HIV/AIDS and Religion
My name is Joe, and I'm a gay man
living with HIV. I also happen to be a Christian minister. Spiritual and
religious influences have dramatically altered the overall course and
direction of my life. It has informed who I am now and who I am
becoming. I have seen firsthand the tremendous good that takes place
when religion offers healing and wholeness to others. I have also
witnessed the negative force that can be unleashed when prejudice and
oppression in the name of religion goes unchecked.
When talking about HIV/AIDS and
religion in the same breath, we must uncover as many of the roles
religion has played in the evolution of the epidemic as possible. To do
so, we must first consider how powerful religion is, historically, and
recognize that any notion we might have of a secular existence is merely
wishful thinking. Society has never achieved separation from religion.
Quite the contrary. Rules and regulations that have determined the law
of the land for centuries emanate from the same religious beliefs and
practices of the founders of our government, and have influenced that
law ever since. Long have religious doctrine and dogma weighted policy
and politics in the United States and around the world, often to the
detriment of its people and culture. To this day, our courts consider
arguments about the propriety of the inclusion (or exclusion) of God's
name in our institutional language, even as they judge the validity of
sodomy laws that still ride on the books of thirteen southern and
From these comments, it is
abundantly clear that politics and religion are inalterably woven
together. You can no more separate political rhetoric from its religious
roots than contend that the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS is unrelated to
prejudice associated with sexual orientation and expression. This
discussion has as much to do with sexuality and religion as it does HIV
HIV/AIDS has come to mean many
things in the cultural, social, and spiritual circles of our world. But
contrary to the prevailing doctrine among fundamentalist conservative
political and religious leaders and their devotees, HIV/AIDS is not a
curse from God. HIV/AIDS is not a judgment against immoral behavior.
HIV/AIDS is not an expressed retribution or karma from past (or future)
deeds. And HIV/AIDS is not deserved. Quite simply, nobody deserves to
live with or die from HIV/AIDS than from any other disease or illness.
You'd never know this by peering
into the deep recesses of the doctrines of the most populous religious
institutions within the United States. Misguided religious and political
movements continue to stigmatize HIV/AIDS, blaming queer people
universally and queer men in particular, for the spread of HIV/AIDS
locally and globally. In the same breath, queer people are deemed
unworthy "sinners" because of their sexual orientation and practice, and
the attempt is made, often successfully, to exclude us from the diverse
family of the human and spiritual community.
Doesn't exactly make you want to
jump up and run to your local church, mosque, or synagogue and enroll,
does it? Unfortunately, there's more unsettling news to report, from one
extreme to the other.
The infamous Halloween "Hell House"
Kit (still a popular item among some in the fundamentalist Christian
movement for a mere $199) promotes grotesque and macabre depictions to
young people across the country: a young woman covered with scabs and
sores seeks an abortion, a young man contracts venereal disease from
having premarital sex, an AIDS victim lies in a coffin as a prancing
demon utters the slogan, "I tricked him into thinking he was born gay.
Have you ever heard something so silly?" The message couldn't be
clearer: to have sexual relationships outside the "norm" is pure evil,
and begets pain, misery and doom, and punishment will be in future.
Other descriptive terminology from similar faith traditions are just as
damning: "immoral," "disordered," and "intrinsically evil." Sound
another sad note against religion.
Stigmatization against those with
HIV/AIDS frequently materializes in much more subtle manifestations. I
once trained as a chaplain at a university hospital complex on the West
Coast. A young man had been admitted to the ICU with pneumocystis. As
happens too often in this disconnected world where familial
relationships are at times based upon half-truths, his parents (who flew
in from Michigan) didn't know he was gay, let alone that he had
HIV/AIDS. Another chaplain attempted to counsel this young man, but the
tight restriction of his dogmatic religious tradition was inept at
coping with the patient's queer experience. The significance of this
inability to distinguish between self-righteous judgment and
compassionate ministry was incalculable, so at my urging, and with my
supervisor's permission, I approached the patient's mother. She confided
that she couldn't understand why her loving son (her favorite child of
six, incidentally) could not have been honest with her. Suspicious, I
inquired about the family faith tradition, and a sadness came over her.
She became irritated, upset, and confused, and acknowledged she would
have no support when she returned home. "No one will understand this,"
she said. The look on her face and those five words were enough to tell
Another man I visited throughout the
summer was hospitalized with terminal HIV-related lymphoma. He refused
to contact his family or allow the hospital staff to speak on his
behalf. He had long separated himself from his friends at the onset of
this latest illness, and he confessed that he'd finally bought the
rotten goods that religion had spewed about "homosexuals" his entire
life. Compounding his inner turmoil, hurt and anguish pervaded his home
life concerning his sexual orientation. Now, at the end, he was
unwilling to risk a final trauma, certain that the "We-told-you-so's"
would far outnumber the "We-love-you's." One would have hoped this man's
personal faith might have brought some comfort. But if one believes that
God is immanent and thereby present in all beings, then the special
delivery message he thought God was sending had certainly been received.
Tragically, he died alone.
These stories are not new or
surprising. They will continue to unfold until the family of religions,
its leaders, and their followers unite to obliterate hate and prejudice
based upon ignorance and fear. Traditionally, people have been able to
turn to their spiritual communities for solace and comfort in times of
personal struggle, inner turmoil, or physical illness or impairment.
