The aids impact went far beyond the victims, because it changed the rest of us and — perhaps — created a more tolerant and compassionate world.
When AIDS emerged in the 1980’s, there wasn’t much tolerance for LGBT+ individuals, nor really, for much of anyone who was different. I remember some people took the regrettable position that the disease was divine agency, that God sent AIDS to punish homosexual men. I try not to be too critical of people who thought (or still think) this way, because when I think of some of the intolerant, even hateful beliefs I held in the past, I still wince. And I am aware that I will doubtless discover more as I age. Perhaps that’s why this blog tries to steer a middle ground. I can remember too many embarrassing ideas I have held, left and right, at times in my life.
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.
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.
Post continued below…
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 a horrible disease strikes down tiny, innocent children and leaves them dead, in an iron lung, or crippled for life, I think it forces people to reconsider their prejudices.
Which brings me back to the AIDS impact. 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 admired and cared for deeply.
So I suspect that an enormous impact from AIDS was that it made us more tolerant. If so, then perhaps that is the ‘divine agency’ in this sad narrative; it is not the retribution for the ‘evil’ of homosexuality, but the kindness of heightened compassion and tolerance in the rest of us. If God intervened, the intervention was not against sexuality, but against prejudice. By expanding tolerance we have elevated our humanity, we have grown.
Perhaps the divine agency is within us.
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 decide that the sacrifice was worth it? That perhaps, because of their slow, lonely, painful, humiliating deaths, and because of the AIDS impact on everyone else, 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?
We can’t ask them. So there’s no real way to know.
AIDS ribbons courtesy of Stop-Homophobia.com.
Dark tunnel courtesy of Wikimedia.org.
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.|