A gay son has shared a poignant tribute to his two adoptive gay dads, who both tragically died of AIDS just five days apart.
Noel Arce was just 10 months old and his brother Joey was two when they entered the foster care system. They never knew their biological parents, having been surrendered at New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital in 1988.
“Our mother and dad were heroin addicts, and they couldn’t really care for us,” Noel told NBC News.
Fortunately, one loving couple stepped up. The brothers were adopted by Louis Arce and Steven Koceja, a gay couple from Manhattan.
Both men were living with HIV at the time, as was Noel himself, who was born with the disease, and Angel, an HIV-positive three-year-old who was also adopted by the couple.
It never made a difference to the little family, who would spend their weekdays in the couple’s Manhattan apartment before going to Louis and Steven’s house in Rosendale, NY for the weekends. Noel never once questioned their life together.
“It felt very normal, my childhood,” he said. “Like the world operated with moms and dads, and two dads and two moms.”
AIDS didn’t stop them being a family
As a young boy Noel loved to play with Barbie dolls and dress up in frilly costumes, and his fathers always gave him the freedom to be himself. Looking back, he now realises how unusual that was for the time, and how blessed he was.
“I was very feminine. I’d always participate in girly things, and my dads embraced that in me,” he said. “That really helped me in my development as a child.
“I hear people’s stories of coming out and being rejected, being thrown out. That experience for most gay men is a very hard one. I’m very blessed to not have had that.”
Noel’s and Joey’s adoptions became final in 1993, but their time with their new family was all too brief. In 1994, Steven died of complications due to AIDS at 32. Only five days later, Louis, 47, died too. Noel was just seven years old.
Now 33, he says some of the memories of his time with Louis and Steven are hazy, while others are crystal clear.
“But I don’t remember the end. I don’t remember them being sick. I don’t remember visiting them in the hospital,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine what our life would have been like without them.
Louis and Steven tried their best to prepare the children for their deaths. Louis’ brother Robert and his wife, Tina, took in the three boys, ensuring they were never without a family again. And when they knew their time was running out, the couple recorded special videos for each of their sons.
“There’s a video of them talking to us – explaining how much they loved us. And there’s videos Louis made for each of us individually,” Noel explained.
“In the video for me, he says, ‘Noel, I know you’re gay.’ And he gives me his thoughts and advice about facing life. I’m so lucky to have that.”
He watched that video for the first time a year after his dads died, but was too young to fully understand it. About two years ago, he watched it again.
“It was the first time I had an emotional reaction – where I cried,” he said.
Decades on, Noel paid a touching tribute to his fathers on the AIDS Memorial, an Instagram project charting stories of love, loss and remembrance of those who died of AIDS.
In a now-viral post, he shared a beautiful portrait of the men who were his fathers in every way that mattered.
“Sometimes, I swear my memories are like a train. It gets smaller as it pulls away,” he reflected. But I can say this: It’s hard to imagine what our life would have been like without them.
“I think of them often. And as a gay man myself, I wonder what it must’ve been like for them. What it felt like. To be strong like that. But mostly I wonder if they ever look down on me, my brothers and the world and think, ‘Wow, I’m proud!'”