Change the World

On World AIDS Day, Gay Dads Talk About Being HIV Positive

They didn't think that they could do it.


The barriers were too high, the paths impossible to navigate. But they tried anyway. They are a special group: gay, HIV-positive dads. And these are their stories.

Forming a family as part of a same-sex couple or as as a single gay man is fraught with obstacles to begin with. But this group faces challenges far more daunting than navigating the adoption process, or finding a suitable surrogate, or working with the foster care system. These men are also dealing with a life-changing disease.

In honor of World AIDS Day, we're highlighting the stories of six gay dads who also have dealt with this singular health challenge. (The interviews were done in partnership with TheBody.com, a comprehensive online resource for people living with HIV/AIDS.)

While all of the dads’ stories are different, the focus today is on their similarities. And there are many.

HOPES FOR PARENTHOOD

Nearly all of these men wanted to become parents early in their lives. They simply knew, from very early on, that this was a path they wanted to take. But given the times and circumstances, they didn’t know if that goal was achievable.

“I was actually engaged to a woman when I was around 21,” says Greg Guelda of Louisville, Kentucky. Now 46, he has a 7-year-old daughter named Ruby. “And one of the reasons we were sort of moving forward more quickly with that was because we both wanted kids.

“I've always seen myself as wanting children. So there were years and years in which I didn't think that was going to be possible.”

Justin B. Terry-Smith, a veteran and activist who writes an HIV advice column, strikes much the same note. “I always wanted to be a father – in my head, and in my heart, and in my soul,” he says. “So that's always been there, on the back burner, for me.”

The Maryland resident and his partner adopted a 15-year-old about three years ago.

For Whitney Kyle of Las Vegas, parenthood was an integral part of the future he imagined for himself. He has since nurtured a diverse group of five children.

“I kind of was aware that I was gay from an early age, but I still dreamed of being a father with kids. It was just part of, like, lists of things I wanted in life,” he said.

DEALING WITH THE DIAGNOSIS

For most gay men who become fathers, the process itself is fraught with considerable challenges and drama. But for this group, HIV proved an unexpected complication.

Greg’s diagnosis was intertwined with a challenging journey into fatherhood. He split with his partner shortly before Ruby’s adoption. And shortly after that he learned he had become infected with HIV.

“On a one-month sort of scale, I became single, became a parent, discovered my HIV status, and then celebrated my daughter's first birthday,” Greg says. “I never had the opportunity to process HIV, what HIV would mean for me as a parent.”

Justin’s reaction to the news was unexpected.

“I thought, oh, my gosh; I'm not going to be able to be a father now. And my second and third thoughts were: My parents are going to be very disappointed in me, and I'm going to die,” Justin says.

“If you look at it, that's not really the order a lot of people think of things, when it comes to being diagnosed with HIV. They don't think of fatherhood the first thing.”

Richard "Rick" Nadan of Queens, New York, has four children born via a surrogate. Calista and Elizabeth are 2, while Keith and Savannah are 7. He learned of his status while the oldest children were in utero.

“I basically had found out that my surrogate was 10 days pregnant when I got my diagnosis,” Rick says. “So going into it, or going into the whole process, I was negative.”

After seeking medical advice and ensuring that everyone involved would be safe, he and his surrogate moved ahead. The children were born healthy, and Rick eventually decided to go through the process again.

DISEASE IN TRANSITION

Of course, the meaning of an HIV/AIDS diagnosis has changed radically over the past two decades. What was once considered an inevitable death sentence has become a chronic manageable disease. The fathers we talked with fell on both sides of that divide.

Although Steven Brandt was diagnosed 10 years ago  after that switch in understanding the disease  he still found the news difficult to take.

“I took it really hard. I knew there was medicine and all this to, you know, live a longer life. And I really didn't care to hear anyone's theories on that,” he says. “I just kind of wanted once again to be left alone, crawl into a shell, with the highest hopes that I would just basically kick the bucket.”

