Religion in the United States has become a distinct and important aspect of American identity. Religious beliefs are woven into almost every aspect of politics, economics, and civil rights. While many people find comfort and guidance in religion, there are many others who struggle to reconcile their sexuality with their religious beliefs. Often times these individuals are met with hate and judgment and are forced to choose between their beliefs and the opportunity to live an authentic life. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, responses from various religious organizations varied depending on their stance on homosexuality and their willingness to help those that were dying at alarming rates.
During the first five to six years of the AIDS epidemic, “moral judgments about high-risk behavior, particularly male same-gender sex, and fears of contagion seemed to dominate the public religious response.” These beliefs were primarily fueled by fear and a misunderstanding of how the virus was transferred from person to person. By using scare tactics, “some highly visible Christian pastors used fear of contagion as a means to isolate people with AIDS and to justify a particular standard of sexual morality.” Studies done during the height of the AIDS epidemic showed that hostility towards members of the LGBT community were primarily driven by conservative religious beliefs during this time.
In Tony Kushner’s Angles in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, Joe Pitt struggles with his sexuality as a gay man and his religious beliefs as a practicing Mormon. Throughout the play it becomes apparent that Joe has struggled with silencing his true identity since he was a young boy and relies on praying to God to help him overcome his sexual desires. Confronted by his wife, Joe explains that it should not matter that he is gay, “so long as [he has] fought, with everything [he has], to kill it.” Through “killing” his true self, Joe has essentially reduced himself to a shell, but in the eyes of God he is still whole, because he has resisted the very thing that his religion finds sinful. Although Joe repeatedly returns to his religion in search of comfort, it is that same religion that causes him to live an unhappy and unfulfilled life.
Joe’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality ultimately leads to the end of his marriage, which almost allows Joe to come out to his friend, Roy, who is secretly dying of AIDS. During their conversation, Joe states that maybe the reason he married his wife in the first place, was because she was, “farthest from the light, from God’s love.” Kushner uses this line to show how deeply ingrained Joe’s religious beliefs are, as Joe married someone he saw as more flawed then him. It was easier to hide behind his wife’s imperfections and sins than admit his own. The fear of failing God is too much for Joe to handle so he prays “for God to crush [him], break [him] up into little pieces and start all over again.”
Towards the end of the play, Joe finally realizes that he is losing the battle between the need to be his true authentic self and maintain his religious beliefs. In his last conversation with his wife, Joe admits that he has tried, “to tighten [his] heart into a knot, a snarl, [he tries] to learn to live dead, just numb, but then [he sees] someone [he wants], and it’s like a nail, like a hot spike right through [his] chest.” It is at this moment that Joe sees no other option than to give up his religious beliefs, as the urge to be himself is too strong. Unfortunately for Joe, he saw no other option for balancing his beliefs with his sexual identity.
Joe’s experiences were likely common for many people within the LGBT community during the AIDS crisis and continues to be an issue of contention to this day. Finally, during the latter 1980s, prominent church leaders recognized the power their organizations held when it came to demanding research and education on the AIDS virus. The AIDS National Interfaith Network was created in 1988 to help LGBT people navigate their beliefs and foster a widespread religious response to the crisis. It was only after the development of the network that many religious organizations issued statements supporting the equal and compassionate care of those suffering from HIV and AIDS.
Joe’s abandonment of his faith in order to live an authentic life should not be the only option for LGBT people. Instead, religious organizations need to recognize that they hold incredible power when it comes to breaking down stigmas against the LGBT community and welcome LGBT members into their congregations. Religious organization need to practice what they preach: love and acceptance.
 Albert R. Jonsen and Jeff Stryker, The Social Impact of AIDS in the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), 130.
 Ibid., 131.
 Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, (New York: Theater Communications Group, Inc., 1993), 40.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 77.
Featured: Keith Haring
ACT-UP protest poster Wikimedia Commons