By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
After Thomas did the flowers for a holy union ceremony at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, the couple decided to start attending services there themselves, and they both got involved in congregational activities. Then a little over a year ago they decided to have a holy union themselves. Their families, both supportive, attended the ceremony. They joked that it was the first time they'd ever seen Ron's brother in a suit. Ron and Thomas vowed in front of everyone to be true to each other in health and in sickness too.
Things seemed to be going so well.
And then one day last February, Thomas called Ron at work.
"He had just come back from the doctor, and he said, 'Are you sitting down?' " remembers Ron. "And I knew right then that it was probably HIV-related."
Except that it wasn't.
Thomas had been diagnosed with stomach cancer.
"That put it in perspective for me," says Ron. "Anything can kill you, not just HIV. It's like that old thing, you could walk out the door and get hit by a bus."
Thomas had surgery to remove the cancer, and doctors want to wait and see about chemotherapy. He's lost quite a bit of weight but feels good about his chances. Like most things in Thomas's life, he looks at it in the best light possible.
"My life is really, really full," he says. "We take it one day at a time. As long as I'm here today and the tumors don't come back, we don't look beyond our little world."
So Ron and Thomas continue to try to make it work for them. They go out, they see friends and family, they attend church. And above all, they talk.
"We know where the other stands," says Ron. "It's honesty and respect."
"We argue like everybody else does," admits Thomas. "If I'm mad or upset, I'm going to tell him. But we never go to bed mad. You have to talk about it."
Kathy and Michael (not their real names) sit next to each other on the couch in their apartment. They take turns pulling cigarettes from a pack of Marlboros on the coffee table in front of them. Baby photographs of their five-year-old son are all over the walls.
"We met in our addiction," says Kathy in a smooth, matter-of-fact voice. "I met him in the motel, and he never left."
There are rough stories, and then there are stories like Kathy and Michael's. Both were longtime crack addicts who lived on and off under bridges downtown. When they weren't under bridges they might be in jail, in rehab (which never lasted long) or in a shelter if they absolutely had to be. The daughter of drug users and dealers, Kathy started abusing drugs at the age of 15. Michael smoked his first joint at eight. For years they created a life together that Kathy claims was surprisingly "comfortable." With pride in his voice, Michael says he tried his best to make her happy.
Both are blunt when it comes to talking about their past troubles. Now, with help from AIDS Foundation Houston, they have been clean for over a year. Kathy works as a secretary and Michael as a maintenance man. And twice a day Kathy tries to remember to take the HIV medication that she hopes will lengthen her life.
"I'm on her all the time," Michael says of Kathy's medication, in a voice rough as gravel that is the complete opposite of his wife's.
Kathy believes she contracted the virus sometime in 1992, most likely from sex. When she met Michael, she had been positive for several months. But in the distorted world of addiction and homelessness, Kathy decided not to tell Michael about her positive status. In the close network of homeless people they knew, Kathy understood public knowledge of her HIV would affect whom she could sleep with for money or drugs. But she says the lie she was living made her feel disappointed in herself.
"You didn't lie," Michael corrects. "You just didn't tell me."
Finally, at the urging of a counselor during one of the couples' unsuccessful attempts at getting clean, Kathy admitted her HIV status to Michael. He decided to stick around.
"I wasn't afraid," says Michael. "I wasn't angry. I was a little disappointed. But among the other disappointments, one more little disappointment's not going to matter to me."
And so Kathy and Michael continued on, living with the HIV as just another disappointment in a long list of big troubles that continued to plague them. They couldn't stay clean. They were in and out of rehab, wondering where their next chance to bathe would come from. Michael says he wasn't safe when it came to protecting himself from the virus. At the age of 32, much to her surprise, Kathy discovered she was pregnant.
"When I first got pregnant, my family said, 'You're bringing a baby into the world, and the baby's going to be sick,' " says Kathy. But Kathy was more concerned about the drugs she had been ingesting during the short time she had not known she was pregnant. She got into rehab, started taking medication for the HIV, and her son was born negative. Five years later, he still is. Now the small family is living in an apartment and both Kathy and Michael are off drugs. This time, Kathy swears it's for good.