In Utah and Around the World, Young Activists Face Similar Issues


At the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, last month, I met a woman from the Philippines who, like me, is a young person engaged in sexual and reproductive rights advocacy. I asked her about young people’s, women’s, and LGBTQ rights in her country. Almost immediately, she began talking about the Catholic Church and its opposition to sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) and any law or government policy regarding birth control or sexuality that did not fall in line with traditionalist Catholic teachings.

During presentations by participants from Nigeria and Uganda I heard similar stories about those opposed to sexual and reproductive rights in these countries from both Evangelical Christian as well as Muslim leaders.

Talking to these other young global activists and hearing their stories struck a chord in me. I found myself constantly reminded of my own experiences back in my home state of Utah. Utah was originally settled by (and is thereby hugely influenced by) the Mormon Church, which like many other religious denominations, has conservative stances on sex education, access to contraception, and LGBTQ rights. Many of my state representatives, who are often more conservative than the church itself, have attempted to limit access  to information and services, especially that of young people. Young activists who advocate for policy change here often find themselves ignored or even mocked by our conservative religious representatives.

During the International AIDS Conference, I had the privilege of meeting people from all corners of the world who are fighting for sexual and reproductive rights for themselves and their communities, many representing different member associations of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Among the group of nations that were represented were ones I never expected: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda, Nigeria, and so on. What made these countries stand out to me is that I associate them with religious extremism and restrictive politics. How, I wondered, were these activists, especially those who were young, able to remain active in such repressive societies? And what tactics do they use to combat the highly conservative religious environments in which they live?

These are questions that many young advocates in my community, including myself, ask themselves. How are we to stand up to such a strong and prolific conservative religious force that influences so many of our laws and policies here in the state? This question is especially poignant given the fact that many of us come from families and tight-knit communities that share this conservative religious identity. Sadly, young advocates in my community often find their own families and friends coming out against their sexual and reproductive rights in the same way that many young advocates in other conservative religious parts of the world do.

Now critics may say that the United States, no matter how religious, is not Afghanistan or Uganda. Our laws may not be perfect, but we have more freedom than anyone who lives in those countries. That said, freedom is not a permanent state and must be guarded always. Here in Utah, while they could certainly be improved, our laws regarding adolescent sexual and reproductive health are not as bad as they could be, especially given our religious legislature.

But this last year they almost became a lot worse. Our legislature attempted to pass laws that would have banned any kind of sex education besides abstinence in schools, banned the mention of homosexuality and contraceptives in schools, and even made it illegal to so much as talk about sex education to anyone under the age of 18. The bills, though they survived the legislature, were vetoed by our governor, who despite his own social conservatism, recognized their extremity. But vetoes can be overturned and there’s no reason to believe some of our representatives here in the state won’t again try to force their own highly conservative religious ideals upon the lives of all the people of Utahs, whether they share those views or not.

This is the situation in many communities around the world. The young woman I met from the Philippines is fighting a similar battle in her country to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care. For years now the Federal legislature has debated passing a law that would would require the government to provide contraceptives, offer family planning counseling, and put sex education classes in schools. Recently, formal debate ended around the bill, putting it one step closer on the long road to becoming a new law. The Catholic Church, who is as highly influential there as the Mormon Church is here, rallied 10 thousand traditionalist Catholics in Manila to oppose the bill over a week ago.

It’s important for us to support those young people around the world who share our values and find themselves in similar restrictive situations and oppressive religious environments. There is much that we, as young activists, can learn from those other young activists about how to maintain our sexual and reproductive freedom here in our own community in Utah.

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Follow Thomas Alberts on twitter: @ThomasAlberts1