On June 5, 1981 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This was 4 days before my 9th birthday. Over the next 18 months, other cases were discovered in cities throughout the country. This disease was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRIDS). By August of 1982 it had been renamed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By May of 1986, the virus that causes AIDS had been isolated and was named HIV. I was almost 14.
Spending the first years of the AIDS epidemic in a fundamentalist Christian setting strongly colored my initial impressions and understanding of this disease. So many in the Christian community saw this as a gay disease that was God’s wrath for living a homosexual “lifestyle.” It was almost inevitable that my own beliefs would mirror those of the community around me. I am ashamed to say that for many years I felt little remorse or sympathy for the thousands of people, primarily gay men, who died horrific deaths from AIDS. So many of us stood by and did nothing to help, believing that those who died deserved their fate. Many prominent Christian leaders would justify their inaction by blaming the victims, quoting Romans 1:27 “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV 1984 edition)
These years were also the beginning of my own understanding and exploration of sex and sexuality. I discovered I was gay during the same years gay men were dying in record numbers. AIDS was in the news a lot then, and those around me used it to demonize gay men and their “perverted lifestyles,” saying that those who were afflicted were under God’s wrath. AIDS became just one more punishment I had to try to avoid, just one more reason I had to find any way I could to stop being gay. While trying to run away from my own sexuality, I also turned my back on thousands of people who, I was convinced, deserved their own deaths. It wasn’t until years later, when I left Christianity, that I realized just how terribly wrong I had been.
I can never make up for my early beliefs about AIDS and those who contracted the disease. I can never apologize to those who died while I believed their deaths were somehow just. I was part of the problem that allowed thousands to die needlessly. My community stood by in approval merely because those who were dying were part of a marginalized minority. A minority I now belong to.
I’ve grown a lot since AIDS was first discovered. I have broken free of the early programming that the disease is somehow God’s wrath. However, I am still ignorant of the full personal impact of what it means to live with HIV or have loved ones who have been lost to AIDS. This epidemic has had an incalculable effect on the gay community and on gay culture, but my only part in this history is one of which I am deeply ashamed.
We will never be able to fully deal with the AIDS epidemic until we end the stigmatization of those who are touched by the disease. Standing now as a member of the community that has born the brunt of the devastation from HIV/AIDS, I can work towards cultivating greater empathy and understanding, not only in myself but in the world around me.