I'd like to ask you a few questions about racial identity and HIV. You're African American -- when did you first become aware of that?
I actually read that when [you sent the interview questions to me] and I thought, "What in the world?" But I thought about it for a minute and it's a fair question. I was born in the '60s, and I remember coming home and finding my dad in front of the TV when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed and he was about in tears. That's just one of the things I remember. You always say, "Well, where were you during this?" When I grew up, when I first remembered things, we were black. Actually, excuse me, let me back that up, we were negro. In the '70s we became black, you know, it was "black this" and "black that." My father really didn't like the word black or negro too much; he was kind of from the colored phase. So it took him a minute to come off the colored and join the black term[inology].
Then, as I got to be a young person, a young adult person, I heard the term African American. At first, I thought, well I'm not really from Africa; I'm of mixed race. Let me just say this right. I've got some relatives from Louisiana [who are] Geechie. It's another word for Cajun, or someone from southern Louisiana who's French. But I'm mostly a black man, when it comes down to it. Actually, to not get away from your question, I first realized I was African American more along the lines of when I became a teenager. This was like in the middle '70s. Middle to late '70s.
Was there a definitive moment?
No, it was more like just the passing of time. At one point, it wasn't cool to be called negro, we were black. Then at another point, it wasn't cool to be black anymore, it was African American. Now I'm seeing with my nieces and nephews and my daughter's friends it's not cool to be that, you've got to be the N-word.
We've come full circle?
In ways of looking at it, yes.
How have you learned to deal with racism?
I've kind of had to develop a slightly thick skin, because being an African-American or black man, I not only had to deal with racism from people who weren't black, or were white or whatever, I had to deal with racism from other people like me because of the way my hair looked. My hair is mostly straight. When I was younger, because I went to school -- it's funny that this book would come out right about now. There's an actor, Joseph C. Phillips, who did a book and the title of it is He Talk Like a White Boy.
Is it a novel?
It's a book where he's challenging the younger African-American men to step up and be more of a man like it used to be. He actually got the title because he took a little bit more time to talk proper, and when I heard it, he talked white. You know, he talked like a white boy. I got that a lot when I was younger. I didn't really understand it because I thought, that means they don't like me because I talk differently or look differently or my hair's different. That's why they don't like me? And it took me a while to just put my hands around that.
What would you say -- given all the experience you've had -- is the biggest challenge facing the African-American community today in terms of HIV?
The biggest challenge is a chosen ignorance of the facts. I'll explain that. I've spoken in front of churches, schools, many races, the whole nine yards. The one thing I still find, in 2006, is that people don't get that it can happen to them. Especially African Americans. You see, African Americans are separated, [because they think], well, I'm not homeless, or I'm not gay, or I'm not a drug user. Still they're doing it. The younger kids: "Well, I'm not gay or I don't have sex with a lot of people." Of course, we know, you don't have to have sex with a lot of people.
You can be straight, gay, whatever, have sex with only one person ...
I always put it to them like this, "If you have one unprotected sexual experience," and I'm not even going to get specific, "I'm saying one unprotected sexual experience where you traded bodily fluids, you have had an opportunity to be HIV positive." And that usually quiets a room down real fast. But I'm still amazed that people choose not to grasp and hold onto that fact, because it really can happen to them.
Are there any specific aspects of African-American culture or identity from which you draw strength yourself?
Not necessarily African-American culture, but the identity. My dad, I love my dad. I always have. I've always looked up to him. We've butted heads more times than I can count. But one of the things I always admired about him was, if he believed something he stood tall and proud, no matter what it was. If he was wrong, you had to prove him wrong, and he had to accept it. When he accepted it, [he'd say], "Okay, you're right." Only then would he back down. But he was very adamant that if you believed in something, you needed to believe in it wholeheartedly and you needed to believe in yourself wholeheartedly, because if you don't, no one else will.
It sounds like your father was a wonderful role model.
As a man with a male partner and as an African American, what is your experience having that dual identity?
When I was younger, I got called all kinds of names -- sissy, faggot, punk -- before I even knew what it was. Before I even understood what it was. So early on I understood that people could dislike me just for me being me. I didn't have to say anything to them. I don't have to do anything to them. They just can. That helped me kind of look at things a little differently and not to take everything personally. Because some people who didn't like me didn't know me. If they obviously didn't want to know me, I didn't have to waste my time trying to explain myself.
