When I came out as gay in the late 1980’s, I faced an uncertain future. I was excommunicated from the Mormon Church and abandoned by all my former friends. But not before one of my pals in Elders Quorum said during Priesthood meeting, “I hope they don’t find a cure for AIDS till all the gays are dead.”
Everyone around me laughed. The way President Reagan’s Press Secretary laughed when asked by a reporter about the president’s response to AIDS. The way the rest of the reporters at the briefing laughed as well. Mormons were hardly the only ones to laugh at AIDS jokes.
But the venom from everyday people in my life was the most potent. Even “nice” Mormons told me in parting, “I hope you get AIDS so you’ll come back to church.”
My pal from Priesthood meeting almost got his wish for complete extermination. The man who “brought me out” died of pneumocystis two days before Christmas. He was 24. My new friends in the Gay Men’s Chorus developed Kaposi’s, and cryptococcal meningitis, and thrush, and toxoplasmosis, and histoplasmosis. A neighbor in his early thirties developed dementia. Another went blind from cytomegalovirus. It was a terrifying time.
Just like then, the most terrifying part is how many people giggle with delight at the suffering of others.
But what I felt then is nothing compared to what I feel now watching Trump and his appointees ravage this country. And now, just like then, the most terrifying part is how many people giggle with delight at the suffering of others.
Shortly after Obama was elected president in 2008, Whoopi Goldberg expressed her relief, saying, “I felt like I could put my suitcase down, finally.” I appreciated the sentiment, but I’ve NEVER felt like that. Even in 2008, LGBTQ folk had few rights, and it’s clear that many people in our society still don’t have full equality today. I know enough about the Inquisition and the Holocaust to understand that the tide can turn against any group virtually overnight.
When I converted to Reform Judaism in the 1990’s, my rabbi asked me several questions before he would accept my conversion. One was, “Are you willing to face another Holocaust?”
I said yes. The truth was, I figured anyone coming for Jews would be coming for gays, anyway, so becoming a Jew hardly added much further risk. And the question certainly hadn’t caught me by surprise. It was something I’d reflected on often throughout the years.
My rabbi smiled at my unnecessary response and said this was America. It would never happen here.
His certainty gave me pause because it struck me as entirely unrealistic. I had read many books about the Holocaust as a Mormon teenager. I had even asked my father, a contractor, if he’d be willing to build a house for me one day with a secret room so I could hide Jews if it ever became necessary again.
When I came out at the age of 26, I wrote letters to the editor of various newspapers on the subject of gay rights. I wrote to my religious leaders in Salt Lake. I’ve been “out” at every job I’ve had since then. Part of my reasoning was to make sure if things ever got “bad” for gays, I would already be on somebody’s list. There would be no way for me to hide or pass. I would have no other choice but to fight.
While I’ve moved from Mormonism to Judaism to atheism, I’m still struck by how often people use religion as justification for cruelty. As a Mormon I was taught that saying “Oh, my God!” was taking the Lord’s name in vain. In Judaism, I learned that doing horrible things to others in the name of God was what that commandment was really trying to address.
There have always been differences of opinion among political groups. People can legitimately have different goals or different methods for achieving similar ones. That leads to debate, with the best ideas usually winning out.
But that’s not what’s happening today. The Republican Party has become a religion unto itself. And it’s a religion whose primary strategy seems to be fomenting anger and hatred. We don’t have to guess how this will turn out if we are not able to confront this successfully. History has repeatedly shown us the result of such a political atmosphere.
I’m not sure if this time we’ll see a repeat of Sobibor and Treblinka or if instead we’ll move even more quickly and end up with another Rwanda. Maybe we’ll just see something “minor,” like the death of hundreds of thousands of people from AIDS before the general public starts to give a damn.
The problem is that hating the religious right is not an effective response. Hatred can never overcome hatred. And since it’s so difficult to love people who glory in the suffering of others, I’m not sure we can muster enough love to overcome it, either.
The best we can hope for, I think, is to elect progressive leaders who can enact laws and policies to protect us until we can all calm down. Then we can slowly start to educate those manipulated to delight in atrocity. Only then can we work together for the good of all people.