AIDS as a Moral Force

AIDS ribbons, toleranceAids & Intolerance

When AIDS emerged in the 1980’s, there wasn’t much tolerance.  I remember some people took the regrettable position that the disease was a divine agency.  God sent AIDS to punish homosexual men.  I try not to be too critical of people who thought (or still think) this way.  When I think of some of the intolerant, even hateful beliefs I held in the past, I still wince.  Perhaps that’s why this blog tries to steer a middle ground.  I can remember too many outrageous ideas I have had, left and right, when I was younger.

And because I have watched my ideas evolve through time, I am also aware that what I believe today, I may not believe tomorrow.  Hence the previous post on tolerance and open-mindedness.

Let me throw out a shocking suggestion, but ask that you read through to the end before passing judgment.  What if AIDS is, indeed, the result of divine agency?  Let me explain.

Biological Warfare

In my ill-fated attempt to earn a PhD, one of the last hurdles I had to clear after years of classes and research, were my written and oral comprehensive examinations.1)“Describe the history of the Roman Catholic Church, with all of its philosophical, political, social, economic, and scientific implications.  Be brief and to the point.” Just kidding, it wasn’t that bad.  Not quite.  From the microbiologist on my committee came an open-book question which asked about microbiological warfare.

I didn’t find much.  The Rhodesian government used anthrax against rebels in the 1970’s, but it’s not clear how effective that was.  And in the 1979 Sverdlovsk Incident in Russia, one million people were exposed to anthrax, of whom only 97 died.  I concluded that so far, microbial warfare is not all that effective.

Warfare and Disease

Which left me with a pretty slender response.  So I turned the question around, and looked at the impact conventional disease has had on the military.  Historically, disease often kills more soldiers than enemy action.  At some point modern militaries began addressing this problem, which has given humanity many important medical advances.  But just as it took many centuries for the military to recognize the importance of disease in warfare, it doubtless took some convincing for the stodgy military to rethink their prejudices against those who contract disease.

For instance, sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis were historically a source of much morbidity in troops and a loss of personnel readiness.  I can only imagine the arguments among the brass over whether such a thing should be addressed, or be discussed even within the privacy of the Pentagon.  But war is ruthlessly selective, and pragmatism always wins out.

Always.  Because if you refuse to learn, your enemies who are willing to learn will eventually conquer you.

So the military has had to repeatedly rethink traditional ideas about disease, which meant working around the stigmata of illness.  Then I took the question another step.  Historically, disease has been thought of as divine retribution.  In the Old Testament, Job not only loses everything, he develops festering sores on his body, something sure to keep the neighbors away.  Even into the early 20th century disease was often considered a mark of unclean living, and divine punishment.

Disease and Tolerance

That approach to disease largely disappeared after WWII.  Again, the military may have played a hand in this shift.  But even though I’ve never read anything on it, I also strongly suspect that polio played a critical role.  When horrible disease strikes down tiny children, and leaves them dead, or in iron lungs, or crippled for life, I think it forces people to reconsider their prejudices.

Which brings me back to AIDS.  Before AIDS, we were all aware that some men and women were ‘funny’, or ‘queer’; but we all knew that those people were extremely rare, and they clearly represented a perversion.

Then AIDS hit, and forced us to confront our prejudices.  When friends, brothers, sons, uncles – and occasionally even fathers – fell to AIDS, two things quickly emerged.  One, homosexuality is not rare, it is very common.  Second, AIDS outed a lot of people, some of whom we cared for deeply and greatly admired.

Walking Toward Light, AIDSSo I suspect that AIDS made us more tolerant.  If so, then that could be the divine agency in this sad narrative; it is the change in us.  The divine intervention was not against those of different sexuality, but against the rest of us; we have become better.  By embracing tolerance we have elevated our humanity, which takes us all closer to divinity.

The Sacrifice

Here is the question we cannot ask those who died of AIDS:  Was it worth it?  If we could have told the AIDS victims before they died, just as soldiers give their lives on the battlefield for the hope of a better world, would the men and women who succumbed to AIDS feel the sacrifice was worth it?  That perhaps, because of their slow, painful, humiliating deaths, men and women in the future might no longer live in shame of their sexuality, and in constant fear that they would be destroyed because of it?

