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In sickness and in health: HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ+ folks in/and the Church

In December 2019, America Magazine released a podcast by journalist Michael O’Loughlin called Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church.  The episodes feature voices of HIV+ persons, activists, and medical and pastoral care givers.  It is also a story of LGBTQ+ folks (primarily gay men) in the American Church (the New York Archdiocese in particular) during the 1980s and 90s.  It lifts up voices of faith who desire lives of healing, mercy, and justice for HIV positive persons and persons with AIDS.   It shares experiences of those who minister as, with, and on behalf of LGBTQ+ folks.  It tells the story of pain, suffering, and marginalization within in a Church that both responds to and inflicts wounds.

The podcast joins other media narrating the epidemic including How to Survive a Plague, a documentary film (and now book) that chronicles the early days of the epidemic in the U.S. and the work of political action group ACT UP in making a number of critical advancements that included the development of and better access to treatment.  Skirmishes with Cardinal O’Connor and the New York Archdiocese are also highlighted.  Plague paints a slightly more complex portrait of O’Connor on the one hand, but also gives a clearer picture of how the Church’s positions on LGBTQ+ persons and sexual ethics negatively impacted people with HIV and AIDS whether they were Catholic or not, a message that is an urgent today as it was then.

One of the activists profiled in How to Survive a Plague, Jim Eigo, visited College of the Holy Cross a number of years ago, and because we are a Catholic school, the question of the Church’s role inevitably came up.  He was actually more charitable than I would have been.  His critique of the Church and the implications of its teaching were searing to be sure.  But in his response, Eigo also recalled the nuns who taught him in grade school, and it was to them that he credited, at least in part, his passion for social justice.  Like the voices in the Plague podcast, experiences of and in the Church are multivalent.

Eigo continues his advocacy work and has written frequently on HIV and AIDS throughout the years.  With the advent of effective antiretroviral therapies that allow HIV persons who have access to them to live long lives with an essentially chronic illness, the urgency around prevention has diminished.  In 2013, Eigo issued a clarion call about the rates of HIV infection among men who have sex with men (MSM).  Responding to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, he wrote, “To gay readers who’d lived through the AIDS epidemic, the document presented a landscape eerily like the early plague years, when AIDS was a gay disease.”[2] The CDC’s statistics for 2017 are as troubling:

Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are the population most affected by HIV in the United States. In 2017, adult and adolescent gay and bisexual men made up 70% (27,000) of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the United States (US) and dependent areas. Approximately 492,000 sexually active gay and bisexual men are at high risk for HIV; however, we have more tools to prevent HIV than ever before.

The trends become even more chilling when one looks at graphs depicting the intersections of HIV transmission rates among MSM with age, gender, and ethnicity.

My work as an ethicist tends to focus on children and young people. In the U.S., incredible strides have been made in preventing perinatal, or mother-to-child, transmission.  According to the CDC, “In 2017, 73 children under the age of 13 received a diagnosis of perinatally acquired HIV in the United States and dependent areas.” However, viewing the statistics with regard to race and ethnicity should temper celebration as nearly two-thirds of the 73 were Black/African American.[3]

Older Americans have received less attention. Eigo also alerts us to the generation of boomers who “survived the plague” and who now approach retirement and advanced age with HIV: “Already the front end of my generation, the baby boom, has reached retirement age. I now am pretty expert in the difficulties the infirm elderly can face under our woefully inadequate system of providing home care. Many gay men of my generation are HIV-positive. I worry about what will happen to these seniors with special needs, odd chronic ailments, long-term use of strong medicines at a time they are requiring new medicines, and often no families to help them through the maze of securing care.”[4]

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is still with us even though the global situation rightly demands urgent attention and action.  The many faces of AIDS change, and yet remain hauntingly the same.  Antiretroviral therapy has allowed those with access to it to live and thrive as HIV positive folks, though this does not diminish the suffering it continues to cause.  HIV status is, in new ways, a hidden stigmatized identity.  Members of the Church responded mercifully and compassionately to people who were living with and dying of AIDS irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  That there were courageous LGBTQ+, heterosexual, and cisgender Catholics among those who were infected and affected by HIV and AIDS is a story that ought to be told.  But the telling is also revealing a powerful challenge.

In one sense, ministering to persons dying of AIDS brought the Church into closer proximity to the suffering of LGBTQ+ folks whether they counted themselves Catholic or not.  Where has that Kairos moment gotten us?  Let us not wait for another plague, or another spike in this one, to prompt works of mercy, those concrete, embodied practices that bring the Church “into the chaos” of people’s lives, especially the lives of LGBTQ+ folks.  The uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from leaders in the Church has many devastating consequences, and losing ground on HIV among young LGBTQ+ people and AIDS among older folks could be one of them.  Reacting to illness will not be enough.  Let the Church be faithful and merciful in sickness and in the measure of health many now enjoy.

 

[2] Jim Eigo, “HIV: Gay Again,” Huffington Post, June 27, 2013

[3] Information about HIV transmission can be found on the CDC’s website, https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/ (Accessed 1/29/20).

[4] Jim Eigo, “AIDS Activism Has Always Meant Caring Across Generations,” Huffington Post, February 22, 2013.