Losing My Religion
How Many Times Can You Condemn Me to Hell?
by Hank Trout

I just watched the “1980s: Underground” episode of the FX Network’s series Pride. There are innumerable events and moments in that episode that I could write about. But along with the deeply affecting events and monologues in the episode, one event actually brightened my day considerably.

One Sunday in December 1989, Pride showed, members of ACT UP protested outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They were there in response, partially, to Cardinal John O’Connor’s having lobbied hard against AIDS education and condom distribution. Some ACT UP members entered the Cathedral and quietly lay down in the middle aisle between the pews. After a while, Michael Petrelis, an especially confrontational activist, even by ACT UP standards, stood up on one of the pews and began yelling at Cardinal O’Connor, Stop killing us! Stop killing us!

At that point, I literally leapt out of my chair, loudly clapping and cheering for him! You’ll forgive me, I hope, that the subsequent shot of Cardinal O’Connor slumped over and rubbing his temples in exasperation kept me clapping and cheering even longer.

You see, I lost my religion at the age of nine. My parents were “Easter Christians,” self-proclaimed devout Methodists who attended church only on Easter Sunday but forced my older sister and me to attend the Riverside Methodist Church every Sunday morning and to stay for Sunday Bible School in the church basement. One Sunday in 1962, the Bible School volunteer teacher, some nondescript hatted church lady, taught us the story of “Jonah and the Whale.” Now, at the time, Methodist doctrine held that every single word in the Bible is unquestionably literal truth, no exceptions. I had gone along with everything they told me before then, but “Jonah and the Whale” knocked me sideways. What?! No! That can’t be true! Even at nine I knew for certain that it was impossible for a man in an open boat to live inside the stomach of a whale for three days and nights, and then emerge intact, alive, and smelling like my aunt’s Evening in Paris cologne. If nothing else, it insulted my budding intelligence. So I voiced my skepticism.

The church lady teacher nearly burst into flames as she scolded me and repeatedly told me that I was going to burn in hell for all eternity unless I believed “Jonah and the Whale” to be absolute, literal truth.

I chose burning. I figured that story was bogus, too. Suddenly, all of it was.

I walked out of Bible School, and I’ve not gone to a Christian service nor believed in any deity since.

So when our community was suffering and dying in the 1980s, and other delusional religious “leaders” condemned me, my friends, my community, all of us to hell because of a virus, I just remembered sitting in Bible School, remembered how I felt betrayed and lied to for years, and remembered why I had kicked religion out of my life decades ago. I remembered that those religionists who would condemn us to hell—again!—are full of baloney. Those religious “leaders” were, as Michael said, killing us. I was outraged. I had learned not to be afraid of them. I learned to laugh at them.

I know there are readers out there, gay and straight, who are devoutly religious and who might be appalled by my (some have said) rabid atheism. To them I say, I’m not here to recruit you. I know you take comfort in your belief. I simply do not share it.

In fact, I treasure my atheism. It has given me a shield against those who shun or condemn us because someone convinced them that their chosen deity commanded them to do so. The longer I’ve been the object of their manufactured outrage, the easier it has become for me to ignore them, to dismiss them. Their condemnation means absolutely zero to me. They might as well wish spontaneous combustion on me. (They really need to work on their threats.)

But when they start to pass laws that harm us based on who we are or our serostatus (e.g., thirty-seven states still have laws that criminalize HIV, vastly out of line with current accepted scientific, medical fact), I hone that shield into a sword. Or to be more precise, in my case these days, a pen, or a keyboard.

I miss those days of action in the streets, those days of righteous anger in the face of blatant religious bigotry, and I wish we had taken to the streets more often in the last couple decades. But at least I get to say, now, a belated “Hurray, Michael Petrelis!”

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.