A Young Man Died of AIDS Last Week

My name is Doug Hagler, and I am HIV positive.

My first post on icanhasgrace was on May 16, 2009. That was 9 years and a few months after my HIV diagnosis. I have known my HIV status for over 17 years. It has taken me this long to share my status on this blog for one reason: Stigma.

I started icanhasgrace for many reasons. The blog has meant a great deal to me, even though its place in my life has waxed and wained. But for all these years, I have denied, suppressed, and hidden, the main reason I started blogging: I wanted to claim grace—unconditional love—over the fact that I am HIV positive. Why didn’t I do that until now?: Stigma.

When I was diagnosed, I immediately started treatment. At my first appointment, the nurse who cared for me said, “Be careful who you tell. It will change the way they think of you.” Why this warning?: Stigma.

I am ok. I have my problems, but HIV isn’t one of them. After 17 years, through medical advancements and by the grace of God, I have figured that shit out. I have amazing support from family, friends, and from the medical community. Seriously, HIV as a disease is not an issue for me now and it hasn’t been for quite some time. Concern about my health is not why I am disclosing my HIV status. Stigma is why I am disclosing my status.

A young man died of AIDS last week. I want to share his age. I want to disclose his location. I want to say his name. But I cannot. Why? Why can’t I honor him with the details of his life?: Stigma.

So what I wrote is wrong: This young man did not die of AIDS; he died of stigma.

Even though we have all we need to not only treat this virus, but also to prevent new infections, stigma infected him, and stigma kept him from getting the treatment he needed.

In the gay community (HIV is not a gay disease), stigma comes from families who, in overt and subtle ways, tell their children it is shameful to be gay, and shameful to get infected with this disease. Stigma comes from churches that write into polity phrases like, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Stigma comes from a gay community that is too lazy and self-absorbed to educated itself about the virus. Stigma comes from a society that would rather live in fearful denial than in light-bringing truth.

I suspect (for I can only speculate regarding his experience) some or all of the sources of stigma coalesced on this young man and froze him in fear. I remember that fear. I can name the time, the place, the state of the weather, the first person I called when I found out I was positive. The paralysis was overwhelming, but only for a time. That paralyzing, stigma-based fear didn’t let this young man go.

I never met him, but I know he was black. I hesitate now because my ignorance warns me to remain silent. But I know it is a fact that “blacks are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States.” It is a fact that 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men will get this disease. It is a fact that resources meant to combat HIV are more easily available to white folks than to black folks. Now we’re talking about racism in addition to stigma, which itself is magnified in the black community.

These facts overwhelm me, but they killed this young man.

I struggle with my thoughts and words because I want this post to be about him. Instead, it keeps coming back to me. I feel the need to reaffirm and strengthen the promise I made at my baptism “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” The only way I know to do that is to combat the evil, injustice, and oppression of HIV stigma with the faith, the hope, and the joy of grace, of unconditional love.

I want to proclaim grace—unconditional love—to this young man. I want to proclaim grace—unconditional love—to anyone who is paralyzed by stigma, but especially to those who are disproportionally affected by it. But first, I have to renounce the last remaining hold that stigma has on me and claim the grace—the unconditional love—already given.

So on this day, while this young man’s family and friends gather to mourn and to celebrate his life, I claim the grace he now knows in full, as I sever stigma’s hold on me and declare: My name is Doug Hagler, and I am HIV positive.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Grant [this young man] eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine on [him].
Amen.

(UPDATE: For more information about racial disparities relating to HIV treatment and prevention, see this article at nytimes.com.)

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Just Breathe

A friend messaged me this morning and asked me to pray for him. That alone is holy in itself: that my friend would be vulnerable enough to ask (vulnerability doesn’t come easily for him) and that he knew I would pray if he asked.

“I’m about to start yoga,” I replied. “I’ve been stuck setting my intention as inner peace for several days. I’ll include you in that today.”

Things played out differently on the mat, though. Instead of inner peace, I started thinking Love as I inhaled and power as I exhaled. These words felt like they fit the need my friend expressed. They also worked well for me.

As I began breathing and moving through the practice, I was surprised by how I focused on the words and the breath much more than in other sessions. It felt good. 

My mood changed when I started a sequence of poses where I began to exert myself. I started to breathe rapidly. That made the words that were contemplative before (Love…Power…Love…Power) become demanding and forceful (Love…Power…Love…power…Love power). Love power? That didn’t feel right at all. I started to feel uncomfortable with the words even as the flow was making my body uncomfortable. 

Despite the discomfort, I kept going and I kept breathing the words. Eventually I slowed my pace, moved into stretches, and switched back the more acceptable, Love…power.

