I am a gay man who has lived with HIV for 27 years. I am also a Christian.
The intersection of those two realities has been a driving force (and frequently a huge conundrum) for me for all of those 27 years.
I have always thought that the story of my personal journey was a fairly common one. I grew up in a family that provided for my every material need with one hand and shoved me away because I was gay with the other. My family “billed” themselves as Christian—really, with a small “c” if you want to think of it that way. Their Christianity meant that, for the low, low price of showing up at church for one hour on Christmas Eve and one hour on Easter Sunday, they were entitled to a license to hate black people, Hispanic people, gay people, poor people, foreigners, and anyone who practiced a different religious tradition.
As late in my life as 2008, I watched my 89-year-old father shake his head and lament the fact that we now had a “damn n****r in the White House.” So growing up, I became a very practiced liar—because engaging in forthright discussion about most issues would simply send both of my parents into absolute apoplexy, and frankly, it was easier to just avoid talking about anything that my family already considered unacceptable, even though I had accepted my own sexuality early on and was out with many of my friends. (Yet, of course, careful at my public high school, where one wrong move could get you shoved into a locker.)
Ironically, I was the actual practicing Christian in the family. I attended a United Methodist Church as a youngster, participated in the youth programs and sang in the children’s choir. I listened to the stories of Jesus’ love, healing and forgiveness, and I came to the conclusion at a fairly early age that Jesus must love me exactly as I am, gay and all. Unfortunately, at the same time I was finding comfort in Christ, my family was destroying my self-esteem. My parents were notorious for insisting that everything always be their way. Rather than allowing me to be myself and supporting me in the things that were important to me, those things were ridiculed, and my worth was judged based on how closely I lived my life in the way that THEY wanted me to live it. And of course, they were always right about everything. It was like spending your childhood with an elephant sitting on your chest—claustrophobic, stifling and impossible to breathe. So as my view of myself eroded, I lost Christ, lost the church, and once the chains loosened as they unavoidably must at 18 and graduation from high school, I found refuge in sexual promiscuity, drugs and alcohol. In my 20’s and early 30’s, I developed a particular proclivity for anonymous sex with multiple partners, fueled by cocaine and booze. After being told for so many years that I didn’t matter and that I wasn’t living my life the right way, I discovered that I was good at sex, and that I could gain acceptance and appreciation for it, particularly from older men. I had always been taught that sex wasn’t important, and having discovered that it was, it became a way for me to feel validated.
So I became one of the millions of gay men who were partying and having a great deal of unprotected sex between the years 1985 and 1995.
And in 1990, I was diagnosed with HIV.
Obviously, this story does not end with my death, as it did for so many of the people who contracted HIV during those years, nor is the focus of this essay the zeniths and nadirs of my battle to survive HIV, which are many; it is also not about what it has taken for me to become free from drugs and alcohol and remain clean and sober for 14 years. Rather, my focus is on one of the many lessons I have learned as I rediscovered Christ, primarily since that morning in 2002 when I finally got back to my apartment after a night in the drunk tank, looked in the mirror and decided that I could no longer live the way I was living. Since that moment, I have sought both solace and wisdom in the Gospels through Jesus’ parables and the story of his life. I go back to them again and again—they are like a cup that constantly refills itself no matter how deeply I drink.
In those dark years when I was trying to disengage from the task of destroying myself and/or enabling HIV to do it for me, I often reminded myself that Jesus had healed lepers. I occasionally reread those passages and thought how similar the picture of leprosy in the Gospels was to what I was experiencing with HIV: a disease that stigmatized its victims and separated them from the rest of humanity; a disease that was so socially offensive that the victims had to announce themselves before coming into public view; a disease with which the medical, political and social establishments had decided they wanted nothing to do.
And yet, again and again, there was Jesus, touching the untouchable, embracing those which others would dare not embrace. Surely I was as worthy of Jesus’ love as those lepers, wasn’t I?
More recently I have taken the time to explore some of these healing stories further. I am particularly struck by how much two particular stories speak to my own lived experience, those being Mark 1: 40-45 and Luke 17: 11-19. In Mark 1 (this story is also found in Matthew 8: 1-4 and Luke 5: 12-16) Jesus heals the leper whom Jesus then asks to conceal the source of his healing. Indeed, Jesus asks him to take what seems to be the exact opposite course of action. He says to the leper:
…See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony to them.
