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David Garner

May 2006

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David Garner

About David Garner

Table of Contents

HIV Diagnosis

You were diagnosed in 1993. How did you find out you were positive?

I actually found out while I was still in the Navy. That time, from the mid-'80s on up, was quite an experience because, for the majority of my friends who found out they were positive, it was so secretive. They would take the test, and if they were positive, they literally disappeared within hours of finding out their status, because they were positive, of course. If they were positive, they were actually taken off of the ship, or the command, and taken directly to the hospital to be checked out. But at that time, [the military] told them they couldn't call anybody or say anything. That kind of scared us, because we're thinking, okay, you just took our friends away. We were kind of freaked out about that.

Did you know other people who disappeared from the Navy after they were diagnosed with HIV? Were they not allowed to talk about their diagnosis?

Well ... in the very beginning it took about a month until we heard from them. We heard that they were close, and I would think, OK, as long as you're OK. But as time went on the military, believe it or not, they actually were one of the first organizations to actually attempt to deal with HIV (members that had HIV) -- and they stumbled along. Some people reacted rather violently [to their diagnoses] and were rather sad. I myself -- because I saw my friends and I realized that I wasn't an angel, that I had been out there and had been sexually active -- I had a coin flip just as much as anyone else. At that particular time I had a partner, and he found out he was positive six months before I found out. He took it kind of hard because he was thinking he had infected me. I told him that it would be impossible for us to pinpoint.

What was your reaction?

I was rather calm when [I found out]. I remember -- it was one of those things you almost don't forget -- it was just prior to the ship leaving, and what they do, when the ship leaves and they're going to be gone for a while, they want to give you a physical. They give you a physical at least once a year. They make sure everybody takes an HIV test. I wasn't that surprised [at my test results], but I'll never forget. I came back from the weekend, because I had been with my partner at the time, and the ship was stationed in New York. I came back and I got to the ship and it was about six in the morning. I changed into my uniform and I was getting ready to go and join the rest of my co-workers when one of my bosses, one of my supervisors came down and said, "You need to go see the captain. The captain needs to see you right now."


The captain?

Yes. The CO [commanding officer] of the ship. He had to give me my report according to Navy regulations at the time.

Would that happen with any health report or was it only because your test had come back positive?

It was basically because it was HIV. But I think now they've kind of mellowed out to where they put you in with the medical people. They've since mellowed out, but it was pretty cloak-and-dagger at that time.

At the time I was already preparing myself to leave because I was going to be getting out of the military anyway. So I thought, OK, maybe this is my exit interview. I'm thinking, OK, fine. So I go up there and we talk about everything. I mean, we talk about everything under the sun. This man barely knew who I was. I mean he knew who I was, but it wasn't personal. We're talking about all these other things and I'm thinking, "OK, why am I here?" I didn't say anything.

So finally he spit it out. He said, "So, one of my duties as your commanding officer is that I need to tell you the results of one of your tests -- of some of the tests that you took." Finally he spit it out. "It has come to be that you are HIV positive."

Now, unbeknownst to me, outside the door was the executive officer, the second in command, and two chaplains, who were standing out there just waiting -- I guess for me to fall out, cry, whatever else. I was actually quite calm. They thought I was psychotic, because I was just too calm. They were saying, "He's gonna blow! He's gonna blow!" And I said, "No, I'm actually OK."

Why were you so calm?

Well, like I said, I had friends, and I saw them when they went through it. I had pretty much accepted some things about myself. You know, not that I was gloom and doom, but I wasn't surprised. I was a little shocked, but I wasn't shocked to the point of thinking, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do?" That came a little later. Initially I thought, "Alright, it finally happened. Take a deep breath. I need to move. I need to keep going." But the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it with them.

Well, they weren't close, personal friends, were they?

Right, and besides, like I said, it was kind of weird, the whole conversation in the beginning, and now they're asking, "Well, how do you feel?" I said, "Sir, I'm really OK. I just need to find out what happens next, and what I need to do."