There’s no way to know.

"[Abraham] never mentions Donald Trump, but he's on every page."

Click to read more: Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation.
I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it wasn't? What if it was built on insanity?" —Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. “Describe the history of the Roman Catholic Church, with all of its philosophical, political, social, economic, and scientific implications.  Be brief and to the point.” Just kidding, it wasn’t that bad.  Not quite.


  1. M

    My own personal mythology, the one where everything revolves around me, had me in Houston having drinks in the evening at the Hyatt and Greenway Plaza one day and then “promoted” to a position in Eunice, Louisiana the next. Happily, Eunice has a few watering holes of its own and I was able to survive.

    So, that was all 1981’ish. I clearly recall sitting alone in my house and flipping through to the second page of The Eunice News and reading a “one” paragraph article, blurb really, about “gay cancer” and just staring at it, somehow knowing intuitively that the story would soon take up more space.

    Scroll forward 18 years and I found myself standing in parking lot on Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles having a 1:1 with Dr. Michael Gottlieb who along with his associates first identified what was then G.R.I.D. I had driven 70 miles across “town” to bring my friend R to keep his appointment and as it turned out he needed to be admitted. (Meds were certainly available at that point and he was taking handfuls several times a day. It embarrassed him to be seen taking them and he’d perfected the sleight of hand of taking them in full view of anyone present without anyone noticing–Cuban– extremely proud.) He didn’t last very long after that. but he did manage to finance two Princeton educations for his nephews which, in my humble estimate, is fairly impressive for someone thrown out the family home at 15.

    I went out to smoke while R was admitted to some miserable “for profit” hellhole that most assuredly wasn’t Cedars-Sinai with its endless lobby full of donor plaques. And Dr. Gottlieb caught me in the elevator and wanted to talk. As it turned out R was one of his favorite patients and he felt some duty to evaluate this interloper from Louisiana. So we walked and talked and ended up leaning on his Porsche for an hour and I eventually worked up the courage to quiz him about the first days, in fact the days before the first days when the situation was so undefined that he and his colleagues were simply and collectively beside themselves, knew they had some sort of invisible tiger by the tail–had lab results, had Kaposi’s sarcoma and yet had no clue.

    So, we parted ways and I went to the hospital room for a few hours and then drove the endless drive back to suburbia. “Los Angeles” has this reputation for glitz and glamor and sunshine and beaches but the Harbor Freeway at midnight is one of the most foreboding, dark and alienating drives. I’ve felt safer at three in the morning driving across Wyoming. I only mention it because it was the perfection of alienation under the circumstances.

    Of course, scrolling forward again a few years found me sitting at a computer at zero dark thirty, much as I am now, back in Lake Charles and staring at the screen that let me know the OTHER “R” in my past–the one I actually loved–had passed away on January 31, 1989. Athletic, handsome, popular, smart, charismatic and the first person to ever tell me he loved me besides my mommy. 🙂 His father was retired upper level military. As you might expect they published a brief two paragraph obituary, basically listing their own names as survivors—–the day after the funeral. That’s what happens when you Google people at two in the morning because you’d like to get back in touch and have a cup of coffee or a beer sometime soon. You find out they died twelve years ago.

    And then we scroll to the present a few weeks ago where I find myself in Girard Park taking photos of anhinga anhinga when this young couple, two guys who I seriously doubt were twenty, come walking down the sidewalk hand-in-hand utterly oblivious to their surroundings in a park full of people, cute as they could be–clearly not worried that anyone was going to apprehend them or arrest them or beat the life out them. And then, I walked around past the pavilion over the water to find one of Jehovah’s Witnesses manning her new age information booth so it was all just the perfect little mind fuck for me in the moment–gazing around at the families and variety of folks in the park and wondering if any of them could possibly begin to know or comprehend or somehow share a story of their own.

    You concluded your essay with “We’ll never know.”

    I would like to take exception to that.

    The answer is “yes.”

    • Bookscrounger

      I hope you’re right. I can’t imagine how many men and women spent how many lifetimes living in a constant setting of pain and fear and humiliation. We can hope it is finally ending.

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