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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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. 

Pick Just One (In Each Moment)

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One of the quotes below is revolutionary, gives life, and leads to love. The other quote is judgemental, decisive, and duplicitous. Which quote do you want to live your life by?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.”

Or

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

John Kinnear: Dear Hypothetically Gay Son


Tears begin rolling down my face, followed by bed-shaking sobs, as I lay in bed reading this Huffington Post article. Please take a few minutes to read it now.

I had a relatively happy childhood/young adulthood. So why the tears?

I cried for every gay man and gay woman of my generation who would never have dreamed never of sitting at the dining table and telling his parents he was gay.
I cried for woman and gay of generations who have have sat at that table but who were abandoned, rejected, or in even some small way made to feel less-than.
I cried out of gratitude for a mother, a sister, a life-partner, children, and friends who not only accept me, but who love me for who I am.
I cried because once more I remembered that it is my job to love my own children just like what I read in the article, and not just my children, but all God’s children, even (and especially!) the ones who may reject me and find me unlovable.

I believe that, no matter who you are or what you believe (gay, lesbian, bi, questioning, transgendered, intersex, straight, conservative liberal, democrate, republican, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnositc FILL IN THE F****** BLANK) that’s your job, too.

Because we are, all of us, human.

On Holy Saturday

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Holy Saturday is an in-between day. The Irish would call it a thin place, where the spiritual world slips into the created world.

On Holy Saturday, we continue to reel from the enormity of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. We struggle to grasp the meaning of his passion and to adjust our thinking to the knowledge that our lives, the world–yes, even the whole of creation–is forever responsible and guilty, yet, forgiven and redeemed.

Even so, on Holy Saturday we well know: Easter is coming. Easter is coming with resurrection! Easter is coming with victory over sin and death! Easter is coming with new and eternal life!

Holy Saturday, more than any other day, is the day that best embodies all the days of our lives. It is a day of pain remembered and of joy anticipated.

Holy Saturday is the already-not-yet day.

And so, with hearts full of sadness and joy, let us be grateful.