Whitney was diagnosed with HIV nearly 20 years ago, and with AIDS some 13 years ago. That news – along with the health of his partner  seemed to derail any hope of starting a family.

“My partner and I were looking into adopting a girl from China. But then, when he became ill, that kind of was postponed. We didn't know which direction it was going to go. And his health just went down,” Whitney says. “By the time that I was diagnosed myself, with full-blown AIDS, I kind of figured it was just not going to happen.”

For Steven and Rick, the disease looked like an endpoint for their hopes of fatherhood. But there would be much more in store for both of them.

BECOMING DAD

They had to keep living. Despite their HIV/AIDS diagnosis, all of these men we talked to knew that they had to push forward, however they could. And that meant digging into parenthood with unparalleled fortitude.

In Steven’s case, that happened when his best friend asked him to have a child with her. It was a big step, especially for someone who was HIV positive.

“I did have the fear that, even being undetectable, when my best friend and I decided to have a kid, that the virus could spread to her, or spread to her and then be passed on to our child,” he says. “For some reason, we went ahead and risked everything. And everything turned out perfect.” Their son, Jerryd, is now 6 years old. Steven, 34, says that everything is different now.

“He changed my life a lot. He got me out of the party scene. I grew up pretty fast, having him. I was stuck in a funk. I was just wanting to, I guess you could say, be forever young and party. And when my friend came around it just really hit me that that really wasn't the life I needed to be living anymore.”

Greg, who learned of his diagnosis shortly after bringing his daughter home, was fortunate enough to be able to take time away from work. Successful businesses meant he could spend three years focusing on his daughter. He seemed to find a refuge in parenting.

“It took me years, to be honest with you,” he says. “It took me years before I would even let my daughter – won't say out of my sight; that sounds so controlling  but she didn't go to anyone else's house. She didn't go with a babysitter. I took care of everything all the time.”

Paul Costantino, who lives north of Boston, had a different experience than many we talked to. He and his wife had two sons and were married for more than a decade. But in the early 1980s, he knew that the time had come to change.

“Consciously or otherwise, I chose to get married, and meant it to be forever. But I had my two kids and after 12 years of marriage, I had to deal with my personal issues of realizing I was gay, and coming out,” he says.

He remained a key part of his children’s lives, as did his partner. “We vacationed with my sons, and traveled with them. And they stayed with us, growing up,” Paul says.

As for Rick, he decided that having two children wasn’t enough. He went through the surrogacy process again. This time, though, his HIV-status didn’t come as a surprise. Everyone knew upfront, and things went off without a hitch.

“The second surrogate, she did some of her own research and, when she spoke with me and the surrogacy agent, was fine with it and said, ‘Let's go ahead and do it,’” Rick says.

WHAT TO DISCLOSE?

All parents have to decide how much of their lives as adults they should share with their children. For dads dealing with HIV/AIDS, the question is especially pressing.

Justin, the advice columnist (and Mr. Maryland Leather 2010, if you must know), has an open approach with his son.

“So now that he's 17, he's very well informed,” Justin says. “He actually reads my advice columns. And he says, ‘Wow, Dad. That was pretty good.’ And I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Now that I read your advice column, I think I'm the expert now.’”

For Paul, disclosing meant tackling an ever bigger and more difficult subject: the failing health of his longtime partner, and a man who was close to his children.

“We were together for 13 years. He died in '93 of AIDS complications. And in 1992, he was getting real sick, and I knew I would have to talk to my kids,” Paul says. “I had already talked to them about being gay. That was something I did with a lot of pride, and felt very good about. But talking with my kids about being HIV-positive was probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to do.”

Rick’s children are still young, so they don’t yet know the specifics of his diagnosis. But his treatments have become part of the family’s everyday routine.

