November 11, 2009
Table of Contents
The U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy got Enrique Franco kicked out of the Army. It also, oddly, was the reason he found out he was HIV positive. As Franco explains in this moving interview, diagnosis turned his life upside down, but he's now standing tall. "This is my body, this is my life," he says. "I'm not going to stop living. I refuse to put my head down."
How did you find out that you were HIV positive?
It's an interesting story. I was about to get out of the United States Army on a chapter for homosexual conduct, which I self-admitted. I had to take a physical -- everyone has to take a physical when they leave the service. I asked for a blood check, just to make sure everything was straight.
It took about a month. Then they called me back to the hospital and said that my paperwork had to stop. I was very curious. I didn't ask why, but when the doctor sent me down, I kind of put two and two together and I let him do the rest of the talking. I pretty much figured out what he was going to tell me.
Do you have any hint how you got infected?
That one is another question for myself. I was pretty promiscuous when I was younger, but I always made sure that I used protection because I knew it was just going to be a one-time shot with some guy that I was with. But my last relationship was with another soldier and I fell in love really bad, and we stopped using protection.
To be honest, he was the only one that I never used protection with, but I don't think he gave it to me. Honestly, if he did, I wouldn't be as mad at him as I would if it were a stranger.
You haven't really spoken to this person about the issue?
No. We parted ways pretty difficultly and we haven't spoken since.
What happened when you first found out? What was your reaction?
|Enrique is a die-hard Yankees fan. Here he is in front of his truck.|
When I first found out, I immediately asked myself, "What do I have to do to fight this thing?" I teared up, though I didn't cry at all; I haven't cried yet. I want to be able to cry over this thing, but I immediately responded like a soldier.
What I mean by this is that when we deploy, when we go out to some place, it's real difficult on my family. But I always told them, because I've been deployed three times. The first time, I said I'm not going to call, I'm not going to write, I'll appreciate the stuff that you guys give me, but I'm going to focus on my mission at hand. When I come back home, then I'll do all that stuff.
I treated it like that. I treated it like -- I have HIV, I have to fight this thing now. I came up with all these plans of what I had to do, actions I have to take. Then maybe when I'm in the hospital and I'm dying, maybe then I'll start crying and letting it all out, but honestly, I see it like I don't have time for that right now.
Did you tell anybody about it initially?
Initially, I told one of my closest friends. It was kind of by accident. He was one of my soldiers at the time. A week after I found out, he had to be put in the hospital for spinal meningitis. I was his squad leader and I had to go visit him to make sure he was OK.
I was so paranoid when I first found out I had HIV. I was really, really paranoid about getting germs and I wanted everything clean, and I didn't want to eat out anymore using the forks and stuff. I went to go see him and I had the mask on and white surgical gloves on and everything.
He asked me several questions. He said, "Why do you have all that stuff on?"
I said, "Well, I'm just trying to protect myself, bro." That's when I said, "I've got to tell you something. I'm HIV positive."
He gave me a look of concern, not like he was mad or anything; he just said, "OK," and that was it.
Have your feelings about having HIV changed over time?
It has, yes sir. Initially, I was paranoid. All of a sudden, I didn't want to hug people. I felt like I was an alien or whatever. I didn't want to get anybody sick or anything like that. By the same token, I demanded people hear me say, "Hey, I have HIV now!"
My mom, still gets on me; she says, "Your HIV does not make who you are as a person. It does not define you."
Today, honestly, I can say that I treat HIV like it's a pebble in my shoe. I have it, and it's going to be there, and I can't take off the shoe and dump the pebble out. It's just going to be there. It bugs me sometimes, but I just have to learn to live with that.
How soon did you tell your family about the diagnosis? How long did it take you to talk to them?
That one was pretty difficult. I was stationed in the middle of Texas and on the way from Texas back to California is El Paso, and my baby brother lives in El Paso. I did not want to tell my family over the phone, but the first person I wanted to tell was my mother. It took about a month, because after that diagnosis, it took another month to fill out the paperwork. That month felt like forever for me, to keep the secret from my mom like this. It was very, very difficult. But I told myself, I'm not going to tell anybody over the phone because I'd be selfish if I did that. I had to see her in person.
