Yes, there still are preachers and other bigots who call AIDS the “gay” disease and preach that it is God’s punishment, the sign of damnation, the wages of sin, for those who follow perverted ways. The infected person was blamed for behavior causing the disease. The epidemic (now pandemic) that was discovered in 1981 was originally called GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. The disease was renamed AIDS in 1982 when it was shown that half of those infected were not gay.
The people who are most confused about how HIV is transmitted are religiously and politically conservative. Perhaps about 20 percent of the population now stigmatize those with HIV/AIDS. Infected people have been characterized as disorderly, given to unnatural passions, of weak will, and blemished with other personality defects.
Those early years were frightening, as friends began to die and it seemed that the public would enact strong measures against those they thought were spreading the disease. With no known cure, the public was moving toward panic.
Then people of real faith took action. Drawing on the best of the Christian and other traditions, using stories like that of the Good Samaritan, churches and other groups organized facilities for those affected by the disease and began public education campaigns. The involvement of the churches may have been critical in turning around public opinion. The attitude shifted from fright and anger to compassion and a desire to help. Spirituality overcame accusation.
Ironically, in this new context of sympathy, AIDS opened up discussion about same-sex behavior. Those who were dying often talked about their sexuality for the first time to their families and friends. What had been hidden could no longer be kept quiet in the anguish of loss. As a better understanding of AIDS emerged, the conversations could focus less on dealing with issues of stigma and more on personal questions.
Obviously, not everyone was able to be open. Father Thom Savage, S.J., of blessed memory, the extraordinary and inspiring civic leader and president (1988-1996) of Rockhurst University, left Kansas City as his illness began to affect him. How his friends throughout all segments of the community—for he touched many—wished he had been able to speak about his situation! While his decision to suffer privately, no doubt influenced by his profession and prominence, must be respected, how we still yearn to have given him the assurance that he was deeply loved! His signal contributions—including interfaith work — continue to shape his institution and the life of our community.
Still, looking back these twenty-five years, I am amazed at how wrong I was in fearing pogroms against homosexuals led by religious types. Instead, courageous religious leaders, along with others in medical, legal, and other fields, helped to transform the fear into the beginning of a cultural healing. Now it is our responsibility to continue the healing, in memory of those we have lost, so that we can create a more wholesome future.