As those familiar with the scripture know, having been admonished by Jesus to “act normal,” make no reference to Jesus as his healer, and simply go to the priests and tell them “I did what Moses said to do and guess what? I’m cured!” the leper immediately blabs to everyone about the miracle (and who performed it.) This causes so much buzz among the afflicted that Jesus is overwhelmed with requests for healing. I can identify with the leper and how he felt he simply had to “blaze abroad the matter.” Whenever someone asks me how I’ve managed to survive nearly 30 years of HIV, HPV anal cancer, and substance addiction—yes, it is very hard for me to simply say, “Oh, I had good doctors” or “I learned to take care of myself” or even “I learned to value myself.” Invariably, I always say “Christ played a large part in my survival.” Because I have learned—as the leper in Mark did—that it is very difficult to be demure about a miracle. (Also, in all fairness to the leper, Jesus is asking him to tell the priests that he engaged in the 30+ ritual steps commanded by Moses for the cleansing of skin diseases. For a mind-boggling description of how complicated Old Testament law can be, I heartily recommend reading Leviticus 14. The typical set of IKEA assembly instructions have nothing on this passage.)
The leper story in Mark 1 illustrates how difficult it often is to contain our thankfulness to Christ. But the other side of the coin, of course, is our human tendency to become wrapped up in our problems and to forget to thank God for the solutions to those problems–even to go blithely on our way thinking that we have solved our problems ourselves, or that now that we have our solution, we don’t have to worry about those conversations with Christ for a while. That is why I like to also revisit a very different leper story, the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17: 11-19. This for me is the “stick” to the “carrot” of the leper story in Mark 1.
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
So only 1 out of 10 of these men felt gratitude that they were able to survive this disease, and faithfully gave credit where credit is due, namely to Jesus. Speaking as a gay man who is a long-term survivor of HIV, my experience among my peers bears out that statistic. Sometimes those of us who are living successfully with a chronic disease get so wrapped up in the idea of accomplishing as much as possible while we are well and able (“making hay while the sun shines,” as my mother was always fond of saying) that we forget to stop and take a moment to remember that our survival is part of a larger plan. For example, I could make a list here of all the events in my life since being diagnosed with HIV that could have ended my life, everything from internal bleeding caused by my spleen to a suicide attempt. I would like to think that, like the Samaritan leper, without the intervention of faith, it would be much less likely that I would still be around. In many ways, I feel as though I am the Samaritan—probably the most unworthy of survivors, the most foreign, the most outside—and indisputably the most grateful. I sometimes muse of “filling in the story” in Luke 17: the ten lepers bounding away in joy that they had been healed; the Samaritan leper suddenly coming to an abrupt halt; his realization that this incredibly miraculous thing had happened; the sight of the other nine continuing on their way; the contrition of returning to Jesus to say “thank you.” Of all the characters in the Bible that I would aspire to be most like, the Samaritan leper is certainly at the top of the list. And when I realize that it has been a while since I have expressed my thanks to Christ for my continued survival, this is an easy story to pull up from the back of my mind.
In recent years, modern medical science has made it possible not only to survive with HIV, but to thrive. But I always remember the words of activist David Mixner:
All of my peers died of AIDS, and I have to one to celebrate my past or my journey, or to help me pass down stories to the next generation. We lost an entire generation of storytellers with HIV.
The parallels between leprosy in Jesus’ world and HIV in our own are obvious; so are the lessons of Jesus on how we should care for those among us with chronic illness, how he engaged with people living with disease, and how important is gratitude to God. I have been in a fortunate place, to realize that both my illness AND my Christianity co-exist for a reason. It took me many years to realize this truth, to discover how adversity can be a beacon. I have been very lucky, indeed.
John Lazo is an HIV activist and advocate in Houston, Texas. He is the Vice-Chairman of the Houston Ryan White Planning Council, and a member and volunteer with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. He is also a member of Spring Branch Presbyterian Church.