Religion and AIDS at 30

Many news outlets marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS with stories on the medical and scientific aspects of the disease. But was religion mentioned?
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Many news outlets marked the 30th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS -- or, more accurately, the first reports of five otherwise healthy homosexuals in Los Angeles who had contracted a rare cancer -- with stories on the medical and scientific aspects of the disease. "The AIDS war still rages," according to the Los Angeles Times. And the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported "hope for a cure."

Others supplemented medical pieces with first-person accounts of living with the disease or explorations of AIDS' impact on culture.

Was religion mentioned? Deep down in several pieces, reporters remarked that some religious conservatives remain opposed to condom use and others still call AIDS "the wrath of God."

Yet, glossing over the entangled relationship between religion and AIDS, or simply consigning that history to conservative sound bites, overlooks crucial links between the impact of the epidemic and changing coverage of sexuality. It also occludes shifts in the GLBT community's public profile as well as important theological developments in mainline Protestantism and progressive denominations and traditions.

When AIDS emerged in the early 1980s, the decades-old campaign for gay acceptance, rights and non-discrimination had achieved some notable victories. Newspapers covered the new gay scene, profiling a subculture with its own bars, clubs, music and freewheeling sexual mores. (That this "gay community" was depicted as predominantly white, urban and middle class deserves its own media critique.) At the same time, journalists followed a growing religious backlash against gay rights, crystallized by Anita Bryant's 1977 drive to repeal a Dade County, Fla., non-discrimination statute. Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign alleged that homosexual behavior endangered children and was an unacceptable affront to biblical morality.

These two types of stories -- gays as hedonists and gays as a social menace -- were more sophisticated spins on homophobic news stories from the 1950s and 1960s that almost invariably framed gay life in terms of deviancy and perversion. Arguably, this coverage merely reflected or echoed widespread discomfort with same-sex relations (most reporters shared the same preconceptions as the public), whereas stories in the '80s tended to evince the news values of sensationalism and conflict.

The first reports of a mysterious cancer afflicting otherwise healthy gay men seemed neither controversial nor titillating. But as the contours and scope of the disease became clear, the story suggested both. Why were gays susceptible to this terrible epidemic? Religious conservatives had a biblically based answer: immorality.

Many of the early human-interest stories incorporated this condemnation. Either a religious conservative was quoted saying AIDS was a divine punishment or an AIDS patient or family member voiced shame and guilt that explicitly stemmed from a sense of God's anger.

At the same time, other Christians were beginning to articulate an alternative religious response. They told reporters that God loves AIDS patients and that Jesus would be ministering to them. These beliefs were quoted as a counterpoint to conservatives, but as the decade progressed and journalists wrote more about coping with AIDS and caring for the afflicted, stories that offered a religious angle on "Why me?" and "What should I do?" proliferated.

By the 1990s, many Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches had direct experience of people with AIDS, either as congregants, clergy, friends or family. Articles about their experiences documented their (often evolving) beliefs about the disease -- it carried no divine stigma and could strike anyone -- as well as about gays, whom God loved too. Moreover, once sexual contact was discovered to be an avenue for transmitting the disease, journalists reported that some churches were initiating conversations about safe sex and others were distributing condoms.

Did working through their theological response to AIDS help some mainline Christians come to accept GLBT people as God's children, equal members of the congregation, deserving of ordination and entitled to the sanction of religious and civil marriage? Likewise did reporting on mainline Protestants' beliefs about gays and activities around AIDS predispose news consumers to rethink their own opinions? Or, on other hand, did hearing Falwellian assertions about gay immorality harden some hearts and convert others?

Academics wrestle with the question of whether journalism reflects public opinion, shapes it or does a little of both. Insofar as religion influences attitudes about sexuality, which it does directly to the faithful and indirectly, through cultural osmosis, to many others, coverage of religious responses to homosexuality provides a glimpse into living history. It also offers a way to chart broader and deeper currents of cultural change.

How could assessments of AIDS at 30 fail to look at the dramatically altered landscape of our cultural discussions? In 1981, for example, few Americans would have taken seriously the possibility of gay marriage, including many gays, who would have scoffed at the notion that mirroring what they saw as an inherently (hetero)sexist, monogamous lifestyle could be a milestone on their own path to liberation. What caused the change? AIDS for one, evolving religious opinion for another and -- arguably -- the news media's role in bringing both developments to public attention.

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