By Scott McGlothlen |
Living With Hiv: A Rebel’s Revelation »
Even though her words were kind, I immediately wanted to punch her in the face (figuratively speaking of course). How dare they? She, along with the rest of these classmates, pertained to a faith whose stance on homosexuality has led to discrimination, bullying and even violence against the LGBT community. If anyone needed forgiving, it was them. Right?
I hadn’t always ferociously lacked such grace. As a kid, I was actually quite the little Jesus nut. My folks raised my sisters and me in the Methodist church but our household wasn’t so strict about it. My mother simply asked us to at least attend church every Sunday.
Yet we did more than that. We sang in the children’s choir and I served as an accolade. Church lock-ins seemed like the coolest thing a kid could do. I even proudly donned some sassily sacred attire. One of my favorite T-shirts looked like it had a giant logo for Reebok. Upon closer inspection, it said “Read The Book.”
By age 15, things started to change. Much to my mother’s dismay, I stopped going to church on Sundays. Not because I had any new revelations about faith. Rather, I had just become a lazy teenager. But unbeknownst to them, I was also figuring out the fact that I liked guys more than girls.
Even though I had no memory of our family church ever preaching about homosexuality, I still learned about the religious stance in other ways. One time around the age of 6, our oldest sister took us to the movies. On the way there, we saw another car with a bumper sticker that said “God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.” My sister laughed and thought it was perhaps the most clever thing she’d ever read. As we arrived to the theater, so did that other car and my sister made it a point thank them for displaying such an awesome message.
Thus when puberty hit and I realized things were different, I not only felt confused but down-right terrified. I tried my best to hold off on labeling myself as “gay” as long as I could. However by age 15, I accepted it and told my sister. She (and her many Rush Limbaugh books) didn’t take the news so well.
Religious stances on homosexuality didn’t really have an impact on me until the killing of Matthew Shepherd. Photos of the Westboro Baptist Church members picketing his funeral with signs like “God Hates Fags” impaled into my brain, making it impossible to ever forget. Even if other church’s actions weren’t as extreme, their shared values would (in my mind) forever be tied to each other. I convinced myself that if it wasn’t for organized religion’s stance on homosexuality, Matthew Shepherd probably wouldn’t have been horrifically murdered.
In the coming years, my views went from bad to worse. I began learning that being gay wasn’t merely just looked down upon, but that the LGBT community members were truly treated as second-class citizens. We couldn’t marry or adopt kids. We couldn’t serve in the military. Even legislation had passed making it OK to discriminate against gay men and women in my home state of Colorado. Being gay was the new black. And as far as I was concerned, religion held the blame.
By my early twenties, I had become one full-fledged furious atheist whose mission was to wage war on organized religion. It didn’t matter if someone adhered to a faith background that supported the LGBT community. My hatred extended far beyond that. I, like most atheists, blamed religion for all things wrong in this world like war and oppression. Thus the moment I found out any person adhered to faith, my blood instantaneously boiled. I had no qualms with tearing right into them, trying to deflate their beliefs and make them feel guilty for all the woes in the world.
At the age of 25, I met a man named Luke. He had hit me up online wanting to know if I would like to go out sometime. We were both social workers and he had an interest in learning more about what I did. I wasn’t inclined to meet as my twenty-something-year-old-bitterness had me long wanting to give up on the dating. But since he was handsome, I decided a date couldn’t hurt.
Over dinner, Luke seemed unlike any man I had ever met. His All-American guy good looks and sweet personality had me immediately hooked. Luke’s demeanor was surprisingly peaceful. Yet he had a sharp wit that kept me laughing throughout our meal. As we talked about our careers, I learned that prior to being a social worker, Luke worked in a youth ministry for most of his adult life. Like most people in his shoes, he left it all behind once he came out as gay. I assumed a man like this could only be as bitter and jaded as myself.
But I assumed wrong. When getting on the topic of faith and religion, Luke talked about how he still remained fully tied to his faith and even went to church every Sunday. By the baffled look on my face, Luke explained that his home church primarily served the LGBT community. This didn’t make any sense and normally I would have launched into a heated debate right then and there. However since I was enjoying my time with him so much, I decided not to ruin it by rolling my eyes right in front of his face. I just did it secretly in my head instead.
By the end of our evening, I dubbed him completely undateable purely based on the fact that he was a man of faith (even though everything else seemed perfect). And vice versa, I came off as a bit too rebellious for his tastes. Since the two of us saw a lot of good in each other, I chose to be diplomatic enough for a mild friendship.
Toward the end of the summer, I opted to take advantage of some local, free STD testing. Even though I was pretty adamant about safety, I knew that regular testing played an important role for any sexually active individual. And because I behaved so safe, I knew that I absolutely had nothing to worry about.
The process went as usual: filling out questionnaires, urinating in cups. The tester pricked the tip of my finger for the HIV rapid test. I had done this before. It worked kind of like a pregnancy test but instead of urine, you use a drop of blood. And if a line pops up, then the news doesn’t look so great.
The tester quizzed me on my sex life while we waited for the rapid test to do its thing. “Had I ever had sex while using drugs?” Nah, I had never really used drugs. “Had I ever had sex in exchange for money or gifts?” Sure, social workers don’t make much money.
“Hmm,” the tester murmured as he revealed the rapid test. “I don’t want you to freak out, but there is a faint line.”
But I did start to freak out.
“It is probably nothing,” he said, trying to reassure me. “These tests are built super sensitive. It could be picking up antibodies from other things. I have already had four false positives this week.”
