Is it possible that Jesus goes places that the Church is sometimes afraid to?
AIDS as a social issue has been used to scare some people and stigmatize others. Over the past 20-plus years there have been valiant efforts to humanize the AIDS issue with regard to African American community, drug abusers and orphans in Uganda. The thing is, when it comes to gay identified males … the corporate Church has been estranged and reluctant.
As the AIDS pandemic first hit, we in the Body of Christ missed an opportunity to express God’s servant heart and grace. In this redemptive void, a few stepped forward to stigmatize homosexual men. Even today, the overarching consistent message coming from the Christian community has been one of stigmatization and warning.
Certainly, it’s very appropriate to educate and “warn” about the dangers of sexual activity that could further this disease among many other STD’s and relational pain. But I did not and do not think it is appropriate to stigmatize a large group of men whom the Lord loves, dismissing them as unworthy of our love.
The year was 1988. I had just left a popular gay bar in Nashville, and it was very late. I was with the serious party people, as usual, who stayed until the club closed. We were a mess and looking to get in more of a mess. There was a local fast food burger joint everyone not fit to drive ended up at. I was there often.
However, this night in particular stands out because it was the night I learned Ron had died.
One of his best friends, Gary, whom I had not seen in a while, was standing in the long line in front of me. I left my friends and walked up to him and said hello. He said with a big smile, “Hey!” and gave me a hug. I asked him how he was and he said he was good. He didn’t have to ask how I was; he could see that I was baked (i.e., high on drugs).
I said, “I know Ron moved to Georgia to be with Paul (his first long term partner).” I could see that Gary looked concerned. So I added, “Don’t worry, I’m happy for Ron and hope they’re doing well.”
Gary’s eyes filled up with tears and obviously getting upset. “You don’t know?” he asked.
I responded with a perplexed look, “Know what?”
Up to that point AIDS was killing friends of my friends. I remember the rumors of a “gay” disease that had no name but it didn’t take long for us to learn that it was HIV and quickly becoming the new sexual pandemic. People literally disappeared from the clubs and our lives leaving us all confused. It was a ferocious virus that had no mercy. We watched, and still watch, how this small organism can destroy lives, challenge the will to live, orphan children around the globe and rob us of our family and friends.
Nowadays, many people are able to live with the virus for quite a while. It was quite a different story 20-plus years ago. Most died, not ever knowing what was truly killing them. Ron died not knowing he had AIDS until his final week here on earth.
In the middle of a grease pit fast food place at 3:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Gary was weeping as I literally melted down into tears and anguish. Ron, the only partner I thought I had truly loved up to that point, had died of AIDS.
Memories of him as a healthy vibrant man juxtaposed with what I had seen of the men that AIDS had taken before … I just couldn’t make any sense of it.
I literally don’t remember what happened next except in brief flashes of still pictures among the sounds of grieving. I remember Gary crying and helping me find a seat. I remember my friends looking in my eyes asking me if I was OK. I remember that the whole place got silent with shared mourning and empathy. The “party” crowd might not have all known Ron but they all knew what AIDS was and this usually boisterous crowd was eerily humbled.
As the information of what was happening rippled through the line you could see other faces in pain or concern. It became painfully quiet, if only for a moment, with only the sounds of frying burgers and weeping to punctuate the mourning.
Then, I remember the moment I realized that I was at high risk to have gotten the virus from Ron. The dawning horror of this revelation is especially traumatizing. It’s traumatizing to realize your death sentence might have been handed to you without you knowing. This realization mixed with the loss of Ron profoundly impacted my life; it still affects my heart deeply today.
At this pivotal point, I was among the only friends I had at the time: the gay community. I know that after so many years and a complete worldview shift, I still share that grief with them.
While some were claiming this was God’s curse against homosexuals, my gay friends wiped away my tears and held my hand as I waited on test result that I just knew were going to give me bad news. Back then you had to wait three months for even a hint as to whether you were carrying the virus and six months to know for sure. My first test results came back as “inconclusive.” I could relate to others facing life threatening situations; “inconclusive” is not an answer easily dealt with.
Eventually, my test results consistently came back negative. You would think with all of the turmoil going on around this event, I would be more careful. After a while, the fact that I was a drug addict started to overrule my sobering experiences. I’ll never forget one brave man living with the virus getting in my face and saying, “If you want to live you better quit acting like a slut! If some redneck doesn’t kill you, AIDS will!” This man was HIV+ and dating one of my best friends at the time, who had also recently been diagnosed as HIV+. Between Ron and this man’s exhortation, I know the value of the gay community holding itself accountable. Because of the self-imposed accountability within my gay community, I was not a “slut” for very long.
The love of friends gave them the ability to get in my face where the rantings of TV preachers fell on deaf ears. And the love of friends gave me the ability to hear them and take their counsel to heart.
Do you think Christ used a gay man’s hands to wipe away my tears at 3:15 a.m. in a Nashville restaurant, as I mourned the loss of Ron and feared for my life? Do you think Christ was using a gay man’s hands to hold my own as I grappled with “inconclusive” test results? Is it possible that Jesus goes places that the Church is sometimes afraid to?
It seems that the pain of the initial battle against the AIDS pandemic is being forgotten in the gay community. A Facebook friend, Brandon, passed along an article yesterday that starkly reveals how younger gay men have forgotten or don’t know what we experienced in the ’80′s. From the article What Young Gay Men Don’t Know About AIDS by Michael Specter:
Outrage and new medicines largely overcame denial and hatred. In the years that followed, the epidemic seemed to go away—though of course it never did, here or anywhere else. (By the end of this year, AIDS will have killed nearly forty million people—most of them in Africa.) And this week, in apowerful story in the Times, Donald McNeil pointed out that those most wretched days could return. “Federal health officials are reporting a sharp increase in unprotected sex among gay Americans,’’ he wrote, “a development that makes it harder to fight the AIDS epidemic.”
The article takes some opportunities to promote ideas on how tactics from the ’80′s might work again in the current political and social climates. I am not sure that ’80′s activism would be as effective today. But that is for a different post. All I know is, if it hadn’t been for some loving gay men in my life, I might not have lived long enough to have made the choices that eventually led me to Christ. Today I will do what I can to raise awareness and pray that those horrible days of the emergence of AIDS do not return.
Updated today from an article titled, “God’s Grace and Gay Men” (originally published on Boundless Magazine Website, 2008.)