In classic romantic comedy fashion, Benny McCarr was set to board a plane to Hawaii when he was intercepted at the airport by Robert, a young man from Boston, whom he’d met just a day earlier.
“Lo and behold he met me at the airport with a bouquet of roses and asked, ‘how would you like to be a couple together?’” Benny recalled from the courtyard of the Alaska Senior Center where he now resides. “We lasted for 25 and three-quarter years. It was a marriage made in heaven.”
That was in 1983, long before any state was even considering civil unions, much less marriage equality. Five years later, Benny and Robert learned they were both HIV-positive. At that time, before modern medicine could catch up, such a diagnosis was generally thought to be a death sentence. But Benny and Robert stayed faithful to taking their medications and stayed faithful to each other until Robert’s death, from prostate cancer, ultimately, in 2001.
“We met during the time when the disco era was around and we did everything from A to Z in our roaring twenties,” Benny recalled. “We decided to move to Washington State, thinking that he would get better care for the cancer he was being treated for, but at the latter part, he said it was too hard; he was too tired and couldn’t go through with it. I ended up burying him there.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time of Robert's passing, Benny had lost more than a life partner.
“It was somewhat of a lonely trek afterwards. I never went and looked for anyone else,” Benny said. “One of the biggest things I was worried about is spreading something I contracted that I didn’t want to give to anyone else. That would be a very big burden on my shoulders.”
But his pledge to celibacy in the interests of public health would be the least of the loneliness and isolation Benny would find in the years after Robert’s death.
After burying his life partner, Benny, a Yupik Eskimo, returned to his village outside of Bethel, where he was born and raised to help his mother and extended family. Then one day, a family member came across a copy of Benny’s medical records and his life soon became a living hell.
“From one little word that came out, that word spread like wildfire,” Benny said. “I was left feeling alone, abandoned. No more lunches, no more dinners. When people were waiting in line at the grocery store people would see me and step aside. That was the most hurtful situation I’ve ever encountered… In the villages the stigma is still high. People think the air you breathe, the spoon you ate with, you would contract the disease.”
For seven years, Benny endured the slings and arrows in his home village.
“I tolerated it. I would go home after work and after preparing dinners for my two little dogs and myself I would sit down and silent tears would flow. I tried not to dwell on what I had experienced. I was determined to come back to the city,” Benny said. “I didn’t want to constantly feel like I was no longer a person to them. I was more of a diseased person they didn’t want to associate with.”
Benny said he often contemplated suicide in those years.
“There were times when I seriously thought about suicide but I remember my grandma saying if you did something to yourself and your Heavenly Father didn’t what it to happen at that time, you will make a big commitment of sin,” Benny said. “With that on the back burner, I couldn’t do anything but endure — Monday through Sunday, month by month, I kept telling myself I am strong. I may not have any relatives now, but I am strong.”
He finally made his return to Anchorage where he worked as a medical assistant before retiring and moving with Robert to Washington in 2000.
In recent years Benny has been able to turn the pain and rejection he experienced into something positive, speaking to students in the University of Alaska Anchorage and has traveled to conferences in the Lower 48 with the ANMC’s Early Intervention Team focusing on HIV/AIDS.
“I speak from the heart and let my voice be heard. They liked me so much they asked me to give lectures to students at the University who are to become PA’s and health aides,” Benny said, cracking a smile. “I speak to them about the Patient Privacy Act and to honor that. You don’t want any of your relatives going through what I’ve gone through — feeling like an outsider everywhere.”