I grew up in Reno. I started coming out at 16, in the mid-1980s. San Francisco was the mecca for little gay boys. A friend of mine moved to San Francisco. He died within two years. He was the first person I knew who died of AIDS.
I’m an HIV consultant and educator. I joined the [Seattle branch of the] Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence around 2002. That work is the spiritual side of the other work that I do. Our mission is expiating stigmatic guilt and promulgating universal joy.
The Sisters began in 1979 in San Francisco as a response to “Castro cloning” [the belief that gay men in San Francisco’s Castro District had to look and dress a certain way]. It started one Easter weekend, when someone had nun habits left over from a production of “The Sound of Music.”
When HIV hit, that gave purpose to something that had been loosely defined. It really crystalized the mission. The sisters became the first group to do a safer sex pamphlet in non-shaming language. Today it’s the longest running organization working on HIV that is still grassroots. Others have become big institutions. Our activist, anarchist heart is still here.
And there is still this need to expiate HIV stigma. It’s not as direct or visible, but it’s still pervasive and deep. The reality is the HIV epidemic is still around because of stigma.
Today, people think HIV is either an international disease, or it’s gone away. There’s a generational difference on what HIV is. For men who are older than me, who saw people dying, who can list hundreds of friends who passed away — they have fears, survival guilt, all sorts of stuff. Among gay men of my generation, there’s a belief that if you catch it now, you should have known better. In the U.S. these days, HIV has become a disease of poverty and marginalization.
Shame is the internalized aspect of stigma. We get the negative messaging about gay people or black people or women. Those become internalized early on.
The health outcomes of stigma are significant. Some are related to smoking, alcohol, drugs, sex — we try to mediate the harsh environment in which we’re living. We think, “If I’m not worth it, why does it matter?” It has an impact on whether people are willing to get tested [for HIV], to get treatment.
For the Sisters, the baseline is: I see you. The fundamental piece of it is the seeing and witnessing and acknowledging. We acknowledge people’s pain and suffering as real and — without diminishing it — say, “Your pain and suffering are not you.”
Stigma and shame isolate us. Our job is to un-isolate you. We’re running around in this crazy makeup with these costumes doing this serious work, and we’re OK. And that means you’re OK too.
There’s a ritual called the Veil of Shame. We’ll wear white veils and carry Sharpies, and let people write on the Veils the things about ourselves that others have made us feel ashamed of — the things we’re all carrying around that are not helping us achieve joy.
Then we’ll ritually burn the veil.
Having street-level Sister work sustains me. It’s about wellness. It’s about soul. It’s about wholeness. It’s about being authentic about ourselves.
Follow Mary Engel on Twitter @Engel140