Fatherhood First, Then Coming Out as Gay and HIV Positive
For Paul Constantino, fatherhood came before coming out as gay and before his HIV diagnosis. Paul came out in the early '80s, when HIV did not yet have a name. He has since navigated coming out to his children as a gay man, and coming out to his children as HIV positive. He's even come out as gay to his 13-year-old granddaughter! To find out more about Paul's life, how he stays healthy and what advice he has for potential fathers, read his interview below.
This interview was conducted along with Brian Rosenberg, CEO of Gays With Kids, and Ferdinand van Gameren, executive editor of Gays With Kids. TheBody.com is proud to present this interview as part of a series of interviews with HIV-positive dads done in collaboration with Gays With Kids for World AIDS Day 2014.
Mathew Rodriguez: Paul, had you always wanted to be a father, growing up?
Paul Constantino: Yes, I did. I probably knew I was gay very young. But at the time it didn't seem to go together, to have a family and kids and be gay. And 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.
Mathew Rodriguez: Can you expand on your thoughts at that time about being gay and what it meant for your hopes of becoming a parent? And then why you decided to come out?
Paul Constantino: Well, at the time, being a gay man and having kids did not go together. So I didn't think that was going to be possible at all. I guess that was part of why I got married and had my kids. But then I realized that I couldn't live my life completely the way I was.
I knew that it wouldn't have been fair to my wife at the time, or my children, or myself, to stay married. So I dealt with coming out. This was around 1980. What a time to come out as a gay man, dealing with the AIDS crisis almost immediately -- but being totally unaware, and a novice in many ways.
Mathew Rodriguez: You were first married from when to when?
Paul Constantino: I was married from 1968 to 1982.
Mathew Rodriguez: How old were you in 1982 when you got divorced and came out?
Paul Constantino: I was 35, 36.
Brian Rosenberg: Paul, how old were your kids when you came out?
Paul Constantino: They were 12 and 13 when I finally came out to them.
Brian Rosenberg: And when did you discover you were HIV positive?
Paul Constantino: In 1989, 25 years ago. And my partner and I, 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.
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.
Brian Rosenberg: Especially, I imagine, with a significant other who was very sick at the time.
Paul Constantino: Exactly.
Brian Rosenberg: When you had that conversation with them, was it around your HIV status? Or was it around your boyfriend's status at the time?
Paul Constantino: Both of us. Because both of us were tested. And we found out in 1989 that we were both positive at the same time. So it took a couple of years for us to learn to live with that. And then, in 1992, my partner was getting sick and I felt forced; I had to tell them what was going on.
Mathew Rodriguez: So, you were diagnosed in '89 and then you started to tell them at around '92, when your partner's health had started to fail?
Paul Constantino: Exactly.
Mathew Rodriguez: Do you still talk to your children about living with HIV, and what it means to live with it now?
Paul Constantino: Yes, of course. For the past 20 years, actually, I've been an AIDS awareness educator. I've been speaking publicly in public schools and colleges -- and to whatever audience will listen -- addressing HIV and AIDS and how to make healthy choices and decisions, and about coming out, and being gay.
And I talk to my kids about my work in doing that. They've been very supportive. As my sons have grown up and had families of their own, I've been active in babysitting for my grandchildren. I just recently came out to my granddaughter, who is 13 years old.
I have not talked to my grandchildren about being HIV positive. I think they're a little young for that. And I don't think that's necessary, at this point.
Brian Rosenberg: I can't even imagine what it must have been like for you to tell your sons that you were HIV positive and then, at the same time, they're seeing the reality of what HIV could mean, when your partner passed away. Those must have been some really difficult times for you guys.
Paul Constantino: It certainly was. Yes. And of course my partner was very much a part of my sons' lives. I mean, my partner and I were together for 13 years. We vacationed with my sons, and traveled with them. And they stayed with us, growing up. His death was difficult, but it wasn't their father.
Brian Rosenberg: Did they need validation from you that you were going to be OK?
Paul Constantino: I tried to be very supportive to them, in saying that "Listen, we'll get through this. We're going to do it. We'll face whatever comes our way." And I've just been very blessed to be healthy -- for the most part, anyway -- and to be there for them.
For a number of years, I was probably very protective of them, and didn't tell them too much about what was going on, either. You know, they didn't want to hear a lot of it.
Ferdinand van Gameren: I'm going back in my mind to the early '90s, when you came out to your kids. What did you do in those years to stay healthy? Because there wasn't much out there.
Paul Constantino: That's right. AZT [Retrovir, zidovudine] was the first drug both my partner and I were put on. I had some bad reactions to that. With my doctor, I didn't take the recommended dosages. I couldn't do it. It was making me ill.
But I've been very fortunate that as one medication stopped working for me, another one came along. Of course, I've always asked myself the question: Why did my partner die, and why am I still here?
That's obviously unanswerable at this point. But, as a result, I make the best of every day.
Ferdinand van Gameren: What do you do nowadays?
Paul Constantino: Now, my full-time job is taking care of myself, keeping myself healthy, going to the gym, eating, cooking, shopping, being a grandfather to my three grandchildren. I'm retired. I had a wonderful career as a senior finance manager with Digital Equipment Corporation. Traveled the world.
Ferdinand van Gameren: That's there in New England, yes?
Paul Constantino: Yes. So my job really is just to keep myself healthy right now, and be as active as possible. But I'm also beginning to realize I have limitations.
Ferdinand van Gameren: Are the limitations due to your HIV-positive status, or just getting older?
Paul Constantino: That's a fine line. Hard to say. Obviously, I'm tempted to blame HIV for everything. But I think some of it is I'm being blessed with old age, too.
But my experience of working with young people and being an educator for 20 years, and literally, speaking with hundreds of thousands of kids throughout the Boston area, has been quite rewarding and incredible.
Ferdinand van Gameren: I can imagine.
Brian Rosenberg: What would you say to other HIV-positive men, Paul, who are not yet parents but want to become dads?
Paul Constantino: I think realizing that anything is possible. The medical community has come so far with being able to treat medically, with medicines that are much easier and simpler to take. And as far as being a parent, there's no reason why you can't. 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.
But there's no reason why, if you have the desire to, and want to be a parent; there's no reason why you can't.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.