Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Getting History Right

Here is my column in the September edition of The Triangle. Check out the rest of the paper at

In June of 1981 the Center for Disease Control’s Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report cited five cases of a rare pneumonia in five gay men in Los Angeles. From that point on, in the mind of the general public, AIDS was a gay disease. It was somehow caused by gay men having sex. Then it became God’s punishment on “homosexuals” according to some particularly cruel and ignorant men of the cloth. And because the lgbt community was viewed with disdain or disinterest by most people, we went through the 1980s with little compassion, and a lot of hysteria, and our leaders missed the opportunity to slow the disease before it became the beast it is now. President Reagan wouldn’t even say the word AIDS in public until 1987. Our own Senator Helms fought tooth and nail to keep funding away from HIV/AIDS programs until he decided in his last years that fighting AIDS in Africa was acceptable.

Then we stumbled into the 1990s, and while progress was being made in the development of drugs to combat the virus, the response from political leaders was still incredibly timid in the face of such a deadly plague. President Clinton refused to advocate for needle exchanges fearing the political fallout of seeming to be soft on drug users. South Africa elected President Mbeki who didn’t even believe HIV was the virus that caused AIDS and he resisted efforts to combat the spread of the disease. Today, South Africa has the largest percentage of AIDS cases per capita in the world.

Closer to home, a few years ago North Carolina ranked dead last in funding for poor people living with HIV/AIDS. A leading member of the General Assembly, when asked about this terrible record of helping our most vulnerable neighbors living with the disease, was quoted as saying he had no interest in spending money on “those people.”

But here’s a strange little fact that has been ignored for too long. We now know that HIV isn’t a gay disease. It didn’t just pop up on the West Coast back in 1981 among gay men. There is evidence of the virus as early as 1959. And the source of the virus has been tracked to a group of chimpanzees who live in the southern part of Cameroon. Most scientists believe the virus made its way from the chimps into the human population because of the practice of slaughtering chimps for meat. The blood from the chimps likely got into the open cuts and sores of those doing the slaughtering, and there is your point of human contamination. And for all these years while society pointed the finger at gay men, the real culprits were people slaughtering chimpanzees in Cameroon in the mid-twentieth century. And if it wasn’t so sad and tragic it would almost be funny. It was the damn chimp killers, not the gay men, who brought this plague to us.

There is another part of the history of HIV/AIDS that has also been swept under the rug. While most of America has lived with the lie that AIDS is a disease brought to us by gay people and drug users, the truth of the matter is that the one group that has consistently stood up and fought this damndable disease has been the lgbt community. When nothing was being done in the 1980s by the powers that be, it was lgbt folks who caused such an uproar that public health officials couldn’t ignore them any longer. Go to any city in this country and find an agency that is providing care for people with HIV/AIDS, or is advocating for people with HIV/AIDS, and odds are the lgbt community started and funded and staffed those organizations.

So, thank you my lgbt sisters and brothers. Thank you for refusing to shut up even when preachers said AIDS was God’s punishment, and politicians turned their backs on you. Thank you for pushing the scientific and medical communities to be more aggressive in their treatment methods. Thank you for reminding the rest of us that it is not a sin to be sick and for caring so tenderly for all people living with this plague, even we straight folk who called you queer and faggot. Your passion and compassion have been models for the rest of us and we owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.

There is an African proverb that says, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The last 30 years have been tragic beyond words as AIDS has ravaged our world, but we have added to the tragedy by our one-sided and mistaken way of telling the history of the disease. The people we blamed turned out to be the true heroes in our midst. And only when we get the history right, and tell the story of the courageous lgbt community, will we be able to see that in the middle of all the suffering something remarkable and sacred has been happening all along.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology