An unassuming man with a big heart, Charlie Paternoster has always been there for his friends. The Englishman worked as a sports agent before establishing his own business. A true people person who cared about his community, he took great pride in being the voice of the voiceless. In 2015, Charlie’s world was turned upside down when his father, Michael, was diagnosed with HIV.
Michael had hid his sexuality from his family and the public for most of his life, and he never imagined his son would be the one to out him. But in his last months, Mikey Paternoster did everything in his power to make his son accept him for who he was. During those last months, the elder Paternoster made a full recovery, and he and Charlie grew closer than ever.
While Michael was alive, he and Charlie talked about everything under the sun. The older man shared his thoughts on religion, politics, and even parenting with the aspiring entrepreneur. But once Mikey’s health got better, the two found themselves at a loss for words. They both felt that something was missing in their lives, and it took them a while to discover what it was.
“I miss him desperately,” Charlie tells me. “I feel very alone now that he’s gone. There’s an emptiness inside me that won’t go away. We both have very big hearts, and we felt that we could share so much with each other. I was able to talk to him about anything and everything, and he’d have the best advice for me – always.”
It was in the wake of his father’s death that Charlie came to terms with his sexuality. Although he thought he might be gay, he never seriously considered it a possibility, and he was determined never to hide his feelings from others. It wasn’t easy, but he slowly started to let go of his guilt and embrace who he truly was.
Even before his father’s death, Charlie had been in a relationship with another man for two years. The long-time pair met through mutual friends and quickly hit it off. They would regularly cook dinner for each other, and before long, Michael was taking an active interest in his grandchild’s welfare.
“He was the best granddad you could ever wish for,” says Charlie, who lives in London with his partner, Tom. “I’m really grateful that I got to spend some time with him.”
A few days after Christmas 2015, Michael was driving back from London after a family dinner, when he became sick. He was taken to the hospital, where he died from AIDS-related pneumonia. While in the hospital, Michael reached out to Charlie, who was by his bedside. The two had barely spoken in years, due to Michael’s extreme reluctance to discuss his sexuality with anyone. But over the last months of his life, he had become more open-minded and, as a result, more of a father to Charlie than he’d ever been. On that sad Christmas day, Michael and Charlie had a heart-to-heart conversation about the future of gay rights in the U.K.
“He was a real pioneer,” says Tom, who is also Charlie’s partner. “He helped pave the way for a lot of other people to come out and be proud of who they were. A huge amount of credit goes to him.”
In the aftermath of his father’s death, Charlie was thrust into the role of the man of the house. He had to take care of his younger brother, Andrew, who is also a sports agent, and sister, Laura, who is an interior designer. It was a daunting responsibility, but one that he took on with open arms. He also did his best to be there for his mom, Sheila, who was devastated by her husband’s death.
“The situation was very complicated,” says Charlie. “I knew that Andrew and Laura needed looking after as well, so I had to make some tough calls. A lot of late nights and some early mornings were spent trying to be there for my family as much as possible.”
After the initial shock of Michael’s death wore off, Charlie’s family and friends rallied around to help with the burial arrangements. As a result of his good humor and positivity, they wanted to give him a fitting farewell, so they planned a celebration of his life. Although he had been out of the closet for some time, Charlie didn’t want a gay wedding. He wanted something simpler. So the family and friends of Michael Paternoster got in touch with the organizers of a Catholic church wedding in London, and they worked out a plan to have the ceremony at the end of March 2016. It would be a small, intimate gathering – just the family and a couple of friends of Michael Paternoster. Nothing elaborate.
The day of the ceremony, Charlie was nervous. Not because he was afraid of getting married, but because he was finally going to tell his family and friends what he had been hiding for so long. However, he needn’t have worried. As he entered the church, he spotted his dad’s old friend, Father Robert Hurley. The priest had known Michael since he was a teenager and came to the wedding to give the eulogy. The service went without a hitch, and the bride and groom kissed as cheers erupted from the congregation.
“It was the perfect send-off for my dad,” says Charlie. “Everyone loved him, and they all spoke about how brave he was to be so open about his sexuality. It’s what made him such a wonderful man.”
It wasn’t long before Charlie had to resume his life as usual. Despite his best efforts to be there for his family, he had other commitments that he had to fulfill. Since founding his business, he had been living a hectic life, working long hours and taking on as many clients as possible. He had also been putting his education to good use, getting his law degree from Cambridge University and establishing himself as a reputable lawyer.
But since his father’s death, Charlie has felt a void in his life. He wanted to do something that would make him feel better and fill the emptiness that was inside him. So he decided to donate his time and efforts to an organization that helped the voiceless. He didn’t want to do anything too strenuous, so he chose to work with a charity that helped refugees and asylum seekers. He was touched by their story, as he had spent a good deal of time in Paris, which is where many of the applicants come from. He had also been to their camps, and it was there that he witnessed the horrors of war first hand.
“It really broke my heart,” he says. “I knew that their situation wasn’t easy, but I just didn’t realize how hard it would be for them to make it over here. The journey isn’t easy, and it’s not something that any of us take for granted.”
There is a common misconception that being gay means that you are unable to maintain healthy, long-term relationships. The fact is, many LGBT individuals are highly compatible with those of the opposite sex and are even considered to be highly attractive by members of the opposite sex. A 2013 national survey by the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics found that 66% of same-sex couples were proud to say that they were “very” or “fairly” satisfied with their relationship. This was compared to 48% of heterosexual couples who answered the same way. The survey also found that nearly all same-sex couples (95%) were proud to say that they were “very” or “fairly” satisfied with their sex lives, while 87% of heterosexual couples were also happy with their sex lives.
A Better Man, A Changed Man
It’s been something of a coming out of sorts for Charlie. He didn’t intend to be “out” to everyone, but as a result of his father’s death, he found himself thrown into the spotlight. What began as a celebration of Michael’s life turned into a celebration of Charlie’s as well. It was an opportunity he had never expected to have, and it helped him to grow as a person. More importantly, it helped him to mature into the man that his father would’ve wanted him to be.
“Death can be such a powerful thing,” says Charlie. “I finally feel like I can be myself and be proud of who I am. I never thought this day would come. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can look my dad in the eye and tell him ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be the man you wanted me to be.’ ”