“They just know that I take my medicine every day,” Rick says. “But when Grandpa and Grandma were around, they saw them take medicine every day. They don't associate it with anything in particular. My son has ADHD so he takes his Ritalin every morning before school. So for them it's just like, okay; this is part of our morning or evening routine.”

Like Justin, Whitney has been very open about his positive status.

“For one thing, I'm not 65, and I'm on disability. So, pretty much every kid that's come into the house, I've informed,” he says. “And I also had a rule that I no longer enforce, but for a kid to come spend time at my house, I had to meet their parents first. So it's been out in the open all the way through.”

MOVING AHEAD

And the journey continues. These men's families continue to grow, to thrive, and to evolve.

Greg finds motivation and strength in his relationship with his daughter.

“Being a parent is not only the most important thing in my life; being a parent saved my life,” he says. “There are times when being a parent is really the motivator for getting things together and taking care of myself.”

While Justin says he and his partner are probably not going to adopt another teenager, surrogacy is a possibility in the future.

Whitney is still looking after three of his five children, emphasizing their education above all. “If they're going to stay here, they're going to go to school,” he says.

Rick is busy with his four kids. Steven splits time with his son with his best friend.

So we close with Paul, who has been a parent for longest, and seen the landscape change the most  both for those with HIV/AIDS and gay men who want to become parents. He’s also worked as an AIDS awareness educator for 20 years.

“As my sons have grown up and had families of their own I've been active in babysitting for my grandchildren. And I just recently came out to my granddaughter, who is 13 years old,” Paul says.

If someone has a positive diagnosis, he says, it shouldn’t deter him from parenthood.

“We know that HIV-positive people can live a very long, healthy, normal life. But you have to be vigilant in taking your medications and keeping up with doctor's appointments,” Paul says. “But if you have the desire to, and want to be a parent, there's no reason why you can't.”

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Change the World

4 Tips for Using Instagram to Connect with Gay Dads Offline

We asked gay dads who have successfully met up with other LGBTQ families offline for some of their tips

Last week, we ran a story about several gay dads who did the unthinkable: meet other gay dads IRL after connecting on Instagram! We get MANY questions from gay dads wondering how they can meet up with others in their area, so we decided to dig a bit deeper this week to get their advice. What can gay dads do to meet others off the 'gram?

1. Be kind — share others' excitement in parenting!


From @twinlifedads Ben and Andy:

"Be kind. That is absolutely it. Be kind to each other and don't be afraid to reach out. Respond to each other when you can. Share in excitement for each other. There is no reason to bring someone else down who might be excited about how they are parenting."

2. Drop a couple comments and likes before reaching out!

From @brisvegasdad Tim and Nic:

"I think drop comments now and then on their posts and instastories and see where things land. Chances are, if you're commenting on a post and it is a heartfelt response, they'll click through to your account, look at your photos and connect with you. And that's when the magic happens - you can introduce yourself, talk about your lives and how things are being a parent... and after a while, if you're in the same neighbourhood, you meet up and grow your friendship organically. That being said, I'm obsessed with Bobby Berk from Queer Eye and his husband Dewey Do - if they ever had kids, I'd probably be completely unsubtle and leave strange awkward comments on their instaposts saying, 'GAY DADS MEET UPSSSSS'."

3. Go in with no expectations

From @stevecsmith Steve and Ben:

"I always try to reach out without any expectations – mostly just to provide a positive comment. I like to leave it up to the other parents to comment or message back before suggesting meeting up or a playdate. Every family is different, so how each person is going to respond is different too."

4. Keep trying!

From @theconways13 Ricky and Jeff:

"Reach out to other families, start a light friendly conversation. Get to know each other and let conversations happen organically. If they lead to a play date great! Our first experience in meeting another lgbt family (not through ig/gwk) was very awkward cause there wasn't a whole lot of conversation happening before hand. The conversations leading up to the play date will help make the first play date with the family go a lot smoother and fun. Don't be afraid of not connecting with the other families. If it isn't successful the first time, continue reaching out to to other families- don't let it deter you from reaching out to others."

