This is the text of a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman on December 7, 2008:
This is the story of a boy.
Don’t worry, I have his permission.
A boy who was born and raised not far from here.
This boy was raised by loving parents in a small Montana town.
He was a happy child. His mother called him “Exuberant.” His father labeled him “thoughtful, intelligent and friendly.” As he grew, he always was asking questions and wanted to be around adults as much as possible because they were fascinating to him. In many ways, he felt more like an adult than a child. He went to school, and found he excelled at learning. He was curious about everything, and enjoyed reading and writing. He wasn’t as good at math, but he loved music. Especially singing. He did pretty well in grade school. He was popular with his classmates, and hardly ever had homework- he got it all done during school, because he skipped recess a lot, asthma kept him from running around with the other kids.
He was raised Catholic. He loved church. It was quiet, beautiful, mysterious and the singing was nice. It was a safe, quiet place during the turbulent times of adolescence, especially with a younger brother and sister in the house.
This boy always felt different. Something always kept him from feeling like the rest of his friends. His experience was different. He just saw the world differently. When some of the other boys talked about things, he felt like an outsider. It wasn’t only the difficulty understanding the need to play sports- he did that, badly, or do the things the other boys did- it was something deeper. He couldn’t find anyone to tell him about what he felt and thought sometimes. He looked, kept his eyes open, went to the library-there didn’t seem to be a name for it.
All that changed in 7th grade. He found the word that they gave for the symptoms he was experiencing. And it was bad. And, like a patient who has been given a terminal diagnosis, he moved into the stage of denial, working extra hard so that no one would suspect. He tried hard to fit in, and when that didn’t work, he used his considerable brain to justify his place in the world. And sometimes he came to some very painful conclusions. He thought about suicide. Even tried it. Things were that bad.
And that word? That word he discovered in a high school health textbook in the school that was so small all the books were available to everyone… that word was homosexual.
His life changed. He knew that to be gay was wrong. Everyone said so. The boys made jokes about fairies and queers and fags. They weren’t normal. They were a mistake.
But he quickly formulated a plan.
All through high school he worked hard to keep his secret. He even played football. He made the same jokes about queers and fags and fairies to throw people off the scent. He went to church a lot and prayed for God to take all these feelings about other boys away from him. He was elected Senior Class president, and got a full ride scholarship to Carroll College in Speech and Debate.
And the plan?
He figured out a way to keep his secret and gain the admiration and respect of his peers.
He would be a priest. And he would not only be a priest, he would go to Seminary in Rome- the best place to study, the place only the best and brightest got to study. He would be respected and no one would suspect there was something wrong with him.
Going to a catholic college in a time when there was a priest shortage, and professing a vocation to the priesthood- he was admired, he was supported, he was respected. He was Junior and Senior class president. He dated girls but looked at boys. He had 2 majors and 2 minors. He was busy and popular. In the eyes of his family and friends, he did well.
He did go to Rome- spent 5 year there and got a Master’s in theology, worked for the Pope. He met others like him, but convinced himself that celibacy was what God really wanted of him.
He was ordained, came back to Montana and was a priest in Helena. He mostly loved it. He loved being with people at important times in their lives. He baptized them, sat with them in illness, celebrated eucharist, preached- he loved preaching, married them and buried them. He taught at Carroll, became the youngest pastor in the history of the diocese and then something happened.
He fell in love.
Suddenly the life he created couldn’t compare to the feelings he got from really being seen for what he was- and it was okay! He somehow knew God was in this, too. But it was hard to undo all those years of training at hiding.
That first love didn’t last through the ensuing internal conflict.
He left the active ministry, moved to a big city, went to years of weekly counseling and finally came to an understanding with himself. He was okay, mostly, even if society and his church and some of his family couldn’t understand that. He made new friends. Gay friends. Straight friends who accepted him. Worked as an out gay man and went to grad school to be a therapist- it seemed to fit.
He dated. A lot. It seemed that he was making up for an adolescence that was lost. He had several serious relationships, and plenty that weren’t. He learned a lot about people. He learned a lot about the shame and guilt carried by gay men. He worked at a counseling agency for LGBT people and was increasingly amazed at the lengths that people went to for love and acceptance. Amazed, but not surprised. He’d been there himself.
And then, some things changed. He’d somehow lost something.
