Why Saying Good-Bye to Your Pets Is Especially Hard When You’re Queer

"For many LGBTQ people, our pets often occupy the space where kids might be. "

There is no dignified way to cry in a pet store.

I’m standing in the cat food aisle blankly staring at a row of shelves lined with tin cans and foil pouches. Shrimp and salmon chowder. Beef stew. Grilled duck with pumpkin. And on and on and on. I can’t decide what to get and I start to panic.

I’ve been fighting back tears since I got here, but now they tumble freely down my face as I choke back a sob. I’m here to pick out my cat Calliope’s last meal, and the longer I stand here, the less time I have to spend with her. So I grab the fanciest, most expensive seafood dinners they have (she loves seafood) and bee-line to the checkout counter.

Photo by Bryan van Gorder

I hadn’t intended to adopt Calliope. In fact, I had gone to A Dog’s Life Rescue five years ago for her brother, Bernardo, a big, handsome tuxedo cat with bright green eyes and long, white whiskers.

Calliope, on the other hand, was an odd little creature. She had long, pointy ears; a short, upturned snout; and thick, black fur that stuck out in every direction and made her look like she just rolled out of bed. What worried me, though, was an undiagnosed respiratory condition that caused her to breathe in wheezes and snorts. Because she was already 7 years-old, I imagined this would only get worse.

The rescue’s co-founder, Julia, told me that Calliope needed a foster home, just for a few weeks. And because I’m a sucker, I agreed to take her too. Just for a few weeks.

An hour after we got home, Calliope sauntered over to the couch where I lay watching TV. She looked up at me, cocked her head to one side, then leapt onto my chest where she settled in for a nap.

Someone once told me we don’t choose our pets, they choose us. So, I called Julia and told her Calliope would be staying.

Photo by Bryan van Gorder

According to a recent Autostraddle poll, nearly 70% of queer Americans said they owned at least one pet, compared to about 60% of all Americans; an arguably modest, yet significant increase.

“Growing up lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender isn’t easy or safe,” writes Anna Burke, in an essay for SheKnows.com. “My pets tell me every day that I deserve to be alive, and without my furry support network, I honestly don’t know where I would be. My pets…helped me get through things I didn’t feel I could talk about to anyone.”

I have friends who, in a way, came out to their pets first. When they feared no one else in their lives would have accepted them for being queer, their animal companions didn’t judge but, instead, were there to love them unconditionally. And, for LGBTQ seniors, research has shown that pet ownership can be incredibly beneficial since this population often lives alone and lacks family connections.

“Feeling truly accepted and unconditionally loved, as well as being a parent and having the love of a child remain sensitive, complicated, and challenging topics for many in the LBGTQ community,” Dr. Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist, tells me. “The relationship with a pet often touches on and fulfills these deep needs in a way that many have never experienced before.”

For me—a single, gay guy in his 40s who travels a lot for work—children are an unlikely part of my future. For most queer people, the path to parenthood is fraught with insurmountable obstacles—legalized discrimination when adopting, or the astronomical expense of hiring a surrogate, for example—that our straight friends often don’t face. Consequently, our pets often occupy the space where kids might be.

Unlike children, however, who are generally expected to outlive their parents, adopting a pet usually means we are committed to take care of Fido and Fluffy for the rest of their lives. So for many LGBTQ people, whose pets are more than just furry sidekicks, the inevitable loss feels that much heavier.

It was a weight I started to feel last fall.

Photo by Bryan van Gorder

For such a social cat, Calliope refused to do anything that wasn’t her idea. The simple act of picking her up, for example, would result in so much twisting and carrying on, you’d quickly give up and put her back down. So, it was on a rare occasion that Calliope rolled over and let me rub her belly. That was the day I found the lump.

Turns out, she had three: It was mammary cancer and it had spread.

While Julia and I sat in the veterinary oncologist’s office, she told me how Calliope, already a young adult, had just appeared at a feral cat colony one day, most likely dumped there by a previous owner. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been spayed; something that, when done before a cat first goes into heat, greatly reduces her risk of cancer later in life. Now, because of someone else’s laziness, we sat here having to face some terrible options.

We could operate to remove the tumors, a gruesome procedure that would maybe buy us six to nine extra months, most of them living in pain. I wouldn’t do this to her. Our other option, chemotherapy, would hopefully slow the cancer down enough to give her a couple more comfortable months. Either way, the cancer was terminal.

This all seemed so unfair. I should have at least a few more years—not months—with her.

Photo by Bryan van Gorder

I took Calliope home, fed her, and wrestled with her to take her chemo pill, a battle of wills that would repeat every other day going forward.

She hated pretty much everything having to do with her treatment: The fasting before appointments, having to take her pills, the ultrasounds, the blood draws. But, no matter what we did to her, Calliope never held a grudge and would immediately be back to her old, purring self, climbing onto my chest for a nap. In fact, it almost seemed like she didn’t even know she was sick.

On our second visit, the oncologist told us that none of her tumors had grown; on the third, much to everyone’s surprise, they had actually shrunk. Of course, now I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Calliope could kick this.

But, hope is a dangerous thing. And, before long the chemo stopped working. At least she didn’t have take any more pills, a hollow victory since everything started to go downhill fast. A week later, x-rays of her lungs told us we were out of time. The cancer and her breathing issue had started to team up. We were now talking days, not months, left.

I wanted to avoid a situation where I had to rush Calliope to the hospital in distress. So I enlisted Julia to find a vet that could come to us, while she still felt relatively well, and put her to sleep at home. (Something I highly recommend.) Unfortunately, the only appointment available in the next few days was three hours away.

So I returned with the food from the pet store. Calliope scarfed down three servings and a couple dozen cat treats for dessert. Julia, my friend Louis, and I spent the last couple hours petting her, brushing her hair, and showering her with love. As last days go, she had a great one.

When the vet arrived, Calliope jumped down off the couch and curled up in her bed on the floor. So I curled up next to her and scratched her behind the ear. I told her I loved her and looked her in the eyes so that she knew I was there with her right up until she wasn’t.

A week has now passed now since I said goodbye to my girl, this amazing creature I saw almost every day. I had spent much more time with her in our five years together than I had with any one human. I had taken care of her and, in many ways, she had taken care of me. Truly, she had been there for some of my darkest days. Unfortunately, this pain is the high price we pay as pet parents, but we pay it to experience the joy and unconditional love they give us in return.

Still, I miss her. A lot. And, as I sit in this Starbucks and type these words, I can tell you there’s no dignified way to cry here either.

Photo by Julia Pennington/A Dog's Life
Bryan van Gorder usually writes about the places he's been or the famous people forced to talk to him.
@bvangorder