One of my good friends was working in the ship's office. He saw me, but he had to keep quiet, because he knew [about my test results]. They told him to make up my orders to go to the naval hospital in Bethesda, and he couldn't tell me. So after I came down from seeing the CO, he was in tears. He said, "Oh, my God, man, I am so sorry."

How long had he known?

They probably got that message on Friday, so he knew all weekend. I didn't blame him. The people that had to type up the orders, they knew. But they were told, "Don't say anything," because they didn't want to spook me. They thought I might hurt myself or hurt someone. I kind of understand that. But at the time I was calm. This was the middle of October. I had actually taken the test in September, so it had taken a couple of weeks to come back -- that's long before we had all this quick stuff [rapid testing]. They asked me, "Well what do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I'm going to need some time to myself before I report." The CO said, "Well, look, we'll just make it travel time and we'll give you some leave time so you can have some time to yourself."

You took this leave after you went to the hospital?

No, this was before. This was while I was on my way. They didn't fly me right away, because I had to go from New York to Bethesda, Maryland, which is just outside Washington, D.C. My partner at the time lived in Philadelphia, which is in between [the two cities]. So they actually allowed me to spend a few days there and then I reported to the naval hospital in Bethesda. That was actually very good because I was able to just be calm, be with someone that cared about me, and just run through the feelings, run through the emotions -- cry, scream, kick, whatever. But at that time [when they gave me my test results], I just had to hold it together. Once I was there with my partner, we laughed, we cried, we spent a lot of time [together]. Let me see, that was Monday. So on Thursday, I was on my way to Bethesda, Maryland.

"[HIV] is a part of me, like my hair color, my foot size, the size of my body -- it's a part of me that is not going away."

How have your feelings about HIV changed since then?

Well, I've accepted HIV as far as I'm concerned. It's a part of me, like my hair color, my foot size, the size of my body -- it's a part of me that is not going away. I know people that say they hate their HIV, they hate the strain of the virus and everything. I don't necessarily hate it. I actually learned a lot from a psychologist that was at the national naval medical center in Bethesda.

You knew this psychologist back in 1993?

This was back in 1993 when I met him. He -- just to give you an idea -- he looked like the Crypt Keeper [from the "Tales from the Crypt" television series]. Literally. He was a very thin, frail man. He wore little bitty glasses. He cackled like him -- the whole nine yards. This was before they even had the Crypt Keeper. But one of the things he taught us was, you must love your HIV. Of course, when you say this to a room full of positive service members in the early '90s, we're looking at him thinking: You have lost your mind. What the hell are you talking about? What are you trying to say?

Through presenting it like that, he told us that your body reacts better to something you accept. Because you can actually manage it better. If you try to fight something you don't know about, you might eventually hurt yourself. It didn't make sense right then, but over time it made a lot of sense. I tell people that to this day. It helped me. I don't necessarily love my HIV, but I definitely accept it. I carry it. If I don't feel good, I don't always say, "Oh, it's HIV." It might be something else -- allergies, athlete's foot, a crick in my back. Not everything is HIV. But when it is, I think, okay, this is just the day for it, and I'm able to move forward.

"I'd say [it took about] a good year to really just grasp my diagnosis and hold on to it. There were days where I thought, man, I wish I didn't have this. I still have that thought, but it's not nearly as serious as it was."

How long do you think it took you to process your diagnosis completely? It sounds like you're at peace with it now.

Oh, yes. I would say, if I had to put a time limit on it, I'd say [it took about] a good year to really just grasp my diagnosis and hold on to it. There were days where I thought, man, I wish I didn't have this. I still have that thought, but it's not nearly as serious as it was. But when I thought it then, it was. A lot of my friends that I knew were positive, they actually jumped on me pretty tough, because I had been negative and then I turned up positive. They said, "What are you doing? You see us. You see what we go through. Why? What happened?" And they were friends, so after they ragged me out pretty good I said, "OK. But if it weren't for you guys, I wouldn't be able to do as well as I can."

What would you say to someone who has just tested positive? Do you have those kinds of conversations in your work?