He looked for it in drugs and parties and relationships and sex. It worked for a while. He went through addiction issues and treatment. And then he got sick. Really sick. Colon cancer- multiple colonoscopies and MRSA. Some friends stood by him and some didn’t. He was sad a lot. He was in a lot of pain. Relationships weren’t working, he had to leave his job because of illness, and he wondered what he was going to do. He talked to his parents and his remaining friends. He had a deep spiritual experience on his couch one day- the gist of which was “Nothing can go wrong”. He wondered if he should go back to active priesthood. The bishop interviewed him and started the process, one requirement was a complete physical, including an HIV test. He’d been tested before, of course. Especially after one particularly disturbing relationship when he realized he had trusted someone for the wrong reasons. The tests were all negative.
This one was positive. Not only Positive, the disease had ravaged his system. He had AIDS.
He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t scared. Because of his spiritual experience On The Couch, he knew nothing could go wrong. He just wasn’t sure what to do, but then he realized he would do whatever came along and he couldn’t do it wrong.
His parents were fantastic. His remaining friends were supportive. The bishop told him “No thanks,” and he was glad, because he now knew what NOT to do. He started taking meds. He moved back to Montana. He got better. He got involved. He started working with other HIV+ people in Montana and met a wonderful man who loved him despite his little critter problem.
Strangely, he came alive. He realized that many good things had come his way because of HIV. Without it, he wouldn’t have been in the situation to meet his partner; without it, he wouldn’t have been able to find the clear direction that now focused his life. Without it, he wouldn’t be standing in front of you today. Because this story is my story.
I’m not telling you my story to arouse your pity or concern for me. I’m telling you my story because I want all of you to walk away today knowing someone who is HIV+. I’m telling you my story because I want you to be aware that there are a significant number of people in this area who have the same disease I have. As many as 80 in Gallatin, Park and Madison counties. They are your neighbors. They may work with you, they may work in places where you shop, they may be part of your schools. Men, women and children. Gay and Straight. White, Native, Latino, Asian. All kinds of people. And they’re not all dealing with it as well as I am.
There is still a lot of guilt and shame here, preventing people from dealing with HIV head-on, preventing them from being tested. It’s the same denial that I remember from my childhood. I
I’m telling you my story because as many as ¼ of all people with HIV haven’t been diagnosed- they don’t know they have it, and they’re probably infecting others. And yes, there are treatments, but it’s no picnic. It’s expensive, it’s inconvenient, it’s sometimes not effective. People still die. And if you don’t die, you can’t get health insurance, you can be denied a job because you’re uninsurable, you may have nasty side-effects from meds. You may be shunned by people. Again, it’s no picnic.
I’m telling you my story, because maybe you’ll be more aware of children, maybe your own, that will need some extra support.
Attitudes are better for kids now, especially with the internet and media helping to mitigate the shame that continues to be propagated by unenlightened families, churches, and governments, but especially here in Montana, attitudes can be brutal. It’s still not safe for many of us to be known as gay and so, walking into a clinic or doctor’s office where someone we know may work… well, we know about the privacy laws, but juicy gossip is still juicy gossip, and in a place where newspapers aren’t prolific, sometimes the juiciest news is unofficial. It’s easier to live in ignorance. But it’s not a good way to stop the spread of a disease.
So I’m asking you to do me a favor.
Find ways to be supportive. Don’t tolerate gossip. Don’t help proliferate negative attitudes by your silence. Say you know gay people. Say you know someone with HIV. Help erase ignorance. Because my experience tells me that when people know that they’re speaking about human beings, not just abstract generalities, they become more aware. They become more compassionate.
That’s why I’m telling you my story.
I’m also telling you my story to thank you. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman has provided a place for HIV+ people to meet in a support group I facilitate. Some of you know about and help and support AIDS Outreach, the local organization that I work with. Thank you.
I’m telling you my story, so that someday, somewhere, another little boy might feel less afraid, less ashamed to tell you HIS story. Maybe it will be easier for him because of me. Maybe he won’t have to hide, he will grow up healthy and happy and whole. And maybe, we’ll help someone who needs it, to get tested for HIV.
And maybe, just maybe, (because I’m a Positive person) we’ll increase compassion and understanding in the world. And the next story of a boy you hear might just end differently…After all, isn’t that why we’re here?