Even though for most people Valentine's Day is a night for great romance, almost from the time I came out at 40, for me it has been bittersweet. Although for 24 years I have shared many romantic Valentine's Days with Doug, the love of my life to whom I am now legally married, on Valentine's Day two of my best friends died tragically because they were gay. There is a strange irony that loving someone of the same sex could bring both such joy and such pain.
I met Ken in a support group for gay fathers. The group was instrumental in resolving many of the conflicts I had about my hidden homosexual desires. Everyone there had come out to their wives and they were seeking to find ways to deal with the loss of losing their families. These men were my entire circle of friends when I first came out.
Ken was my mentor in how to be gay while at the same time remaining a good father. His daughter, Jennifer, lived with him, and I hoped my own daughters could learn from her how to deal with having a gay father.
Ken had just come out of a long term relationship. Not wanting to be alone on Valentines Day, 1988, and not having connected with anyone at the gay bar, Ken went to a cruising area of Des Moines and picked up two young men and took them to his apartment. These two men, Gary Titus and "Billy" Green, stabbed Ken to death. Jennifer, asleep in the next room when her father was murdered, discovered his body in the morning. Titus later testified, "All gay people should be dead." His wish took a strange twist when his brother sent a letter to him in jail telling him he was gay; his brother later died of AIDS.
Jim was the first psychiatric patient I treated who had HIV. It was in the late 1980s and little was known about HIV. I remember being anxious about shaking his hand as he left my office. Jim was a cautious man -- except once. He knew precisely the moment he'd been infected; one night his sexual passion over-powered his rational thought. Jim was very closeted, and he came to see me because and he now faced having not only to tell his family that he was gay but also that he was going to die from AIDS.
Later, as my group of gay acquaintances expanded, Jim and I met again and became good friends. As he became sicker, he asked me to be his medical decision maker in the event he was unable to make his own decisions. I accepted, but didn't realize how difficult it would become.
Jim died on Valentine's Day, 1993. The day, too, was bittersweet. We'd had several inches of new snow; the sun was shining brightly in a sparkling blue sky, but it was bitterly cold. As he lay unconscious in his antique bed, covered with a down duvet and hand-made quilts, Jim's home was filled with people who loved him. The opera music he cherished filled the room where he lay. He had a high fever, was very dehydrated and his breathing was increasingly labored. As he neared death, I was torn between calling for IV's and antibiotics, or allowing him to die with the dignity he'd requested. He died precisely at noon, exactly the way he would have wanted.
How easily either Ken's death or Jim's could have been mine. I came out when I was 40, beginning the process in the early 1980s. As a newly freed man I was eager to experience every gay experience I'd missed earlier in my life. My sexual passions ran high and clouded my ability to make rational choices. If I had come out earlier in my life, I am quite certain I would have been infected with the deadly HIV.
But sweetness remains in my Valentine's Days, too. At about the time of Ken's death I met Doug, and we have been together ever since. I fell in love with him the night we met and he said, "I'm monogamous. Very monogamous." It was obvious that we shared many of the same values. Doug and I have had our challenges, of course, but those shared values have allowed us to work through them. I could never have imagined when I came out that Iowa's Supreme Court would make a unanimous decision in 2010 that would allow us to be married.
I loved my wife as much as I possibly could; I regret that it was not enough for me to be there day after day for my children. But first with Ken, then with Jim and our other friends, and finally with Doug, I discovered why people love Valentine's Day. I had found dimensions of loving others in ways I had never known. The joys of that love have made it possible to endure the risks of loving another.
Follow Loren A. Olson, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LorenAOlsonMD