World AIDS Day 2022
Do you remember when you first heard about AIDS? I do. Here are a few thoughts thirty-eight years later.
I have vivid memories of the first time that AIDS came into my consciousness. I was somewhere around eight years old in the living room of the home my mother and I shared with my grandparents, and the television was set to our local Christian television station. The host was running a reel showing gay men in a hospital covered in lesions and they were almost emaciated. Just skin and bones. The voice talking over the images was warning of the “dangers of the homosexual lifestyle.”
I don’t know if words on this screen could ever actually convey the terror that I felt seeing that that day. Terror that I held for many years. As I’ve written before, even if I did not own my identity with words at that age, some place in my heart already knew that I shared a commonality with those men I’d seen on the screen. It made me afraid for my future. Hopeless about what the love I envisioned would end in. This was a year or so before I would see Tammy Faye Bakker interview Steve Pieters, a gay Christian man living with AIDS, an interview full of compassion for the gay community that challenged the hard line the majority of Christians stuck to—a line that declared AIDS a divine judgement from God.
But AIDS didn’t come into my life personally until I was in my teens in the 90s in the Fire Baptized Holiness church. One Sunday, a man visited our church and when the spirit rose, he gave vent to it. He danced down the aisles and was overcome with tears. He threw himself over the altar and his tears turned to sobs, his sobs turned to retching. None of this was not uncommon. We believed in travailing and tarrying, so we were accustomed to saliva, snot and, on occasion, vomit. He stood up from the altar and began to testify. "The doctors told me I had AIDS!” he exclaimed. “But I believe God healed me today.” My eyes flashed to the mother of the church scrubbing the carpet where he’d been retching. I saw his words hit her ears. She closed her eyes for a split second, took a deep breath, put the scrubber in the bucket and sat down.
I cannot speak as to how that man was treated that day. I remember our pastor, ever the realist, saying that God had not healed him because that wasn’t possible (I don’t recall him ever encouraging anyone to believe in divine healing). I’d like to think that the adults embraced him after the service as I’d seen our church embrace so many others, but I also know how much fear about HIV/AIDS existed at that time. Some believed it could be transmitted through mosquitos, in swimming pools and on eating utensils. I do know that we never saw that man again. I’ve often wondered what happened to him, how he happened upon New Covenant that day, and if he survived.
Soon after, HIV/AIDS hit home via two close friends, one at church and one at work. I didn’t know he was positive, but when my church friend disappeared and I found him after calling hospitals because I was afraid something had happened to him, I quickly figured it out. “Don’t come see me, don’t tell anyone I’m here, don’t call me again,” he told me on the phone from his hospital room. Years later, we reconciled and he told me of the fear, shame and trauma he felt and experienced in the church, suffering in silence, afraid for anyone to learn of his diagnosis or attraction to men.
My work friend similarly disappeared. He called in sick for an extended period of time. When I called to check on him, he told me he had a lesion on his face and couldn’t hide it. He feared having to quit rather than relay his status. We’d already seen a transwoman run out of the company. His fears were not unfounded or paranoid. The 90s were an era hostile to such matters.
As I became more and more involved in gospel music, AIDS was something that became omnipresent—even if it wasn’t named. People would die after “a long illness,” or if someone hadn’t been seen in a while, the response would be “they’re sick,” usually said with a wide eye or raised eyebrow. If an artist lost weight, rumors spread that they were dying of the virus.
The most that was said came from two pastors who were equally rooted in the gospel tradition and the LGBTQI+ community. Archbishop Carl Bean, a former member of the Gospel Wonders, the Gospel Chimes and the Alex Bradford Singers, began the Minority AIDS Project in 1985 which aimed to meet both caretaking and educational needs of the community. He partnered with Dionne Warwick to produce fundraisers like Coming Home for Friends which included gospel artists like Cassietta George and Keith Pringle as well as mainstream stars like Clifton Davis, Howard Hewitt, and Thelma Houston to raise awareness and funds.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, known for leading Walter Hawkins’ compositions including “Special Gift” and “Thank You,” left Love Center, where she’d begun an AIDS outreach in 1986, and began her own City of Refuge in 1991 which expanded that outreach. Her ministry also met educational and practical needs, providing food, housing, and medical services. The mainstream church, largely, remained silent outside of fire and brimstone platitudes that intentionally conflated homosexuality and pedophilia to stoke fear and hatred (not unlike today’s rhetoric calling us “groomers”).
My work, which focuses on gospel artists of the 70s and 80s, has kept AIDS in the center of my conversations (reference my articles on the New York Community Choir and Tramaine Hawkins for related stories). Some have seen discussing it as “disparaging” the dead. I recently watched a video of an informal interview with a gospel legend who couldn’t bring herself to say the word AIDS as she discussed the passing of a musician. “He died of….well. You know.” They see AIDS as shameful, something that should be kept secret.
I’ve also interviewed beautiful gay men and women in the church who remember their loved ones who died in the epidemic. Many of them helped raise gay youths who had been thrown out of their homes as teens because of who they were. They grieved not being able to be with their chosen family when they died because their natural families barred them from the hospital rooms. Some recalled renowned church families, angry at their children for dying of what they perceived as a shameful disease, taking their children’s creations—master tapes, composition notebooks and keepsakes from their careers—outside to the trash bin for the garbage trucks to pick up.
But the deaths didn’t stop in the 90s. Even when medications emerged that made life with HIV sustainable, because of the stigmas attached to LGBT identities in the church thwarting preventative measures and healthcare maintenance related to HIV, people in our community continue to die. I’m not telling you something I’ve heard about. I continue to see it. One artist told me she checks on her ‘spiritual sons’ who have been diagnosed to ensure they keep up with their medications because of the tendency to avoid dealing with their health. Today, 13,000 people die of AIDS-related causes in the United States each year. The CDC writes that “AIDS-related deaths occur when people who are infected do not receive the testing, treatment and care they need.”
When I went back in college in 2014, I was surrounded by young students who didn’t even know an AIDS epidemic ever happened. I realized then that many people simply moved on, relieved to not be faced with the reality of AIDS-related deaths as consistently as we were in the 80s and 90s, so much so, that younger generations have no idea of the suffering of the not-so-distant past. COVID and the subsequent viruses we’re fighting now should remind us that mass death has and will happen again. May we each in our own ways continue to be present and embrace the different, the shunned, and the shamed. That’s what Jesus did…and what he would do today.
Today, I wanted to share music that was born from that era by amazing creatives that we lost during the epidemic. It is vital that we remember them and keep their spirits alive by singing their songs, speaking their names and radically loving across difference.