Savasana, or corpse pose. My breathing began to slow even more. Not long into this restful state, my exhale word became Love, too. Love… Love…Love…Love….

The morning breath prayer stayed with me throughout the day. I thought about how I have to inhale (love)  before I speak. In the space between the inhale and the exhale, I choose what words I will say with the breath that supports them. Will that breath carry with it love? 

The same holds true for an action. I breathe before I take a step, make a decision, react to a situation. Will inhaled and exhaled breath, supporting my actions, be cradled in love? 

What is more powerful than any power? Love. And it took the little death of corpse pose for me to remember this truth. 

Merry Christmas

I attended my first Gaytivity last Sunday. It’s a Christmas pageant held every year at a gay bar. Imagine every raunchy, off color, some would say blasphemous joke possible applied to the Christmas story, add a bar full of mostly gay men, alcohol, and you’ll have figured out Gaytivity. For example, dressed as Sister Ann Wenita Morelove, I was one of the three wise-ass bitches. I gave baby Jesus a merkin instead of myrrh. The Dickson Chicks, two part-time campy queens, write the script and narrate the farce each year. 

Two profound observations came to me at Gaytivity. One, everyone knows what it’s supposed to look like even though there’s no rehearsal. The “actors” move to the traditional spot associated with their role without direction. The image of nativity is imprinted upon us. That doesn’t and shouldn’t mean anything to a person from another faith. I’m not one to force beliefs on anyone. But I find it significant. 

Second, there was this wonderful moment on the patio. I’d heard that the baby Jesus’ entrance is always a big deal. Last year, baby Jesus flew on a zip line through the bar to the manger. Knowing this, I was surprised when Joseph asked me if I had any ideas about how it should happen this year. 

“Hasn’t it already been planned?”I asked.
“There was a plan but it didn’t work out,” Joseph answered.
“Let me think a minute,” I said.

“I’ve got it. You know that big trash can full of ice that the barback rolls from back in the kitchen up front to the bar? Put Jesus in that and roll him to the manger.”

I thought more about it and I decided this was inspired in the true sense of the word. I’m saying the idea came from outside of me. That barback rolling around ice is disruptive on a crowded night. He cuts right through the dance floor. Jesus’ birth was disruptive. Run with that in your imagination. 

A few days later, I was talking to the bar owner. I told him it had been my first Gaytivity and that I had had a blast. He said some people think it’s blasphemous. I said, “It is blasphemous!” But the idea of incarnation is blasphemous. God becoming flesh, becoming human, is blasphemy. God born in a manger, or rolled in a trashcan through a bar is blasphemy. We can’t stand it, so we add lights, delicious food, often a lot of liquor, gift giving, and even Gaytivity in order to distract ourselves from the outlandishnesss of the original story. 

That story still cuts through the distractions, even in a gay bar in Nashville. It is the story of a God who is with us, who loves us–loves creation–so much, the story of a God who is love, and who is willing to do anything to be in love with us. 

This is nativity. This is incarnation. This is Christmas. 

Merry Christmas from icanhasgrace. 

Feast of Lights 2016

The Feast of Lights is a service of lessons and carols held at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. A 60-plus-year tradition, there are elements of the service that folks have come to expect and cherish. It begins with a child singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s  City.” It ends with choir members carrying lighted candles into the congregation as we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.”

The tenors and sopranos sing a descant on”O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As a tenor, this is unnerving for me. It’s loud and it’s high, and I sing it relatively far away form others, but close to the congregants seated near me. It’s basically a solo. 

I decided to pull all the stops and sing that descant full throttle. I processed to the spot where I was supposed to stand, closed my eyes, and let ‘er rip. On the last phrase of the descant verse, I remembered to enunciate,  nailing the “CH” consonant in “CHrist the Lord.” I opened my eyes and saw that I’d blown out my candle.  

I got tickled. A few folks around me started suppressing laughter. I had to make a walk of shame to a nearby choir member to relight my candle. I recovered, and I successfully transitioned into the much more manageable “Silent Night.”

We sing the last verse of” Silent Night” accapella. As we sang, I saw that the members of the orchestra were singing, too. This was significant to me because, while the choir is all volunteer, the orchestra is composed of paid local musicians and members of the the Nashville Symphony. They hsd finished their gig. But their singing said they had transitioned from employees to participants. 

Mom and I have a tradition of sharing our Feast of Lights Christmas moments, that moment when the transcendent message of grace that is Christmas becomes incarnate. It happened for me when the orchestra began to sing. 
Merry Christmas. 

