In the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was just beginning, the Rev. Charles Straight was a young minister at Fellowship Baptist Church on the South Side trying to persuade his pastor to begin an HIV-prevention ministry at their church.
Straight told the pastor that in order to talk about prevention, he would have to discuss condom use.
“The minister said, ‘I believe in abstinence if you’re not married. But in order for people to believe what I believe, they have to be alive. So we have to keep them alive,’” Straight said. “One of the reasons I love him is because he had that practical way of seeing things.”
Straight, 53, now is the pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in south suburban Dolton. Last week, he gave the invocation at the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Washington. What makes Straight a unique advocate for HIV prevention is that he’s a black minister who’s openly gay and HIV-positive.
He said one of the biggest challenges in combating HIV in the black community — which has been pummeled by the virus — is convincing pastors across the city and the country that they have a responsibility to help fight the disease.
He wants them to view HIV prevention as a social justice imperative, just like fighting poverty and crime and improving schools and health care.
Straight was part of an advisory board that helped shape the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s recently released manual designed to help clergy in discussions about HIV/AIDS. He’s also a board member of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and chairs its group Faith Responds to AIDS.
The group helps church officials who want to create HIV-prevention ministries by educating them about the virus and common forms of transmission — unprotected sex (particularly men having sex with men) and intravenous drug use.
Because black heterosexual women are especially hard hit by HIV, the group also works to empower women to take control of their sex lives.
Straight said that for many blacks, church remains a popular Sunday morning hot spot, which makes the pulpit the ideal place to preach prevention.
“Whatever your theology, I’m not going to try to change your beliefs about what you think the Bible says (about homosexuality),” Straight said. “Or, I’m not trying to change how you may feel about IV drug use. But God’s invitation to the world is to come to him because he loves us, and his command to us is to do as he did.
“And if you believe that, then let’s get on the same page to extend that invitation to everybody and keep them as healthy as possible.”
The stakes are high. Blacks represent less than 14 percent of the U.S. population but made up 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2009, according to theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Chicago, the Department of Public Health reports that in 2011 about 20,400 people were living with HIV. Blacks had an HIV infection rate that was three times greater than the rate for whites.
Straight said that in the 1980s when he was trying to take his church’s HIV-prevention ministry to other congregations, there were closeted gay pastors who were preaching homophobic messages to their congregations.
Straight said HIV thrives in the black community for a number of reasons. Hypocrisy is one of them.
“We have high unemployment and incarceration rates, low graduation rates, low self-esteem, low access to health care and homophobia,” he said. “We don’t engage in any more sex than any other group of people. But we have a perfect brew in our community that allows us to be more susceptible to HIV.”
Straight spent part of his childhood in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing complex. He said his love of church and missionary work began at an early age. It provided direction and exposed him to a world beyond public housing.
But his church also taught him homosexuality was a sin.
“I went through this long period where I asked for God to take this away, and I would pray or be celibate,” Straight said. “Around age 15, I said, ‘God, you’ve got to fix this.’ The entire time I knew I had a relationship with God and that he loved me.”
Straight said he began to read books that had newer ways of interpreting Scriptures dealing with sexuality.
In 1987, two years after he started his first HIV-prevention ministry, he learned he was HIV-positive. He said he was in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man who was infected. Because the virus’s incubation period can be years, Straight said he may have contracted HIV before his own education about the virus began.
Straight has six adopted children, ages 19 to 35, who have grown up with his advocacy. His partner of 16 years died in February. Straight said he is now celibate.
He said he wouldn’t change his HIV status because it has shaped him and his work.
“In the 1980s, our church went from being a typical conservative black church that never addressed sexuality or drug use to one that said, ‘How do we reduce people’s risk?’” Straight said.
“We saw our church open up and become a loving Christian community that helped 22 people die with dignity. Now we as pastors have to help people live — with dignity.”
Dawn Turner Trice