When I was driving to El Paso to stop at my brother's house, I knew he was going to be mad at me after it all came out. But I knew if I would have told him, he would have told my mother on the phone before I got home, and my mom would have been very upset with me when I got there, so it was either my mom being mad at me or my little brother being mad at me for not telling him at all. So I didn't tell him, and I waited until I got to California to tell my mom.
Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened? It's a very powerful story. You spoke to your mother? How did she respond? How did you feel at that time?
It's interesting because my brother has trouble with the law sometimes and he was having trouble at that same time. When I went home, they were like, "OK, here comes Chico and he's a big sergeant. He's going to get on his brother's booty and get on him and everything."
They always thought of me as that strict military die-hard Republican type, loved the president and all that. When I went home, it was kind of hard. I don't like doing that with my mom especially. She's my confidant. But I had to tell her everything because she's my confidant. I knew she would understand, but I didn't know how she would react to it.
It wasn't as bad with the coming out with me being a homosexual. It was more so when I had to tell her I was HIV positive. She just had a single tear drop from her eye, and I didn't want to get mad at her, but I said, "Ma, don't worry about it. I know what I've got to do." She just had that one little tear, and she just shook her head, and that was it. I'm pretty sure that there were other things going on after I left the house, but they won't let me see it.
It was a difficult moment.
It was extremely difficult. I didn't want to disappoint her. Everything I'd accomplished -- I just didn't want to go home like a loser.
You have to understand: She's my mom; she will never see me like that. After everything was over and said and done, she still accepted me. My other family members -- they don't like it -- but they see her as an example, as the leader of the family because my dad's not around.
What about your brother? What did he say when you told him finally?
My mom didn't tell me. He shook it off like it was nothing. My mom told me later on -- like a month later -- that he was in his room crying for a couple of days, nonstop all-night crying, and that he was worrying about me. He is more machismo than I am. He won't ever show it.
I'm going to head over back to California for my birthday, and I'm just not even going to mention that. I don't want to deny it, but there's a time and place and I don't think it would be appropriate to mention that. I'll just live my life. I'd be more than happy to talk to him, but he's more machismo than I am, so ...
You've also told some friends, right?
Have you gotten any bad responses from people when you told them?
I've only gotten one. It's kind of funny to me now, but I only got one bad response so far. It wasn't even from a friend, it was from a nurse when I was checking in over at the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. She asked me what I have and I said I'm HIV positive. Then she goes immediately after, "Are you homosexual?"
I started laughing openly, and she's like, "What's wrong with the question?" She couldn't even see for herself the way it came out. It was comical for me, because I can laugh at myself, but if I was there now, I would have been offended. But it was just comical to me.
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.
You mentioned your community. Have you come out to them in terms of being HIV positive?
Yes, I have. One of my friends from Texas forewarned me, saying, "It has to be the right time and you have to find the right moment to tell and everything."
My mentality is: I'm not going to have my being HIV positive be like a secret or anything. What if I went back home and I wanted to wait for the right time and something happened, like I'm playing basketball with my boys and I accidentally cut somebody's eye or something and all of a sudden it's going to spill out that way.
No, wrong answer. If I have to take the bumps and the bruises initially, I'd rather take it that way than in a situation.
When I came out, I just immediately came out and said it. There's no sidestepping with me. I'm pretty much brusque when it comes to telling something.
What about the guys that you used to play basketball with? What did you tell them?
It's funny because I don't try to get mad at them. Some of them are still doing the same things that they've been doing since high school. [Laughs.] Talk about not ever maturing. Still living with the familia. I bring that up if they want to start ragging on me about the gay thing -- it's not even about the HIV, it's the gay thing.
It's just weird to see people's reaction when you tell them. They don't see it because they can't see it, but I see it.
When I tell somebody -- one of my friends or somebody -- that I'm a homosexual or that I'm HIV positive or both, I can see that change in the look in the face. I transform from Chico to "this guy." But I'm still Chico. If they ever try to rag me about it, I just always mention, "Well, look where you're at. You ain't all that, you know."
