Parenthood Is a Redemption for All Those I Had Lost

After Ralph Buchalter contracted HIV in the 1980s, he didn’t expect to survive. Or to become a father.

Ralph Buchalter in his San Francisco days. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Growing up in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s, I barely knew what the word gay meant. But soon after landing in the small Ohio town where I went to college, I realized that word described me. 

In 1982, when I was 23, I moved to San Francisco. I’d never even visited the city before, but upon arrival, I discovered that the men there lived very openly and very freely. The quiet gay life I’d lived at college seemed far away, and my personal rule of needing to know the names of any sexual partners cast me as almost a prude. Still, I was thrilled by the sight of thousands of gay men living the life that many of them, and I, had only dreamed of.

The first news about AIDS was already trickling out in late 1981, but few men I knew heeded any significant warning about it. I found a boyfriend shortly after moving to San Francisco, so I wasn’t tossed into dangerous waters until 1985 when Terry and I broke up. I knew the threat, but I think for most of us, the hard-won freedom we had in San Francisco—not just the joy of holding hands on the street, but the headiness of having space for sexual desires that most of us had grown up thinking were forbidden—was a powerful elixir that was hard to give up. 

By 1986, I knew as well as anyone that an HIV infection was likely to be terminal. By the time World AIDS Day was created in 1988, life as a gay man in San Francisco had taken on a feeling of wartime. The ever-increasing number of obituaries became almost banal by their constancy. 

One day, I stopped by a florist’s shop to say hello to my friend Keith on my walk home from work and didn’t see him during his usual shift. Perhaps he had the day off. I asked the indifferent clerk working the counter if Keith was in the back. 

“No, Keith’s not here. He died last week,” he said, as he continued snipping the stems off a fresh bouquet.

Two weeks later I saw Keith’s obituary nestled among the others that week in the Bay Area Reporter, the local gay newspaper. Reading it was the first I learned of his hometown in Kentucky. Any family from where he came went unmentioned. 

AIDS highlighted the relationships we had, or didn’t have, with our biological families. For most of my San Francisco circle of friends, moving to the Bay Area had been an escape from uncomfortable situations with unaccepting relatives back home. When Terry was on his deathbed with AIDS on Valentine’s Day 1990, the lesions in his lungs suffocating him, he made one final request: “Promise me you won’t contact my family.” 

In those days, it was still possible to escape one’s birthplace and create a new identity in San Francisco. In videos of street fairs in the city in the 1980s, the lack of a phone in anyone’s hands is striking. The jerky handheld film captures thousands of people taking over several blocks of Castro Street with music, drinking, and dancing. As I watch it today, I realize close to half of these people would not survive the decade. 

A crowd gathers to watch the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in the Castro District in 1981. (Photo by John O'Hara via Getty Images)

The first blood test for HIV became widely available in 1985, before it was even clear what testing positive meant. I took the test at a city health clinic in the fall of ’86. After the nurse delivered the results I had feared, I stared at her, not listening as she listed the city services I now qualified for. I thanked her and walked back outside, into a sunshine so bright it hurt. I sat down on the cool steps in front of the house next door to the clinic and cradled my head in my hands. What was happening at that very moment in my body that I couldn’t feel or see? 

I didn’t know how I became infected. A forensic analysis of my sex life would have been useless, although I later found out that at least one man I had dated had lied to me. 

Regular doctor visits showed I had a low but measurable viral load, but the years ticked by and I experienced no symptoms from HIV. I resisted taking the first harsh treatments in the mid-90s, whose efficacy against the virus was almost matched by their brutal side effects. I told few people of my HIV status. I didn’t want pity, or to be labeled as a victim. I accepted that I was responsible for what had happened to me. 

Meanwhile, I couldn’t avoid the statistics playing out in real time. In the Castro district, hollowed-out men lived out their last days shuffling past the open-air bars still belting midday dance music. These men were a cautionary tale, becoming as much a part of the city’s fabric as the wind and the fog. 

Facing the swirl of bad news, with no imminent treatments and no end to the avalanche of obituaries, I struggled. I was intensely envious of those who remained uninfected, imagining that their lives must be infinitely more comfortable than mine, with a normalcy that I had lost forever.

In a rare 1988 visit to a local synagogue, a fragment of biblical prose resonated with me.

Moses said, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” 

I decided that, on that Shabbat, I would choose to believe I was going to survive. I knew I could be entirely wrong, and that some would view my belief as delusional.

Ralph and his husband on their wedding day in 2005. (Photo courtesy of the author)

And yet, years being HIV positive turned into decades. Antiretroviral treatments, so brutal in the mid-1990s, eventually came with few side effects, prompting me to start preventive treatment in 2004. One pill from the new family of drugs, Truvada, played double duty as both treatment from the effects of the virus and prevention from spreading it to others.

Medication did not make me feel any different physically, but taking it every morning gave me confidence I would survive.

The small viral load I once had dropped to zero, where it has remained ever since. 

