This Positive Life: An Interview With Enrique Franco
November 11, 2009
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In general, how do you find the health services that you get from Veterans Affairs and the care they offer?
In the Army, I give them a lot of credit. They don't let us openly serve as homosexuals, but when they found that I was HIV positive, they took care of me. They really made sure that I got to see an infectious diseases doctor somewhere in Texas. They got me with the VA and they asked me where I was going to be moving to. When I let them know it was Arizona, they immediately contacted the VA in Arizona, and it was smooth. It took some time, because I had to physically meet the people in Arizona, but it was a smooth transition.
Yes, I'm getting my health services through the VA in Tucson.
Are you satisfied with how they're caring for you?
Yes, they jumped right on the ball. The doctor there himself over at the VA is an infectious diseases doctor. I wasn't going to have it any other way. I would have just gone to some clinic at some hospital in Tucson. With that in mind, I said, yes, this is acceptable.
I just wanted to find out more about how it was to be part of the Army. What did you like so much about it?
The Army was pretty neat. Before I joined the Army -- living out in California -- I mainly hung out with Latinos and Mexicanos. I was not a racist or prejudiced, but I was just used to being around Mexicanos. I never cared for any other type of person.
But when I joined the Army, I couldn't live like that anymore. The Army integrates a lot of different people: a white guy from Kentucky with a black guy from Brooklyn and then me from California. It forces people to change, whether they like it or not, for the better. I didn't see people in colors from then on, I just saw people as just being people. That was pretty cool, because when I left it I took that with me. I'm grateful for that because it allowed me to mature as an individual.
What about being gay in the Army? What was that like? How open can you be?
That one is really ironic with everything that happened with me. When I decided to come out because I didn't want to live a lie anymore, I was a sergeant at the time. All my friends that I'm pretty sure are still serving currently and are gay: They're the ones that were mad at me, not the other ones. [The ones who weren't gay] were like, "Oh, it's cool. It's not a problem." But my friends that were gay, they just got really upset. They said, "You didn't have to tell anybody. Don't ever say anything about us. They're going to inquire. They're going to question you."
I said, "I'm not being honest with myself. I love the Army, I love my country, but I'm a person. If I can love my country and do what I've done and I'm a sergeant and everything, am I going to change from Sergeant Franco to, all of a sudden, this guy who's gay, the gay guy?"
Gay people should be able to serve, period -- openly without any problems or repercussions. I was just tired of it.
I explained that to my boyfriend at the time because he was getting ready to move on to another base and he said, "We have to end it." I told him, "It's not fair because if I was a girl then we could have gotten married. The Army would have moved me to where you're going. Just because we're both guys, it's not supposed to be accepted. You go, and I'm never going to see you again. That's it, the end of the relationship. No!"
At that moment, I said, "I can't do this anymore." That's when I went to my supervisor and I just said, "You know what, it's not a girl I just broke up with. It's a guy and this is what's going on." I just had to be honest with myself. All the accomplishments, they can't take that away from me. Everything I've accomplished in the Army, I accomplished as a person. It's not changed or disqualified just because I'm gay.
I hope it will change in the next few generations, because the younger generation now is going to laugh and go, "That was stupid." The way my mom's generation was with African Americans. Their generation fixed it, changed it. I'm pretty sure that in two or three more generations they're going to change it and they will have service members serving openly with no problem. I mean, it's not a big deal. I love the Army to death, I still do. It's just one policy that I don't agree with.
You talked about the people that worked with you when you were a sergeant. They were the ones who were mad. Do you think the reaction was because you left them or because you were gay? What do you think the reaction was?
One of them who I knew for years came up to me and said, "How dare you. It's not a big deal."
I said, "Then why are they going to kick me out if I said that? Obviously, it is a big deal."
They thought that I broke the code of silence, but in order to change things you've got to break the code. If you just lie there and accept what's going on, then it's always going to stay that way. I'm not calling myself a catalyst by any means, but one of the majors, before I left he said, "You're throwing it away. You're throwing your career away, blah, blah, blah."
I said, "No I'm not. I'm just one of the casualties of what's going on right now, sir. I truly believe that later on down the road this generation, these kids who are growing up right now, will be future senators and future leaders and they'll just be laughing at that idea." It's a tough trade.
How open could you be? It was a secret, you mentioned, right? Was it possible to be somewhat open without breaking the code?
It's acceptable as long as you're not real flamboyant about it. If we had a unit picnic or a unit family gathering and you brought your lover, I'm pretty sure that would be a no-go and they would nail you. As long as you never acted blatantly homosexual, then they really didn't say anything.
But they're still wrong! Every individual should have that option. I got out over an option. I should have the option. If somebody came up to me and asked me, I could say "yes" instead of lie to myself and to everybody else and say, "No, I'm not." That's a lie! I left the Army over an option.
Within the Army, is it easy to meet other gay men?
No, it's not really that easy. Being a gay man, I could tell through nonverbal communication like eye movement or the way we talk with each other. I could pick up on something if the other person's gay or not. But it's very, very, very risky because if I assume that somebody is [gay] and I approach them, I get nailed.
What I would do is I would just wait until I was off duty and off post. Then if I saw somebody that I knew was a fellow soldier in a gay bar, then I would talk to them. Then it would be acceptable. Never do it in uniform. It's unprofessional, anyway, to do it in uniform.
Has your sex life changed since you were diagnosed HIV positive? Has anything changed in the way you behave?
Yes, it has, dramatically. I was responsible, but I was very, very promiscuous. I'm responsible, and now I like to screen people before I initiate any type of physical intimacy or anything like that.
