Reflections on the AIDS Memorial Quilt
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is currently on display on the National Mall. It is comprised of over 48,000 panels, each about the size of a grave, representing over 94,000 people—which is about 20% of the people who have died from AIDS-related complications in the United States. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has plagued the United States since the early 1980s, and it has flourished in part because it touches on everything Americans hate talking about: sex (especially gay sex), drugs and poverty. In many senses, it is a not only a memorial to those who have died, but also a reminder of all that we failed to do – and of what we can still do.
The LGBT and faith communities were among the first to organize to respond to the epidemic and care for the sick. Yet, despite the time, money and other resources the faith community has committed to fighting HIV and AIDS, some members of our community have also played a significant role in the spread of the disease – primarily through the Religious Right’s opposition to comprehensive sexuality education and the so-called “sin” of homosexuality.
The stigmatization of homosexuality, often perpetrated by people of faith citing religious belief, keeps queer people in the closet and eats away at an individual’s self-worth. These are no “mere” spiritual concerns of the soul and the intangible: The effects are very real. The closet has led to gay men being on the “down low” – often involving clandestine sexual encounters – and being too afraid to get tested. Moreover, even among those who are out, studies have shown that those who were raised in conservative communities of faith struggle with internalized homophobia. Other studies have shown that internalized homophobia is linked with risky sexual behavior.
In addition, many conservative faith communities have promoted abstinence-only education, not only in their congregations but in our nation’s schools as well. Study after study has demonstrated that comprehensive sexuality education effectively decreases unintended pregnancies and unsafe sex practices among teenagers, while abstinence-only education does not.
Although we cannot shrink the list of HIV/AIDS victims, we can do our part to prevent it from getting longer—to ensure that there is no more reason for the AIDS Memorial Quilt to grow. As people of faith, we and our congregations have many resources at our disposal: numbers, money, experience, community. We know well how to reach out to members of our communities, how to raise funds for a just and moral cause, how to engage in pastoral care and raising awareness, and any number of other things. It is time to turn those tools fully to fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS – and that includes fighting the stigma of homosexuality and pushing for comprehensive sexuality education.
We can best honor and cherish the memories of those we have lost to this disease by ensuring they are joined by as few others as possible.