This Positive Life: Tyrone Lopez on Being an HIV-Positive Voice in the Tohono O'odham Nation
August 1, 2013
You said that the doctor was wearing a military uniform. Where were you living at the time? Was it a military base?
No. I was living in Phoenix. It was through IHS, Indian Health Services. They have military uniforms that they wear sometimes; Corps uniforms, as they call them. His was white, so I don't know which corps -- I think it was Navy Corps, or something like that. Because the nurse, actually, that took care of me -- he was a nurse later on -- he became the STD person, if I remember right. And then he became my case manager. So, we've always had a long history together.
I could be free with him, talk to him about whatever was going on. It was just amazing that we kind of followed each other, in a sense. But the doctor had left. And then after he had left, there was one, two ... probably about four other doctors that I've seen. And now, I currently see my doctor, who was my diabetes doctor.
Oh, you're diabetic, also?
And this is in Tucson, with your current doctor?
No. I actually travel from Tucson to Phoenix for my appointments. I know there are some great HIV clinics in Tucson, but I feel comfortable going back to Phoenix and dealing with my own doctor, who I have a relationship with, and who knows me. In fact, he nominated me for the International Indigenous Working Group in D.C., in July. I was very happy.
That's awesome. And it's still through Indian Health Services that you're seeing him?Yes.
You were starting to talk about disclosing to your community. How did that go? First, with your family, if you've done that, and then with the wider community.
The first time I disclosed wasn't really to my community; it was to my parents. I was supposed to be going to tribal council and talking about a person living with HIV/AIDS. My parents were both on dialysis, and sickly. I didn't tell them anything for two years. And they said, "Oh, we're going to go with you." I was like, "OK."
So you shared it with your parents?
So I shared it with my parents. My dad was hard of hearing, number one. He was an amputee from diabetes. He was also on dialysis. Hypertension, as well. So, he was watching TV. My mom's, basically, the same medically, except for she didn't have any amputations. But her hearing was a lot better than my dad's. So, when I was reading this letter, my dad heard my mom crying and asked her what's wrong.
She said, "Tyrone said he has AIDS." After that, my dad just kind of looked at me and said, "Son, I can't do anything for you."
I said, "I know. But you can pray for me."
After my mom got through crying, she wanted to know more. But a month later, she died. And then two weeks later, my dad died. So, within two months, I lost both my parents. In fact, I buried my dad on Christmas Eve.
Have your relationships with family members changed at all since they found out and/or you told them you were positive?
No, not really. My roommate at the time, who was the one that took me to the hospital, every time I went to see my doctor, would ask me what my viral load was; what my CD4 count was; have I missed a dose of medication, am I taking it on time, when I'm supposed to; and everything else. He was a great friend to have. And I still see him in Tucson.
My two brothers, we talk. They treat me like everybody else. Our relationship hasn't changed. My sister: like I said, I think she knows, because in 2006, on World AIDS Day, I actually came out, and they were broadcasting it on the radio for the nation. So I figure she probably knows. But she hasn't said anything about it. My mom's sisters, probably both of them know. One of them, in particular, said, "I wish I was there when you told your mom." And I told her, "I probably wouldn't have told you."
Because it took me a while to decide how I was going to tell my parents. And so, of course, I had everybody lining up, shaking hands, and giving me hugs and everything else. The one that stood out the most was my god-sister. She came, and she was crying, and said, "How come you didn't say anything?" I was like, "I don't think it was the right time, at the time." And I told her I'd be fine. No problem.
And she just would not let me go for a while. She just held on to me. It was, like, OK. But when I went back to my village, I had to talk to people. Of course, they were drinking, and drunk, and like, "We heard you on the radio!" I was like, "O-kay."
But one of my dad's friends who was standoffish, he motioned for me to come over. I knew he wanted to say something, but he just didn't know what to say. He shook my hand. And I told him, "I'll be fine. Don't worry." I said, "If that's what you're thinking about, you know, about my health, don't worry about it. I'll be fine." He just kind of smiled and went back to what he was doing.
Other than that, like I said, coming out to the community is a little bit different sometimes. My predecessors ... the first one in the family: Nobody knew he was getting hate mail.
Wait. Your predecessors? I'm sorry.
Those that were positive that came out before I did on the nation. One of them was getting hate mail, and they didn't find out until after he had passed on.
So far, I haven't really encountered any backlash or anything like that. I think that is since a lot of our people have been out -- not a lot, but quite a few have been out -- and we invite them for World AIDS Day and for Native American Awareness Day so people can have an idea. We have a client that's 72 years old, if I remember right, and she comes out. She talks. And she talks in O'odham, which is our language. She tells her story in our language, and then we have a translator for those that don't know.
With all that, I think a lot of it has come down where a lot of people are kind of OK with it -- maybe still a little scared, but not quite.
It sounds like there's been some change around that. The people who have come out as positive before you had different experiences, but maybe through them doing that, it's opened the way for loads of people to be open and receive education, and all of that.
Yeah, I think that's what has happened. I'm grateful for them. But I feel sorry that they didn't quite make it to this point. People just didn't understand what was going on with them, they were still afraid and, like I said, sending them hate mail. I would think it would be tough on them at that time.
Definitely. Since we're on the topic, tell me a little bit about your background. It sounds like you have a big family. And you have referred to your nation, but what nation are you part of? Which area did you grow up in?
I'm part of the Tohono O'odham nation, but I lived in Phoenix the majority of my life. My family: my dad had 12 brothers and sisters. The majority of them are gone; all the boys are gone, at least. There's probably about five women left. My oldest aunt is in her 80s. My youngest is probably getting toward her 60s. On my mom's side there was, to my knowledge, four of them. They're four sisters. Two of them, my mom and her youngest, have passed on. The other two, they're still around.
I wonder how it is to be a member of the LGBT community in your nation, and in the area where you grew up.
I came out probably a long time ago. First of all, my dad took me to breakfast one day. There was a gay bar in Phoenix, and it was called 307, and I would go there. I was getting in there when I was like maybe 15, 16. He'd seen me go in there one time. He asked me straight out, "So, are you gay?"
At the time, I didn't date a guy, and I didn't date a girl. I told him, "I don't know. I just enjoy watching the shows." He was like, "OK." And so he left it. But then -- I think it was about a year or two later -- I decided I was gay, because I was looking at more men than anything else.
I was trying to tell my mom; it took me three tries before the last time. I turned off all the lights, unplugged the phone, took her into my room and sat her down and told her I was gay. She's like, "We know. You've been bringing [more] guys over than girls." I was like, "Oh, OK." It was kind of funny at the time. My mom, she told me, "Well, if you're going to be dating another guy, then you need to learn how to cook for sure. Because, like they say, 'a man's heart is through the stomach.'"
And so I'd learned how to cook beforehand. But I think they'd already seen the signs when I was a lot younger.
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