'Rent,' AIDS and the church

Catholicism has been a blessing and a curse in my life. When I came out after college graduation it was a traumatic experience. I'd only attended Catholic schools: grade school, high school and college.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, a democratic but socially conservative city, my only knowledge of gay people came from my mother. She reviled gays due to her ignorance and my own experiences in school watching soft, effeminate boys getting beat up or called "fag" because they didn't fit the masculine mold. In sixth and seventh grade I experienced this same harassment because I took an interest in fashion and parted my hair down the middle.

Lately I've thought a lot about my experience growing up Catholic in the Midwest. The announcement by the Vatican that gay seminarians will be routed out and encouraged to leave the priesthood is disturbing news. The action comes on the heels of the sex scandals that rocked the church in the first half of this decade, travesties that church leadership ignored for 30-40 years.

Making gay priests the scapegoat for the abuse suffered by young boys and girls is all too easy. The fact is most pedophiles are heterosexual men. The church's actions resemble those of another misguided institution, the executive branch of the U.S. government, which on the heels of 9/11 took our country to war on the fallacy that Saddam Saddam was linked to the terrorist attacks. Hussein conveniently became the scapegoat, like gay priests are now becoming the scapegoat for the Church's reckless supervision of the men responsible for leading and caring for their flocks.

When I first arrived in the Northwest in 1986, the Seattle Archdiocese was under the courageous leadership of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. He raised his voice and challenged the powers that be to heed the essence of the Gospel. He spoke out against the military industrial complex, led rallies at the Navy's Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor and withheld his taxes from the federal government to highlight this country's support of the arms race. He ministered to people who endured the heartbreak of divorce, welcoming them to back to the church, while reaching out to the gay and lesbian community to assure them they, too, had a place at God's table.

I was most impressed with how the church in Seattle responded to the AIDS epidemic. My first year in Seattle I worked at the Northwest AIDS Foundation (now the Lifelong AIDS Alliance). With no real background in social work, I began to advocate for the medical, housing and emotional support needs of people living with AIDS. The '80s were a dire time for the gay community in large metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The thing that amazed me about Seattle was the compassion and united efforts of the public and private sectors.

My work was supported by the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. In 1988, Gov. Booth Gardner, with the help of the state Legislature and business community, passed an AIDS omnibus bill that helped with education, treatment and prevention related to the epidemic. Community advocacy groups like ACT UP and, later, the Gay City Health Project, would emerge before anti-retroviral drugs came on the scene allowing people to live longer.

I remember feeling deep anger when the late Pope John Paul II released a statement calling homosexuality "an intrinsic moral disorder." That line continues to be parroted by the new leader in the Vatican, who most likely drafted the original document. Yet during my early years in Seattle I saw local parishes take actions that reflected their true Christian intentions. In 1988, St. Joseph Church established a commission on AIDS, which I joined, to discuss issues of outreach and ministry. A chapter of Dignity became active and engaged in the parish. And parishes like St. Therese welcomed all members of the church family, including gays and lesbians.

My first love, a 29-year-old man I met while we were both employed at the Northwest AIDS Foundation, died of AIDS in 1989. His loss was devastating, and the support and love I received from my church and community saved my spirit and soul from hopelessness. I didn't feel abandoned, but rather felt embraced by a love that could only come from God.

Around Thanksgiving, my partner and I attended a screening of the film "Rent," based on the 1996 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. Several of the characters in the film, which takes place from Christmas Eve 1989 to Christmas Eve 1990, are infected with HIV. Watching the passion and angst of this time reminded me again of a country torn between engaging its conscience and turning its head away in the face of a modern day tuberculosis or leprosy.

AIDS was and is not a moral crisis. It's a crisis of the spirit of a society that refuses to speak openly about sexuality and differences. About a church not willing to admit that condoms save lives, and we should use them to thwart an international epidemic. And about a national government that turned its head while a fire raged.

Fortunately, in Seattle and Washington state, true moral leadership and courage abounded during those years. Thanks to the priests, the government leaders and the business visionaries who saw a need for unity and made it so. Like the lyrics to one of "Rent's" show-stopping numbers, "La Vie Boheme," these people didn't try to divide people into moral versus immoral, but instead united behind the anthem of that song: "being an us - for once - instead of a them."

Capitol Hill resident Jack Hilovsky's column appears in the second issue of each month. He can be reached at editor@capitolhill times.com.

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