- December 3, 2014
Post submitted by Josh Robbins, HIV activist and blogger.
World AIDS Day is a time for us to remember all those who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS over the past year and to recommit ourselves to ending the epidemic. This year, HRC is shining a spotlight on some of the people and communities often overlooked in the struggle to combat HIV and AIDS, including people living in the South.
I grew up halfway between Memphis and Nashville on I-40, in Jackson, Tennessee – the home of Carl Perkins, who wrote Elvis’ hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” the home of the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and most recently home to the woman made famous for attaching her baby to the train of her wedding dress.
It’s funny how we remember small, southern towns. For me, these memories have always been and presumably always will remain a mixture of emotions – a place for which I hold both true fondness and total distain. But it’s still my hometown; it comes with the territory.
Like so many other small southern towns, Jackson was a place where I was expected to attend youth group at church every time the building was open. I performed in every church musical, and even though I was usually the lead angel, or Jesus, I take no credit for how awful the performances were. I was a thespian. I was a church-groomed, musical theatre boy. I was also gay. I just didn’t know it yet.
I chuckle when I think of that town, the place where my family still lives and works. Growing up in Jackson taught me a lot, about family, about community. I loved the people in my town. I loved their honesty. I still do. But there were some topics we just didn’t talk about, like sexuality and equal rights – and HIV.
Regardless of whether the South is willing to discuss HIV, the virus is here. And it’s an epidemic. You’ve heard the saying that the South has a church (or two) on every street corner. I’ll add that the South has HIV on every street and we’re ignoring it, especially at our Southern churches.
The problem with thinking about an “AIDS-free Generation,” is that prevention strategies barely reach into the deep South – or at least they haven’t in the past – and these strategies certainly never include the churches. HIV prevention efforts must engage people of faith in the South. The infrastructure of support, people, care…it’s all there, already (on every street corner, and sometimes twice).
Where I grew up, we had more churches than gas stations. And it’s interesting to do an overlay of maps with the highest concentration of churches and highest number of new HIV infections per capita. They are strikingly similar. While churches certainly are not responsible for HIV infections, we are missing critical opportunities for communication and education within an organized system of churches that have loyal and somewhat captive listening audiences. The HIV epidemic isn’t miraculously staying outside those four walls under the steeple.
What if the church invited a discussion of HIV into the pulpits on Sunday, the Bible studies on Tuesday morning, and the potluck on Wednesday? What if the biggest organized religious denominations empowered local congregations to start talking about HIV – not from a place of judgment, but rather a place of compassion and love?
But it’s not just about the prevention strategies of HIV in the South. We have a treatment strategy problem happening as well. If I had still been active in my old hometown church, I would have most likely missed the early signs of contracting HIV, and even if I had known—would I have been given compassion from the church? I pray that I would have been given love.
These are my Southern brothers and sisters. Let’s not forget them.
Can I get a witness?
In honor of World AIDS Day, HRC Foundation has released a new research brief entitled "Transgender People and HIV: What We Know"and will be featuring the stories of individuals living with HIV on the HRC blog throughout this week.