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What Is the Church's Role in the Sex Lives of Gay Men?
Spirituality Column #24

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

"Have you read ...?"


For anyone interested in the current debate about gay male sexuality and HIV prevention, these three books are basic reading. There is a great deal of debate going on in the lesbian/gay press these days. People of faith are also beginning to grapple with these issues as many denominations and faith communities struggle with the future direction of AIDS ministries. These three books help focus the discussion.

Rotello's Sexual Ecology challenges us to examine how gay men's sexual choices are contributing to the continuing AIDS epidemic. He writes that gay men's sexual behaviors of the seventies provided the perfect setting for a deadly microbe to find ideal hosts in which to flourish. The number of sex partners, the unsafe sex, the lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, and over-use of antibiotics for the abundant STD's set the stage for the HIV epidemic. Rotello contends that this kind of environment thrives today in segments of the gay community, and sets the stage for an epidemic resurgence of HIV transmission. His suggested changes for gay men include serial monogamy, as modeled by the lesbian community.

Signorile's Life Outside concurs with Rotello's view that gay men are actively continuing the HIV epidemic, through the "cult of masculinity," and specifically through the circuit party scene. The effects of this filter down even to gay men who are not part of the circuit. His suggested solutions include "postmodern monogamy," "negotiated safety" within relationships, and getting "beyond the urban gay scene." He, too, recommends that gay men "learn a lot from how [lesbians] construct their relationships and their families."

Kettelhack's Dancing Around the Volcano is a sex-positive analysis of gay men's sex lives. He links our erotic lives to our spiritual lives, and shows that touching the deep inner truths of our sexuality can heal and inform our public lives. While the author assumes that "sex is undoubtedly dangerous," it is "not primarily because of AIDS." His advice regarding sex in an epidemic is, "Do everything you can to live, not die. How you do that is your own business." Of the three books, Dancing Around the Volcano will most please those who are looking for a positive celebration of gay men's sexuality, without a focused discussion of HIV prevention.

While Kettelhack's book is a much-needed celebration of gay male sexuality and spirituality, the other two books do not allow us to be complacent with a celebration of our sexuality. They challenge gay men to re-examine not only our sexual behaviors, but our lifestyle choices and how they contribute to continuing the HIV epidemic. They challenge what it means to be a responsible member of the community. Even if we are resistant to their more conservative messages about gay men's sex lives, it is vitally important for us to know and struggle with the facts and arguments in the Rotello and Signorile books.

Interestingly, Signorile repeatedly identifies my denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) as a good resource for HIV prevention, as a healthy alternative to the gay male party scene. This made me question the role of the church at large in the containment of HIV. Should church leaders in pro-gay and lesbian churches be proclaiming a new sexual ethic for gay men in the age of HIV, one that looks like Signorile's "postmodern monogamy"? We are currently fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage, but should we be actively promoting marriage, as an effective tool for HIV prevention? Should we be preaching against the excesses of the gay male circuit party scene, and all the ways that scene contributes to HIV transmission? Should we be guiding gay men in making decisions about behaviors and lifestyle choices which, according to Rotello and Signorile, are enabling the epidemic transmission of HIV to escalate?

Some might argue that it is not MCC's place, as the liberation church of the lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgendered communities, nor any church's place, to be preaching what many will perceive to be a conservative sexual ethic. Many lesbians and gay men have already turned off to organized religion because of many churches' judgmental views of sexuality. Will they turn off to MCC and other gay-friendly churches if we start preaching postmodern monogamy and negotiated safety for gay men?

Historically, gay-friendly churches have affirmed sexuality as a good gift from God. Within MCC, there are pastors who preach a conservative ethic, and others who teach a libertarian ethic within that context. A dialogue between these two groups would help us all grapple with the issues.

I believe that we have an obligation to preach and teach what will encourage and sustain life. I don't want to say, "Don't have sex." I believe we need to remain sex-positive. But the current culture of the gay male party scene with multiple, anonymous partners practicing unsafe sex, combined with frequent drug and alcohol abuse, is contributing to the ongoing HIV pandemic. People of faith need to teach, practice, and encourage risk reduction in our sex lives and our lifestyles, because we hold life sacred, and because we believe in the importance of sustaining life both individually and as a community.

Renowned AIDS research physician, Alexandra M. Levine, M.D., a member of the U.S. President's Commission on HIV/AIDS, says, "It is very clear to me that human beings cannot be exposed intimately to all of the germs of so many different people, and still be able to get away with it. Biologically, if we could cure AIDS tomorrow, but did not change behaviors, I guarantee that there will be another major sexually transmitted disease epidemic, and another, and another, and another. Biologically, there is a limit to the freedom which you may want."

Sex is good. HIV transmission is bad. My prayer is that people of faith will openly discuss how to uphold both values. We must ask why, with all we know, we still are spreading HIV. Are we sacrificing the health, the lives and the future of other gay men, and of our churches, to our desire for an "anything goes" expression of our sexuality? I believe that this is a time for church and community leaders to be openly encouraging, modeling, and supporting lifestyle choices and behaviors which will simultaneously celebrate sexuality, sustain life, and decrease the epidemic transmission of HIV. There are ways to reduce HIV transmission. We are learning that these methods are more complex than merely following the "condom code." For many of us, it may mean changing our sexual lifestyles to one degree or another. It may mean practicing a more conservative sexual ethic, if we believe the biologic arguments. It is our challenge to do this while remaining sex-positive, and celebrating the goodness of the erotic, especially the gay erotic. As Kettelhack suggests, a positive, active engagement with our erotic selves can bring healing to our souls. Sexuality is an amazing and important spiritual gift. Can we sustain a creative and spiritual view of sexuality and also change our behaviors with the purpose of containing an epidemic of a potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease? Pro-gay churches are in a unique place to help gay men make these changes.

©1997 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters


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