We survived Reagan, we will Trump this

  • by Jim Mitulski
  • Wednesday November 30, 2016
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On election night, I sat in a bar in Boston where I now live and work, watching the returns with my younger gay Baptist minister friend from Cambridge. Times have changed – Baptist ministers can drink, be openly gay, while I have forsworn substances for some time now and am the pastor of a largely straight, white, liberal, suburban mainline church. But we were there to celebrate a Hillary Clinton victory. At 1 a.m., just as it became almost certain that Donald Trump would win, the power went out. A total blackout. The lights didn't come back on for several hours and it matched our mood. I blurted out, "We survived Reagan. We'll survive this!" But my young Baptist minister friend looked at me with a blank, uncomprehending stare, as if I had made a flippant joke.

I was serious. My friend had barely been born when Ronald Reagan took office. Without minimizing the real feelings of people whose genuine and legitimate terror at the present moment and the real threat that the incoming administration's incompetence and indifference on health care issues represents, this is the time to bear witness. World AIDS Day is the time to tell the old story and to tell some new stories, too. It's a day to say, "No more AIDS deaths." We are wily strategists ready to use the power of love that is stronger than death. No more AIDS deaths.

Here's one old story:

In 1986, right-wing politician Lyndon LaRouche and his followers placed Proposition 64 on the California ballot. This is a state with a history of anti-Japanese prejudice that resulted in the concentration of Japanese and Japanese-American residents and citizens just 40 years earlier. If successful, it would have forcibly concentrated people with HIV in California, in the same way we are currently passively allowing immigrants among us to be collected and deported with no protest or intervention. The gay community and our allies banded together and Prop 64 failed. We did it then, and we need to do it now.

And we have the organizing examples of Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the opportunity to build coalitions to make sure that we do not give into this madness for one day more. World AIDS Day is about solidarity: chanting "Estamos con Ustedes" and "Black Lives Matter" is an additional way of saying, "Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS."

The Sunday after the election, I went from church to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Facility at the Boston County Jail and participated in a vigil and protest so that the detainees could see and hear us and we could hear them. I learned this in my days of AIDS activism. Listen, I know something about not giving up hope when things seem hopeless. I held the hands of hundreds of people as they died. And though it took a toll, I have no regrets about never giving up. We have to summon that capacity again. World AIDS Day calls us to find that deep well inside us and not give up.

We have better medicine today. People no longer need to die of HIV/AIDS. But more people have died than ever before, nationally and internationally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one in two black gay men and one in four Latino gay men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime. It is a leading cause of death for black women in the South. HIV/AIDS prospers where there is poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. It isn't a medical condition; it is a social and stigma condition. Look at the shocking lack of response our country and other countries have exhibited toward Zika. The Republican government and the Roman Catholic Church in their shared disregard for poor women and Latinas and their access to contraception and abortion callously refused to act in rational public health ways.

This past summer I came back to Berkeley to teach a class at Pacific School of Religion, the most liberal seminary in the country. My United Methodist theologian colleague Dr. Donald Messer and I had the brightest future religious leaders who were learning about the future of the AIDS epidemic from the pioneers of San Francisco's activist community. Laura Thomas taught them about safe injection; Masen Davis brought them news from the United Nations High Level Meeting on Human Rights about transgender rights; Bishop Yvette Flunder and the Reverend Dr. Penny Nixon brought them a religious update. And a prominent activist from an Asian country described using what he learned in San Francisco in order to smuggle the most recent HIV drugs into his country. African-American poet Adam Dyer shared with them about the intersection of race and the arts and sexuality. At the end of the class, student Blythe Barnow preached a sermon in which she proclaimed passionately in words that continue to haunt me, words that have defined my own life since my diagnosis and that of so many of my friends, many no longer alive, but words that now give me hope, even after the Trump election:

"Every year is an AIDS year."

Yes, every year is an AIDS year, but this year is going to galvanize us like none other and be our best year yet.


The Reverend Jim Mitulski is the interim senior minister of the Congregational Church of Needham United Church of Christ. Previously he was pastor for 15 years of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco and former co-chair of the San Francisco Mayor's HIV Planning Council. He lives in Boston. He can be reached at mailto:[email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @revmitulski.