Sadly, for those from the HIV/AIDS community, that same house of worship
and its "supporting" community might be the last place people would want
to go to ask for help or direction.
But no matter how bleak the
situation may seem, it's not all bad. When HIV/AIDS first leapt into our
collective consciousness, the first heroes to engage in the fight
against the epidemic were lovers and friends from the queer community. I
draw upon my own experience here, having lost two partners to HIV/AIDS Æ
one to Kaposis Sarcoma and the other to AIDS-related lymphoma. The
impact was enormous, but when I really needed to do so, I was able to
draw on a force and strength I never thought possible (one religious
community served me; another did not). But as HIV/AIDS cases multiplied,
the next layer of care came from the medical community. Health care
providers of all kinds, caught off-guard by the swift spread of the
epidemic, mobilized, trained and reinforced themselves in an effort to
stall the epidemic. A huge groundswell from within faith communities and
religious organizations materialized as well, many whom had experienced
grief and loss of friends and fellow-churchgoers who rapidly succumbed
to the first wave of HIV/AIDS. Others were mobilized unwittingly by the
shocking, heartrending news (not unlike that mother from Michigan) that
their children had tested positive and needed the immediate and
nonjudgmental nurturing love of their parents once more. The fact is,
over the past two decades many religious groups have established
critical lifelines by assisting PWAs, their families, and friends,
through programs of education and prevention, as well as compassionate
care and support.
This is not to say that all
compassionate care is dispensed with neutrality and extends beyond the
impact of the disease itself. Some religious institutions try to have it
both ways: they'll help fight against HIV/AIDS as caregivers sympathetic
to the sick and dying, but all the while they'll fight tooth and nail
against any acceptance of a queer lifestyle or "agenda." One California
religious organization recently spent $2 million to support an effort to
make marriage among queer people illegal. What kind of message is that?
At best, it's a double standard that won't hold up ethically under any
religion that holds the love of all humankind as its mission. The "love
the sinner, hate the sin" mantra is one filled with judgment and
bigotry. It is a privileged and hierarchical perspective not at all
grounded in the beauty of the diversity of everyday lives and
So what's the magic test? How do we
know that a religious organization has made a commitment to engage in
the well-being and care of its HIV/AIDS population? One way to find out
is to visit its website. See how long it takes you to find out about
HIV/AIDS issues or programs Æ if they exist at all. In some cases,
you'll be pleasantly surprised. And in others, well, probably not at
So what we should expect from
religion today in the fight against HIV/AIDS? What is the responsibility
of the religious community as a new wave of the epidemic now challenges
the entire world community, particularly those most threatened among the
poor and marginalized peoples of the globe?
Here's a place to start. Religious
leaders should pledge to uphold and declare all life and all loving
relationships as sacred. They should once again appear on the front
lines of the epidemic, united against those who would use HIV/AIDS to
separate and divide. And with the Faith-Based Initiative certain to pass
Congress in some form in this term, interfaith religious leaders should
insist that the distribution of funds be channeled only to those
institutions for prevention that are willing to speak the truth about
HIV/AIDS and human sexuality. Congress should ensure that the funds
designated for HIV/AIDS prevention be used to mobilize communities
toward true prevention, not the promotion of one simplistic messages of
"abstinence" which may work for a few, but not for most.
Let our religious leaders mobilize
interfaith teams that cooperate with local Departments of Public Health
and scientific communities of universities and hospitals to provide more
informed and practical approaches to education and prevention.
Platitudes and slogans are clever but do little toward real progress in
slowing the epidemic. Provide free and anonymous testing in the same
buildings that house places of worship. (I know this works, because we
do it at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco!) Offer and
encourage routine testing. Establish care teams that assist people with
practical and spiritual support and information. Offer HIV/AIDS support
groups that reach beyond individual worship community into the broader
community where the need is greater. People of faith need to let people
know they care and are committed, and enlist volunteers to ensure that
no one goes unnoticed or is left behind and forgotten.
Many religious traditions have
already created space for the ultimate Divine love, care, and welfare of
all human beings. This is something we should all aspire to, regardless
of the fear and prejudice that can paralyze us toward inaction while the
children of God die all around us. God weeps for them, and for us.
Religion can continue as an impediment or as an ally in the fight
against HIV/AIDS, whether the topic is sexual orientation, education, or
prevention. The potential for both is there.
I wish I could unequivocally declare
an even balance between the inherent good religion has done and the evil
it has often embodied. Fortunately, I have not been called to testify,
nor have I any desire to keep score. Much more needs to be done. I
figure it takes about ten times the number of good deeds in the world to
counteract every evil perpetuated in the name of God by religion. Though
I'm not much of a proponent of "heaven and hell," if there is a devil at
work in the universe, this would be its work.
Religion has to do for all her
children what parents of queer people must do when they find out their
beloved daughter or son has acquired HIV/AIDS Æ love and care for them
tenderly, unconditionally, unreservedly. Does this always happen? No, it
doesn't. But it most certainly should.
And as for me, I care deeply about
the impact religion has had in my life and upon those whom I have loved.
I am passionate about the power and strength of the Divine in my life,
and the capacity for healing that can take place for others when
religious people choose to let go of their fear and ignorance, and
decide instead to let love and compassion rule their hearts. It is from
those deep and positive aspects of my religious experience that my
challenge comes Æ that and from my sincere belief that everything we do
can and will make a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS.