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The photo was submitted by Noel Arce (@elevatormusiiic), who is gay and lives in New York. It shows him and his two brothers in the early 1990s, along with the two men who parented them for around six years of their childhood.
“These are my dads, Louis Arce (left) (November 1, 1946 – June 23, 1994) and Steven J. Koceja (right) (August 21, 1962 – June 18, 1994), who both died of AIDS.
“I am pictured far right, my brother Joey is on the left and Angel, center. We came to them in 1988 after being in a foster home. And while we weren’t legally theirs until 1993, they were still our dads. We were theirs and they were ours.
“We weren’t with Louis and Steven very long before they passed. They never got a chance to see the men we are today but they cared for us very much and gave us a life that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. It’s incredible even now, after all these years, I can still feel what it felt like to be loved that much.
“My father, Louis, was a social worker, activist and manager for Manhattan Valley apartments. He was responsible for making sure that new developments going up would provide a certain percentage of housing for people living with HIV/AIDS. In 1994, he received a Gold Key Award from NYC @bailey_house for his activism and work in the HIV/AIDS community.
“Little is known about my father, Steven. Sometimes, I swear my memories are like a train. It gets smaller as it pulls away. 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 of 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!”
Hundreds commented on the posting, thanking Noel for sharing his memories.
“What a beautiful tribute to your Dads, no doubt they are proud! You honor them well,” said @profgayman on Instagram.
“Thank you for sharing this beautiful photo and the story of your dads,” said Natalie Hook on Facebook. “The love is so very visible in the image, and so palpable in your words. I’m sure they are both immensely proud of you.”
Some have commented to say they remembered Noel’s dads. On Instagram, @timmydeanlee commented, “Noel, thanks for answering what I often thought about. Whatever happened to Louis and Steven’s three boys? I remember them fighting through the paperwork to get you three boys. They were so elated when they did. What a beautiful picture of all of you. Ten minutes later and I’m still crying reading your tribute.”
Noel told Queerty that he resides in Suffolk County, Long Island, NY. He’s worked for 13 years as the drag artist, Violet Storm, but is currently on hiatus and working as a Cosmetics Manager.
He says having two gay role models at a young age had a big impact on his own coming out.
“I think having two fathers played a huge role in my life as a gay man. I hear a lot of people’s stories about their growing up gay and how rough they had it. Parents not accepting them or them having to edit themselves. Ya know, the ‘be yourself but do it like this’. That was never my story. I was blessed having two dads who let me be authentically myself.
“I had everything I ever desired. I was able to play with Barbie dolls and dress as female characters for Halloween and feel really lucky about that because I understand now what a unique situation that was. Because the world can be a cruel place.
“I don’t think a lot of parents understand that the greatest gift you can give a child is the freedom to be themselves.”
Noel said the photo was from a shoot for a project called Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS, by photographer Carolyn Jones (published in book format in 1997).
“I had the privilege of taking that photo,” Jones confirmed to Queerty by email.
“This exact image is not the one that appeared in the book – I ended up using a photo of the three children alone, but I loved this photo and it was a difficult choice! The three boys had such an enormous amount of energy and joy and sheer love of life – I couldn’t resist the photo.
“The year that I worked on that project was one of the richest of my life, having the chance to be with people who, because of what they were going through and the need to face their own mortality, had an understanding of what makes life worth living. What an education,” recalls Jones.
“I remember the day well, those boys were funny together. There was an enormous amount of love in that photo. I was just lucky enough to be a witness.”