March to Keep the Promise on AIDS

After three long decades that changed AIDS from a gay to universal disease, the entire country should join LGBT people join at the Washington Monument to reassert our commitment to AIDS prevention, treatment and, above all, cure.
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July 22 is not just a demonstration to remind America to Keep the Promise on AIDS. This rally is a mission. After three long decades that changed AIDS from a gay to universal disease, the entire country joins LGBT people join at the Washington Monument to reassert our commitment to AIDS prevention, treatment and, above all, cure.

This march is so powerful because its message is simple: The human body holds ultimate value. I say this not in the exhausted voice of a gay Catholic man of 77, but with the experienced conviction that finding our rightful place in politics comes from recovering the essential goodness of our bodies.

LGBT activism has always been about the human body. The Stonewall riots of June 1969 declared publicly that gay men would not be pushed around by their sexuality. With and for their bodies, gay protesters no longer accepted their physical desires and relationships as criminal and sinful.

With AIDS exploding through the1980s, playwright Larry Kramer in March 1987 founded The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to demand lower prices of medications and access to experimental therapies. Militants broke into The New York Stock Exchange to protest the exorbitant price of the one approved AIDS drug. Activists occupied the pews of St. Patrick Cathedral on 5th Avenue.

This early challenge to Christianity's aloof response to AIDS was striking. The protesters brought Jesus' good news about the human body back to gospel ministry. In Scripture, the human body holds the divine spirit. Faith is part of keeping the promise on AIDS.

My newly published book, "Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire," provides a window on the first religious steps that led to the July 22 march. In the 1980s, when AIDS brought shame and denunciation, it was the people with AIDS who revealed the truth about the body that the church neglected.

Though the church had not been mother to her gay children, some came anyway to the 5:30 afternoon Mass at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village. Clothes drooped on emaciated men in their mid-20s to early 40s. Pustules rutted the withered flesh of several. Some sported baseball caps to keep facial lesions shaded out of sight of onlookers. A few men used make-up to screen darkened facial spots. But nothing covered the bones of suffering or muted the sound of sickness from the pews punctuating the words of God from the altar.

Living in wrack and ruin, these men brought life back into a church that left them for dead. They walked to the Lord's Table for sustenance, more life. The vitality of their appeal stood out in sharp relief against the lifeless Christianity that vilified their gayness. From these famished bodies the Eucharist rises. Such spiritual defiance taught me what I needed to know.

AIDS was our passion. Its agony thrust gay life into the vortex of biblical and 20th-century history. This previously censored truthfulness came to rest in rows of church benches for all to bear gayness in mind as part of providential history. Their perseverance asked me to trust the body. I did.

At the liturgy, persons with HIV were not seen as the reviled carriers of plague rejected by society. Bodies that were hosts for infections sought the host of sacred healing. Their return to the home that spurned them showed that the divine spirit was far beyond any barrier of separation that humans erected for themselves. The love that dare not say its name howled out from its heart with what voice it had left to reclaim its place in God's plan. Worship modeled a church and society to which I felt I could belong.

One regular parishioner lingers in my heart's memory. He stood tall with a cane supporting him. He neither wore a hat nor used cosmetics to cover his malignant tumors. Such complete confidence in his skin inscribed with scarlet marks expressed a quiet and intractable dignity. He had faith in his body. He was not ashamed of his gift from God, his own skin, which is something to think about. In slow motion this young man was bringing his entire person of ensouled flesh for the fullness life of his body. One day he no longer showed up. It was like that. AIDS was a disease of disappearance.

No longer. The bodies of these persons with AIDS were keepers of faith. Their wisdom guides the July 22 March to Keep the Promise on AIDS.

Richard Giannone, Professor, Fordham University, is author of 'Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire.'

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