The title above is taken from a message delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th, 1967 at a meeting held at the Riverside Church in New York City. This meeting had been called by a group of pastors and parishioners who had raised concerns related to the War in Vietnam. This group, called the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, invited Dr. King to come and address the issue of war within the context of civil rights. Although Dr. King had spoken against the war on a number of occasions prior to this event, this is the first time he would publicly speak directly against the Johnson administration and its war policy. In the opening of his address, Dr. King spoke of his conscience leaving him no choice but to come and to publicly take up a controversial stance, that being to oppose the War in Vietnam. As he spoke of this conscience-driven call, he referenced a line used by the executive committee of this group: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” In the words of Dr. King, that time had come for those present that night in relation to Vietnam. I am using these same words as it relates to my fight against HIV/AIDS; “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
Quiet as it may be, HIV/AIDS has entered every corner of American society. No longer is this disease an issue for the gay community alone. No longer is it just an issue for intravenous drug users. HIV/AIDS has become an issue for all of us whether gay or straight, male or female, Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, poor or rich, religious or not; we are all impacted by HIV/AIDS. The fact is there are more than 1.1 million people in the United States who are living with HIV, yet 1 in 5 are not even aware of their HIV status. Of the over 1.1 million infected with HIV, only a little over 200,000 of these persons are virally suppressed, meaning they are being treated with antiretroviral medications under the supervision of a physician and their viral loads are approaching or are at undetectable levels. This means there are nearly 900,000 HIV infected individuals in the United States who, for various reasons, are not receiving treatment or who aren’t even aware of their HIV-positive status.
Why have we been so silent on the issue of HIV/AIDS? Yes, we have a national agenda to fight HIV/AIDS and yes, there is a global initiative as well, however, there is still a strange “silence” to this condition. As I have stated before, HIV/AIDS is about more than statistics and federal programs. HIV/AIDS is about people. It is about relationships. It is about intimacy, sexuality, vulnerability, pain, suffering, death, prejudice, and bigotry. Why, then, are we so silent at the dinner table, in our churches, and in our social circles as it relates to HIV/AIDS in particular and human sexuality in general. On the night before mentioned in this article, Dr. King pronounced the following statement:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and a brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whole culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
I included these prophetic words of Dr. King primarily for its opening and closing sentences, as I in no way or form would attempt to diminish the cost of the Vietnam War on the lives of those involved, both living and dead. However, the opening and closing sentences mentioned above, and his overall tone and spirit, are vital, I believe, to the struggle against the silence around HIV/AIDS. Certainly this madness must cease and it must stop now. Yes, the initiative to stop it is ours; we control the future as it relates to HIV/AIDS, and that future can and will be a bright one if we take the initiative to end this silence now. Nearly 2 years ago I was diagnosed as being HIV positive. I made the choice then, as well as now, to never be silent, but to loudly proclaim that even with HIV/AIDS, we can and we will win. Being a Black, married, heterosexual male in the South, being public about HIV/AIDS carries its own set of risks and challenges, however, being an ordained Baptist preacher, my faith has taught me to look to the hills from whence my help comes, for all my help comes from The Lord, yet for far too many, the hills have been silent. The church has been silent. Their families are silent. Their friends are silent, but the time is now to speak, as continuing to be silent is betrayal to each and every one of these individuals. 34 million persons around the world are living with HIV/AIDS. 34 million! Yet only 6 million have access to health care and life-sustaining medications. Yes, silence is betrayal, and now is certainly the time to be “silent no more!”