In the mid 90s, Ted sang in a church choir with Anthony, a tall, light brown-skinned, openly queer young man. Although Anthony’s adopted family wasn’t involved in church, he’d made a connection with Ted’s local church as a teenager on his knees at the altar. It didn’t take long for the two talented tenors to build a bond over laughs and memorable moments.
Before long, Ted and Anthony regarded each other as close friends.
As years progressed, Anthony met a minister who attended the church with whom he became involved. It was his first time he’d ever been in a romantic relationship with another man.
During this time, there was little support or resources available to help Black same gender attracted men in religious spaces understand how to effectively navigate healthy relationships with each another.
Ted: “The ways preachers were condemning queer people for their very existence added to the shame that people were feeling, and not [being] comfortable enough to be honest about their sexual orientation. In many instances, this culture led to a clandestine cultivation of relationships and sex (outside the confines of what people considered to be a [legitimate] relationship).”
Although Anthony believed the two were in a monogamous relationship, he would discover the emotionally staggering news that the two were not sexually exclusive. He expressed his devastation to Ted and struggled to cope with the loss of his first love.
Ted: “It was preached that it was sinful to engage in sex with a person of the same gender. Because that was how people [in our faith space] were taught and believed, they were more apt to commit sexual acts (for which they felt they could ask forgiveness) as opposed to being in a committed relationship; that was seen as perpetually sinning.”
Subsequently, friends started to notice Anthony’s behavior changing. Fast and furious dating ensued to help with getting past the angst of the breakup. He began slowly distancing himself from his group of church friends and immersing himself in the exploration of gay clubs and having frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners.
During a heart-to-heart conversation, Ted recalls asking Anthony if he was using protection during his sexual encounters to which he answered, “sometimes.”
In recent years, a study from Northwestern University showed that Black men who have sex with men (same gender attracted) were “most likely to have sex with people of their own race,” creating a more densely populated sexual network.
In the reported outcome of Feinberg School of Medicine’s study, interconnected sexual networks made infections transmit more efficiently, therefore elevating the risk for contracting HIV (over high-risk sexual activities alone), which has been speculated as the leading cause of higher rates of HIV in this population for many years.
Sometime later, while working, Anthony fainted suddenly. After doctors ran a series of labs at the hospital, he reached out to Ted.
There were lots of rumors about a particular gentleman Anthony dated (who was visibly ill) being HIV positive. Although there were various people who felt they’d contracted the virus from him, Anthony still chose to have unprotected sex with him. No matter what Ted and his friends advised, it was like Anthony was frozen in a hypnotic fog, and unable to act in the interest of self-preservation.
Ted: “The day Anthony called to tell me the news, I was stoic—angry—sad. He was HIV positive, and I anticipated it. I encouraged him then to do his best to find out what treatments were available to take care of himself. At that point, he completely moved completely away from church.”
For a long time, depression has been recognized as a predictor of negative health outcomes in people who are living with HIV by reducing adherence to medication, quality of life and worsening the progression of the illness.
It had been some time since the breakup between Anthony and the minister who had shattered his heart had gone their separate ways. He missed the choir—he longed for his friends he’d left behind and he wanted to get back into the faith space that he’d left.
Ted: “I reminded Anthony that we [his friends from church] were the ones who knew and loved him unconditionally—not the new people he’d met from the clubs. We were the ones who would be there for him in the end.”
Anthony made his way back on his knees at the altar before choir members arrived for rehearsal the next week. A rough road of emotional trauma and lots of challenges had led him back to the only family he’d known.
After rehearsal was over, he was inspired to share something that perhaps he thought might relieve him of some internalized shame while adding a bit of joy to this reunion, as onlookers waited patiently to hear what he might say.
Ted: “Anthony said he’d been healed from AIDS. There was a demonstrative, celebratory response [from the audience]. I sat there. I was in shock. I knew it wasn’t true.”
One published study reveals that denial as a coping skill is associated with poorer quality of life in people living with HIV.
There is not (nor has there ever been) a known cure for HIV. The virus can integrate in the host genome (and persist for the lifespan of the cell). In addition, latent infected cells can hide, while potentially driving the resurgence of viral replication in the body.
