a younger, well-educated man more experienced in ordinary life, would finally give the problem the treatment it deserved.  He however, was a renowned and paranoid Aids sceptic, who did not believe the problem was severe, and attributed the “scare-mongering” to Western racists attempting to demonise Africans for their supposed sexual promiscuity. Instead, his appointed Minister of Health was the notorious “Doctor Beetroot”, who appeared to believe that the disease could be beaten by traditional African medicine and a healthy diet. Still, the epidemic worsened. Public education was inadequate, and funds for appropriate treatment almost non-existent, until activists forced the governments had with succesful applications to the courts. In the rest of the world, management of Aids, if not yet a cure, was bringing down death rates  – but not in south Africa.

AIDS and the Church

In the church, Catholic priests could see with their own eyes the extent of the devastation. The measured rates of adult infection reached as high as 30% in some provinces, and even more in some local areas – including many parishes.  Priests saying Mass on Sunday morning knew that possibly a third of the people in the pews, adults and even children who had been born with the virus, were HIV positive. Every week, they were burying people who had died young. I saw this myself in a Soweto parish I used to visit for a monthly Mass: on every visit, I was told of the latest deaths – and those were only the people known to me, including a young university student who was friendly with my own daughter.

What were these priests to do? What advice could they possibly give their own parishioners, on how to avoid infection – infection which at that time would have been a certain death sentence? do you suppose they reminded the women that it would be wrong to deny their husbands conjugal love, but that the Vatican doctrine prohibited the use of condoms?

It is well known that in the modern church, many priests in private will advise Catholics who have good reason to avoid pregnancy, to ignore the decrees on contraception “in good conscience”. You can assume that faced not with an inconvenient pregancy, but a real risk of fatal infection, many priests were doing the same thing, doing the obvious and only thing that might help to save lives, likewise urging their parishioners to avoid sex if unmarried, to remain faithful and monogamous within – and to be safe wherever they did indeed have intercourse. But, like priests elsewhere, this advice could be given only in private.

A “Visionary Changing the World”

That is where Bishop Kevin Dowling became a folk hero to me, and to many more South African Catholics. In a simple act of common sense, he cut through the nonsense of Vatican theorizing, and stated publicly what everybody knew:  in the interests of saving lives, it was necessary for the Church to reconsider its implacable opposition to condoms.

He is best known for his position that condoms should be used to prevent HIV transmission, a position he first announced in 2001 in response to a question by a Catholic news agency reporter during a meeting in New York City. After stating that the Bishops’ Conference had not taken a position on condom use, Dowling was asked for his personal opinion, and said that he believed condoms should be used to prevent the spread of HIV.

This was widely interpreted as contradicting the official stance of the Catholic Church, which opposes the promotion of condom use, while not having a definite, recognized policy on individuals using condoms for the precise purpose of protecting themselves against AIDS.In private conversations the papal nuncio to South Africa told Dowling that he had strayed from the official line.The Southern African Bishops Conference also described condoms as “an immoral and misguided weapon” in the fight against HIV, arguing that condom use could even encourage the spread of HIV by promoting extramarital sex.

For his stance on this matter, Utne Reader, a United States magazine that provides “alternative coverage of politics, culture, and new ideas”, named Dowling one of its “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World”.


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