The unrelenting tenacity of the HIV virus alone has taught us much about the preciousness of life, and about the various faces — across race, class and gender — who wore and continue to wear the face of this disease.
With its 20th anniversary this year, AIDS has sadly shaped a generation, and it may well shape another: the result of lessons we failed to learn.
As I trace its trajectory in our lives — as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual, white, black, male and female — the one aspect of the AIDS crisis that sticks in my mind is that of our inhospitality.
While some folks, like those on the Christian Right such as the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, have unabashedly shown acts of inhospitality, most of us are unaware that we are just as guilty.
Our acts of inhospitality may occur on a subconscious level, but those acts plague us with as much virulence as the virus itself.
When the New York Native, a now-defunct gay paper, in its May 18, 1981, issue first reported on a virus among gay men that was known then as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), an editorial made it known that “even if the disease first become apparent in gay men, it is not just ‘a gay disease.’”
However, hysteria coupled with homophobia reared their ugly heads and targeted gay men across the country. Now, perhaps we can recognize this as an act of inhospitality.
Believing that the judicious way to keep account of those who were infected with the virus and to stop the virus from spreading, conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. in 1986 suggested that people with AIDS be tattooed on their buttocks and forearms.
While we can perhaps now chuckle at this ludicrous suggestion, this was much of the nation’s mindset. And it was not that long ago.
Obviously, the lessons from both American slavery and the Holocaust — in which people, Africans and Jews, respectively, were tattooed and treated like animals — were not fully absorbed.
While acts of inhospitality are, at best, done to protect “your own”, the black church and black community have yet to learn their lessons. Believing that contracting the AIDS virus is a direct and divine consequence of engaging in a white queer lifestyle that is fraught with both disease and sin, the doors to the black church and the black community slammed shut to African American LGBT people.
However, the AIDS virus, having neither an alliance nor an affinity to queer sexualities, nonetheless spread. And it spread to its most protected and valued population — African American heterosexuals.
In the face of biblical truths where texts condemn acts of inhospitality, they are, nonetheless, ignored. The narrative of the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) have come to be known as both the biblical and political legitimation for homophobia.
>But biblical scholars, who are not afraid to come out of their heterosexist interpretative closets and speak truth about the text, know that the two cities were destroyed not because of homosexuality, but because of their deplorable acts of inhospitality.
The Rev. Peter Gomes, University Minister at Harvard and professor of Christian Morals, stated in his bestseller, The Good Book, “To suggest that Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexual sex is an analysis of about as much worth as suggesting that the story of Jonah and the whale is a treatise on fishing.”
As we live in the face of the AIDS epidemic, it is imperative that we recast our thinking, attitudes and behaviors. I suggest we think about AIDS in a way that focuses our time and energy in constructive and compassionate ways.
First, we need to embrace the epidemic not as individuals dying with AIDS, but as a society living with AIDS. Second, we need to understand our roles in this epidemic; we must assist those people living with the disease.
As a society living with AIDS, if we view AIDS as the sole responsibility of the individual, then we ignore our shared responsibility for the care and wellbeing of all its members.
Unfortunately, when we shirk our responsibility, we perpetuate the “blame the victim” mentality, a destructive way of dealing with the epidemic.
The unending blame put on people with AIDS allows society to justify erecting colonies for lepers that remove them from society, instead of building communities of support around them. Once the blamed individual — the person with AIDS — internalizes the guilt, we as a nation build our strength by riding on the backs of our weak. This is not only an act of inhospitality, but also a symptom of a sick society.
Angels come to us in times of trouble. Mythologized as ethereal winged-beings, we do not often recognize them in our midst. The Bible is replete with accounts of angel visitations. The two men who came to Lot in the Sodom & Gomorrah story were angels to warn Lot of an impending danger.
Our angels on Earth are indeed the people with AIDS. They walk and live among us in our midst. Each one of them not only reveal to us the various faces that the disease wears, but each one of our Earth angels tells us of the danger we face in our acts of inhospitality to them, and by extension, to ourselves.
In Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, one of the characters states “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed? . . . The Great Question before us is: Can we change?”
When doors are shut to people in need, that is an act of inhospitality.
As AIDS marks its 20th year, we can best answer the aforementioned questions by our degree of hospitality toward our Earth angels with AIDS.
DEDICATED TO OUR ANGELS WHO HAVE GONE ON