So that helped me out a lot. Then, when I found out I was gay, that was just another part of me. I accepted my own reality of being gay in high school, in my junior or senior year of high school. I had always thought about these things, but I was scared to acknowledge them, because that would make me bad, that would make me a bad person. My dad wouldn't love me if he knew. Actually, I held onto that statement for a long time. I found out later that he didn't like it, but he still loved me.
It took me a long time to just present that truth as it was. In the beginning, the only thing I was really worried about was whether or not my dad loved me. Everything else I could take or leave. But I ... would have to say that if I ever heard or understood that to be true [that my father didn't love me], if I had confirmation of it, I would probably come close to hurting myself, if I ever found that out. But I never did, because those were my own fears just kind of jumbled up and tripled up inside of me. But like I said, [being gay has] just been another brick in the wall for me.
And just to give you an example, I've done speaking engagements, I've been on local TV, I've been in churches, all this kind of good stuff. Now my partner, he's different. He doesn't necessarily hide the fact that he's gay, but he's not going to tell you, he's not going to demonstrate. Of course, he teases me all the time, "Well, all bets are off when they see me with you." And that's fine. I don't mind about that. But I know that I've got to temper my honesty sometimes because I don't want to insult him. I don't want to insult who he is to everybody else. So I have to respect that, and I do. I don't have a problem with it. But I do know that since we've been together, he's been more comfortable being who he his and can even come out and do some things with me.
It sounds like he might draw some strength from you.
Yes. I like to say that, whereas I'm outgoing, he's reserved. He'll tell me not to be so outgoing, and I'm always telling him, "You could be a little bit more outgoing." He actually causes me to look at some things I need to be cautious of.
That's partnership -- you balance each other out. How long have you two been together?
In February we celebrated three years.
What change would you like to see in HIV treatment, prevention or education for African Americans?
I want to see the government loose their strings for education. They shouldn't go all abstinence; they should do across the board, straight up health education. HIV prevention should be included. Period. If a kid wants to be celibate, or wants to be abstinent, there's always that chance. But I get so mad when they say that's the only way. Yes, that's the only way, but there are a lot of kids who have chosen the other way. A lot of kids are sexually active for whatever reason, and so we don't want to just not reach out to them, you know, and tell them, "This is the only way." No, we want to tell them, "If you choose to do this, these are your choices to keep yourself safe." And not nearly enough has been done. Oh, yes, we've made some steps, we've made some progress, but not nearly enough.
Do you think the Bush administration is doing enough for the epidemic within the African-American community in the United States?
No. Not at all. I don't think they're doing enough. Whatever they're doing -- they're doing more for AIDS in Africa, which is fine, that's great. If you want to help the folks in Africa, I don't have any problem with that. But you've got problems here, too, that you need to address -- address in a manner that will help everybody, not just African Americans, but everybody. It was bad enough, you know, all those days that we heard about Ronny Reagan, [who] didn't say anything [about HIV] until later on in. George Sr. did a few things. Clinton did a lot more. But then Bush Jr.? What can I say?
You spoke earlier about talking with young people in the African-American community about HIV. What are your fears and hopes for the next generation as they face the risks of acquiring HIV?
I always look back to the time I actually had to tell my daughter that I was HIV positive. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. Now, I had told her that I had HIV, but at that time I don't think she really understood it, because she was eight. She came to visit me when she was about 11. She was a young woman. The last time I saw her she was just a little girl. When I picked her up from the airport, and she had on a training bra, and she was taller and wearing makeup, I thought, "Oh, my God. Where did my child go?"
I took her to the National Naval Medical Center, and I took her through the clinic, I let her talk to my nurse, and the people who were there and I introduced her. I told her as much as I could tell her without putting her on overload. She looked around, and she saw it and kind of took in as much as she could. She didn't not understand it. But while she stayed with me, I woke up one night and she was crying. I asked her, "Well, baby, what's wrong?" And she said, "Daddy, could you die from HIV?" And I said, "I could, but I'm not planning on it." And she said, "But how do you know?" And I said, "I don't. I'm not going to lie to you. I don't know. But I'm doing everything I can to be here, and so are the doctors and nurses I introduced you to."