Love to Orlando

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a vigil
a march
a demonstration
an act of civil disobedience
a prayer

a mayor
a pastor
a police officer
a politician
a Muslim
a bartender
an advocate
a choir

a bear
a twink
a fat
a fem
a leatherman
a rugger
a Mr. Friendly
a Sister

a straight
a lesbian
a gay
a bisexual
a transgender
a queer

a bar
a community
a city
a state
a country
a world

a friend
a mother
a father
a sister
a brother
a daughter
a son
a boyfriend
a girlfriend
a husband
a wife

a shooter

a survivor
an injured
a victim

“I see you and you are loved.
I see the pain, the grief, the confusion.
I see you and you are loved.
I see the anger, the fear, and the loss.
I see you and you are loved.
We see you, Orlando, and you are loved.”

 

To the Delegates to General Conference*

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My friend in Christ, Louis Jordan, asked if I’d speak today on this topic: What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? Wow. We’ve been talking about our denomination’s policy regarding homosexuality since 1972. That’s 44 years. What can I say in eight minutes that might make a difference to anyone here? But, the Holy Spirit has done far more miraculous things, so let us acknowledge the presence of the Spirit with us now, in Jesus name. Amen.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? There’s too much of my story to share, so let me offer this: at the end of the meeting I’ll come back up here. If you want to talk more, come by and I’ll give you my contact information.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? I have to make a distinction here between the local church level and the denominational level. On the local level it’s pretty much been fabulous. But at a denominational level (which is the level we should talk about today since y’all are going off to Portland for General Conference)…At the denominational level, it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.

I was an elder here in the Tennessee Conference for ten years. There came a time when I finally accepted my sexuality. I met with my district superintendent, Juanita Wright Bass, and my bishop, Kenneth Carter. I had three small children. I had to provide for them. I didn’t know what would happen. Bishop Carter led me through a series of questions. I left that meeting having surrendered my credentials in good standing.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? For me and for my family—son Sam, son Ben, daughter Ruth—it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.

For years, I was bitter. But over time, my family and I healed, thanks in large part to the love given to us by our Belmont church family. They didn’t know my story, or not many did. They just loved because that’s what church folk do. At some point I realized that I am still in ministry, living out my calling at The Upper Room where I’ve been for over ten years.

Then, a little over a year ago, my partner (Blech. “Partner.” I’ve always hated referring to Frank as my partner. It sounds like something from a cowboy western. Thank God I don’t have to call him that anymore.) Anyway, Frank needed health insurance. Hey! I can do that for him. Strangely enough, the General Agencies, of which The Upper Room is a part, offer benefits to same-sex married couples. Just months before marriage equality became the law of the land, Frank and I made plans to travel to North Carolina where marriage was legal. I focused only on getting Frank health insurance, but Pam Hawkins knew Frank, knew our children, knew me, and she knew we needed more out of a wedding than a legal contract. Pam went with us, with Belmont’s blessing. She officiated at our wedding. It was holy.

We came back home and my sister, Henrietta, threw Frank and me a reception. I was not prepared for the outpouring of love I felt that day. LGBT friends, church friends, family, all gathered at OutCentral on Church Street in Nashville. These were people from groups I had tried to keep apart for years. They were there to support Frank and me and to say, “We love you and we no longer want to be kept apart!”

Meanwhile, Pam was charged for having officiated at our wedding. She entered into just resolution. I eventually went with her as her advocate. It was the first time I’d set foot in the Bishop’s office since I’d been there 16 years before to surrender my credentials. Pam was suspended for 90 days. Some thought she got off easy. I thought it was one of the saddest things that has ever happened in my life. At one of the happiest times in my life, my denomination’s role was to punish the person who made it possible.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? It’s humiliating, painful, and scary. Now, not just for me, and for my family, but also for my friend, for my pastor.

But in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive!” Truly, at 51, I’m at peace, personally. What bothers me, what hurts me, is thinking about that 12-year-old boy who’s going to Sunday school at his rural United Methodist Church. Week after week, he hears his Sunday school teacher tell him “God loves you. We love you.” As he gets older, he realizes there’s something different about him. He realizes he’s gay. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows this isn’t something he should talk about, not to his parents, not to his Sunday school teacher. He’s left to figure it out on his own. The years pass. Eventually, he comes across these words, the official policy of the church he loves: “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Upon reading that, he repents of his sin, is no longer gay, and lives his life as a straight man.

Actually I have never, ever, heard of that happening. I’m afraid that, as a gay man in The United Methodist Church, either he leaves the church, or he enters a time of humiliation, pain, and fear. Is he a person of sacred worth? Or is he incompatible with Christian teaching?

May the Holy Spirit be with you as you travel to Portland for General Conference.

*Spoken to the Tennessee Annual Conference delegates to General Conference on May 1, 2016, at a “Listening Session.”