Daniel was out with his boyfriend the night he learned that he had contracted HIV. They had been dating for eight months, and had been friends for a year and a half prior to dating. They were sexually active, and Daniel trusted him completely. They had agreed to be monogamous, and he had no reason to believe his boyfriend would cheat. That night, however, there was a group offering free HIV tests at a club, and Daniel felt something telling him to get one.
I talked to Daniel about his experience. Recalling that night, he said: “I truly believed that we were in a monogamous relationship, but I signed up for the test anyway, and under the loud beats and crazy haphazard lights, I was told that the results were positive.” They told him they would need to keep his sample and run more thorough tests before they could give him a definitive answer. A week later he got a call asking him to come to the clinic. He was “in a daze,” he said, because earlier in the week, his boyfriend had admitted to cheating. At the clinic, a doctor confirmed that the results were positive. Upon hearing the news he just texted a few friends, and went back to work.
Daniel, who asked that we not use his last name, grew up in a conservative Christian family, and it has been difficult for him to come to terms with his sexual orientation. He loves God, but there are still days when he wonders if God really loves him. He’s 31 now, and it has been just over a year since he learned he was HIV-positive. Looking back to his 20s, when he first began to explore his sexuality, Daniel admits he indulged in some unhealthy behaviors. “Sex to me was a form of freedom and connection,” he said. “Before my relationship, I was actively involved in the party scene of sex, drugs, drinking and fun; limits and boundaries were non-existent.”
This aspect of Daniel’s experience is shared by many LGBT people who grow up in the church. The lack of role models and failure to discuss sexual ethics often drives gay Christians into promiscuity. When we force people to choose between God and something they can’t (and He won’t) change, we instill bitterness against God and faith. This inner turmoil in gay Christians can even lead to a warped theology that offers promiscuity as a more acceptable option than a monogamous same-sex relationship.
An irony that doesn’t escape Daniel is that he stopped having casual sex long before he even started dating his now ex-boyfriend. “To be honest,” he said, “it’s ironic that I was reckless in hooking up, and it never resulted in any major consequence; but the moment I was in a relationship, when you’re supposed to feel safe and protected, I found myself positive!”
Getting those test results, right when he was trying to turn a new chapter in his life, shook Daniel to the core. He found himself mired in sadness, and his greatest fear was that he would be abandoned by friends and family. This fear was made worse by what he had been taught at church.
“Growing up, I heard that HIV and AIDS were God’s punishment for gay men,” he said. “I heard this from my parents, from the church, from politicians, from everyone. I heard that men who were active in the homosexual lifestyle would die from drugs and diseases, and that this was justified by their indulgence of their sins.” At one point, during a tearful conversation with a friend, Daniel remembers saying “I guess I proved my parents right!” In his mind, “the rhetoric they preached, the words [he] heard all [his] life were now a reality.” Daniel was convinced that the virus was a just retribution for his sins. “I felt dirty,” he said. “I felt unwanted. I felt broken.”
It was when he was at his lowest that Daniel began to hear the faint whisper of Christ’s call again. Separated from the church, he began to wonder if it was possible to be in full communion with Christ without having to deny any part of how God made him. Daniel struggles with this still, and can’t give any definitive answers, but the search has led him to think more deeply about faith and about the Lord’s will. He has met other gay Christians and joined a small group that has embraced him and hasn’t made an issue out of him being positive.
“To be honest, life is good now,” says Daniel, though he still deals with moments of fear, which he believes will plague him for the rest of his life. Contracting HIV today is no longer the dire sentence it was 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, Daniel says that in many ways he is healthier now than he was two years ago. He’s taking medication that keeps the virus under control. He takes better care of his body, and he meets with his doctor several times a year. The main goal in HIV management, he explains, is to maintain an undetectable viral load. He has been undetectable for over a year. “Talking to my doctor,” he said, “I have really developed a strong sense that life will be okay if I just do my part. I can still have children. I can still be in a loving relationship.”
Despite the fears and the unpleasant reality of having to take daily medications, things are looking up. But his diagnosis has spawned a new thorn on his side: the stigma that comes with being HIV-positive, especially as he tries to engage the church. “They see homosexuality as a sin,” he said of Christians, “and HIV as the consequence of that sin. They struggle to see past that idea. In addition, most churches haven’t really had to face the reality of HIV because most gay men run away from the church.”
Gay Christians are sometimes the worst …
His most condemnatory words are reserved for other gay Christians. Outside his small group, he has found that gay Christians are no more loving or understanding of HIV-positive people than their heterosexual counterparts. “The stigma and misunderstanding guide their choices,” he said. “This has been heartbreaking. They see the virus, not the individual; the thought that this individual is a great person is overshadowed, and it is as if we no longer exist, or we are no longer considered dating material.” For this reason, he said he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to marry a fellow believer.
The secular gay community is not a paragon of acceptance either, but Daniel says they are at least more familiar with HIV and its manageability. The advent of pre-exposure preventive drugs, combined with other forms of protection, has even made it possible for mixed-status couples to be in healthy, happy relationships. “But,” Daniel said, “many gay Christians actively limit their interaction with the secular gay community.” As a result, what he has found among gay Christians is “the same shame and guilt that was placed on gay men during the 80s and 90s. They are taking the same rhetoric, and continuing it, referring to HIV-positive men as ‘dirty’ or using ‘clean’ as a synonym for HIV-negative.”
Daniel’s indictment of the church’s and particularly the gay Christian community’s attitude toward HIV-positive people is valid, and it should give us pause. Still, he makes it clear that he doesn’t see himself as a victim. “Yes, my partner cheated on me,” he said, “but I made the decision to have unprotected sex with him. I have to take ownership of the situation. By doing that, I’ve been able to step out of the frustration and move forward.”
Like all Christians, Daniel simply wants to belong as an equal brother in Christ: “I just want the church to be a place where I have a voice as a gay man who is positive. I don’t want to feel less-than, or like some kind of charity case; I just want to be part of the community.”
This post originally appeared on Dave & Constantino’s blog, Modern Kinship.
He and his husband, David Khalaf, live in Portland, OR. Together they write Modern Kinship, a blog where they document their journey toward and in holy union as gay Christians. You can also follow them on Twitter @daveandtino