Although researchers are still making some strides, the function of the virus continues to present significant barriers to the work of finding a cure.
Later that same evening, a mutual friend informed Ted that Anthony’s doctor had recently advanced his HIV+ status to an AIDS diagnosis.
Suddenly, his far-cry claim of an instant, miraculous healing made a bit more sense (as an emotional response to the traumatic news he’d just received).
Not long after his awkward testimony, Anthony became chronically forgetful.
Ted: “Anthony had gotten a flat tire, so he called his boyfriend and asked him to come pick him up. When his boyfriend arrived, he discovered that Anthony had been driving on the flat tire to the point where the rim was damaged. He’d been trying to remember the route to get home.”
Now confined to a hospital bed and resembling many of the other guys who’d lost their lives in church, Anthony was unable to do much for himself.
The white walls were silent.
The friends from the club were absent.
The hot dates went cold.
As an adopted child, Anthony had no known biological family.
Friends from the church choir surfaced to help with meds and bring things he needed during his final days.
Ted had just begun the second semester of his undergraduate studies in Atlanta when he was called to return home for Anthony’s burial.
Standing in a small room designated for Anthony’s loved ones who were few, Ted recalls the last words he shared with his friend.
Ted: “It’s just us, Anthony. None of those [other] people are here. I told you this is how it would be.”
Anthony’s other friends from church had stopped in to pay their respects throughout the day and others were unable to handle the emotional burden of his death in person.
Although horrific, the recent pandemic was not the first of its kind in recent U.S. history. For many, the COVID crisis was a harrowing reminder of the millions of people, like Anthony, who died in isolation during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s.
Ted: “It was a tough thing to contend with…conversations were [avoided] about HIV/AIDS in church.”
Religion, both in personal belief as well as in denominational organization, is a significant part of American life. Many religious groups interpret HIV/AIDS through the lens of their teachings and beliefs as a group in addition to (or instead of) empirical data. For some organizations, these conversations have also been enmeshed with more broad-based stigma related to sexual orientation.
Since its onset in the 1980s, there have been an estimated 36.3 million people who have died from HIV/AIDS complications worldwide.
To date, Ted, who grew up in Black churches, has personally known between 40 and 50 people who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS.
Ted: “I care deeply about Black people—these lives mattered, and these stories deserve to be told and to live in a context that is honest about the many ways in which [our people] are impacted. Most of the people I know who died of AIDS complications were attending Black churches that were teaching them that to live in a way that is different from cis gender heteronormative framework is [morally] wrong.”
Even in the face of an epidemic, there was no pause in the environment to understand why and how people show up differently or offer a degree of solace—just more finger pointing to outline HIV as God’s punitive measure for queerness.
Ted recalls the emotional weight of growing up in a faith-based environment where he witnessed so many individuals facing death in the absence of human decency through grace, mercy, or kindness.
Ted: “There wasn’t much acknowledgement of the ways HIV/AIDS was ravishing Black churches during that time. Honestly, there really hasn’t been since. I [still] don’t feel like Black churches have [collectively] honored the lives of Black gay men [who lost their lives]—whether they were in the pews, on the usher board, preachers, choir members, musicians, tithers, janitors—or whatever they did as a member of the Black faith community.”
Ted chooses to honor the memory of his friends and others he was connected to throughout his life who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS by normalizing them in their death.
Ted: “I choose to not allow them to be ‘othered’ or described as deviants, but people who were seeking love, relationship, affirmation, and happiness. People who were struggling and torn with being able to live in a way that was innately normal and natural to them versus what they were being taught in faith spaces and in the broader culture.”
In 2020, the CDC reported over 30,000 new HIV cases. After indirect effects of COVID decreased testing efforts in the United States, undiagnosed cases are suspected to have risen in 2021. Most new HIV cases reported are among Black same sex attracted men.
Click here to learn more about what your faith community can do to cultivate an inclusive and supportive response to HIV.
*Ted Winn is a podcaster and musical artist who has shared this story with permission.
These stories are a collection of first-person narratives taken from anonymous lived experiences; names have been substituted.