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Paula Brettkelly: embracing the sick and despised

Wed 13 Jun 2007 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Honoured: Paula Brettkelly Sister Paula Brettkelly freely admits that, when she initially stepped forward to help fight against the stigmatisation of people with HIV and gays and lesbians, she had been brought up to "despise" us. Although she was to become one of the most potent not-so-secret weapons in late 1980s and early 90s fights for fair treatment of people with HIV (mostly gay men) and equality in law for homosexuals, Brettkelly's Roman Catholic religious upbringing and education had taught her that we are sinners, to the extent that she initially "half-hoped" her offer to assist us would be turned down. It wasn't. And as the months passed by she says she came to understand the gay men and lesbians she helped and worked alongside. "The most humbling and impressive thing to me was the immediate tolerance and acceptance by the AIDS community. They didn't put up barriers, they didn't have the prejudices, so why should I." Brettkelly overcame her distaste for homosexuals and her fear of HIV. In a word, the twinkling-eyed nun 'bonded' with her new gay and lesbian friends, to the point where she has just been awarded the prestigious Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday honours list for her anti-discrimination and HIV rights advocacy. Her nomination was heartily endorsed by the NZ AIDS Foundation, and by gay and lesbian organisations and individuals including MP and cabinet minister Chris Carter. In its supporting letter the NZAF's executive director, Rachael Le Mesurier, noted that "Sister Paula has been a steady and consistent voice of reason and compassion in and for the Foundation... we still continue to be inspired by her personal generosity and unflinching commitment to our mission of reducing the transmission of HIV and supporting people living with HIV and AIDS to maximise their health and well-being." In 2005 the Foundation acknowledged her with a Life Membership. Wellington-based gay rights activist and counselor Bill Logan remembers an example of Brettkelly's willingness to go the extra mile for gays in need. "At nine thirty one evening about fifteen years ago the Gay Switchboard in Wellington had to find - immediately - accommodation for a fifteen year old gay boy. He'd been getting hell, and had run away from home in the South Island. Paula took him in for several days until we got it sorted. That's pretty typical. She's there, and if she can, she'll help." Logan believes Brettkelly showed courage in turning away from those teachings of her church that define glbt people as sinners and finding her own understanding. "For a Roman Catholic sister to align herself with us must take a certain courage. For over twenty years she's advocated for us, with a quiet clear voice, a fine tactical sense, and a passionate sense of humanity and justice." And when a gay rights project has needed the kind of mana that can be bestowed by a committed and respected nun, Logan says Brettkelly has regularly obliged. " When we've needed respectability, she's always been willing to lend hers," he says. Click the link below to hear a podcast in which Sister Paula Brettkelly talks with Jay Bennie about the stigmatisation faced by people with HIV and her own change of heart about gays and lesbians. She also reveals some of the back-door tactics used to ensure the passing of then-National MP Katherine O'Reagan's anti-discrimination bill which signalled the beginning of the end of legalised discrimination against homosexuals in New Zealand, and she explains why she believes young gays and lesbians must be given the opportunity and responsibilty of continuing the fight against homophobia. Jay Bennie - 13th June 2007    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Wednesday, 13th June 2007 - 3:52pm

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