In 1998, I moved to New York City. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working next door to the World Trade Center and was near the base of the towers. I ran with the crowds up Broadway to escape the smoke after the first tower fell. Once back in my Greenwich Village apartment, I keenly felt the lack of a serious relationship. I saw myself clearly as 42 years old and single, alone with a cat I talked to. Living the exciting game of sexual intrigue with other urban men had become stale and needed to end. 

My husband and I met in Brooklyn in 2003 at a Bay Ridge disco whose lighted checkerboard dance floor was made famous in Saturday Night Fever. He told me of the company he had founded, and I described my life as a stock exchange trader, as we inched closer to each other on a dark, sunken sofa away from the commotion. 

On our first dinner date two weeks later, he announced he intended to be a father someday, having learned that this confession was the best way to cut the wheat from the chaff in the gay dating pool. I had always assumed I would never have children. But when he described it, I didn’t flinch at the possibility. I had a sense that something serious was possible between us, so I took the emotional risk and told him I was HIV positive. He didn’t flinch either. 

In 2005, he proposed to me on a trip up the California coast. We had a Jewish wedding that same year, and moved from Hell’s Kitchen to a quiet New Jersey suburb soon after to start a family.

We wanted a genetic connection with our kids and to experience the birth cycle from its very start, so we chose surrogacy. In the early 2000s, there were no surrogacy how-to websites or celebrity announcements yet. We felt like we were flying blind as we navigated a maze of lawyers, agencies, and clinics to meet with the two women who would change our lives: our egg donor and surrogate. I was moved by their determination and generosity as we planned a process that required a special kind of intimacy with two relative strangers. One fact was clear as we started our first surrogacy: my husband would have to be the genetic father.

Our twins were born in 2008. Earlier in my life, I had mocked both my siblings and my friends who were so engrossed with their young children, only to sheepishly find myself fully enthralled by the all-encompassing grip of parental love. 

I had assumed that it would never be possible for me to father a child, given that it was illegal for an HIV-positive man to make use of reproductive services. But when the twins were a year old, I read that California had reversed its prohibition due to the advances in HIV treatment and the technology of sperm washing. The science had proven to be pristine, with zero cases of transmission to the birth mother or infant. 

Faced with the fight for my own survival, I had never considered becoming a biological father. But the idea of helping create a new life after all the death and destruction I’d experienced in San Francisco had a redemptive quality to it, not just for me but for all the people I’d loved who were lost. 

We signed up with a California surrogacy agency in 2010, ignoring friends’ and family’s jovial warnings about two fathers aged 51 and 38 being outnumbered by their children. I laughed, but was quietly fearful—not of the surrogacy process, which we’d gone through once already. But I put myself in the mind of a young woman in her 20s or 30s, asked to carry a child conceived using the sperm of an HIV-positive man. Metaphors of HIV from 1980s San Francisco still lived inside of me—that of a wild animal who could not be tamed.

We were matched with Julia, a smart young woman with a husband and two kids living in the northern plains. The agency flew her and her husband to NYC for a day for us to meet, and we walked through the sea of crowds on a nice weekend afternoon. Similarly to the first surrogate we worked with to carry our twins, I felt the magnitude of what we were asking her (and her family) to do. 

I knew that my HIV status was on the form she had read and would sign, but I was still afraid to bring it up. 

Our conversation was unremarkable, but at one point when Julia and I were standing by ourselves watching the skateboarders and bikers flow past in Central Park, I brought up my HIV status. I didn’t want to press the subject, but needed to be sure that she understood. She said she did, that the doctors told her it was completely safe, and she believed them. It was as simple as that. 

Ralph cradles his youngest daughter as his son looks on. (Photo courtesy of the author)

What I realized then is that the horrors of AIDS-ridden San Francisco in the 1980s did not exist in the minds of people a generation younger than me. Julia was 24, born in 1986, the year I tested positive. Today, on World AIDS Day, in countries with advanced healthcare, medications like the one I take have made HIV an annoyance rather than a deadly threat. 

Julia’s pregnancy went smoothly, and our third child was born in September 2011. My husband and I were seated behind a curtain while the C-section was performed. When we heard the baby’s first cry, we joined her tears with ours. As I held my daughter for the first time, I found a reason I had survived.

Our youngest child is now 12 years old. One year ago, she and I were eating together at a diner, and she asked me about the places I’d lived before New Jersey. I told her about San Francisco and the terrible epidemic caused by a virus that destroyed one’s immune system. I described what it was like living through it and the sadness of losing friends who were way too young to die. Being a tween in our media age, she said she had read about AIDS and HIV. But I wasn’t prepared when she offhandedly asked, “Did you get it, too?”

In an instant I said no, and immediately regretted it. Each second that followed before I spoke again threatened to seal this falsehood. 

“Actually, no, I did,” I corrected myself quickly. “I take a pill for it every day and luckily, it’s never been a problem for me.”

A different lie. Losing most everyone I’d loved in San Francisco had been a devastation, leaving a grief that is curled up inside me. But at least this lie I could live with, for now. 

Then, like kids the world over, my daughter had the most natural response that parents know well. She shrugged and changed the subject. 

Ralph Buchalter is a financial data researcher and three-time national bridge champion living in New Jersey. 

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