What animals taught me about queer life and hope

Stephen Quandt shares his story.

What animals taught me about queer life and hope

Written by Stephen Quandt

I never would have predicted that the death of a cat would finally and fully connect me back to my closeted gay life as a teen in the 70s and my lack of hope for a meaningful life.

I have never told the story of this cat to anyone until now, not to my husband, not to any friend, to no one.

There were many fine things about growing up as a teen in suburban New Jersey in the late 20th century, but being gay wasn’t one of them - at least, not for me.

I decided at the time it was way too soon to admit I was gay, or in the terminology of my peers, a “homo.” I started waiting for that unhoped for moment when all of a sudden, girls wouldn’t be boring, and guys wouldn’t be exciting. But that moment didn’t come. But I still couldn’t say I was gay, I couldn’t even say I was bi. I was utterly disconnected from what I was feeling, and at the same time, terrified of being found out.

And yet all of that didn’t stop me from falling in love with one of my best friends at around age 16 - a friend who I never had any sexual experience with, then or later. There were plenty of deeply sensual experiences - a hug, the accidental touch of my finger to his, any number of casual, seemingly incidental, bodily appendage embraces. But still I wasn’t gay and I couldn’t be gay.

I was stuck in this in-between world, this purgatory, this amorphous gray blob where I was unable to imagine a romantic future for myself. In all my teen years, not a single daydream about a future with another guy. Daydreams about sex daily, but no dreams about a life. No house, no picket-fence, no partner, no boyfriend, no dating. Obviously no thoughts about marriage or having children - that was probably off the table of imagination for all of us back then.

This wasn’t helped by not having a future mirrored to me. That mirror is some combination of one’s parents, television, film, advertisements in print or elsewhere, and maybe theatre - in descending order. And in all of that, there was nothing for me to see, nothing positive. My parents were opposite sexed, and in the arts gays were depicted as clowns or criminals, and that was about it. I had nothing to help spark my imagination, to tell me what was possible, to show me a future.

But how did the death of a cat bring me around to understanding my purpose-filled life and its connection to my lack of hope and imagination as a gay teen?

My first career was as a theatrical lighting designer, helping to create fiction and fantasy. My second and current career is in animal welfare. I work at a very large animal shelter in feline behaviour - and not every day is a good day. While I try to stay strong, the truth is it hurts to see certain things. Our shelter doesn’t euthanise for space and cats aren’t euthanised for behaviour, but still things can and do go badly sometimes.

As workers, we get what is still sometimes called “compassion fatigue” but is more accurately called “vicarious trauma” - we don’t get tired of being compassionate, we get hurt by bearing witness to pain and suffering.

I have absorbed a lot of trauma. At the shelter where I work now there are many great outcomes but I have also witnessed things that weigh very heavily on my heart. Things that people have done to their animals.

There was a day last year, where something happened and I reached a new breaking point. A member of our rescue team had just arrived with a cat - not knowing what to expect, I asked if I could help her. The cat was in a box inside her vehicle. I didn’t know a cat could be this emaciated and still be alive. When you hear the phrase, “skin and bones” it literally meant just that. She couldn’t walk. She was lying in a box that was left outside a business. And I don’t just mean randomly left next to a business. I mean the business boxed her up and dumped her by their building allowing her to be found by a passerby. In a box with their business name on it. A cat with no name.

She gently ate food when offered by my colleague, appearing grateful without being greedy, so very sweet and gentle. And dying. We had no choice. She had to be euthanised. I cannot imagine the depth and the length of her suffering - at human hands.

At that moment I broke. I saw her end of life in my mind’s eye, I felt as much of her pain as I could feel not being her. It was as if I was experiencing her trauma, her wasting distress at the moment that she lay dying, and I couldn’t handle it. Vicarious trauma. I decided to see a trauma therapist.

What I learned with this therapist is that what I’ve been doing with the second half of my life is trying to find futures for these wonderful creatures who know no future, who wait in a cage for something good to happen. I find futures for the cats when I, as a gay child, felt and saw no future. In a way, I am all of them - all these cats, waiting for futures, for homes, for families - they are me now when I was young then.