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How Gay Dads Are Using Instagram to Connect

Meet the gay dads from around the world who are using our Gays With Kids Instagram account to connect with other gay dad families!

It can be easy to dismiss Instagram as nothing more than a place for us to pretend our lives our perfect — smiling families, exotic vacations, maybe a FaceTuned pic or two — but for gay dads, it's more than that. Sure, we share our perfect family pics, too. But for LGBTQ families, who still face discrimination all across the country and world, sharing a picture of two gay dads, smiling happily and proudly with their kids, is also a political act. And it provides us an opportunity to lift up and support one another, wherever our families are, in cities and towns big and small.

And we're proud to provide an avenue for these families to meet and connect via our Instagram page (which just reached over 100,000 followers!!)

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Last week, an unanimous four-judge panel, part of the New York Appellate Division in Brooklyn, New York, revived a gay dad's petition to adopt his son born via surrogacy. The dad, identified as "Joseph P." in court documents, had earlier been denied his petition to adopt by a Queens County Family Court Judge, John M. Hunt. The Queens judge denied the petition because compensated surrogacy contracts are illegal in New York. However, the child born to Joseph was born via "compassionate surrogacy," meaning his gestational surrogate was not compensated.

The Appellate court's decision, written by Justice Alan D. Scheinkmanm called Hunt's decision "clearly erroneous," and held that a new Family Court judge should re-hear the case.

Judge Hunt's decision is all the more confusing since Joseph had actually already become a father via surrogacy in New York—three times over. In each instance, he used donor eggs and a friend serving, voluntarily, as the gestational surrogate. He had his first child in 2012, and then twins the following year. In all three instances, a Family Court judge granted Joseph's adoption petition, given that each child was conceived via "compassionate surrogacy," meaning no money changes hands in the course of a surrogacy journey between carrier an intended parent. This type of surrogacy arrangement is not illegal under to New York law. The social worker in Joseph's latest attempt to adopt, Gay City News noted, also gave him a favorable review, calling him "a mature, stable, and caring person who intentionally created a family of himself, the twins, and John."

Gay City News notes: "Justice Scheinkman provided a careful description of the laws governing surrogacy in New York. The Legislature provided that surrogacy contracts are unenforceable and treated as void. However, the only surrogacy contracts actually outlawed are those where the surrogate is compensated. It was clear to the Appellate Division that the Legislature did not mean to outlaw voluntary surrogacy arrangements, merely to make them unenforceable in the courts. Those who enter into a compensated surrogacy agreement face a small monetary fine and people who act as brokers to arrange such agreements are liable for a larger penalty. There is no penalty for voluntary, uncompensated surrogacy arrangements."

Read the full article here.

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The Utah Supreme Court found in favor of a gay couple attempting to enter into a surrogacy contract.

DRAKE BUSATH/ UTCOURTS.GOV

Earlier this month, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that a same-sex couples can't be excluded from entering into enforceable surrogacy contracts, and sent a case concerning a gay male couple back to trial court to approve their petition for a surrogacy arrangement.

As reported in Gay City News, the case concerns Utah's 2005 law on surrogacy, which was enacted prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state. As a result, the content of the law is gendered, saying that surrogacy contracts should only be enforceable if the "intended mother" is unable to bear a child. When a gay couple approached District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox to enter into a surrogacy arrangement, he denied them, arguing that the state's law only concerned opposite sex couples.

"This opinion is an important contribution to the growing body of cases adopting a broad construction of the precedent created by Obergefell v. Hodges and the Supreme Court's subsequent decision in Pavan v. Smith," according to GCN. "It's also worth noting that same-sex couples in Utah now enjoy a right denied them here in New York, where compensated gestational surrogacy contracts remain illegal for all couples."

Read the full article here.

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Fatherhood, the gay way

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