Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Thursday was World AIDS Day, and so today I am going to reminisce about the events in my life that helped bring me to not just care about the treatment of people infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS but for becoming an advocate for the Gay Community. This is kind of an emotional post as I have friends from high school, college, and the military who have died of AIDS, I have known far too many others who have been cut off from their families, and faith communities once they were discovered to be infected with HIV or came out and admitted that they were homosexual.
The role of right wing political Christians in condemning these men and women has been one of the most disgraceful aspects of my experience, and I am a straight, married, white Christian minister. Sadly, many of the people that I will mention in this article continue to condemn LGBTQ people, those infected with HIV, and those suffering with AIDS. Likewise, they have been involved with demonizing men and women infected with Ebola a couple of years ago. They are without compassion, and without empathy. Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist who worked with the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg. Gilbert noted: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the
defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” It is the same lack of empathy demonstrated by supposedly Christian leaders that bothers me today, including Vice President Elect Pence, and several of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, and many of his advisors.
In 1986 the late Dr. C. Everett Koop, then the Surgeon General courageously went against the feelings of many people, especially his fellow Evangelical Christians by saying:
“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.”
Dr. Koop reminded us all of the basic humanity of those suffering with AIDS and would go on to be a committed advocate for caring for the men and women infected, often going against the bulwarks of the Religious Right including James Dobson and Phyllis Schafly. As a young man he became an inspiration to me.
I met someone with AIDS for the first time, at least knowingly for the first time in the summer of 1987 while serving as a Medical Service Corps personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences, Fort Sam Houston Texas. I was the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, which is the unit that all medical training courses fell under for administrative and command and control issues. My job normally was consisted of basic personnel administration, working with commanders and legal officers when court-martial proceedings were needed, appointing investigating officers for different purposes, reviewing line of duty investigations and running duty rosters. It was nothing to write home about.
But that summer, after years of ignoring the issue the Reagan administration, which had made light of the disease and refused to do anything about it following the initial clinical diagnosis of it in 1981, belatedly, directed the Defense Department to start testing servicemen and women for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected personnel.
Since it was considered by most in the mainstream to be a “gay” disease the Reagan administration treated it with distain, during some of the White House press conferences, Press Secretary Larry Speakes mocked and laughed about it to reporters who asked questions about it.
On October 15th 1982 this exchange took place: in the White House Briefing Room.
Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
- SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
- SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t. MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
- SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke? MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
- SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows? MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
- SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
- SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
- SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
- SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
- SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It’s too late.
The late Congressman from San Francisco, Phil Burton told those seeking government help in diagnosing and treating the new disease that:
“I’ll introduce a bill. But if all the angels came dancing down to earth like the Rockettes, even they couldn’t get a dime out of this administration for anything with the name “gay” on it.”
I seriously doubt had Reagan’s friend, Rock Hudson, a closeted homosexual who was a cinematic idol in his day had not died of AIDS in October of 1985 if the administration would have even acted then. Their intentional disregard and negligence was criminal. But they finally did act, and the military acted to begin testing for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected service members.
Back then no one wanted to deal with AIDS or the people infected by it. This was especially true in much of the military. Since I was the junior Medical Service personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences I was told that I would coordinate all services to those infected and work with those appointed by the Army Surgeon General’s office to develop appropriate personnel policies. People in the office joked that I was “CINC AIDS.” That was not a compliment.
When a soldier was diagnosed then they were given a form by their physician stating that they would let any partners know that they were HIV positive and that if they had sex they would only have protected sex. These were a host of other restrictions given in that medical “counseling” and all of these were reinforced as each soldier was then given an order by their commander to the same effect. The difference was that what the doctor gave was “counseling” and what the commander gave was an order, which if disobeyed could result in punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Following this they were sent to me to discuss assignment limitations and career options. When people saw a soldier sitting outside my door, they pretty much knew what the person was there to see me for, as my job became more and more about dealing with those infected with HIV. As I took the job I read everything that I could and discussed the matter with physicians dealing with the disease.
Despite that in the beginning it was a scary experience. I attended a local mega-church and much of what I heard, read and listened to on Christian radio was full of paranoia, conspiracy theories and an attitude that could only be explained as an almost joyful gloating that the “homosexuals” were being judged by God. Not only that since HIV was determined to come from Africa, there was a tremendous amount of “old South” racism interspersed with their theological pronouncements.
Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.
These political preachers and activists marginalized Surgeon General Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic how he was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:
“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”
Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”
But that was the world that part of me lived in. The other world was one of logic and reason, informed by human compassion, so unlike what I was being fed by church leaders and the “Christian” media that I immersed myself.
The sad truth of the matter is then, as today, that far too many Christians, especially influential leaders intentionally and malevolently spread lies to bolster their position. For them it is far easier to profit from demonizing people than it is to work with people they hate, to find solutions that help everyone. In my view many of these supposedly “Christian” leaders, apart from their fashionable clothes, are no different than the Nazis who blamed the Jews, Socialists and homosexuals for every ill in society; or the Japanese leaders who organized the Kamikaze Corps to send true believers to their deaths in a hopeless cause simply to maintain their power.
There is no love, there is no care and there is no empathy in any of them. As Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert noted at Nuremberg “evil is the absence of empathy.”
When you do not know or have never have met someone being demonized by religious people it is easy to surround yourself in comfortable theology. However, when a family member, friend or colleague becomes one of those being demonized it tends to blow up your comfortable theology unless you are a sociopath.
