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WHAT ABOUT THE FAMILY VALUE OF BROTHERLY LOVE?

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In the 1950s, when he was still straight, still a Baptist minister, the white Pettison had a church on Long Island that was overwhelmingly black. Bigots from both races threatened to kill him.

Today, Pastor Pettison once again is confronting common prejudices. He and his congregation refuse to be typecast as child molesters.

James Buonocare is one of the parents in Pastor Pettison's congregation.
He was not allowed to see his children for eight years after he told his ex-wife that he was gay.

"'Either you or some of your faggot friends will end up molesting the kids' is how she put it," said Buonocare.

Today, both of Buonocare's children know he is HIV-positive, and he has been allowed to reestablish ties with them. Though he talks of bigotry, the deaths of his friends, his own stark mortality, he constantly returns to the subject of his children.

"My son probably took the news of my illness the worst. He didn't know a lot, and asked what we had to do to keep me alive. My daughter chooses not to deal with it."
Buonocare is grateful for what blessings he does enjoy. Nor do members of his church wear bitterness upon their sleeves.

During the potluck dinner at Casa de Cristo, there was a startling absence of anger about the homophobia fanned at the Republican convention. When the speakers began the campaign of cruelty, this group of gay men and women flipped the channel, turned off the set or simply turned its back on the hatred. After a lifetime of guilt, ridicule and violence, these people are facing death; George Bush and Dan Quayle could not possibly be any more trivial.

But if there was not a sense of outrage, there was awareness that President Bush has refused to enact a single recommendation of his own AIDS commission.

A lifelong Republican, James Buonocare has changed his party affiliation for this election. "I don't care about funding for satellites in space," said Buonocare. "I want to live to see my grandchildren."

The day after the potluck dinner, I drove out to Buonocare's retail clothing store. Pictures of his teenagers hang next to a motto: "What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God."

I asked to see the scrapbook Buonocare mentioned when we first met. I did not think that he'd made up the story about the obituaries, but neither could I comprehend that any man could know so much death.

He keeps this terrible record above his desk.
In the front of his book, there is a note from a dead man.
"Oh, James, my love and concern for you is so great. We all try so hard and life just simply gets tougher as we try harder."
Buonocare drifted back to memories of the death of his lover.
"Jeff was one of the first to die," said Buonocare. "It wasn't long after Rock Hudson, and no one knew very much. The nurses did not want to come into the room. A lot has changed since then. But at the time, I washed him, got him into the shower, changed him. As he died, I stayed with him and fed him."
Page after page of obituaries. It is too much to look at, 42 names in all, and who knows how many more will be added to the book before it is over.

"I could die at any time, and I'm not even 40," said Buonocare. "I don't know how to deal with that. I have an older couple that I speak with, friends. They're both in their 80s, and have been married for 60 years. I asked them how they face the prospect of dying at any moment. They said they were ready, that they'd been teenagers, raised kids, seen their grandkids. They knew death was coming. It is okay. They said my problem was I went from being a kid to facing death."
How does Buonocare replace the friends he's buried?
The answer is that he does not.

James Buonocare has become, at the age of 38, a very old man whose contemporaries have all departed.

"I no longer have people that I can just call up and say, 'Let's go get dinner or go dancing.' Everyone's dead. I have associates, but all my friends are dead."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey