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  • Queering the "Church and AIDS" Curriculum:Tracing an Improper (and Indecent) Trajectory
  • Gerald O. West (bio)

AIDS, HIV, pedagogy, queer, South Africa

This contribution offers a brief overview of the contextual pedagogical trajectory that characterizes the "theological" curriculum of the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics (SRPC) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and focuses on one of its most recent manifestations—the emergence of an African queer curricula orientation from within decades of sustained work in the area of HIV. In particular, I analyze how the "Church and AIDS" postgraduate module has gradually begun to do "indecent" and "improper" biblical and theological work.

The "Church and AIDS" module is an attempt at constructing a pedagogy that incorporates an interdisciplinary use of the traditional theological disciplines but framed by a contextual theme, the theme being determined and given shape by emerging contextual realities. The module was established in 2003, and the most recent (2016) collaboratively determined contextual thematic orientation to shape the module is "Constructing 'Improper' Theology."

The Advent of HIV

The theological project in the SRPC has its conceptualization in South African and African realities.1 So the "Church and AIDS" module locates itself within this trajectory, discerning in the late 1990s that in order to mainstream [End Page 125] HIV within the theological curriculum there needed to be an intentional foregrounding within the HIV curriculum. Two of the SRPC's community development and research centers—the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa (established in 1996) and the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research (established in 1989)—had already brought the realities of their community work into SRPC, including the privileging of the epistemologies of people living with HIV and AIDS.

HIV has intruded in many ways into our bodies and work. A significant outcome of being infected and affected by HIV was the formation of an interdisciplinary "Collaborative for HIV and AIDS, Religion and Theology" (CHART) in 2007. CHART has provided a site for academic staff, university students, community-based practitioners, and people living with HIV to work together. At the center of this collaboration is the CHART database, consisting of more than 3,500 published entries intersecting HIV and religion. An initial collaborative mapping of the database, "The Cartography of HIV and AIDS, Religion and Theology," was undertaken between 2007 and 2011.2 This research project intersected circles of scholars, activists, and people living with HIV, and made a commitment to report its findings to the churches and HIV-related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). Reporting took place in 2013 at a consultation on "Contending with HIV, Contending with the Church/Mosque: Building a Redemptive Religious Community." CHART used this consultation to ask the participants to assist us in discerning the gaps in the Chartography project, based on their experience with the realities of HIV. Two areas were identified: stigma and sexuality.

Stigma and sexuality are related in African realities and scholarship, with the recognition that unless we engage biblically and theologically with sexuality we cannot address the religiocultural dimensions of stigma. The advent of HIV has disrupted the closely patrolled terrain of heteropatriarchy, forging spaces and places in which to engage gender, masculinity, and most recently sexuality. Both the Ujamaa Centre and the Sinomlando Centre have participated in these spaces and places with local African communities, working primarily from the epistemological perspectives of those living with HIV and more recently, those with marginalized sexualities.3 In addition, the work of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA+), with [End Page 126] whom CHART regularly collaborates, provides a training program for students from the "Church and AIDS" module to be trained in INERELA+'s SAVE training program, which has become increasingly focused on sexuality.4

From HIV to Sexuality

An emphasis on stigma and sexuality shaped the "Church and AIDS" module in 2014 and 2015, with each member of the teaching team using the CHART database to ascertain what work had already been done in the intersections of HIV, religion, and stigma and of HIV, religion, and sexuality. The focus for the "Church and AIDS" module...