Almost 15 years ago, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on the United States, I shared a meal with three friends which others thought transgressive: a Roman Catholic, a Protestant, a Buddhist, and a Muslim sampling dishes together at a Kosher restaurant. Despite different backgrounds and experiences — and they were all heterosexual -- we were kindred emotionally and spiritually. We agreed that spirituality concerned, for us at least, those beliefs and qualities that bound us to all other persons and helped to orient us on a timeline that may or may not pre-date physical birth or surpass physical death.
Religion, by contrast, concerned language, belief, and custom meant to distinguish adherents of one faith from those of another and to allow some individuals to believe themselves (and those who believe like them) more worthy of life than others.
Those basic tenets are always in the background of my thoughts, though they move to the foreground in conjunction with significant events related to people motivated by their deeply held beliefs, like the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. As a geeky suburban adolescent homosexual, I admired Ali’s audacity and swagger: unwavering self-confidence isn’t arrogance if one is truly as good as one claims and one respects the humanity of others.
Having closeted myself for two years of college behind conservative Christian teachings, I understand the negative impacts of religion-based intolerance and hate, the perceived need to sometimes do outrageous things to hide one’s true self, and the desire to hurt fellow ‘sinners’ who have not accepted me into their fold. I could never excuse the murder of 49 people for any reason, but I have compassion for an individual who has suffered so much that he believes murder to ever be an acceptable solution to anything.
"The man who views the world at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted thirty years". – M. Ali
While The Champ provided a fine example to my younger self of fighting injustice at some personal cost, his latter years and death are instructive to me as an long-term survivor of HIV and brain tumor, regarding the need to push hard against physical obstacles I might face — and to not hide them — in order to tackle whatever advocacy I choose to undertake.
Those of us who were around before HAART can recall many heroic struggles against HIV of friends and loved ones with willing hearts tragically bound to failing bodies or minds. Such valiant losses continue today in much smaller numbers, though we barely discuss them in high-income countries. Yet, Ali’s public battle with Parkinson’s disease showed that otherwise unaffected people respond to the devastation of illness when they cannot turn away.
Perhaps, to make progress against stigma and to curb new infections, it’s time for a new era of HIV-positive visibility that goes beyond mountain-climbing pharma models?!
On my way to AIDS 2016 in Durban, South Africa, I found myself with an eight-hour layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and I decided to actually see part of the city, not just sit in the airport, despite Emirati HIV entry ban. With the many facets of Islamic faiths on my mind, I wanted to tour Jumeriah mosque, visit the Starbucks across the road from it, and walk through some of the historic souks or markets during the free time afforded me. 12 minutes from the airplane to a taxi. The driver was adamant that I needed to see more than the mosque… “No, just the mosque for now. If you’re on Uber, I’ll want a car again in an hour or two.”
I arrived at the mosque way before the tour desk opened and while worship was still in progress. The temperature was about 35C before 10am. When I saw the sandals and shoes of worshippers arrayed outside the front door, I recalled a similar sight from my first visit to a mosque in Washington, DC at age 13. To me this said “Take your shoes off and come on!” I joined the men and knelt quietly near the door. No one turned at the creaking of the door, no one shrieked in horror at a light-skinned man joining them.
A few minutes later, after worship had ended, several men greeted me in English, one of the leaders hugged me, and one man asked why I had entered the mosque. “I wanted to know that if I came in peace, you would receive me. The children of Ibrahim should not be strangers to one another.” Murmuring in Arabic ensued. In unison, several men exclaimed in Arabic Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. (May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you). To their surprise I responded Wa alaikum assalaam (Upon you be peace).
One of the younger men accompanied me to Starbucks and asked where my travels would take me. After I told him about the international HIV conference, he shared his anger over HIV not being discussed openly in the UAE because of a society that creates Arab men with wives and secret male lovers, does not keep girls and women safe from sexual violence, criminalizes sex workers, and fails to protect foreign laborers from abuse.
I said that it sounded like he was describing the United States and many other Western countries.