Gimme That Oldtime Religion: Stigma, Epidemic Disease, and Sexual Minorities

Few things evoke humans’ atavistic reactions as do natural disasters, including epidemics. The scale of epidemic disease and its elusive causes and treatments prompt us to revert to primitive prejudices and fears.

We saw this at work when a virus originating in Africa made its way to the Caribbean and eventually appeared in gay male and Haitian patients in the early 1980s. For many, especially religious fundamentalists, HIV/AIDS became a sign of divine wrath, a punishment for sexual or other sins.

Linking proscribed behaviors (homosexuality, IV drug use) with disease provided the grounds for this judgment.

This habit of thought has an ancient pedigree. In the beginning of both Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, divinely sent epidemic plagues punish mortals, who must determine the nature of their violation and to offer propitiation.   

Now, what’s old is new again. The emergence of the most sustained and widespread occurrence of Ebola virus in Western Africa has evoked ancient atavistic impulses.

Liberian Christian leaders, including bishops of mainstream Roman Catholic and Anglican communions, have endorsed a joint statement that claims, “That God is angry with Liberia, and that Ebola is a plague. Liberians have to pray and seek God’s forgiveness over the corruption and immoral acts (such as homosexualism, etc.) that continue to penetrate our society. As Christians, we must repent and seek God’s forgiveness.” Many readers’ comments posted on the Liberian Observer’s website seem to agree.

Back in the United States, fundamentalist Christian radio personality Rick Wiles suggested that, “‘Now this Ebola epidemic can become a global pandemic, and that’s another name for plague. . . . It may be the great attitude adjustment that I believe is coming. Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion,” according to an article in the Advocate’s online site.

Epidemic disease is terrifying, even in an age of remarkable health technologies and pharmaceuticals. We must always monitor and expose, however, the primitive impulse to blame stigmatized people.


About Thomas Lawrence Long

Associate professor-in-residence, School of Nursing, University of Connecticut; editor and writing coach
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