At a recent memorial service for a young man who had been my colleague and had died of AIDS, I was shocked and hurt to learn that he hid his deadly secret because of his fear of rejection, keeping his condition from his friends and even his family.
Moreover, it was revealed that because the health insurance at his job in Florida did not cover his pre-existing disease, he paid for the costly AZT from his weekly paychecks. "Had he asked," wrote one of his colleagues, "we could have directed him to where AZT was available for less than he was paying."
While his colleagues may have grieved because they did not know of his illness, his stunned family, who found out that he had AIDS only a few weeks before he died, tried hard to bury the cause of his death with him.
Another Washingtonian told me recently, "I used to belong to a Washington Pentecostal church. But once a few members found out I had AIDS, I was asked to resign from a board which I loved so very much."
These and other recent incidents made me confront the depth of rejection within the black community of those with AIDS, and I decided to find out more about current attitudes.
It is not an overstatement to say that a few years ago, mass hysteria existed in this country, including many black communities. Judgmental attitudes about homosexuality and presumed lifestyles, as well as fear and ignorance about AIDS, drove some ministers occasionally to denigrate gay persons from their pulpits.
As the face of AIDS has changed, with the spread of the disease stalling among gay men here and increasing among women and children, attitudes toward people with the disease are moderating. Not a minute too soon, government and private organizations have been stepping up activities to relieve some of the fear.
In the past year, for example, the Congress of National Black Churches and the D.C. Public Health Commission's Office of Aids Activities have talked about the ABCs of AIDS at more than 100 churches. In addition, the Office of Aids Activities has organized an aggressive program called "Love in Action," which has trained 150 ministers on the disease so they can share the information with their congregations. Meanwhile, the Rev. Anthony Motley of AIDS Activities has developed the "Embrace Somebody's Child Project," which coordinates churches to respond to people living with AIDS.
Churches also are being encouraged to use their mission funds to pay light bills and rent or buy medicine for HIV-positive patients, and programs are under way to get ministers to give bereavement counseling and conduct memorial services. Moreover, such organizations as Grandma's House, a home for Washington children with AIDS, is expanding. A bilingual hot line is scheduled to open soon at the Whitman Walker Clinic.
Much more needs to be done. Support groups are needed to help families, such as my former colleague's, who are having difficulty dealing with the sexuality of their loved ones as well as AIDS. Attitudes still need to change. In the case of gay men, for example, some Washingtonians with a missionary spirit think it is okay to minister to male homosexuals with AIDS. Yet they still have a problem with the gay lifestyle.
What this disease confronts us with is the challenge to stop judging people and to accept those who are different, for what is right for one person may not necessarily be right for another. In fact, we are not diminished if we allow another person to define themselves; we are enhanced.
I think it is particularly appropriate that THE NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt will be accessible to a local community when it is on view through today at the Coolidge Senior High School Activities Center.
This touching tapestry celebrates the lives of individuals lost to AIDS, giving us a chance to go beyond the cold statistics to glimpse the human beings who have died, and will include newer panels with ties to the Washington area. Through its accessibility, this community and others like it will have an opportunity to come to terms with not only attitudes about AIDS, but also about homophobia, and hopefully out of these encounters, we will tear down the wall of rejection and instead try to build bridges of compassion.