Hugging Thy "Enemy"


A reader writes:

I'm curious how your HIV status has affected your philosophical development; perhaps you’ve addressed this elsewhere. Your mention of it in your book made me remember how my HIV diagnosis changed my perception of religious conservatives.

When my new partner and I decided to get tested in 1990, I went to our campus health clinic and was shunted to a small office containing a severe-looking grandmotherly counselor. She was obviously uncomfortable with the topic, the procedure and openly gay men, and I was uncomfortable with her prominent crucifix necklace and Jesus-themed knickknacks on her desk. She drew blood and gave me the perfunctory lecture on safe sex, and sent me away to await the results. Ten days later, I sat down with her to open the lab report.  It was negative, she said (as I expected). She then gave me another perfunctory admonition about safe sex, while I was imagining she wanted to tell me that I had narrowly escaped God’s wrath. I went home to await my parter to share the good news. 

About an hour later, I got a frantic call from the counselor; she insisted that I come back over to her office that minute, and that she couldn’t tell me why over the phone. It was past closing time at the clinic, but the doors were still open, and she was seated in her office. She was holding my lab report, and her hands were shaking and she had been crying. She had misread my report; she had never had a positive patient before, and she had mistakenly sent me off thinking I was negative, and now had to call me back and tell me the mistake. She tried to explain her error, but broke down sobbing. So there I was, in the first few minutes of HIV+ life, and my first task was to hug and console and administer Kleenex to this chubby, sobbing, crucifixed heterosexual. I assured her I was going to be fine, and that it was a simple mistake and it was her first time, and soon we were both hugging and sobbing and pulling Kleenex. A doctor hovering outside finally knocked on the door and asked if we were ok, and she called out "Yes, I think I’m going to make it".

In many ways, my session with her was a real gift. At that moment, it made me realize that I just might have prejudged this woman, and perhaps she truly was concerned for me, and that perhaps I was the bigot. It also forced me to realize that being HIV+ didn’t give me even a temporary license to wallow in my own problems and ignore others. Somehow, being prodded at that moment to care for this stranger and comfort her was the best therapy possible.

I ran into this woman about three weeks later at the checkout counter in the drug store. We were both a little uncomfortable, and I watched her reaction as she looked down and saw the box of condoms in my hand. She smiled and gave my arm a little squeeze and said, "You two be careful, now".

I still think Ratzinger might be beyond redemption, though.