We Have Lived: Stephen Poling

November 1, 2022

Stephen Poling

​Human Resources, Executive Assistant
Integrated Services Behavioral Medicine

When I was nine years old, my brothers and I were removed from our home by children services. We were picked up from school and taken to my grandma’s house and from there, one by one, we were introduced to our new foster homes. During my sophomore year of high school, I was placed into a group home. It was there, in 1983, at the age of 15, when I “came out” as gay. The house parents of the group home were conservatively religious. When I came out to them, they told me almost daily that I was going to hell.  

It was at the height of the AIDS epidemic and my house parents thought that anyone who was gay must have AIDS; therefore, I was given my own cup, plate, and silverware so I wouldn’t “give” everyone in the house AIDS.  At the time, there was no difference between HIV and AIDS. It was still being called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) or HTVL-III. I was eventually moved into a basement room with a private bathroom so I wouldn’t “expose” the others to AIDS. One day, I overheard a roommate mock me because I was gay. The houseparent’s response was that it was ok that he made fun of me for being gay since I could make fun of him for being straight. During my senior year of high school, a friend knew my situation and offered to foster me for the last three months of high school. Children services approved and I was able to finish high school with less judgment in a supportive environment.  

During the time at the group home, I told my counselor I was gay and she took me to a support group at United Campus Ministry (UCM), a local nonprofit that focuses on spiritual growth and progressive social action. It was here where I was able to meet other gay people. Though, walking in during my initial visit, I was scared. I was so used to people judging and not liking me.  Instead, I was welcomed and supported. Even though I was a high school kid, this group validated me, showed me respect, and accepted me.

Around the same time, I came out to my mother, which I originally thought she managed well, but when she would drink, her true emotions came out. The Christmas after I came out, I was supposed to spend it with her overnight in her home. Christmas night, she got drunk, called my grandmother and in derogatory terms told my grandmother that I was gay. My grandmother picked me up to stay at her house because my mother became very hostile. It was then I was told not to have “those” feelings and if I did, come and talk about it, which I never did. My relationship with my entire family became strained. Over much time, they accepted me for who I was and not who they thought I should be.  

When I graduated from high school, I moved to Columbus to start a new life in the big city. Ken, my partner, and I met in Athens, but it was during my time in Columbus that we reconnected.  He and I became family for 31½ years. He passed away in 2019. I still miss him every day.

In 1997, I started my journey with Integrated Services.  I am grateful to be a part of this organization and community that continues to value humans and meet people where they are, not where they are expected to be. ISBH has always been a place of acceptance for me, where diversity is not just tolerated, it is embraced. My journey continues . . .

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