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    Baptist Princess to Activist Mom

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    How does a bouncing baby born into Baptist royalty in the heart of Texas end up as a militantly liberal mom marching in gay pride parades in San Francisco—with her daughter? It’s quite a journey. It is the tale of Corianna Kai Seelig-Gustafson, a story that ended suddenly two weeks ago.

    The early years were idyllic for young Corianna. Even though she moved a lot, including one jaunt to Switzerland where her dad was an opera singer, there was always a large, loving, supportive base of family and friends. Once back in Houston, her family was in the limelight at a huge Baptist church where everyone knew her because her dad worked there. She was the perfect daughter of the perfect family. A 1980s Norman Rockwell.

    Then came her ninth year. Her Dad came out. Everything changed. All she knew was that they had to move from their home to an apartment—without dad. The massive support structure melted away. Corianna and her brother Judson were left to figure this out. So, they stuck together. Dad moved off to Dallas. She didn’t feel comfortable at the church any more. Her years as a Baptist princess were at an end. Nothing would ever be the same.

    Then came the age of ten. Dad started conducting a gay chorus in Dallas. It was odd at first, but then she realized it wasn’t that much different than the First Baptist Church choir, except without women. She suddenly had hundreds of Guncles (gay uncles, for those reading this who are not familiar with the term). She lived and breathed gay music and LGBTQ issues, along with her dad, for the next 31 years!

    During her awkward teen years, she felt unattractive, as many do. But around the gays, she was their princess. They did her hair, took her shopping, designed her prom dress, and, most importantly, always told her that she was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. She loved them so much! And they loved her.

    Humor was her greatest gift and weapon against those who would try to offend her, put her in a box or talk smack about her logical family. And boy, was she funny. Many people thought her Dad was funny, but most said she was like him, but without the filters. Next to her wit, her greatest gift was empathy. She would cry seeing a homeless person, knowing she couldn’t help them all, but emptying her pockets anyway. Her heart broke at the sight of a stray or wounded animal (many finding their way home with her).

    Being a teenager is rough on any young one. Her teen years were especially challenging. It was the early 1990’s and her beloved Guncles were dying. The first was Bob, who did her hair every month on her visits to Dallas. Then the one she loved the most, John, who had become her confidant. It was during that time that a seed was planted—she would spend her life helping others.

    She decided to go to nursing school. During her hospital rotations, two of her passions came together when she hit the pediatric oncology department: children and terminal illness. For almost 20 years, she healed, held and made children laugh in their most dire moments. Her hospital colleagues marveled at her ability to control every situation, make everyone laugh and make them feel that things would be OK.

    Nursing had its downside. In addition to the stress inherent in her position, Corianna just couldn’t stop lifting children—and sometimes their parents. This resulted in years of pain and ultimately spinal fusion.

    Then there was Clay, the man of her dreams—not “tall, dark and handsome,” but “tall, ginger and handsome.” And he was a pediatric oncology physician. (Who doesn’t have that dream?) They clicked, got married ten years ago and began their lives together. And, the most exciting part of that? They moved to San Francisco, the city of their other dream! They didn’t move to San Francisco just for the beauty or the clam chowder. No, it fit their radically liberal view of life that was always at odds with Dallas cultural norms (understatement).

    Corianna was also gifted at manipulation and extortion. Her Dad was HIV+ but had not shared that with many people. Corianna decided to do the AIDS/LifeCycle, but there was a catch. She wanted to do it in honor of her Dad who was HIV+. Dad pretty much did whatever Corianna wanted, so he came out about his status. She raised $5,195 and rode the 7-day trek from San Francisco to L.A.! Clay kept the 18-month-old Clara so Mom could ride. Forcing her Dad to come out about his HIV status was one of her great moments.

    Then came Clara. Corianna took to motherhood as if she had been preparing for that her whole life. Well, she had. She had mothered everyone she ever met. She was ready and threw herself into mothering. Lucky Clara. They began right off instilling their shared openness with Clara. And, by that point, Corianna’s Dad was doing his thing—conducting the gays—in San Francisco! Talk about Guncles! And they adopted her from the very first concert she attended 5 months after Clara was born. Corianna and Clay took Clara to almost every SFGMC concert for the next seven years.

    Instilling the sensibility of San Francisco into Clara was the greatest joy to them. They dragged her all over town to parks, festivals, ferries and beaches. She marched in most every gay pride parade. Every single Easter was marked by a picture with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the Easter Egg Hunt. Those pictures caused quite a stir when sent back home. Clara marched in the women’s rights marches. All of this because Corianna believed so strongly in raising a strong, independent, bright woman, unconsciously molding her in her own image. Corianna was plagued with health issues throughout her entire adult life. Every day she dealt with chronic pain from a series of back injuries and surgeries. It never dimmed her bright smile or infectious charm.

    Corianna had big plans for Clara: to make her the happiest child on the planet. These efforts were aided by her Dad and Granddad, Bop Bop, and his husband, Dan. Ballet lessons. Piano lessons. Martial Arts. Horse-riding camp. SPCA camp. But most of all, they gave her the gift of their time and their love tromping around this beautiful city. While they lived in the Inner Sunset, Golden Gate Park was her personal playground. She thought everyone had such a yard. Corianna also gave Clara the gift of passion for animals: dogs, cats, a bird, fish, and briefly, a bearded dragon. The world was her magical menagerie—thanks to her Mom and Dad. She was now the princess.

    The story came to an end on the night of October 18. Corianna died. Unexpectedly. No cause of death yet. Clara, Clay, Bop Bop and Dan were all in the house as the paramedics did their best to save her—bless them. It was not to be. A mom, a wife, a brother, a daughter and the most amazing friend anyone could have simply left. The healer. Nothing will ever be the same.

    It is now up to us to carry on her legacy of love, healing, activism, outrageous humor and, most of all, supporting a little seven-year-old girl whose life has changed forever. We’ll do our best so that the story named Corianna lives on.

    P.S. This story was told by Corianna’s dad. It is one-sided, seen only through his prism. Others have their own version. If you are reading this, go back just one month to the article Corianna wrote in her own words. It shows the courageous, strong, activist, “I can change a small corner of the world with my story” girl. The world is simply less now. There is no good explanation. Simply less.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.