Noel Arce’s dads were living with HIV when they adopted him as an infant; Noel himself was born with the disease. While the time with them was brief, Noel told NBC News he will always remember the happiness they brought to him and his brother.
His mother gave him and his brother, Joey, up when they were just infants. Noel says he never knew who his birth father was. “Our mother and dad were heroin addicts, and they couldn't really care for us,” he told NBC News.
In 1988, Noel and Joey were taken in by a couple from Manhattan, Louis Arce and Steven Koceja. They’d spend their weekdays in the couple’s Manhattan apartment before going to the couple’s house in Rosendale, N.Y. for the weekends.
“It felt very normal, my childhood,” Noel said. “Like the world operated with moms and dads, and two dads and two moms.”
Noel said that he was free to be himself as a child — a feminine boy who played with Barbies and dressed in costumes.
“I was very feminine. I'd always participate in girly things, and my dads embraced that in me,” Noel said. “That really helped me in my development as a child.”
It wasn’t until later in life did he realize that experience wasn’t the norm for other children.
“I hear people's stories of coming out and being rejected, being thrown out. That experience for most gay men is a very hard one,” he said. “I'm very blessed to not have had that.”
Noel’s and Joey’s adoptions became final in 1993. However, in 1994, Steven died of complications due to AIDS at 32. Only five days later, Louis, 47, died, too.
Noel was 7. Louis’ brother and sister-in-law took the boys in.
Noel is 33 now. He told NBC News that while he doesn’t remember the ending of his dads’ lives, he does remember the good times they had.
Before dying, Louis and Steven recorded videos for the brothers and their third adopted son, Angel.
“There’s a video of them talking to us — explaining how much they loved us,” Noel explained to the website. “And there’s videos Louis made for each of us individually. In the video for me, he says, ‘Noel, I know you're gay.’ And he gives me his thoughts and advice about facing life. I’m so lucky to have that.”
Noel said he watched the video a year after his dads’ deaths, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later did he understand what the video meant.
When Noel’s mother had him, she was living with HIV. He tested positive at birth, but his body eventually developed antibodies and Noel was found to be HIV-negative, according to NBC News.
Noel shared a photo of Louis, Steven, Joey, Angel, and himself on the AIDS Memorial Instagram — an Instagram page dedicated to sharing stories about those who died due to the HIV epidemic.
“We weren’t with Louis and Steven very long before they passed,” Noel wrote in the post. “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.”
Noel has been a drag queen for 13 years. He told NBC News that he often imagines what his dads would say about his drag — “Not whether they’d approve of it, because of course, they would,” he told the website. “But would they think I'm funny? That I’m pretty? Would they like my show?”