So as she grew up and as I interacted with her friends, I always took the time to speak frankly about sex, sexual behavior and sexual responsibility. I think that still needs to go on, even from the home. I even challenge some of the churches. I tell them, "You need to start talking about it, because your kids are doing it." I remember when I was that age, coming up in church. You know, teenagers, hormones raging, you know, going on a bus trip, summer camp, whatever -- it can happen. But if you treat [sex] like the sacred thing you say it is, and you teach them to treat it with reverence, and you teach them how to use it and not to abuse it, it can work out a lot better. Kids will probably feel better about talking to you about it, too.
A couple of times, [when] I've talked to some kids in a church, I've always had at least one kid pull me into a corner and talk about how they just had sex and they're kind of scared. One young lady said she was pregnant and she didn't want to tell anybody. This isn't HIV. This is just the consequences of having sex. So you know, my daughter's of a generation that grew up with HIV. Now I'm looking at my grandson. They're going to grow up with it, too, but I don't want -- if I have anything to do with it -- I don't want those kids to take it for granted. I want them to understand that, to learn it like everybody [learns], "Okay, if I touch that pot, it's hot. If I do that, then I can do this." You know, just understand that it can happen, and it doesn't have to happen to them.
People just need the information.
Yes, and to take it seriously.
We'd like to hear about how your health has been -- what kind of treatment you're on, your HIV history.
I have been blessed. I have been blessed because, like I said, when I found out I was HIV positive, I was in the military, and I got sent to the National Naval Medical Center, which is right across from the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. So I was privy to a lot of the new treatments as they were coming out. Every doctor I've ever dealt with, I demanded one thing and one thing only from them: That they be forthright and upfront. Just ... don't paint any pretty pictures for me. Just tell me what it is. I don't need any, "Well, it could be ...." No, I want to know what it is. If it's ugly, I want to know it's ugly. So far it's been good. Like I said, I've had the opportunity to be at the forefront of at least two different studies that studied my body and my body's reaction to different medicines.
You were in clinical trials?
Yes. Well, clinical trials with the National Naval Medical Center. Right now I'm in a clinical trial with the VA.
Can I ask what you're taking?
Right now I'm taking [several] HIV meds. I am presently on Reyataz [atazanavir], tenofovir [Viread], Combivir [AZT/3TC] and ritonavir [Norvir]. I'm taking four diabetic meds, three high blood pressure meds and I take a multivitamin.
How are you feeling?
I'm doing pretty good. I get side effects, and they're usually manageable. Excuse me, let me take that back. I get used to them. I don't think they're ever manageable, but I just get used to them. The worst I've ever had [was when] a couple of times they caught me on both ends. I was throwing up and everything. But that's been a couple of years since that happened. But like I said, now it's pretty good. I just came from the doctor Tuesday. Actually my T cells [CD4 count] are up. They're higher now than they've ever been. They're 650 now.
Yes. They've been as low as 150. That was four years ago. So now they're up to 650. My percentage is up. My viral load is right at 52. Just barely detectable. I've actually been at this level for coming on two years now. So everything is good. The only thing they're fussing me about is my diabetes. I just found out I'm diabetic. Well, not just found out, about two years ago. I did find out that one of my [HIV] medicines was contributing to [my diabetes]. I actually wrote a letter to The Body about the effects of Kaletra [lopinavir/ritonavir] on diabetes. One of the doctors told me there was some study that did conclude that Kaletra did add to sugar levels. I literally had to print that out and take it to my doctor.
So you're not taking Kaletra anymore?
No, I am not. I've been off that for about eight months now. But I still have to modify my diet and everything. I can't eat sugar like I want to.
It's not as rough as it sounds. I know my weaknesses. I like Coke and Mr. Goodbar. I can't have those. I can drink Coke Zero, though.
You were talking about how important it is to you that your doctor gives you the message directly and doesn't hide any details from you. Do you feel that your doctor has treated you as an equal partner in your health care?
Yes, she has. She ... [is] from Latin America; [her name] is Dr. Maria Rodriguez-Barradas. She stands about five foot one, and she has to look up at me. She's always saying, "You know, Mr. Garner, you have to take care of yourself. You have to exercise. You have to watch your sugar." And I'm used to this now. I would have the nurses falling out, until she walked in and said, "Oh, you think you're funny." But on the real side, she is the main doctor here at the Houston VA, and she is a whip. She is good. She's also in charge of one of the studies I'm on. So she is also involved with research, and she's good. She is good.