Driving Hate Away

Charles King ’83 M.Div., ’89 J.D.

I grew up in south Texas believing homosexuality was a sin worthy of death. It is what my father preached from the pulpit. After years of earnest prayer, asking God to save me from being gay, I finally realized my father was wrong, that God actually made me who I am and loved me for it. That lifted a heavy burden. But having been called to the ministry, I feared that, even though God accepted me, that didn’t mean that God’s people would.

So as a Baptist minister I kept my sexuality in the closet for years – until I went to visit Bill, our New Haven congregation’s music minister, in the hospital. Bill was living with AIDS, end stage, with lesions all over his frail body and thrush lining his mouth. But when I offered to pray with him, he told me it wouldn’t do him any good: God was punishing him because he was a homosexual.

A Fateful Sermon

Four months later, preaching at my church, I spoke of that emotional visit to the hospital. I preached that Sunday on the text found in three of the Gospels about the woman with the issue of blood. Perhaps because of a fistula, this woman had been bleeding vaginally for 12 years. This continuous hemorrhaging surely had many medical consequences, but clearly the worst consequence came under the religious code, which deemed her “unclean.” It was socially unacceptable for anyone else to touch her. For 12 years she had been shunned. In my sermon I compared this woman’s condition to that of persons living with AIDS – and the shunning that so many people experienced once their families and friends learned of their condition. This exclusion was often compounded by shame, guilt, self-loathing.

And I told the congregation that day that I could no longer live my life in the closet. I might not be able to do anything about the HIV virus, but I could surely do something about the fear and loathing of gay people that allowed someone as wonderful as Bill to die all alone, believing God was punishing him – because that is what he had heard from God’s people.

It was my last sermon as the assistant pastor of that Missionary Baptist church.

That was 31 years ago. My encounter with Bill at Yale New Haven Hospital has propelled me in the fight against AIDS ever since. For me, even after I became HIV-positive myself, the fight was never about the virus. The real fight has always been against the hatred that allows the virus to thrive.

49 in Orlando

I first learned of the June massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, on Facebook. It took time for the enormity to sink in. A man filled with hate, possibly fueled by religion, shot more than 100 people in cold blood and killed 49 of them, people who had just a few minutes before been happily dancing and full of life.

The 49 murder victims aren’t just a statistic. They are real people with names, young people, mostly Latino, their lives destroyed in a terrifying few hours of rage.

Almost immediately, the media began looking for the cause. A hate crime against gay people? A terrorist attack by an ISIS loyalist? A madman with access to assault weapons? A self-hating gay man committing a violent form of suicide? All of the above? Then some right-wing Christian voices used the slaughter to say once again that legal acceptance of LGBTQ will bring God’s judgment on America.

I had to wonder: Is Christian hate any different from Muslim hate? Is public hate different from private hate? When a candidate spews hate against immigrants from a particular country or practitioners of a specific religion, or blatantly demeans women, and millions roar their approval, what does that say about us as a people? When a state passes a law that singles out transgender people for discrimination, why is that not a hate crime?

I truly believe we will see an end to AIDS in my lifetime, and I am committed to that goal. But it will be a hollow victory if we haven’t addressed the homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism that drive this disease. I am not so naïve as to believe we can end these prejudices. We can, however, employ tenacious advocacy to ameliorate the rejection and disfavor that people experience every day. We now have drugs to treat the virus. But only lovingkindness can cure the impact of hate.

What Works, What Doesn’t

How do we combat that? I do know what doesn’t work. You can never fight hate with more hate and expect to win. That strategy makes losers of us all. And yet it is trite to suggest love is the answer unless you are prepared to talk about what that love means. Too many times I have heard preachers say, “hate the sin; love the sinner.” I can tell you, it didn’t feel very helpful to be the object of that kind of love as a young gay man trying to find his way. So I will not be so hypocritical as to suggest such an approach toward those who attack us.

But if love means embracing recipients of hate without adding our own judgments on them, and if love means creating a force of protection and resilience, and if enough people join, I think we stand a chance at shaming hate and driving it away.

Housing Works is a secular organization, yet we believe in something that I think is spiritually profound. We believe in radical inclusion, accepting people where they are without condemnation. We believe we are all broken people living in a broken world and that through kindness we offer each other healing. We stand against hate in all its manifestations, particularly against homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia too. We stand for love that heals.

It is love, coupled oftentimes with anger against injustice, that has brought us this far in the fight against AIDS. It is love that will bring us to the end of the epidemic.

Charles King ’83 M.Div., ’89 J.D. is president and CEO of Housing Works in Brooklyn, NY., an organization dedicated to ending the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain its efforts.