Are you in a relationship?
Yes, I am, sir.
How was that? Did you reveal to your partner your status right away? How was that interaction?
Actually, he contacted me. He was a friend of one of my other friends. He's also positive himself. At that point I decided that the only relationship that I want now is to be with somebody else that's positive. That's another game, the negatives, that's a whole other lifestyle, and I'm not in that lifestyle anymore. I want to be with somebody who can understand my disease.
It's cool, because if I get sick he knows what to do and he knows how to take care of me. If he gets sick, I know what to do and how to take care of him, both emotionally and with the hospital and everything. So it works out pretty well.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like baseball. I'll play baseball, or go out and play catch with my boyfriend or watch a baseball game -- especially during the season. If it's in the season, everything stops pretty much and I'll sit down and watch a Yankee game, because I'm a diehard Yankees' fan.
What about religion? Are you a religious person or spiritual person? Do you go to church or any of that?
Before all of this, I was deeply into my Catholic church and wanting answers and all that stuff. But today I see it differently. I'm more of a spiritual person. For me, God works in people instead of a building or an organization or something like that. I know the church doesn't see it that way, but I feel closer to God if I'm more spiritually active rather than religiously active.
|Enrique as a little boy in California.|
|Enrique's childhood school photo.|
Yes. When I was 12 years old, my Mom used to give me these plastic soldiers and the paints for them. I felt kind of nerdy doing that, but I didn't stop doing that until I was 16 years old. I didn't care what was going on outside the world, I would just sit in my room and paint the soldiers and make sure the details were perfect.
I wanted to be a soldier and I thank God that I had the opportunity to be a soldier for as long as I had the shot to. It was awesome.
What do you do now for a living now that you're out of the Army?
I am a contractor for the Army. It's cool, because now I get to work for them.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Santa Barbara, California.
And your background is Mexican?
Yes, sir. Mexican American, third generation.
Third generation, wow. How is being HIV positive viewed in your community? Are you in touch with them or another Hispanic community where you live?
Yes. I find it odd because it's different within the Latino community in Arizona as well as where my mom is, in San Diego, California. They accept it, but it's like in the family. They don't talk about it. I speak for myself, but I'm a very proud person, and I know a lot of my homeboys back home, we're very proud people.
I guess we treat it like the pink elephant in the living room. It's there, but we won't talk about it.
Even about my homosexuality. It's not spoken about; it's something that Enrique does on the side or whatever. They don't say bad things about it, but again it's not accepted as well. It's like caught in between. It feels really odd, because I get more support outside of my brothers instead of inside, where I think it should be the opposite.
What about in Arizona, do you notice a difference with the Hispanic community there? Or is it about the same?
It's pretty much about the same. I have more white friends here in Arizona than I do Latinos. They're very, very open and they're very, very warm. I don't want to downplay my people, you know; I don't want to say negative things about us. But I do know, being a Latino myself, that I'm very proud. I don't like showing any signs of weakness or any signs of failure. When it does occur, I don't want to show it.
What has your health been like since your diagnosis?
I can honestly say I am probably healthier physically right now than I was a year ago. I see it differently now when I go to the gym. Before, I just wanted to maintain the Army way, working out all the time and looking good and all that stuff. But now I see it as wanting to achieve what I have and wanting to maintain it. I just want to be able to enjoy life, so the only way I can enjoy life is if I continue to take care of my body: walk, run, play baseball, work out, and it's fine. It's not that bad.
So you think the HIV has impacted you in that way? Do you think it's made you a different person?
Yes. I truly do. It's made me take a closer look at myself, what I was doing with myself. It's made me be more responsible, more reliant on God. Before, I would pray if I wanted something or if I needed something. Now, I rely on Him more for other things besides spiritual things.
[I'm] vigilant as far combating the HIV. I know I have it and I don't want to forget I have it. I know I have to be very vigilant and not let the disease sneak up on me. If I put my guard down, as far as quitting the workout, I can hang my head and whatever. No. I can hang my head when I'm in the hospital getting ready to die. That's when I quit. But from right now until that day happens, I can't stop. I've got to keep moving forward. I have to.
Do you have a particular health regimen that helps you stay well? You mentioned the gym.
My doctor told me to try selenium and Echinacea, some herbal stuff, and I've been taking those on a regular basis. Pretty much the gym, and proteins, I take a lot of proteins with the protein shake. I eat a lot of fish. My boyfriend loves to cook fish a lot, so we eat a lot of fish, and a lot of that kind of stuff.
What HIV regimen are you taking currently?
I am not on any regimen right now.
You haven't started treatment?
No, sir. My last score for CD4 was 696 and my viral load was 10,000. [Editor's note: Since the interview, Enrique's CD4 count dropped to 315 and he started taking Atripla (efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC). His current CD4 count is 450 and his viral load is undetectable.]
How do you keep informed about HIV? How do you get your information about the virus and the treatment?
TheBody.com of course. I love The Body. As soon as I got diagnosed, I went on the Internet. I needed to see where I can go to get information that is up to date and concurrent, literally day by day, and The Body is one of them.
There's a site called AIDSmap [www.aidsmap.com] that I go to. It's a British site, a U.K. [United Kingdom] site. Pretty much those two, and my doctor, of course. When I have questions about certain medications, I ask my doctor.
Do you use any magazines? Do you read any magazines?
I read POZ magazine from time to time.
Do you think you're getting the best care possible with what you have now? Do you have a good relationship with your doctor?
Yes, yes, I couldn't ask for anything better. The infectious diseases doctors have a different mentality than a regular doctor.
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