“The test came back positive for HIV.” These are the dreaded words that I heard one humid day in July. The middle-aged white nurse practitioner nervously shifted on her feet, then softly murmured, “ Do you need to call any potential partners to let them know?” Dread filled my body as I froze in place. What have I done? Surely I’m going to hell now. I came down here to get my life together, and now I’m going to die.
My sexuality did not come easy to me. Raised in black, pentecostal holiness churches, I knew what ‘the Church’ says about being gay.
You gonna catch that disease! That ‘Cancer.’ You’ll catch AIDS because it’s unnatural and against God. It is the judgment of God on the perverse.
I am going to die and burn for all eternity.
You see, I am a church leader. I had gathered enough faith to try again, finally embracing my sexuality. Defying all odds, I moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, after a broken marriage, two defunct church plants, and stalled gospel music ministry to gain legitimacy by undergoing training in the Bishopric.
I have HIV.
I’m going to die. I had to “come out” again, with the possibility of losing it all again. I had to tell those around me that I had the virus—this preacher. The Bishop-elect is now afraid for his life and livelihood. I braced myself for rejection, believing that my ministry team would abandon me. Homelessness once again was a near possibility.
You knew better! This is what you get! You messed it all up! AGAIN!!
My inner thoughts reminded me of the gross stigma that I heard in churches growing up. I would die of sores and cat cancer, delirious like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, resigned to live alone. I sacrificed my livelihood, marriage, and ministry to be truthful in my sexuality, only to die two years later.
Dramatic much? Maybe. Uninformed? Completely. I believed that the churches I attended growing up knew all the correct information. For me and many black Americans, Church is a constant force in our lives, a place of community and safety. According to Pew Research Center, 60% of black Americans attend Church. (https://www.pewforum.org/2021/02/16/faith-among-black-americans/) The views of the Church shape how we live our lives. These words of stigma and condemnation coming from the Church deeply impacted me.
My support system accepted me. My ministry team at the City of Promise banded around me and got me into treatment right away. Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS since the epidemic’s beginning, and that disparity has deepened over time.
According to recent studies, representing only 12% of the U.S. population, Blacks account for a large share of HIV diagnoses (43%), with 42% people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) and 44% HIV-related deaths, which is more than any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S
(CDC. NCHHSTP Atlas Plus. Accessed February 2020.)
Most of us don’t know or want to know our status because of stigma. Stigma is so heavy that a person living with HIV or AIDS will drive miles to discard their medication bottles. Living with HIV or AIDS is both an internal and external struggle. The diagnosis of HIV is not a death sentence. A person living with AIDS or HIV can live a wonderfully productive life. I share my story as a Queer, gender fluid masculine-presenting clergyperson in a wonderful relationship, studying in seminary, and lifting my voice against injustices and unfair laws. So that the world can know; These laws must change.
I want you to do me a favor as you read these final words. Find someone who has a story. Listen to them. Hold it close. Remind yourself that you want the freedom to love, to live, and to be. Help change laws created from the same stigma that almost cost my life and has cost the lives of so many black humans. We truly can be the change we want to see.
Rev. JM Triplett (he/him/his) is a native of Michigan, has traveled and lived throughout the Midwest and southern states, developing faith-based organizations and places of worship, using his extensive training as management and organizational leadership. Rev. JM has been a lifelong leader within the church, navigating the intersectionality of faith and LGBTQ affirmation. He is a seminary student at United Theological Seminary where he studies Masters of Arts in leadership with a concentration in Social Transformation. Rev. JM is also Bishop and Founder of IGNITEMVMT, a movement dedicated to empowering the LGBTQ POC Christian community.