I never will forget the day in the late summer of 1987 when an officer came to my office. He was the first person who I had ever met who was HIV positive. He was a medical professional, an Army Captain who had been selected for promotion to Major. He was married, had children and was a “born-again Christian.” He had contracted HIV when dealing with a combative drunk patient, who was HIV positive. The patient smashed glass, cutting himself severely and started bleeding. The shattered glass cut this officer as he tried to intervene and subdue the man. The officer was infected by the man’s infected blood, which entered him through his own wounds. Though he attempted to disinfect himself by normal protocols he became infected. I was looking at a man, just a few years older than me. A man who loved God, loved his family, who had did all the right things but had become HIV positive.
Even now I can see and hear this man, his face is etched deep into my memory, struggling to fit what happened to him into the message of God’s judgment that his fellow Christians and church members said was the cause of his disease. As I talked to him I realized that what I was being told by men who I was listening to every day on the way to work, as well as what I was reading by “Christian” authors and what I was hearing in church was a lie.
My worldview was forever changed that day. I realized that this man had done nothing wrong, in fact he was trying to do his job as a medical professional to keep a patient from further harm. I was able to help him get into a Master’s degree program in Healthcare Administration since he was no longer allowed to serve in a clinical environment. I have no idea what happened to him after I left the active duty Army to attend seminary in late 1988, but I presume since the mortality rate for HIV/AIDS was so high back then that he probably died years ago. I would hope that by some miracle that this man was fortunate and like NBA great Ervin “Magic” Johnson has not only survived but continues to do well. But I know that the odds were not in his favor.
When he left my office we shook hands, something that my fellow Christians said that I needed to avoid. Not only did I shake his hand, but I gave him a hug and I did not wash my hands or disinfect myself. I figured that God wanted me to get HIV from caring for and accepting someone infected with it than it didn’t matter.
Since that time I have worked with, cared for and ministered to more victims of HIV/AIDS, their families and their friends than I can count. Many of them have made significant impressions on me, my life, and my faith. Without them my life would not be as rich as it has been. I continued to deal with case after case and it is interesting to read the citation from my end of tour award for my time as the Adjutant of the Academy Brigade. It is almost all about AIDS.
So we fast forward to 2016. I’m still in the military, only now I am not a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army but a Navy Chaplain and I am now teaching Ethics. During my career I spent about eight years in the critical care environment of major medical center ERs, trauma departments and ICUs. I have a rather unique perspective having experience with AIDS and other highly infectious diseases, as well as the ethics of treatment.
Since I was previously qualified as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense officer when I served in the Army in the 1980s, I understand the importance of, as well as the limitations of personal protective equipment and decontamination procedures. Of course because I know a good number of physicians who specialize in critical care, infectious diseases and pandemics and try to remain current in regard to such diseases, their causes, and the vectors by which they spread.
Thus I realize when I see and hear the Trinity of Evil; the politicians, pundits and preachers who make their living promoting fear, panic and hatred to keep their jobs and obscene profits coming in are at work in demonizing President Obama, the CDC and NIH and poor Africans in Liberia, Ghana and other countries. Like the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the same cast of disingenuous, unscrupulous and dishonest preachers, pundits and politicians are at work today as we wrestle with the Ebola crisis, which is neither an epidemic nor a judgment from God.
Sadly, these people are not limited to their own religious networks to spread their lies, propaganda and hate. They have the full buy in from a major cable news network and countless political “news” services, “think tanks” and Political Action Committees; who are their fellow travelers in their quest to demonize those that they hate and dominate society.
The Ebola crisis of 2013-2014 provided these same people, this Trinity of Evil, and their followers; with the avenue to create havoc without taking any personal or corporate responsibility to demonize people, to hinder rational and reasonable solutions to meet the crisis and to ensure the political destruction of the Black man in the White House who they hate with a hatred beyond comprehension, and beginning in January these same people will have massive influence in the White House and Congress to do their worst in harming people by denying medical care, funding, and research into not just HIV/AIDS and Ebola, but any other disease that they choose to label as God’s punishment on people that they despise.
Their words and actions, often clothed in the language of faith may seem to some as a demonstration of righteousness; only now they are even more closely linked to political and economic entities that simply want more power and profit and use them to achieve their malevolent purposes.
The sad thing is that while the leaders of the “Religious Right” benefit from this deal, their followers do not. In fact should Ebola ever reach epidemic or pandemic status in the United States because of their actions which have helped to hinder the government’s response to it; they don’t have to worry, they have good healthcare coverage which is paid for by their followers; and little threat of exposure. On the other hand their followers will have to fend for themselves, paying exceptionally high insurance rates if they can even afford it all the while the people that they support fight to ensure that they do not have affordable, or reliable access to health care.
The sad thing is that Ebola, as bad is it is; is a hard disease to catch, unless you happen to get blasted by a load of the massively infected vomit or bodily fluids of someone in the final stages of it. In fact Ebola is a lot harder to catch many forms of the Bird or Swine Flu, which are airborne viruses and highly contagious. History has shown that both are far more deadly in terms of numbers killed than either Ebola or AIDS have ever been.
Sadly, the same people who fought against treating HIV/AIDS and Ebola are the same people who mock public health experts and agencies when they warn of potential Influenza epidemics or pandemics, and fight against reasonable vaccination and prevention programs and education.
The actions of these religious and political leaders and their media supporters are unethical, irresponsible and at odds with measure of human compassion. It is like they have a death wish for the planet. But truthfully I have to say that it does not look to me that they seem to care so long as they reap a political and economic benefit from it.
Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like the late Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”
Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schafly, who in my view was one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”
In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even loathsome preacher should abide:
“I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”
But then as it did in the 1980s, the band continues to play on… and those that unite religion and their hatred of others continue to do everything that they can to ensure that people die as they lie. As for me, I am glad that finally saw the truth about these people and I thank people like that HIV positive Army officer who walked into my office in 1987 who humanized that terrible virus, and for helping me see the light.
But our fight is not over, we have to continue to bear witness and speak the truth.