He drew more blood so that we could get some sort of confirmation. However the results would take two weeks. I couldn’t wait that long. The next day, I zipped off to my primary care doc knowing that she could get the results in four days.
When I returned to her office to get the answer, I knew something had to be wrong when the nurse handed back my co-pay. The doc walked in and before the door even shut, she said the test came back positive. It was official. I had HIV.
After sobbing a good while in their office, I tried walking to my car. But the air just felt too thick. I could barely move. How could this happen to me? Sure I was young, angry and queer. But I was also a good little white boy from the suburbs. Things like this didn’t happen to Caucasian suburbanites. Life just didn’t make sense anymore.
A few friends gathered at my apartment to comfort me. Although quite stunned themselves, they hardly knew what to say. Once they left, I was all alone and my reality began to crumble again. I picked up the phone, and for reasons I’ll never understand, called Luke.
The man dropped everything and came right over. And although he knew very little about HIV, Luke somehow comforted me better than anyone else. Toward the end of my night in crisis, he made a very odd request.
“Would you mind if I prayed for you?
This would have been the moment I scoffed and kicked him out. But I was different now; shattered. So I nodded my head.
“Dear God…” he began. Luke’s prayer unfolded unlike any prayer I had been accustomed to. He didn’t ask for anything ridiculous, like God removing the disease from my body. Instead he asked God to give me strength in handling this difficult time. Something about it helped me relax. I felt a little sense of peace.
Luke and his tranquil spirit became essential for my survival. For not having really known me, he offered up more support than any of my friends. Then one day he asked if I would like to come to church with him. My chest tightened at the idea. But now, as a broken man, I had a revelation: I didn’t know everything. In fact if I knew anything, it would be merely a fraction of nothing.
Luke promised that I didn’t have to dress up for the service. However I couldn’t bring myself to dress down. When we arrived I saw people in T-shirts and shorts. Even though the building looked like church, the audience somehow didn’t. They weren’t like the perfect, Stepfordish suburbanites I went to church with as a kid. Some looked well put together. Others looked disheveled. A few seemed outright homeless. And it all somehow came off as refreshing.
The Pastor, Jim Burns, was bit unkempt himself but in that super genius kind of way. I had a hard time believing that he, as a gay man, could deliver the sermon. But he did more than deliver, he busted right through my adult ADHD. Pastor Burns used humor to keep me laughing, current events to keep me interested, and his own humility to keep me relating. Even though there were near 300 of us there, it felt like he talked directly to me. By the end, I was bawling into the palms of my hands.
The embarrassment of crying in public didn’t last long since complete strangers patted me on the back while others handed me tissues. Without even trying, Pastor Burns said exactly what I needed to hear. And suddenly I had a community willing to support me in my struggle, regardless of whether or not I liked religion. I left the church feeling a little more hopeful about life, something I hadn’t felt at all since my HIV diagnosis.
I decided to come back again… and again… and again. Pastor Burns didn’t merely preach that “God is the answer.” Rather he used theologies to explain how to find the answer within ourselves (with God’s support, of course). Surprisingly each week’s sermon felt more helpful than the therapist I saw regularly.
My friends, bitter as I once was, didn’t quite understand my new found appreciation of church.
“So what? Now that you have AIDS, you’ve suddenly found God?” One friend teased me.
The crude joke cut through me like a knife. Ironically, if it had been someone else, the “old me” would have probably made a similarly snarky remark. This had me wondering if my friends and I were ever truly friends at all.
The truth was that I didn’t have AIDS nor did I necessarily find God. If anything, my HIV positive status (that’s severely different from having AIDS) simply caused me to stop shaking my fist at God. And unlike my friend, this new church respected my decision to follow this path as I saw fit. I never felt pressured to praise the lord or become a member. They invited me to come be present regardless of my faith. Eventually, Pastor Burns even invited me to give my own sermon, based on scripture, as a person of non-faith. This kind of graceful love taught me what I had been lacking in my adult life and lacking within myself.
Proudly, I let my guard down and upgraded from an atheist to an agnostic. To some, this may not sound like a big leap. For me, it was huge. I suddenly found relief in not knowing everything the universe had to offer. And I found happiness in not badgering people about my own point of view.
As I settled into my new life of grace and gratitude, it became clear that my previous life as an angry atheist had been riddled with hypocrisy. I didn’t live up to the Golden Rule of treating others the way I wanted to be treated. Such a notion never works well when it gets narrowed down to a one-way street. If organized religions preached against homosexuality, my response certainly didn’t offer anything respectful in return.
Now living with a disease that some considered God’s punishment for gay men, I had to face a whole new challenge of even more hurtful, faith-based rhetoric. But the idea of it didn’t make my blood boil anymore. Instead I could offer others forgiveness, love and a hug… just like that student offered me after my speech in college. Looking back on that time, perhaps I should have been the one to get punched in the face (figuratively speaking of course). Because in the end, I have to be willing to offer others first what I wish to receive from them. If I want respect, I have to be respectful. If I want love, I have to be loving. If I want forgiveness, I have to forgive.
This year, Luke and I celebrated eight years of our wonderful relationship together. The LGBT church that we attended has sadly fallen apart in recent in times. But even with that, I have had no desire to turn back away from faith-based communities. Often an HIV diagnosis can lead a person down a dark path of self-destruction. For my own personal tragedy, I found a world of love and support that nourished me into a life far better than I would have had otherwise.