Tuesday, September 27th was National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It’s been more than 40 years since the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) first official reporting of what would later be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). I was only seven years old. Twenty five years later, I would be diagnosed with HIV myself. Long before I would ever understand my attraction to the same sex, I knew what AIDS was. And because I could already begin to sense the passions welling up inside of my prepubescent Black boy body, my soul made the connection. A connection comically portrayed in the Broadway show, “A Strange Loop” dramatized by Usher, main character, as he sings to his deceased friend, Darnell, “AIDS is God’s punishment. For the man that ain’t living right. AIDS is God’s punishment, for he who sins in the night. AIDS is God’s punishment, but all darkness, all darkness, all darkness comes to light.” Usher sings this comedic serenade to the late Darnell as a clapback to the church’s condemnation of homosexuality and his parent’s judgment of his urban debauchery as a Black gay man living in New York City. As I watched the neon red cross fill the theater hall and Usher adorned in a shimmering choir robe, I was reminded of the internal and external condemnation that traumatized my six year old body, AIDS is my punishment.
Forty years later as I am approaching fifty, despite being a liberated out and proud minister and activist, the feeling still visits me from time to time. Sometimes, it’s during an STI screening. At other times, it’s when my CD4 count dips or my viral load raises while read aloud during my annual physical. Am I being punished? Is God finally announcing his verdict of condemnation for the man that ain’t living right? Such feelings of doubt and shame expose the deeply ingrained theological imprint that seemingly suffocates the love of my partner, the embrace of my family, and the redemption of my calling. These waves of insecurity would surely drown me were it not for the wealth of self-care, self-love, and self-affirmation that has been poured into me by the many wonderful people in my life who know better.
Interestingly, many of those people are far removed from the church and religious dogma. Those who fought to make it possible that that seven year old boy would survive through his forties possess a spiritual constitution and level of resilience that is unsurpassed by the theological elite. While those closest to God were calling for the death of those dying of AIDS, those in deep need of love and care that the church should provide had to love and care for themselves, alongside fighting for their friends and their own lives. These queer spiritual warriors, while living seemingly sacrilegious lifestyles, willed their worth and dignity of their lives into being by fighting for their humanity and demanding that the political system, the health system, and the news media take them seriously. Such tenacity, such courage, such power is what made it possible for so many living with HIV and AIDS to survive a plague.
Fast forward forty years and the urgency of surviving a plague is upon us again. No, I’m not referring to COVID-19, although our survival is still an urgent concern after having lost one million and counting. But the plague that is rocking the gay community, specifically, this year is monkeypox. After weeks of indifference and inaction, queer and trans communities were left with no choice but to organize for ourselves. Because monkeypox is spread via “close intimate contact,” once again men who have sex with men were being asked to abstain from sexual contact to prevent the spread. Such a request may seem reasonable enough, but amid an inadequate coordinated public health response and scant vaccine supplies, the call to abstinence comes across as punishment rather than salvation.
If the first plague taught us anything, it’s that guilt, shame, and despair only accelerates viral spread. Asking sexual beings to abstain from sex to protect against monkeypox, is the equivalent to asking us to abstain from breathing to protect against COVID-19. Rather than allowing our communities to be shamed into viral loneliness and isolation, queer spiritual warriors went viral on TikTok, Instagram, and NBC news revealing sores and symptoms, without concealing our sex and sexuality. Such courage demonstrates that gay sex is not to blame for the rapid spread of monkeypox… but an impotent public health response that repeatedly dismisses the needs of marginalized sexual communities and fails to center our voices when faced with social dilemmas that directly protects us. These acts of courage and survival provoked the local, state, and federal into action on par with the needs of the community. As a result, health officials are cautiously optimistic about the spread of monkeypox and are seeing drastic declines in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco … largely due to an improved vaccine response that followed public outcry.
On this National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, may WE be reminded that we are our greatest hope.
WE are our most precious resource.
WE are the public health system and the political party that WE have been waiting for.
WE possess within and among ourselves all the spiritual resources necessary to survive.
And may WE continue to fight so that the next generation will not have to bear their souls in public in order to survive a plague, again.