Yes. I've had them once or twice and I find it's better to be straightforward and almost blunt. Not blunt to the point of hurting someone, but just not sugarcoating it. Like I said, I was working [in] HIV testing and I had to tell a couple, because one of them was positive and one of them wasn't. I had a female partner with me, and she took the female, and I took the male. The male was positive and the female wasn't. But they insisted, "Oh, no, we've got to be together. We're going to take this together." So I sat them down and said, "OK, here's the result of your test." I had them look at it the same time I did. I put my finger on it and I said, "It says here that you are positive." I swear, it was the weirdest thing. They just looked at each other. You could almost see the words going between them: "What happened? How did it happen? Why you? Why not me? What did you do? Who were you doing?" But there was about five to 10 minutes of just unspoken silence. They'd look at the paper. They'd look at each other. They'd look at us.

The good thing about it is, here in Texas they do some very good training on PCPE, which is Prevention Counseling and Partner Elicitation. They try to get the partners to come in and be tested, once they find out one of them is positive. They try to get them into services as quickly as possible. So after they'd been quiet for a while I said, "Okay." I immediately went into the, "This is where you can go. You can go here. You can go here and get treatment. You can go tomorrow. All you need is an ID and this paper," and everything like that. "You don't have to worry about dying today." That's one of the things I always try to tell them: You don't have to worry about dying today. Because dying is something we cannot bank on. We know it's going to happen, we just can't put a time on it. So you don't have to put a time on it now.

"HIV has allowed me to be a little bit more awake and aware of what's going on in my life, not to take my health for granted, not to take my time for granted, not to take my family, my loved ones for granted."

You've been living with HIV for 13 years. How would you say it's changed you?

Let me say it like this: For me, finding out I was HIV positive was like being asleep and all of a sudden someone is holding one of those Big Ben alarm clocks with the great big bells on it and it's going off about two inches from your face. That's what HIV has done. HIV has allowed me to be a little bit more awake and aware of what's going on in my life, not to take my health for granted, not to take my time for granted, not to take my family, my loved ones for granted. I didn't take them for granted before but I definitely don't do it now.

Personal Bio

Tell us about your family. You mentioned that you have a daughter.

Yes, I have a daughter. She is 21, and she has a son. He'll be two this year. I am a grandpa. That's the majority of my family. I'm still very friendly and involved with the family as much as I can be. Her mother and I still get along pretty good. My dad was a major part of my family; he passed about two years ago.

The other part of my immediate family is my partner. My partner lives here with me. He's a couple of years younger than me -- he's 40; I'm 45. He works as a nurse's aide and he's studying for his nurse's degree.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Dallas, Texas.

What was it like when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?

Oh, wow. You make me think back far. Well, when I was younger I had a pretty vivid imagination. I thought a lot about what I wanted to be. Of course, when I was little, I think my father would tell me I wanted to be a scientist. Actually, he always told me that he and my mother wanted me to go into science, but that was just a momentary thing. When I was younger, I always felt a lot of pleasure from helping people. It really didn't matter what it was. One of my first jobs when I was younger was actually babysitting, along with paper routes and other things, but I never minded helping people. If I was helping people, I was doing OK.

So, as a child, I wanted to be a leader. I also had a secret ambition to be on the stage. I actually did a very little acting when I was in school. I did little things within the school system and had a lot of fun doing it.

What kind of work are you doing with SEARCH in Houston?

SEARCH is one of the larger homeless facilities in Houston. We are a day shelter. We provide some of the more basic services for homeless people, such as showers. They can do laundry. We serve one meal [daily] Monday through Friday. We also have other services. People that come there to provide the services -- such as the local county hospital district -- offer a "gold card" so [the participants] can get hospitalization. We have a representative from the Social Security Administration. We also have representatives from the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] and our local mental health authority.

That's quite an array of services.

Yes, and actually it's been going on now for ... I think this is 17 years. It's been growing every year. I am a case manager there. I see, on average, about six to eight people a day, and that turns out to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 120 a month. But at the same time, one of my specialties is working with people who are HIV positive -- who freely admit or report that they're HIV positive -- and I help connect them to services such as housing. With the homeless, that's your number one [priority]; you always want a place to stay. I help connect them to other services, and advocate for them as much as I can.