I am trying to pay it forward for them. When I fail, or feel that I have failed an animal - as we, society, failed this cat - I am saddled with pain.  I feel that existential loneliness inside their burning distress. The future, her future at that precise moment, our futures, extinguished.

What I also learned is that I had failed myself as a teenager. I had so many opportunities to come to terms with who I was and I failed each and every one - a gentle question from my mom; another question from that friend whom I was in love with; an observation from a school buddy that when I got high on weed I became a little effeminate.

A little backstory - a lot of my friends socialised in guy/girl groups, boyfriends and girlfriends, but that wasn’t an option for me so I joined the “weed heads”, the kids who socialised around marijuana. I hid - or tried to hide - my sexuality by joining that social group, and yet I was failing even here. Genuine panic. What was my response? I made sure to squash any “femmy” behaviour, as we called it, and became oh-so-masculine when high.

Then, as a teen, I was talking with my therapist one day and he inelegantly observed that I didn’t have a girlfriend and inquired as to why. I ducked and weaved, smiling and joking, but I couldn't stop my armpits from sweating profusely. He saw this and again, very inelegantly, commented. I ducked and weaved again. I never went back. My anxiety wasn’t vicarious, it was personal.

I don’t know how many people get to say this, but my life completely changed forever on a single day in May of 2011 when I went out on my first “case” as a volunteer with the ASPCA’s Field Investigation and Response Team to the site of the Joplin, Missouri tornado.

Joplin was an EF5 tornado that killed hundreds of people, destroyed an entire town and left more than 1,200 dogs and cats homeless.

When I arrived in Joplin, I was a theatrical lighting designer and a volunteer in animal welfare. When I left Joplin I was on a path to become a professional in animal welfare. 

What changed in me is something that isn’t generally taught or experienced under the professional level - doctors, ministers, and therapists, as examples. I learned what it means to relieve suffering in another creature - in this case, a cat.

This cat - whom I named Petunia - was terrified. She couldn’t interact with people at all. I worked with her gently, every day and she became very friendly to me alone. With more time she warmed up to everyone, and became the happy cat she deserved to be. She came out, so to speak. Her unspoken thought, “I made it, I’m alive again, thank you!” being said by both of us at the same time.

The experience of relieving her suffering was so powerful that I don’t know how to describe it, but I will try. In animals that can’t speak for themselves, relieving their suffering is experienced as a gift they give back to you, selflessly, a wave of compassion from them to you and back to them - a type of love that flows in both directions at the same time. All of a sudden they have a voice, and it is pure love.

If you feel what I felt when I helped Petunia, you too would be forever changed. But for the starving cat, the only relief to suffering was death. The opposite and antithesis of what I learned in Joplin.

Everyday I try to pay myself back for what I gave up and lost as a teen by trying to pay lives forward into the future. A debt I owe them and myself that can never be fully repaid.

This work that I do on behalf of and in service to animals, without any glory for myself, reminds me always of one glorious thing, and that is our shared humanity. A humanity that was denied to me and that I denied to myself as a terrified gay child. A humanity that was given back to me by a cat named Petunia, and a deeply painful humanity that I am reminded of every time I think of that starving cat in the box. The cat who had no name.

(L-R) Stephen Quandt and his husband Thom Heyer. Photo: Anton Wei

About the writer

Stephen is a writer, author and certified feline behavior consultant with 20 years experience working with cats and dogs in the field and in shelters including the ASPCA where he worked in feline behavior, adoptions and rescue work and currently with the Animal Care Centers of NYC.

Stephen is the author of a new children’s book, Happy Comes Home and two webinarsDecoding the Mysteries of Cats, and The Dogs of Chernobyl: a Story of Hope and Resilience which he gives to the public through libraries as well as to NGOs, shelters, rescues, vet practices and companies. For more information, please visit Catbehaviorhelp.com and he can also be reached at stephen@catbehaviorhelp.com.

Across social media he can be found @catbehaviorhelp and on TikTok @cat_behavior_help. He is married to artist Thom Heyer who illustrated Happy Comes Home and they have two cats, blind-from-birth Jenny who rules their home and her bestie, Cricket.

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