StoryCorps
4:22 pm
Thu January 2, 2014

"Dad, I Have AIDS": One Man's Journey To Gay Rights Advocacy

George and his daughter Rene talk about the tumultuous year 1991 at StoryCorps.
Credit STORYCORPS / UTAH PUBLIC RADIO

Rene Stoddard Fleming, 53, interviewed her father George Stoddard, 77, in the StoryCorps booth June 1, 2013. She and her father talk about the turbulence of 1991, and how that year changed George's life forever.

January 17, 1991, George arrived home from a trip to Atlanta, and received some devastating news.

"I had been an airline pilot for at Houston Airlines for 28 years and we got home and there was a voice message on my telephone which simply stated, 'Captain Stoddard, you do not have to show up to your trip tomorrow. We’re shutting the airline down tonight at midnight,'" he said.

Listen to the interview

George was 55 years old at the time, and said at his age, he did not have the skill set for the market because of younger pilots competing for the same jobs.

"So we considered and thought carefully and decided maybe I should go back to college at that age and try to get some degrees and some education," he said.

In November 1991, he received a call from his daughter, Cindy, who told him words he said, "shook my life up completely."

"She said, 'Dad, I’ve got AIDS,'" he said. "And it was a shock because at the time, in this country, it was felt... it was a gay disease."

"That white women, heterosexual, with children, did not get AIDS," Rene said. "I looked at our family and we all were, many of us, afraid of AIDS and not sure what to do."

At the time, George said he didn't know much about AIDS. Cindy told him she was afraid that given the stigmatism against that disease that she would be condemned. At the time, George said he was living in Atlanta, and tried to visit his daughter in Salt Lake as often as he could, and was able to attend some of her support group meetings.

"For the most part, the other members of the group were, in fact, gay men. She chose to try and be helpful to others. She became an important part of the Utah AIDS Coalition. My faith was, that if I helped people in Atlanta then there would be people in Salt Lake City that would help my daughter," he said.

I realized right away that if I was going to learn about this disease, I had to go to the gay community, because they certainly had lived it in a very serious way.

"I realized right away that if I was going to learn about this disease, I had to go to the gay community, because they certainly had lived it in a very serious way."

So George made an appointment to go to the Atlanta Gay Center to meet with a counselor and talk about AIDS.

"And I'm sitting in the gay center, and I'm the only straight guy in the room. There are five or six other guys all there, seeking counseling. And I have to admit, I felt very uncomfortable. Well, I was afraid these people were going to hit on me," he said.

While he waited on his appointment, the director of the center invited George to another room, sensing his discomfort, and talked to him.

"I just poured my heart out to him, asking questions, questions, questions. And he was one of the most compassionate people I've ever met in my life. After we'd talked for about half an hour, maybe 40 minutes, he asked me the question, 'And how are you doing George?'"

George said that was the beginning of his involvement as a supporter in the gay community, and went on to serve an internship at the center.

'George, can you understand that my love for my partner is no different than your love for your wife?'

"Later on when I was counseling with a young man, somehow we got on the issue of my love for my wife, and he asked me a question. I remember this moment as one of those moments in life," George said. "He just asked me this question. 'George, can you understand that my love for my partner is no different than your love for your wife?' This was a man who was facing death. He had AIDS. For obvious reasons it seems to me now, that just really hit home."

"And these are all things we would have missed, had we not had Cindy," Rene said.

Cindy Stoddard Kid died in 1996, just as the life-saving cocktail was in clinical trials for persons living with AIDS. Her husband Bryan and her children never contracted the HIV virus. Her father George, moved to Southern Utah with his wife, where he continues his work as a gay activist.

In 2012, Equality Utah honored him for his diligent advocacy for gay rights.

Related program: