HIV took my dad from me when I was 10. I wish I’d had the chance to come out to him.

Chris Lugo
Chris Lugo Photo: Provided by Chris Lugo

It has been 30 years since my dad, Victor Lugo, passed away from AIDS-related complications, and today, I have more questions than answers. I was ten years old in February 1994 when my older brother Mike and I settled back home in Florida from visiting our dad in our parent’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana, where he returned after his marriage to our mother, his high school sweetheart, ended. I’m told it was the result of his infidelity, among other things. I could sense that something was off, but I couldn’t imagine how quickly his health – and my life – would change.

I remember seeing him in the hospital. Beyond that, everything else is a blur. I think I blocked it out. The next day, my mom received word that my dad, the life of the party and the center of the gravitational pull that brought our family together, had died. I am now a 40-year-old out queer man deeply embedded in and supported by the LGBTQ+ community as executive director of the Out Georgia Business Alliance. I often wonder if my dad benefited from a support system like the one I have today. Did he get the care and compassion he truly needed? Was he shunned because of his diagnosis?

My dad had learned of his HIV diagnosis just over two years before he died, in November 1991, the same month basketball legend Magic Johnson disclosed in a highly publicized press conference that he’d also acquired the virus. I can’t imagine how isolated my dad must have felt to be on the receiving end of such life-altering news during a time when HIV stigma was even more pervasive than it is today. How did he continue to work to fulfill his financial obligations as a parent to me and my brother as his health was failing? I often wonder about his dreams and what our relationship would be like today. He would have been 66 years old this past June on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Dad, Mike, and me at the hospital
Dad, Mike, and me at the hospital. Provided by Chris Lugo.

I didn’t learn the truth about my father’s HIV diagnosis until a conversation with my mom about a decade after he passed. Similar to families of so many who succumbed to HIV at the height of the epidemic, stigma demanded that his cause of death be labeled inaccurately as pneumonia. There is no mention of the main culprit that took him and a generation of gay men from us all.

I’ll never know the exact circumstances of how my dad contracted HIV, but I often wonder how he would share the story today and what his connection to the queer community would be. My husband, Pyro Lugo-Allen, and I started dating in 2004, and he proposed to and married me in 2014. Since the beginning of our 19-year relationship, Pyro has helped me access parts of me that had remained buried and inaccessible. I knew I was different years before my dad passed, but I was ashamed and didn’t understand or have the language for it myself. One of my biggest regrets is that I never came out to my dad. He would have loved Pyro.

I didn’t even come out to my mom until the year after I graduated college, and Pyro and I had already been living together for a year. I was mortified by what I believed being out meant—that I was less than. Growing up, I never knew that you could be happy and successful and also be gay. I never saw an example of a well-adjusted and successful gay person. They were always the brunt of a joke or the center of bullying or worse.

Mike, me, and dad.
Mike, me, and dad. Provided by Chris Lugo.

We buried my dad on Valentine’s Day 1994, and with him, the possibility of him ever experiencing the freedom, liberation, and scientific advancements that have rendered HIV a chronic manageable condition thanks to the sacrifices and demands of his generation. I weep at the thought of how my life would have unfolded differently if my dad was still here as a survivor and if the HIV/AIDS crisis hadn’t decimated a generation. But I’m also inspired to understand better and explore how I can honor their legacy by supporting those living with or impacted by HIV.

I turned 36 in 2019, two months after becoming executive director of the Out Georgia Business Alliance. My dad quietly slipped away at 36. With the time I have left on earth, I’m determined to do my part to dismantle HIV stigma and shame. I owe it to the first man I fell in love with, to all those whose stories ended prematurely, and those with stories still in progress.

Chris Lugo (he/him) is the Executive Director of the OUT Georgia Business Alliance, Georgia’s LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce, and Managing Partner of the U.S. Business Action to End HIV – Atlanta Chapter. Lugo serves on the City of Atlanta Mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Board as co-chair of its Economic and Community Development Committee and as a Board Member of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Lugo is an alumnus of the University of Florida and the proud husband of his long-time partner, Pyro Lugo-Allen. Both reside in Atlanta, Georgia, with their dog Varik.

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