More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic hit, Rev. Irene Monroe is exhausted. A Black pastor in Boston, she has been conducting daily Zoom funerals — often two a day — since last March.
Her funerals maintain pastoral care, respect and dignity for loved ones lost to COVID-19, yet there’s still an “incompleteness” about the virtual ceremonies, she says.
Monroe is learning firsthand the names behind the COVID-19 data showing communities of color are the country's hardest hit. And she says it all feels sickeningly familiar to when she started her career during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Back then, she conducted funerals for those otherwise marginalized by mainstream Black churches — at that time it was members of the LGBTQ community.
Now once again, she's ministering to people she calls the "unchurched," those who are made to feel somewhat uncomfortable in mainstream churches. Many of them are transgender women and youth, as well as those suffering from addiction and experiencing homelessness.
When the AIDS epidemic started to receive widespread recognition, it was often thought that white gay men were mainly impacted. Because of health disparities in the U.S., Monroe says “Black LGBT folks were just not in the data.”
But Monroe says she and others providing pastoral care and conducting funerals in the community could clearly see that the AIDS epidemic extended to gay Black men and was also killing a disproportionate number of Black women.
Among the reasons was the "down-low," which referred to Black married men who never revealed to their wives that they were also having gay relationships, and unknowingly spreading the disease to their wives. The down-low in part came from the profound stigma and shame associated with gay culture in the Black community, stemming all the way back to times of enslavement where Black men felt emasculated at the hands of enslavers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says HIV, which causes AIDS, affects Black heterosexual women more than women of any other race or ethnicity in the U.S.
“We knew of sisters that were dying of the AIDS epidemic and [it] had nothing to do with blood transfusion,” Monroe says.
Societal shame around AIDS, specifically in the Black community, caused people to hide their dying relatives away from the public eye, she says, or use code words to describe someone’s death.
“I remember one of the elders of my church back then and she said, ‘oh, my son died of consumption,’ ” Monroe says, “and I'm saying, what is consumption?”
This haunts Monroe as she witnesses parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic, since many traditional Black churches aren’t open to funeralizing LGBTQ parishioners.
And the added hardship of some families unable to recover loved ones’ bodies during the course of the pandemic hasn’t helped either, she says. Bodies were being stored wherever there was space, and oftentimes overflowing hospitals would use body bags and makeshift mobile morgues.
“I thought I was prepared for that because I have done funerals for 9/11, where you had missing bodies. I've done funerals that the family has not gathered,” she says. “It really troubles me that just as there was a stigma for AIDS in certain communities, Black and immigrant communities, it's a stigma having this pandemic infect their lives.”
After Black women, the second largest group of Black Americans dying from COVID-19 is trans youth and adults, she says. When the pandemic subsides and the data comes out, she believes Black trans youth and adults — specifically runaways — will have fared worse during the pandemic than any subgroup within the Black community.
Young trans people who've run away from their homes often create “a kind of community similar as folks during the AIDS epidemic,” Monroe says, meaning their virtual funerals during the pandemic consist of only a small group of friends with no family members present.
“A lot of the young kids that I have done, I'm certain that their parents don't know that maybe their child has transitioned,” she says.
Black women, in general, are severely impacted by health disparities and environmental racism, leading to high rates of death from the coronavirus, she says. In addition, Black women are disproportionately frontline workers.
Major health care discrepancies and othering the Black community add to the problem, she says. For example, false narratives such as Black people can tolerate pain at a higher level have lead some medical professionals to assume Black people asking for painkillers means “we just simply want to get high,” she says.
Even being a Black doctor doesn’t shield you from discrimination, she says, something she knows firsthand being married to an emergency room physician.
“There's no hierarchy if you are a physician or if you're educated,” she says, “if you have health care [or] if you live in the right zip code.”
This segment aired on April 6, 2021.