Dr. Calvin O. Butts III
Dr. Calvin O. Butts III President of State University of New York College at Old Westbury, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York
Huge progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This is another two-decade struggle that I've been involved in, two decades plus. When I first got involved in this struggle, most of the ministers that I knew and most of them across the nation were saying it's a curse of God on the gay community. I knew ministers in our community, funeral directors who wouldn't touch a body of a person. First of all, there was a long period of time we didn't know what it was, so they were just figuring they died of cancer, pneumonia. We couldn't figure out why so many of them were dying. You'd go to the hospital and they said, "I don't know what's killing them. They can't find anything."
But then when they discovered what it was – or what it is, "We don't touch those bodies. I won't do the funeral. How did they get it?" One of the true turning points for the African-American community was Arthur Ashe. A blood transfusion brings it home. But I spent a great deal of my time saying, First of all, in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ and many of the stories that are told, the persons with HIV/AIDS today were like the lepers of that time. You don't raise a question, "How did they get it?" Who gives a flip how they got it? We are called to provide them with the love and care and the science to try to figure out how to cure it, how to help them get through it.
And when you have HIV/AIDS, it's not just you. It's a whole community around you. It's your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your husband, your wife, your children. We would travel. I was working with a young woman named Debra Fraser-Howze. She actually started, along with a few of us, the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. And I traveled to Newark, to Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta, five cities in New York including Nassau County, the state of New York. And we set up affiliates, and I was the guy, the affiliate development person.
And we'd bring the ministers in. Every one is led by a minister. And we'd say, "Fellows," because it was mostly men, "We can't allow this." And there was a fellow named Dean, he was out in California, who told this story. He was a musician. He's a minister now. He said in those days he would go and his pastor would say, "Dean, I need you to go over here and sing a song." He said, "I've got a service I just remembered. It's at 4:00 this afternoon." Dean said he'd go. If he could get a choir together, he'd take the choir. He said he'd sing, and the church would get all excited and emotional, and they loved him. Loved him.
He said there was nothing he wouldn't do to sing the praises of God at the behest of his pastor and church. He got sick. HIV. He said nobody came to see him. He told that story, and I cried. That gave me more fuel to – we've gotta get past the stigma. We can't ostracize people based on their sexual orientation. And many in the gay community will tell you, "Hey, we don't being gay tied to HIV/AIDS anyway. That's not the sole reason why you should just care about us. We're human beings, too." Now, I get back to your original question of what am I curious about.
Why am I afraid of you? Do I agree with your orientation? Maybe I don't, but you're still a human being, and particularly as a Christian, I am compelled to love you, and as an American, I am compelled to make sure that you have the rights and privileges that every other American enjoys. So, I'm preaching then, and we're pulling together not only clergy but media personalities, businesspersons 'cause you know need money – we'll talk about that, you need money – and medical personnel, and we organized these affiliates to get the word out.
Have we made a difference? Sure. More and more local service providers have received funds coming out of the government that have been directed toward the fight against AIDS. Whether Democrat or Republican administrations, they have put money into it, whether it's been nationally or internationally. We've seen that there's been a downturn in many instances. The medicines have improved. People are living with it and living longer. Now, we want a cure. One of the things I'm most upset about, however, is the pandemic has moved its epicenter from kind of the white gay male community into the heart of the black community – women of childbearing age and children, teenagers.
I can't seem to get the current administration, though I'm working on it. I have a Black Clergy Act for the Elimination of AIDS piece of legislation introduced by Charles Rangel and Kirsten Gillibrand, our United States senator, that directs resources right into the heart of the community because once again, the discriminatory aspect not only against the gay community but against the black community, the research wasn't even happening in the black community. It was always there, but now we need those resources to go there.
And so I'm distressed and quite upset that the National AIDS Strategy, while it recognizes this, is not really supportive of the Clergy Act because it would really guarantee that those dollars and more of them would go to fight this. We will beat it. We will conquer it just as we did polio and measles and everything else that's hurt us. We will. Syphilis. We'll get it. But we have to focus more and more on where the epicenter is and getting information out. We've got to talk about use of condoms more. We've got to talk about people getting tested. Go get a test! Find out whether you've got it or not. You don't know whether you got it.
When I took my test the first time, they sent a psychologist to see me, or a psychiatrist, just before the test. I said, "I'm not crazy." They said, "We know, Reverend, but just in case the news that you're looking for doesn't come back and you get something else, I think we better go through this first." So, I went out and took the test, and in those days you had to wait a week. And I was so happy they sent the psychologist, because that week was the longest week of my life. It was. But we've made great progress changing people's hearts and minds about this disease, showing them the devastation.
Elizabeth Taylor, she's gone now, God rest her soul, but early on -- deeply involved. And when you look around and see the men and women – I mean, I could tell you stories about people I've buried. So. Why? Curiosity. I think about this all the time. Why do you look askance at me just because of the color of my skin or because of my sexual orientation or because I may be HIV positive? We had to teach people to hug folk because you didn't get it from just hugging people.
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