This article originally appeared on the blog ASS- (Amor, Sexo y Serología), for Imagina Más.
On April 6th, I attended a meeting with the civil society that took place in the United Nations headquarters in New York; a meeting that was organized with HIV activists from around the world in preparation for the High Level Meeting that will take place in June, and where executive decisions will be made to, in theory, end the HIV epidemic globally. I was representing Imagina Más (Imagine More). It was 8 hours of many interventions of 5 and 2 minutes, and the truth is that at times I had a hard time staying awake until some powerful intervention would put me out of that drowsiness. One of those interventions was Martin’s. He had two minutes to say everything he wanted, and he did it in Spanish, rushing it in an attempt to not leave out anything important, with an admirable determination, and above all, with great sensitivity about the LGBTI+ community and drug users, which was, in my eyes, an unexpected sensitivity for someone wearing a clerical collar.
“It’s a shame that Latin-American countries, from a double standard rhetoric, and outright violating the secularity of the State, take position from the religious fundamentalism to deny access to health to people from the LGBTI community, being the trans population the more stigmatized and affected” he said, ten seconds in his intervention. That was the moment I knew I wanted to meet him. I didn’t know his name, or which country he was from exactly, but I needed to get in touch and interview him for ASS-.
Reverend Martín Diaz is a 25 year-old Salvadoran. He’s the current president of the management board of the Iglesia Evangélica Protestante (Evangelical Protestant Church) in El Salvador. He’s a theologian and a priest, specialized in Human Rights Pastoral and Drug Policies in a country that is a main link in the drug-trafficking route. “El Salvador is part of the Northern Triangle (with Guatemala and Honduras), the Central American passage for 90% of the cocaine that goes into the US. Nonetheless, the government of El Salvador continues to deny that the drug-trafficking organizations run the country, at the same time denying the rise in the drug usage rate. We are a country that was declared as “Middle Rent” in complicity with the World Bank, which led to us having less access to the Global Fund to address these issues.”
In this drug-trafficking journey from South to North, HIV makes an appearance, and within the many fronts that Martin’s Church (not Martin) is involved in, the priorities are two: the decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs (PWUD), and the defense of the LGBTI rights, particularly for trans people. “Health professionals in public service continue to stigmatize and deny access to health to a great part of the LGBTI community. We are aware that the trans population is the most vulnerable. A specific example is the case of trans men, as they have been denied access to health services in programs such as “Ciudad Mujer” (Woman City), and their needs for gynecological attention have been ignored.”
In these articles we have talked many times about how we can continue to question the sexual health campaigns that are built in an authoritative way, and replace them with new ones that treat adults as adults who have the ability to make their own decisions about their sexuality and bodies. This alternative way to look at sexual health has two pillars: 1. That everybody knows, in depth, which STDs exist, how they are transmitted and how they can be prevented. 2. In case that risks are to be exposed more openly (there’s always risk–some STDs are transmitted simply by touch), there should be awareness on how to reduce these risks as much as possible. The foundation should always be to respect personal freedom and to know how to listen. Martin, who works in the trenches of HIV and drugs, knows exactly in what ways they can promote sexual health: “Well, precisely the damage reduction and risk management strategies attempt to modify the logic of prohibitive campaigns. The objective is that, if someone decided to use X or Y substance, they would already have the right information on what they are consuming and how to consume it in a way that avoids as much damage as possible. Education plays a main role, not only in regards of sexual practices but also on substance usage and the exercise of our essential rights.”
I asked him if this type of social intervention presents a challenge for his religious beliefs: “I think it actually presents a challenge for my fundamentalist colleagues—Jesus of Nazareth’s message is clear. We, as a religious community, work on more important subjects that are taboo for other communities, or that are ignored due to a lack of compromise. As a community of faith, we assume our role in making the signs of God’s Kingdom on Earth visible by making meetings happen and promoting unity in diversity”. Martin sounds like the best crop out of those priests in the 60’s and 70’s who promoted and practiced the Liberation Theology in Latin America. He himself is a convinced and practicing Latin Americanist who has studied in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Argentina, was a herald to The Pastoral for Damage Reduction and Risk Management in Argentina, Paraguay, El Salvador and Uruguay, and has coordinated and managed the First Symposium about Drug Policies in El Salvador, as well as multiple investigations on drug policies in El Salvador and Uruguay. He has also coordinated and managed training projects for young leaders on their way to the reform of the current policies on drugs in El Salvador and the Northern Triangle.
His interventions, as we can see, are as politic as activist in the field, as well as in the world of ideas. He publishes articles on Factum Magazine, like this one, where he questions, from a philological point of view, the Bible condemning homosexuality. He states: “God made us to be his image in the world. Everything we are, including our bodies and our sexuality, is a gift from God to our life. Homosexuality is not a sin as long as it manifests a bond of love and mutual respect. This is applicable to both homosexuality and heterosexuality. Which means that God doesn’t see homosexuality, nor heterosexuality, as sinful. Oppression is a sin, as well as injustice, discrimination, persecution, lack of respect for people and all of creation. So, the sins are: homophobia, hate crimes like beatings and homicides, discrimination, legislations that act against the LGBTI rights and communities, and the refusal to include Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals, Intersexuals and Queers in churches or communities of faith in general.”
Martin has been so kind to share the message he read in the UN with us. Read it until the end, because there’s something in it for everyone. Enjoy:
Brothers and sisters, it is essential that we relate the drug policies and, ultimately, the public policies of damage reduction and risk management to be able to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because today one of the biggest threats to our work are the risk activities, the lack of education, and the lack of access to sexual health and reproductive rights. It’s evident that irresponsible substance usage increases the risks of contagion.
It’s a shame that Latin American countries, from a double standard rhetoric, and outright violating the secularity of the State, take position from the religious fundamentalism to deny access to health to people from the LGBTI community, being the trans population the more stigmatized and affected. Brothers and sisters, it’s a pity that only a few countries from our region have joined the Ibero-American Convention on Youth Rights, which would be a very useful tool to fight HIV in our countries. Even more pitiful—I’m sorry, but let’s be honest—: it’s embarrassing that the Salvadorian State won’t join this Convention, when this State was headquarters of the summit where it was signed.
It’s imperative and a matter of urgency that we strengthen the Country Coordinating Mechanisms (CCMs) of the Global Fund. We are certain that this is the most direct way to contribute to the local development. We strongly ask that the systems of the UN become aware and do not stop supporting the under-developed countries just because their governments disguise them as Middle Rent with the help of the World Bank.
Lastly, I call on everyone in the name of God, to fight together, to not forget that the flags we hold are linked. Let’s fight for the decriminalization of drug users, as this hinders their access to real health programs; let’s fight for the true application of public policies of damage reduction and risk management, for the defense of sexual health and reproductive rights in our countries. Let’s be supportive with the countries who are under total prohibition of abortion; the decriminalization of abortion is an important subject for public health in countries like El Salvador, Dominican Republic or Bolivia. Let’s use these spaces, not to institutionalize the fight of the civil society, but to go down to the base of these mechanisms that, so far, are managed by only a handful of bureaucrats who are distant or blind to the reality of society.
In the end, those who will be left behind are the governments, and the dark, greedy, and often inhuman, pharmaceutical industry that is protected by our very leaders.
May Father God and Mother God guide us in this uphill battle.
This uphill battle has a price. Martin currently lives outside of El Salvador, in exile, after a series of threats and intimidations he received as a result of touching a sensitive spot on the obscure relationship between the drug-trafficking network and the institutions in the country. He lives with his partner, also a theologian and priest, Reverend Daniela Kreher.