With “Coming Clean: Confessions of an HIV+ Dad,” Jim Lunsford explores his life and his HIV status, to develop an open relationship with his son – and himself.
As a writer, Jim Lunsford is always looking for inspiration. And as a new father, he finds it every day. In fact, he’s already mulling an idea for a children’s book, and it’s one with a moral that any parent can agree upon: honesty is the best policy.
Even if that means revealing the truth about Kris Kringle.
“I think it might be called The Truth About Santa Claus,” says Jim of the kid’s book he may soon write. It's not intended to be a harsh, childhood-souring exposé. To Lunsford, emotional honesty and openness are paramount. The truth won’t just set you free: It will become the greatest gift of all.
“There’s an idea that once you tell a child the truth about Santa Claus, you’re taking something away from them,” says Jim. “I feel the opposite. A happy truth expands a child’s world. It doesn’t close it off. The more I make friends with honesty and truth myself, the more empowerment I find. And that’s something I want my child to have.”
And that’s also why Jim launched “Coming Clean: Confessions of an HIV+ Dad,” a blog that offers “a resolution to myself and reflections for my son.” Since his first post in December 2012, Jim has slowly traced two parallel journeys. One is the chronology of his own development as a man, a gay man, and an HIV-positive gay man: from losing his virginity (to a girl) to finding his truer sense of sexuality, and from growing up as a conflicted Catholic in the San Fernando valley to coming of age as a struggling actor in Los Angeles.
The other journey is his experience as a father to his son, who turns 3 years old in October, conceived through intrauterine insemination (IUI); Jim and his partner co-parent with the tot’s two mommies, longtime friends whose life-changing phone call to Jim (“You’d make the perfect father…”) is one of the first posts on the blog.
A year and a half later, Jim, who updates about twice per month, has only now reached the moment where he and the mommies are told that an insemination has been successful. Because unlike other fatherhood blogs that focus on pithy observations and rapid-fire play-by-play of every tender “first,” “Coming Clean” takes its time — leaping between “now” and “then” as it slowly unravels Jim’s biography and serves as a vehicle for disclosure and self-discovery. Coupled with Jim’s dry humor and wistful prose – largely hopeful but with honest glimpses of darkness and self-doubt – it reads more like a serialized novel than a typical blog.
“As a writer, I need to express myself,” says Jim of his impetus for launching the blog. “Yet I found myself so consumed with the prospect, and then the project, of being a father; my writing time is limited. And this allows me to combine those two things. I can explore the [parent-child] relationship in a way that is creative.”
And though his son may be a ways off from reading it himself, Jim also wanted to create an open window into his private world – opening up an opportunity for father-son dialogue and emotional honesty. That is, in part, a response to the very different dynamic that Jim experienced growing up. He says his family has been supportive of him every step of the way: “I’m so fortunate in that way.” Yet his family was also “well-practiced at non-communication,” Jim chuckles. “We just didn’t talk about a lot of stuff.”
“Coming Clean,” which touches on everything from his first kiss with a boy to the darkest moments of his post HIV diagnosis, will one day serve as a clear signal to his son: I’m an open book, and you can be too. “I’ve been so supported by my family. In times when I haven’t been fully forthcoming, it was my own fear that held me back. For my son, this project will clearly point out the door to communication. He’ll never have to question whether he has love or support available to him.
It will also serve as a way for Jim’s son, and other gay dads, to learn more about the diagnosis he received nearly 30 years ago: How the experience shaped him, his experiences and his outlook. “As someone who has been HIV positive for more of my life than not, I don’t take for granted that I will be here when my son is 5, 10, or 15 years old,” says Jim. “It’s important to me that I leave him with some kind of explanation of why I chose to bring him into the world – a world that I sometimes have a dark point of view about.”
Going through the insemination process as an HIV positive man isn’t easy – in large part, says Jim, because there’s a “lack of information” available. (For instance, long term research on how medications may affect sperm or genetics.) And HIV-positive parents do continue to face unique stigmas. But Jim says he’ll tackle the topic with his son with the same candor and transparency as all the issues he covers on “Coming Clean.” “I’ll probably explain it to him the first time my son first asks me, ‘Why are you taking those pills?’” says Jim. “His understanding will grow as he gains the ability to comprehend the complexities. But I’m blessed to be who and where I am right now, and I don’t think of my HIV status as some black mark. So I won’t represent it to my son in that way.”
And writing his blog has only helped Jim further eradicate any self-stigmatization that remained. “For many years, I thought that being gay was the barrier in my life that was going to prevent me from accomplishing so many things. Then along came HIV, and that fortified the thought even more.”
“This has given me an opportunity to turn down a new road, taking away stigma that I’ve carried for so long. I’m HIV-positive heading toward HIV-Proud. And I think if nothing else comes from this project, that’s quite a transformative gift.”
And though real life isn’t always a fairy tale, that gift is only received by honestly tackling the truth.