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Can we have faith in religious institutions to stand up to HIV stigma?

On a brisk November morning, I nervously walked to the altar at church and broke down in tears. I requested to be baptized, not as penance for my sexuality‒ but in hopes that bodily immersion would inoculate me from HIV. In conversing with the ministers about my decision to get baptized, they tried to pry. An elderly minister inquired as to what made me decide to get baptized and I dodged her question to avoid outing myself. My almost reflexive response to seek religious guidance amid a personal trial was consistent with the “pray it away” theology that had been inculcated into my psyche since birth. The following Sunday, I stepped into the baptismal pool — believing that one plunge into the water would cure it all.

Three weeks prior, I developed flu-like symptoms and intense body aches following one of my first sexual encounters. I was not yet acquainted with the Queer scene, nor did I recognize that I was among the groups most at-risk for HIV. My family rarely discussed sex growing up and when we did, it was always in a heterosexual context. However, I did realize that something was amiss. My already slight frame shed about 20 pounds over the three-week span. I willed myself to travel to the Planned Parenthood to get tested for HIV. The intervening moments after checking in and waiting in the medical exam room remain a blur. A nurse pricked my finger and one drop of blood would either confirm my worst fears or simply delay the inevitable. The test came back negative after fifteen suspenseful minutes. I hurried back home like a kid runs home from the ice cream truck, excited and relieved. I was deluding myself. It is apparent that I had simply gotten tested too early.

For the next year and a half, I dwelled in internalized shame regarding my experience testing for HIV. At the same time, I experienced ailment after ailment emerge and over time my body diminished to a barely recognizable version of myself. Thirty pounds lighter, my eyesight was literally in the process of failing. Shame was a paralyzing force and it was a barrier for me to get retested. The next time I was retested, it was no longer a choice, it was a necessity. Almost two years to the day after that fateful sexual encounter, I was diagnosed with HIV. I immediately started treatment and achieved viral suppression within eight weeks of starting treatment. I also understood that my journey to wellness required distancing myself from corrosive mindsets and instead building community with other Queer identified folx and people living with HIV.

During my childhood, I was recipient of years of dogmatic religious trauma that condemned Queerness to hell and that posited that afflictions like HIV represented divine justice. Let me be clear that theological violence is not intrinsic to the Black church tradition. Religious and theological violence occurs across the spectrum. Some of the most transcendent spaces I have ever entered were Black churches. Nonetheless, I am acutely aware that my story is the story of the HIV epidemic — an epidemic that afflicts Black and Queer folx and often individuals whose entire lives are connected with systems and institutions including religious institutions, which often perpetuate homophobia with dogmatic undertones. Their identities, like mine, are sometimes only actualized after experiencing many years of homophobia, internalized shame and religious trauma. In the intervening time, this triumvirate can inform sexual practices of Black, Queer identified folxs and increase their risk of acquiring HIV.

I implore religious institutions in the Black community to affirm Queer identified folx who give so much of their talents to their churches and their communities. That affirmation might save the lives of Black, Queer identified folxs whose first introductions to homophobia is often in a church where love should abide. I ask that religious institutions abandon the respectability politics and hypocrisy that underpins their silence on HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ politics. As a Black and Queer person who was raised in church, I always heard the mainstay hymn of the Black church, entitled Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. It is a slightly curious anthem of the church. It is a song that beseeches the divine to recognize the human experience of struggle and strife. Let the Black church at large first begin to recognize the experience of Black, Queer/SGL identified folx who fill their sanctuaries week after week. There are indications that there is a shift toward more affirming theological approaches on sexuality within the Black church tradition. The First Corinthian Baptist Church of Harlem should be uplifted as a model for a Queer affirming congregation and a few Queer identified individuals hold prominent roles in the church.

As we journey toward the fourth decade of the HIV epidemic, there is much anticipation surrounding HIV treatment injections and even a possible vaccination and cure. We already have access to the one cure that can address the epidemic for Black Queer and SGL folx, and that cure is simple. Experiencing unconditional love and affirmation from our own families and from influential institutions in the community such as the Black Church is the cure for HIV. This cure does not require clinical trials or extensive research, it simply requires a heart to recognize the humanity in all of us.

Access tools to stop HIV stigma here.
Learn more about Faith HIV/AIDS Awareness day here.

Posted By: Bishar Jenkins, Grantmaking Intern - Monday, August 05, 2019

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