AIDS in a Christian Nation

By: KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | In the United States, HIV transmission is at a terrifying high, especially among gay men of any race, and among people of color. The statistics are only going to get worse unless we're willing to renew our fight against homophobia-this time, across America's racial spectrum.

Like it or not, AIDS is all about queers. If it isn't about fags getting AIDS, it's about AIDS being stigmatized as queer.

And as long as AIDS has a queer stigma, men who identify as straight – whether they are or not – won't bother with condoms; people will go untested because they think they can't get it or are afraid they will be targets of anti-AIDS and homophobic violence if they do. That means treatment, even if available, will go unused by many who have the virus, and many more thousands of lives will be lost in great misery and suffering. (This is a reprise of my yearly speech.)

At the height of the pre-antiretroviral epoch, when the government was ignoring everybody, ACT UP fought both ignorance about the disease and homophobia, attacking the likes of Cardinal O'Connor and Jerry Falwell, who wallowed in a cesspool of hate. ACT UP's double-pronged approach had enormous success, especially among the white middle class, where most of the activists had their origins.

Black homophobia was mostly not addressed, either in society or in the church. I put it down both to indifference and to the peculiar nature of American racism in which any white activist disrupting a black church service is bound to get called culturally insensitive or racist at best. I actually remember one instance of a few white activists being dissuaded from doing anything by their black friends. Many of these early white activists are now in international AIDS advocacy work, ironically more comfortable working with Africans, especially straight ones, than African Americans.

AIDS organizing by people of color did begin to take off, but not very quickly, and by then an almost irreversible amount of damage had been done. The more people with HIV in your dating pool, the higher the chances you'll get it, even if you're careful. Activists have also been hampered by the role of the black church. This traditional engine of social change in black communities has either remained silent on AIDS or has instituted AIDS programs that try to fight the disease while leaving homophobia intact.

As a result, we now have 600,000 HIV positive African Americans, with up to 30,000 becoming infected each year. The Black Institute on AIDS has said that if they were considered as a nation, a Black Nation, they'd rank 16th hardest hit in the world, more than Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda, or Vietnam, which all receive US funds for HIV/AIDS programs. That would place Black Gay Nation at numero uno with a 50 percent infection rate. Botswana, after all, is only near 39 percent.

Who's going to act? Obama, who campaigns with ex-gay Donnie McClurkin and relies on advice from Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, who runs programs to free queers from their homosexuality? McCain?

Last weekend, both Barack Obama and John McCain appeared at the American Vatican, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Ostensibly, the pastor, Rick Warren, is a moderate evangelical, fighting AIDS, global warming, and poverty. Except that in Uganda, at the end of March, he told the press that he supported the boycott of the Lambeth Conference by renegade bishops protesting the Anglican Church's tentative embrace of gay clergy and blessing gay unions. Warren, declaring that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right, said, “We shall not tolerate this aspect at all.”

Warren's biggest partner in Uganda for his “Purpose-Driven Life” campaign is Martin Ssempa, an evangelist who's considered a big AIDS activist. His primary strategy is to fight the disease by fighting queers, advocating jail or death for us. This past spring, Ssempa organized a rally with the theme, “A Call for Action on Behalf of the Victims of Homosexuality,” reinforcing the idea that queers are perverts, deviants, and disease-ridden criminals.

Despite some LGBT progress in civil rights, Christianity-based homophobia seems to have a bigger platform in politics today than ten years ago. Once, only Republicans embraced fundamentalists. Now, the Democrats have their own teams cutting deals with evangelicals of all colors. Faith-based social services are actually a huge part of Obama's agenda. We Americans seem to be choosing a pope, not a president.

For leadership on AIDS, we have to look elsewhere. Like the International AIDS Conference in Mexico, where participants were not afraid to use the words “gay” and “homophobia.” On the opening day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said discrimination against gays must end. Later on, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, former Botswana President Festus Mogae, and President Denzil Douglas of St Kitts and Nevis each in turn called for the end of discrimination against gay men.

Fight homophobia. Fight AIDS.

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