You've said you like helping people. What other kinds of work have you done besides your work at SEARCH?

That's another one of those challenging questions. One of my first actual serious jobs was as a lifeguard. I was also trained to teach people how to swim. I did that for four summers -- from the time I was about 15 all the way up until I was 19. By that time I was in college. Like I said, I had paper routes and I did babysitting jobs. I have to say, honestly, that I had jobs at fast food places, anything like that.

My first real serious job was probably when I went into the military. I joined the military at what I consider to be a late age of 23. I was actually in [college], but I had discovered that the fraternity parties were a lot more interesting than what I was studying, so I wasted some time in school. [Going into the military] was more like a promise I made. My mother died when I was six from lupus [systemic lupus erythematosus]. She and my father set aside some money for me to go to school, which I didn't know about until I actually started going to school. I realized I was kind of wasting my time in school, because my grades just kind of fell off, and I said, "Well, if I have the opportunity to make it up to her, I'm going to." I wasn't really sure what that [opportunity] was going to be until I accompanied a friend of mine to a recruiting station. This was in 1982.

This was the Navy?

Well, yes. I went into the Navy recruiting station. My friend -- who turned out to be the mother of my daughter -- she went in to the Marines. Now what's odd enough about it -- she talked me into going because she wanted me to support her, but when I went into the recruiter's station, I signed up, she didn't.

So she didn't ever sign up or she just didn't sign up that day?

No, she decided against it.

It's interesting how things work out like that.

It's funny. So right about then I decided to get into the military. Although I went through some trials and tribulations there, I look back on it as a time when I really matured. I spent 13, almost 14, years in the military. I matured a whole lot. When I was in the military, I was trained to be a sonar technician, which means we look for things under the water, through sound waves and things like that. Also, I was a career counselor; I did that for the last five years I was in the military. That was very, very fulfilling and kind of foreshadowed the things I wanted to do from there.

Working with people?

Exactly. Once I got out of the military, I actually started volunteering at an organization in Washington, D.C., called Us Helping Us, People Into Living [founded by Bishop Rainey Cheeks]. I worked under Dr. Ron Simmons [President and CEO]. He developed an outreach program where we would go out into the gay bars -- the gay bars that were populated by African-American gay and bisexual men -- and we would give out condom kits. He developed the program; I actually started out as a volunteer, and then about two years later he actually hired me to run the program. I started volunteering in 1992, in 1994 he hired me, and I worked there until I left Washington, D.C., to move back to Houston to be with my daughter.

My daughter and her mother had lived in Houston for the majority of the time I was in the military, and she was becoming a teenager and ... I'd already been away from her for a long time. So I didn't want to be away from her any longer. When I got here, I actually got into more work with HIV prevention; I started working more on the testing side. I learned how to draw blood and do testing for one of the organizations here called Bread of Life. I did that for two years and I worked with various other HIV organizations.

I went back to college and got my associate's degree in applied science and human service technology with a specialty in licensed chemical dependency counseling. I graduated from that [program] in December 2004. I worked for the local mental health authority. In turn I started working at SEARCH. I also want to say that I did a year's worth of internships at SEARCH before I even came there [as a full-time employee].

A year's worth of internships?

Yes. The first part of it was for my school. I was familiar with working with the homeless population through Bread of Life, because that's one of the things they did: They fed the homeless and provided a few things for them.

SEARCH was founded by a council of churches. Are you a religious or spiritual person yourself?

I consider myself to be a spiritual person more than a religious person. My dad had a little bit of a problem with the Baptist church when I was younger, so I was raised more in the Lutheran religion. That showed me a lot because I was able to see more differences by being an African-American young man and going to predominantly white congregations and worshipping with them and still going to some of my friends' churches, which were Baptist or Church of Christ or Methodist. I got to see a lot more religion so I strayed away from religion, so to speak, and I think I'm more spiritual now. I'm presently looking for a church. I like church, but the last church I went to, I kind of disagreed with the pastor a little bit, so it was time for me to go.

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