The Need to Be

My name is Vincent Anthony Crisostomo. I am a 52-year-old Gay Chamorro Man and I have been living with HIV for over 26 years.  I was diagnosed with AIDS, a potentially fatal condition, in 1995.  Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I have survived and live to tell the tale. I’ve only recently come to realize that it is the grace of God that has brought and kept me here.

“To fulfill the need to be who I am in this world is all I ask…”
The Need to Be by Gladys Knight, Fall 1974

10587154004_41cabb83f4_zI was raised a very strict Catholic, as is the tradition of my native Guam. Growing up in the 60’s, my family often attended mass, where, instead of traditional religious hymns, we sang popular songs that reflected the times.  We were encouraged to love one another, protest the war that we knew was wrong, celebrate diversity, and promote peace and understanding.  The Catholic Church, unlike the schools I went to and the neighborhoods we lived in, gave me my first sense of community and the feeling of belonging despite the shape of my eyes and the color of my skin.

As a teenager, I learned different messages. The songs on the radio talked about the joys of making love but at church I got the message that sex was dirty and sinful. When the topic of homosexuality came up, the message changed from one of love and acceptance to one of hate and intolerance, and it got even stronger at home when my mom would talk about “those people” and God’s wrath.  I wondered what she would say if she knew that her son was one of “those people,” and I decided that I’d never tell her. It was then that I also decided to leave home and the church, choosing to sever my ties rather than deal with intolerance.

I started doing HIV/AIDS work in 1985.  I was living in New York and working three jobs, one of which was at a club, where–every week–customers got sick and eventually died. No one wanted to visit or help them, so I volunteered and did hospital visits with the terminally ill. I listened to their stories, many of which were about being hurt by religion.  I watched them cry, I felt their pain, and I started to question God.

I met Jesse Solomon sometime in 1988. He was a 6.2 ft native New Yorker who did physical therapy with severely disabled kids, worked as a personal trainer, and taught yoga. He was also the love of my life.  We moved to San Francisco in November 1990 where we were one of the first 50 Same sex couples to register at City Hall.  Jesse often told me that God had blessed us with each other, and when he was dying, I swallowed my pride and for the first time in years prayed to  God asking him to spare Jesse and take me.  I was grateful when Jesse didn’t die that day, like the doctors said he would. Eventually, his pain became too great, and I prayed again this time begging God to take him to free him from his suffering.  Jesse died on October 6, 1991.

I became an HIV/AIDS educator in 1992.  This brought me to the Asian & Pacific Islander LGBT community, where I felt a sense of belonging for the first time in a long while.  I attended my first AIDS conference in October 1992.  A participant in one of the workshops shared their experience with their faith and a particularly painful incident where he was subjected to hurtful messages about God’s regard for homosexuality.  For many of us participants, this story was all too familiar, and the atmosphere grew heavy.  Then the facilitator said, “Honey, it is so clear that you have been wounded and your love for God is clear, so the next time someone tries to tell you what God says…RUN.”    The room erupted in thunderous laughter that went on for awhile and when it died down I heard this little voice inside me say “But when God speaks to you, listen.”

So I started talking to God quite often.  Almost all of my work in HIV/AIDS has involved talking to God and asking for his guidance.  There have been many challenges, but over time, I have developed faith in myself and in God. 10587052255_58ab4dd91a_z

This is just a portion of my story. I was invited to join the Pink Elephant Project, a joining together of LGBT APIs and our allies of various faiths.  Each time we meet, the stories go a little deeper and each time, the sense of purpose for the group gets a little stronger.  Everyone has a story and we are all at different places in its telling.  Our faith is as much a part of us as our sexuality is.  Together, we will give voice to our faith has meant to us in our lives and community.  There are many others out there who need to hear our story as much as we may need to tell it, and in doing so, we become more whole.

My name is Vincent Anthony Crisostomo, I am a 52-year-old Gay Chamorro Man and I have been living with HIV for over 26 years.  I was diagnosed with AIDS, a potentially fatal condition, in 1995.  Unlike many of my friends and colleagues I have survived and live to tell the tale.  In doing so, I am often asked how I survived when so many didn’t and to be truthful I don’t know.  What I do know is this: now, and forever, I am a person of faith.

“I am what I am and I have the need to be.”

Click here to view pictures from our 3rd Pink Elephant gathering