Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, 58, is the pastor of Washington’s Inner Light Ministries. The long-time HIV activist says the disease — which will be commemorated Wednesday for World AIDS Day — is still a major issue and young people should take it seriously.
“The term that gets me is ‘manageable disease,’” he says. “When you see people taking 10 or 15 pills a day, when you see people who cannot get up out of bed still happening today, you don’t see the effects today as it was back then. In the early days, you could tell when someone was positive. You could see they were sick, they lost weight. You don’t see that much today but people are still dying today. I’m still in hospitals with people today. I hear people say, ‘Oh, but it doesn’t affect me.’ I’m going, ‘Ahhh.” It is a big deal. Even today you have people who are drug resistant.”
Cheeks, who’s openly gay and HIV-positive, preaches a doctrine of what he calls “radical inclusiveness,” which he says affirms “God’s unconditional acceptance and universal law of love.”
The Washington native grew up Catholic in an abusive home but eventually found respite in martial arts. In 2002 he founded the non-denominational “Inner Light,” a Christian church that he says welcomes anyone. He previously managed the Club House, a formerly popular black nightlife spot that closed in 1990. His own battle with HIV and the staggering toll it took on his friends — he often mentions the 17 funerals he conducted in November 1988 — inspired him to found Us Helping Us, a local HIV charity.
Cheeks has one son, Kwaku or “Q.” He enjoys African drumming and is a licensed massage therapist. He likes relaxing with close friends and a good glass of wine. Cheeks is single and lives in Columbia Heights. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I was never in. The hardest person to tell my mother. After that I did not care.
Who’s your gay hero?
I can’t say I have a hero but I will say I have a lot of respect for many people on the frontline. I will name Billy S. Jones as one — and every LGBT person who dares to live in the truth of who they are.
What is Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
The Club House — great friends, great music and one of the best sound systems ever. You had to be there.
Describe your dream gay wedding.
It keeps changing but it will be a small intimate setting with a couple hundred of my friends.
What non-gay issue are you most passionate about?
Freedom and rights for all regardless of race or gender.
What historical outcome would you change?
None because it would change where we are today. Learn from the past and move forward.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Disco clubs. That era was so much fun.
On what do you insist?
Honesty first always in all ways. With that everything else has a foundation to work from.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
Whatever you truly believe about yourself you will find a way to prove it.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Thank God I Had a Ball and I Would Do it Again!”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Turn the page and move on. There is nothing for me to change. I love me just as I am.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
Some may use the term God or Divine Presence. There is something greater than this and one day everyone will have to face all that they have done or said.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Remember it is not about you. Make sure that you remember those who were before you. Reach back and help the next generation of young leaders behind you without being too critical. And take time to enjoy the journey.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
My son and some good chocolate. But please don’t tell my trainer about the chocolate!
What gay stereotype annoys you most?
That all gay folks want is to do is party and have sex. We are so much more than that but even some of us have bought into that image.
What’s your favorite gay movie?
I have two: “Victor/Victoria” and “Holiday Heart.” Both of them will make you laugh one minute and cry the next.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
“Texting.” I know it’s good for a short message like “on the way” or “be there in a min.” But after that I think I deserve a personal call. I know, I know.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
I was a silver medalist in the first world championship in Tae Kwon Do.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
I think how to handle money like investments. I’m trying to make sure my son learns it to make sure his life is easier.
I have been around the world but I love D.C. because it has a little of everything here. Not too slow or too fast.