What words, what story can I offer to refute the losses and, in the same moment, celebrate the indomitable spirits of people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS?
Only the story I really know. My own. My brother, Patrick, died of complications of HIV in 1988 in Abilene, Texas, one of the top three most conservative cities in America (LA Times). There was no real treatment then, just AZT. There was no real protection under the law to defend his health insurance or to provide disability payments. His employer fired him. He lost all of his assets and our family brought him home to die. We were blessed by the care of an extraordinary physician, Dr. Hirsch and his team of nurses at Hendricks Hospital. They treated Patrick with great respect and did their best, but in those days, most people with AIDS did not last long. Patrick died in less than a year.
His move back home was a catalytic event in our family made even more combustable by the fact that we desperately tried to keep Patrick's entire life in a dark closet of our own making. My mother and father wrestled with their fundamentalist and evangelical beliefs that seemed to condemn him even while they could not. My mother never fully reconciled the depth of her love for him and her understanding of the good person he was with what the Church said about him. Sadly, our attempts to hide his diagnosis meant that we also hid him and ourselves, cutting ourselves off from support that we all needed. In many ways, Patrick became a prisoner in chains that we fashioned out of fear.
Soon after he died, breast cancer killed my mother. I continue to believe that her unresolved grief really killed her and cancer was just the vehicle. Soon after she died, her mother died. In the South we sometimes say, "she gave up the ghost" and I think the expression fits in this case. She gave up the ghost that haunted us all -- the specter of our own internalized homophobia and AIDS phobia. My grandmother didn't know how to cope with her feelings of loss and the deeply held beliefs about sexuality that had been engrained in her. So, she exited as well. Her attending physician said complications of pneumonia killed her. I think she just could not breathe the air anymore. It was too thick with the cloud of shame and blame dispensed by our religious authorities and swallowed by us without question.
During the time that our family was struggling with the domino effect of these our losses, my children were watching. My son knew he was gay. And, being a really smart kid, he realized that there was no healthy place for him to reside with us. So, he exited as well.
Quit school. Moved out of Abilene. Joined the National Coming Out Day office as a volunteer (then in Santa Fe, New Mexico), learned how to live with integrity about his sexuality, went to college and got a job. He had some really rocky times, yet he held tight to the boundary that he set about the crazy-making religious orientation of our family.
He insisted that we really look at what the Bible says about homosexuality and not just blindly accept what our church said was true. Eventually he finished his Masters in Divinity at Episcopal Divinity School and wrote a book entitled "Uncommon Hope" and has founded a church by the same name in San Francisco. Perhaps you have guessed that his ministry is all about helping people in churches and communities eliminate stigma that separates us from one another.
Over time, all of our family has evolved in our understanding of what AIDS is and is not. And, thankfully, we evolved in our understanding of love and grace. Things are a bit smoother for all of us now.
We had to find ways to be spiritually healthy. I like to think that we were, in no small part, inspired by the courage of my brother. The part of the story that I did not reveal early in this posting was that my brother was outrageously honest about who he was and his sexual orientation. When we tried our best to push him into the closet, he kicked it open and came out tap dancing. He never made excuses to any of us for being gay, in fact, he told us that we needed to stop making excuses because he had known he was gay since he was five. He also believed that God made him that way and, perhaps even more important, he believed that even if God did not make him gay, God loved him and chose him beyond any choices, predispositions or behaviors.
He had this really queer and wonderful theology that informs us all even now -- he understood that what animates each of us is both unique to each of us and absolutely the same -- a spiritual DNA that cannot be destroyed by us no matter how hard we try, a gift of life that resides beyond our cellular configurations and beyond labels and stigma -- the ones we put on ourselves and the ones others put on us.
Patrick imparted a gift to all of us by refusing to give up the gift he knew had been given to him by a Greater Power than any of us can grasp. On World AIDS Day 2011, I want to honor him and thank him for being everything he was -- proud, living out loud and full of grace. It is because of him that the rest of us have a chance to get it right.