In November 2011, on the thirtieth anniversary of the first reported cases of a mysterious “gay cancer” in America, I went to the Nevada Museum of Art with my friend Dean to see the documentary “We Were Here”, produced by David Weissman. The film reflected deeply personal accounts of five people living in San Francisco when the disease soon to be known as HIV/AIDS first appeared.
For an hour and a half, I was mesmerized by stories eloquently told by eyewitnesses, survivors, and caretakers. Where was I while all this was happening? When people were dying and alone, where was I?
Feeling the shameful ignorance of so much profound pain and loss, I sank in my seat. After seeing “We Were Here”, I stayed awake till morning reading online about AIDS—dates, facts, stories, and science. Though I have hundreds of friends living with AIDS, I had never researched the topic before seeing the documentary. I took out a notebook and made a list of years and deaths from the epidemic. I had been completely removed from the crisis and need in the 1980s and 1990s. Now decades removed, the impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community pierced me.
Throughout the night, I wept in remorse, asking, “Where were you, Kathy?”
While people were dying and alone, where the heck was I? Why didn’t I care? How could I not have noticed? First hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people died each year, and I went about my life. Isolated from the tragedy of people living with HIV, I got married, became a follower of Jesus Christ, raised and homeschooled my children, and led Bible studies.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1993, Pastor Jerry Falwell said:
AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers. AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.
Falwell’s voice was the one I had heard and believed then.
A half-million Americans died of complications from HIV and I don’t recall feeling any compassion at the time. The space in me that should have been occupied with kindness and empathy for people suffering from any deadly disease was instead filled with accusation and disapproval.
Only once did the reality of the epidemic nudge against my insular evangelical cocoon.
My husband and I were walking into our home as the phone rang. It was 1988, and I had my newborn son in my arms. My husband reached for the call. I listened to his side of the exchange; I understood that one of his friends in New York City had died of the “gay cancer.”
My reaction was dispassionate. I cared that my husband had lost a friend, yet I distinctly recall formulating judgments: People who died of AIDS got it by having gay sex; gay sex was wrong and against God’s plan; therefore, the death was foreseeable and could and should have been avoided by not following lust-filled desires. I am not proud of my behavior.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981, 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV, and over 650,000 have died of AIDS-related illnesses. Of the 1.1 million Americans currently infected with HIV, one in six do not even know they are infected.
In hindsight, we are better able to understand that ignoring HIV/AIDS and placing a “morality” on it only served to spread the disease. We were told that AIDS was a “gay disease,” a punishment from God. This was the message religious leaders were telling us at the onset of the epidemic, and I still hear it spoken and see it written about frequently.
As a Christian, my response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s was without excuse. I not only ignored the pain and death of people living with AIDS, but I believed they “deserved” it. I had no understanding of homosexuality with respect to human sexuality, and my religious views were constructed on what I had been told by religious and political leaders seeking to take advantage of my ignorance for the sake of their own corrupt (at worst) or misguided (at best) agendas.
This information is found and footnoted in Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by Kathy Baldock, Chapter 8.
READ the other five parts of this special series on HIV/AIDS: