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Address for World Aids Day Service, St Paulís Cathedral, 25 Nov. 2002  

When I was asked to do this, I agreed, and then immediately wondered why.

Although something spiritual tugs at me, I'm not a Christian, haven't been one since I was 15, and distrust any religion except the most private, the moment when we're alone before God, or nature, or whatever is infinitely bigger than us.

And I've only ever been to one candlelight memorial before, back in the bad old days when Aids was winning, with Paul, my lover of that time, crying in Trafalgar Square in 1988. He died a year later at 29 and I think we both knew we were crying for him and a life lost too young.

Since then, I've not wanted to come to ceremonies of remembrance like this. I am a survivor. I don't mourn, I organise. I have grieved, but grieve no longer; not for a whole circle of friends lost to Aids, not even for myself, for the opportunities lost to the years I had Aids and was a dead man walking. Now I walk into the second half of my life. I move on.

So why come back? Over this last year I have been puzzling profoundly about the one fact of Aids and HIV infection that makes it different from any other disease. Its shame. The shame that - in one case I read about - made a west African mother sit and starve herself to death in her family compound because she could not live with the stigma of her daughter's diagnosis with HIV.

I have wondered about the shame that made villagers I met when I visited Botswana refuse to talk about an affliction that in some cases half of them, the youngest, most vibrant and most able half, carried.

I have wondered about the shame that at times has made me - publicly positive, educated, well-informed - lie or avoid mentioning my HIV status for fear of the rejection I would see in the eyes of employers, neighbours - and lovers.

The stigma goes beyond any realistic fear of infection, beyond any embarrassment, beyond any sexual morality.

What is it? It is because HIV, of all afflictions, is the disease that is visited on us when we are at our weakest, at our neediest, at our most human, at our least divine.

There are babies who get it by being born and transfusion recipients who get it from a doctor trying to save their life. But most of us get it during the times when we are often the opposite of the person we would like to be, of the person we think we are. At the moments in our lives when we are weak, scared, depressed, angry, reckless, lonely, love-blind, self-destructive, addictive, vengeful, drunk, drugged, out of control.

And if we are HIV negative we can sometimes scapegoat - quite literally, like the Biblical scapegoat - make the positive person bear the burden and memory of the times when we were like that too, but just happened to escape a virus.

People with Aids, in this secularised society, have become its sinners. They are seen not as having HIV because they sinned; they are sinners because they have HIV. We are the world's Bad People. And the world's priests have only too often been in the forefront of spreading that message from their pulpits.

But religion - the old deep religion that tries to tell us what it is to be alive at the times life seems to have no meaning - also has teachings to give and stories to tell that can re-dignify the person with HIV. Jesus praising the wretched publican, not the proud Pharisee. Elijah hearing God, not in the rushing wind or the consuming fire, but in the still small voice. The Bodhisattva of compassion. Allah whose two primary attributes are compassion and mercy. "Without charity, I am nothing".

These parables, these archetypes, give comfort and strength even to those who - like me - have no personal God. In our weakness, they say, we are strong. In our desolation we have dignity. In our illness we embody survival. In our death, we add to life's meaning.

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