By Ed Chinery
Last year at this time, when quarantine was only a couple of months old, I couldn’t seem to escape the frightening voice in my head from thirty-some years ago—“Who’s gonna get sick? Who’s gonna die?”. Almost every day I had to consciously stop myself from tumbling into a perversely seductive spiral. It eventually became a little easier to interrupt, but interruption never entirely removed the anxiety. Strange how familiarity, even with uneasiness, can be comforting. Even so, when I hold the energetic resonances of AIDS in spiritual tension with the currents around Covid, there’s more dissonance than comfort.
In the 1980’s, for instance, part of what spun the scary spiral was that, early on, society really seemed quite ready to accept AIDS as punishment for perceived immorality. I mean, for a while medical experts called it GRID – Gay Related Immune Disorder. And I’m probably not the only one who had a hard time denying that the frightening voice inside was chuckling, “It IS about you!”
But it’s different now. Much has changed. The world has changed, and the internal voice has changed. Changed location, as it does, and adopted different tones and targets. Society may have developed an anti-tolerance for overt scapegoating of LGBT+ folks, but it sadly persists in the impulse to find blame, thus remaining vulnerable to architects of social conflict.
In the years since AIDS meant a death sentence, closet doors were blown open, but other critical developments occurred too. The rich and powerful, became even more aware of how effective it is to keep the populace – to keep voters – in conflict, and they’ve very successfully refined the deepening of divides between just about as many social and political groups as exist. The morality-based social conflict that was so powerful when AIDS was still GRID has changed tone and target. Sure, some of “the religious” still try to employ tactics more political than faith-based, but more and more that’s being seen for the fear-mongering it is.
It seems the scary internal voice shifts shape when our understanding of morality does. It’s no longer acceptable to scapegoat gays over AIDS, but part of what we’re seeing in conjunction with the current pandemic is that true morality is no longer being owned by “the religious”. Whispers of “Who’s gonna get sick and die?” don’t relate to the kinds of moral weaponry AIDS had initially made available. Now, the very same kinds of fears and frustrations, in connection with Covid-19 and so much more, are finally being seen as unjust. Just how powerfully and persistently harrowing uneasiness has always been the lived experience of marginalized people – especially people who are black, brown, and AAPI – is being declared out loud and with great power. We can only hope this is leading us to universal access to care of every kind, or better yet generalized presumptions of safety and belonging for all and not just some.
And maybe only if we’re able to take a lesson from the 80’s. Only if all of society comes to understand what common humanity really is. Only if AIDS has taught us how to unflaggingly model for micro-aggressors how to lovingly become advocates.
A new morality that’s not arbitrated by “religion.” Just imagine.
Ed Chinery is Associate Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension – Fifth Avenue at Tenth Street.