"Would you blow dry my hair?"
Charley asked this as if it were perfectly normal for one man to blow dry another man's hair.
No, Charley was not my lover, and I was not a hairdresser. Charley was my patient, and he was so weak from AIDS that he could no longer lift the blow dryer. He knew the end was near, but he wanted one more night on the town before he died.
So I picked up the blow dryer, and, while we watched each other in the mirror, I carefully brushed his hair while drying it. It was perhaps the most intimate act I had ever experienced in my 25 years of living.
Of course, Charley was not completely thrilled with my attempt. "It's too poofy," he said. We both laughed and tried to get his hair to flatten out a bit.
The year was 1991. I had graduated from college a few months prior and had taken a job at Nashville CARES, an AIDS nonprofit serving all of middle Tennessee. I went from the carefree life of a closeted fraternity boy to being an openly gay man fighting a war against AIDS where death always won.
But we did have small victories against this horrible plague. Like that night, when my boyfriend Chuck and I, dressed in tuxedos, rented a limo and took Charley to Nashville's most glamorous AIDS fundraiser. We pushed Charley's wheelchair through gallery after gallery, looking at beautiful art and sipping champagne. Charley was in heaven that night.
We buried him a few weeks later.
If you had told me in 1991, when funerals were as much a part of my social life as fraternity parties had been a year earlier, that someday I would be helping men with HIV have babies of their own, I would have laughed in your face.
But that's exactly what I am doing today.
In 1992 I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, and a few years later I joined a start-up company called Growing Generations, which intended to revolutionize the world of having children for gay men. Growing Generations was one of the first companies of its kind, with a mission to provide surrogates and egg donors so that, for the first time, gay men could have biological children of their own (aside from doing it the old-fashioned way, with a wife, which usually didn't work out too well for either party).
At the time, it was hard to believe that less than a decade earlier, my life had been consumed by death. Now, in the late '90s, thanks to the miracle of the AIDS "cocktail," gay men had hope, and I had the opportunity to help them have babies.
The irony of the circle of life was not lost on me.
We started out slowly, but within a few years our business was bustling. Gay men, both singles and couples, were coming to us from all around the world to have babies of their own. We were even starting to see some straight couples seek out our services -- who were we to discriminate against them? And we were proud that we were able to find wonderful surrogates who were willing to work with serodiscordant couples where one partner was HIV-negative and the other was HIV-positive. In these cases we always needed to use the HIV-negative partner's sperm, but at least we were able to help these families have a baby.
Then it happened. I was meeting with an incredibly nice gay couple from Los Angeles who wanted to use our services. They were both successful attorneys and involved with all the major gay and AIDS organizations. They were what I would have called an "A-list gay power couple."
"There's just one thing," Tony said. "I am HIV-positive."
"No problem," I said. "We can use Jack's sperm, since he is negative."
"No, that's not what we want," explained Tony. "We want to use my sperm."
I tried to explain that it wasn't legal in California to use sperm from an HIV-positive person in any type of assisted reproduction, and that I wasn't sure if we could ever find a surrogate who would even consider it.
They pushed forward, explaining that they had done lots of research, and that it was possible to test the sperm for HIV and process it to help ensure that it was free of HIV. They said it was being done in Mexico and, for straight couples, at a lab in Massachusetts.
"Please, Stuart," Tony tearfully pleaded. "This is my dream. My whole life I have wanted to be a daddy. Can't you try to help me?"
I felt a wave of emotion come over me. I saw the faces of the patients in Nashville whom I had worked with and helped bury. The ones who might have dreamed of being daddies too. The ones who had died so young, often with no family around them.
I wanted to cry, but I knew that I had to be strong, just like I had been strong for the ones who had just dreamed of living.
"Yes, Tony, we will find a way to help you," I said, not knowing exactly how I would fulfill that promise.
Within a few months we had located a clinic in Boston that had been testing and processing sperm for heterosexual married couples where the husband was HIV-positive. We convinced them to offer the same process to our couple, who would be working with an egg donor and a surrogate. We also found an in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic in Boston that would complete the process using sperm from our client, eggs from a donor, and a surrogate to carry the baby.
Everything was in place except perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: the surrogate. Would we be able to find a surrogate willing to do something far beyond what we had ever asked before?
We decided to approach a woman who had already completed one surrogacy with us. She was a teacher, and we hoped she would understand that with the testing and processing of the sperm, along with the nature of the IVF process itself, it would be virtually impossible for her to become infected with HIV.
She not only understood but said that it would be an extra honor to help someone who had already gone through so much pain in his own life.
One year later she delivered healthy twins for Tony and Jack, who were the happiest parents on the planet -- a couple who, just a few years prior, might have been planning a funeral instead of decorating a nursery.
That birth was the first of many more to come. Since then we've helped over 50 couples and individuals with HIV have their own children. We have expanded our program and opened our own clinic, HIV Assisted Reproductive Treatment (HART), to meet the growing number of men with HIV who want to have their own biological children.
We have partnered with the leading medical experts, who are utilizing the most advanced technology to improve the process and make it even safer. We even helped overturn the law in California that prohibited sperm from a person with HIV from being used in assisted reproduction.
Quite simply, we've created miracles that, just a short time ago, would have been thought insane.
Today I am married to the man I love. And I am the amazingly grateful father of a 6-year-old son, who is the world to me.
Oh, Charley, I wish you could have seen it all happen. I wish you could have met my son. I wish I could have wished you a happy Father's Day.