“Faith is a core component of who I am and Christianity underpins my identity. People are curious about it [but] I don’t try and ram it down anyone’s throat. I think a lot of gay men are missing out on a potentially really important aspect of their lives by not considering faith [but] I have a lot of empathy towards [them]. The Church of England and the Catholic Church have been responsible for causing a lot of pain, behaving outrageously when it comes to LGBT issues. But, within these bodies, there is a spectrum of opinions when it comes to LGBT identity”. Philip Baldwin is an activist and writer who lives in London.
Although a self-described “atheist or agnostic” growing up, attending a school in which religion was more of a formality, Philip’s journey to faith flowed from the confluence of a couple of circumstances. With a highly pressurised job in financial services in his twenties, he was “living the dream” or so he projected. In reality, behind this facade, Philip was enduring “a massive amount of emotional turmoil” – coming to terms with a HIV diagnosis at twenty-four years old.
On what is a fairly routine activity for many, and what should have been for Philip, he went to his clinic during a break from work. Twenty minutes after an on-the-spot blood test, he was told he was HIV positive. “I returned to my apartment; I laid on the sofa, curled into a foetal position and cried. Half an hour later I realised I was expected back in the office but I felt I couldn’t tell any of my colleagues”, he says. An out and proud gay man at work, he regressed, returning against his will to the closet; forced to hide, once again, a key part of his identity.
Although Philip began medication quite soon after a depleted CD4 count, returning his physical health to normal, he entered a psychological and emotional decline, “[coming] close to an existential crisis […] feeling quite depressed, I was unhappy about a lot of things in my life once I started to reflect”.
Around this same time, Philip found himself visiting some of the churches near his office. A graduate of history of art and architecture, he initially explored these sacred spaces to appreciate their baroque features while temporarily removing himself from the mania of his office job, to savour a moment of peace. After some months, a realisation, “there was more to this than just beautiful columns, architraves and cornices [but] something really substantial”. It was the combination of two factors, “the uncertainty in my life around my HIV diagnosis and my intuitive discovery of religion through the beauty of the architecture of these buildings” that exposed Philip to the prospect of faith.
Emboldened to embrace his HIV status, he told his employer and found support at work, beginning a journey of acceptance of his diagnosis. Today, being positive is, “not something that defines me, but something that has come to massively empower me. Had it not been for my diagnosis, I would still be a lawyer in the City doing bond issuances. My diagnosis really caused me to reflect on who I am, to engage more with charities, activism and writing. My HIV diagnosis acted as this massive catalyst for change”.
The intersection of Philip’s discovery of faith and his HIV diagnosis culminated in a poignant and powerful moment: his confirmation in Southwark Cathedral the day after his thirtieth birthday. Architecturally beautiful, socially inclusive and overseen by a Dean supportive of the LGBT community, Southwark Cathedral also holds the UK’s only HIV and AIDS shrine, allowing Philip to reflect on the stigma the positive community continues to endure.
It is impossible to ignore the role of the Church in perpetuating stigma and ignorance around LGBT identity as a whole. Despite this, Philip maintains that faith communities of inclusion exist and encourages LGBT people, particularly gay men, to approach the idea of religion with an open mind. He accepts the strength of resistance that persists, as revealed to him through his activism: “The Albert Kennedy trust which I work closely with have found that a quarter of young homeless people are LGBT, with really large proportion of those people coming from faith backgrounds. A lot of young LGBT people face rejection from their faith communities on account of being LGBT – nobody should have to choose between their faith and their sexuality”.
Not one to finish on a light note, I ask Philip about chemsex and how he approaches the issue from a position of Christian belief, whose teaching would seem fundamentally incompatible with taking drugs and having multiple partners. His response brings optimism, revealing a perhaps overlooked depth of nuance in thinking. “It’s an important topic and I am very supportive of a lot of the charities who are working in that area at the moment. In terms of prevention, in my activism I emphasise better sex and relationship education, I emphasise PrEP, condoms and starting HIV treatment earlier”, he says.
And on the role of his faith in all of this? “To try and put a Christian slant on that is unhelpful and can almost perpetuate stigma. My goal in life is to have a monogamous, long term relationship. My Christian faith has fed into that. However, I am a thirty-one year old man and [smiling], like straight people of faith, [may] have several partners or, dare I say, multiple partners, before settling down. To try and conflate Christian teaching too closely to that is to get obsessed around sex and getting obsessed around sex and faith is problematic. That’s probably one of the issues that the Church of England has with LGBT people, they’re obsessed with trying to monitor sexual behaviour – we need to move away from that debate”.