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.
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.”
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.”