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Activist for those living with HIV depends on ‘faith moving forward’

Murray Penner speaks to a Bethel psychology class.

Murray Penner came back to his alma mater to speak in convo Oct. 26 about being on the front lines of public policy efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and hepatitis in the United States and other parts of the world.

Penner, of Washington, D.C., believes he can see an end to HIV, with which he has lived himself for more than 30 years.

Penner grew up familiar with Bethel – as part of Bethel College Mennonite Church, and attending many Bethel sporting events. His father, Larry Penner, was on Bethel’s first-ever championship men’s basketball team in 1956.

But when it was time for college, Penner headed off to Kansas State University. It didn’t really take too long, he says, for him to realize the large university setting wasn’t the place for him. He transferred to Bethel as a sophomore, switched from botany to social work, and graduated in 1984.

During his Bethel years, he began to come to terms with his identity as a gay man, he says. “I was raised in a very strong family, faith and church environment. I often felt – and still sometimes feel – the expectation to be and live a certain way.

“I began the coming-out process as a Bethel student, but I didn’t really finish it until I was in my 30s. Living in a small town [like Newton], or working for the YMCA [which he did for about nine years following graduation], I didn’t feel free to be all the way ‘out.’”

A watershed moment in Penner’s life came in 1986, when he was living in Oklahoma City and working for the YMCA. He had what he believed to be a routine medical exam, including blood work, for a life insurance policy application.

When he received an envelope from the company marked “CONFIDENTIAL” in large, red letters, he opened it with confusion and trepidation, to be informed he had tested positive for HIV.

Because of the double stigma then of being a gay man, with a barely understood disease, it took Penner several years to finally seek medical help.

The fact that, 32 years later, he’s still alive and in relatively good health proves he was lucky – but, he says, he is also well aware of his privilege. “I have been blessed all my life with access to medical care,” he says.

He knows that far too many in the populations at highest risk for HIV have not been. “HIV tends to [disproportionately] affect people who are already marginalized from social justice: those disenfranchised from health care, racial [groups], the incarcerated, people who use drugs.”

Penner also believes he’s alive today because he refused to follow the treatment protocol for one of the only two drugs then available to treat HIV, AZT. “It was highly toxic,” he says, “and it made people terribly sick.”

He took less of it, less frequently, than recommended. Then, in 1994, he was part of a clinical trial for protease inhibitors, the first class of drugs to actually be effective against HIV.

He was able to find a bridge, he says, from the early days to the time when treatment began to show hope for both length and quality of life with HIV.

Meanwhile, he left YMCA administration for a job that met his growing passion to serve those living with HIV, in public health in Tarrant County, Texas (Fort Worth).

In 2001, the family (Penner and his then-partner had adopted two children, son Chance and daughter Bailey) moved to Washington, D.C., where Penner took his first position with NASTAD, a collective of state and local (and eventually, overseas) health department services for those with HIV and hepatitis.

Penner became NASTAD’s executive director in 2013. He signed on for a second five-year term earlier in 2018, but has very recently decided to transition out of the position.

It has partly to do with self-care. Although treatment for HIV has advanced enormously since the 1980s, and Penner has been a beneficiary, the stress of both the disease and its antidotes can take a toll on health in other ways.

Penner also knows his devotion to NASTAD’s vision of eradicating HIV and hepatitis worldwide is both motivational and intensely stressful, especially in the current divided political climate.

“My passion and dedication to this work made the decision to leave very hard. But I’m no good to anyone else if I’m not good to myself.”

Those huge forward strides in HIV treatment and prevention are what make Penner say eradication of HIV is possible.

It won’t come easily or quickly, “but the science is there. We have the tools [through treatment and prevention protocols]. That’s why it’s so important to achieve health equity, to get everyone into treatment, to end transmission, to end the stigma.”

He continues, “My social work education at Bethel made me understand that you need to meet people where they are. I learned to be patient, to be open to others, and to build communities of people that are accepting of each other’s differences. [Bethel made me know] I wanted to make a difference in the world.”

Penner says he doesn’t know what will come next, but “I have always kept my faith moving forward, and I have landed where I needed to be. My faith in God, my parents, my sister, my children, my friends, my Bethel experience – all helped me keep going forward. I have been blessed, and I am grateful.

“I believe the end of the HIV epidemic is in sight, and I will have a role in that, whether in my career or as a volunteer.

“We all have a role to play. Educate yourself, talk with others to pass on what you learn, and have compassion.”

Bethel College is the only Kansas private college listed in the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, both for 2018-19. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu. -Melanie Zuercher

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.