We all have problems. There's a warm blanket of denial in the Latino community over there. I was reading on another site that the percentage of HIV [in the Latino community] is growing. It's not even stabilizing or dropping. It's actually increasing among Latinos because they're in denial. They don't want to talk about it, don't want to know about it. It's on the other side of the fence. It doesn't exist.
Yeah, homie, it does. It does. But I was that kind of person. I was one of them. I was like my homeboys. I didn't care about HIV. I hardly knew about HIV. I just knew you got sick and died. What about them? I don't care about them. But now that I'm a part of it, it's very different on the other side.
I'm still the same person. I just understand where they're coming from because I used to think like them.
You feel they treat you a little differently now?
Right. It's like transforming into Frankenstein or something. [Laughs.] I can see the expression on the face. Even my doctor -- my infectious diseases doctor -- when I first met him, he knew I was positive already, but when I say it or talk about it, I can see the transformation in the expression.
This is more the gay aspect rather than the HIV?
As far as the homosexual thing, I can't break through with them. I'm not going to force it. I'm not going to go out and say every time I go see them, "Hey, remember I'm gay."
I'm just going to live and demonstrate through my actions that not all gay guys try to hit on guys, or think about sex all the time, or talk about girly stuff. If I can demonstrate that through my actions to my friends, then they will think obviously it's just Chico.
You said you saw their expression change. Did they say anything? Was there any verbal reaction?
No. It was just a look or, with my friend Paolo, it was just a look and a shrug of the shoulders. Then we don't talk about it anymore.
They don't seem to be able to talk about it directly.
Right. It's a blanket of denial. I honestly believe that. It's a blanket of denial until one of them gets infected, and then it's "Oh, look at what I got." I think with the Latino community -- from what I've seen of my friends and what I've seen of my family -- I think that they have to be hit very aggressively because -- I'm not talking violently -- very aggressively as far as more rallies and more awareness, programs, and more vocalizing within the community in order to get the message or point across, because it's just going to keep going up.
Looking back, are you glad that you broke the silence with them?
I am. I remember when I wrote that story. I'm the firstborn in my father's family, so I had to take a lot of beatings for it, regardless of whether it's a real bad one or just a little slip. Since I'm the firstborn I have to be able to suck it up and just take the hit.
If I do it the right way -- if I do it through my actions -- I'm sure that my brother and my family members, all of them are looking at me like, "How is Chico handling it? How is Chico dealing with it?"
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to be the one who takes the brunt of it, but I'm willing to do that. They can learn through what I do.
It's a cliché, but it's true: Actions speak louder than words. I'm not going to say anything. I'm just going to try to live my life as best as I can the same way before I was positive or before I came out. They'll see that nothing's really changed. It's not that big of a deal.
You're a trailblazer, really. You're opening the way for other people.
Yes, I like that. A trailblazer.
That's wonderful, Enrique. This is what we wanted to hear more about, because I think this is a very important thing that you've brought up. That in the community there is a lot of denial and inability to cope with the issue, homosexuality being one, but also HIV. This has a lot of repercussions in terms of people's health and people's well-being.
Yes. I'm very grateful to God that I'm a male Latino HIV-positive homosexual now, in this generation. If it happened in the 1940s or 1970s -- I'm pretty sure they had it pretty bad too -- but you had your trailblazers in those days too that changed things. It's just a learning process.
I see it like the Soviet Union and the United States. They train their people this way and don't look on the other side of the fence, as if they don't exist. It's not true. When you go to the other side, you see how the life is and everything, and you want to desperately come back and say, "Hey, look at this. It's not that bad. Look at this. Look at this." I want to do it the same way with this. It's just a big blanket of denial. It's going to take a long time, but we're Latinos and we can overcome it. I don't really doubt that.
Anything else you'd like to add about your story, about how you're coping with living with HIV?
I just wanted to let the young ones, the ones that are lost, or the ones that are scared, know not to be scared. If they just got diagnosed -- I don't care how old they are, 18 years old or 50 years old -- this is a scary thing, but I don't want anybody to feel scared or anything like that. I'm not a doctor, but the best diagnosis for me -- and I really think it is for anybody -- is not to put your head down. If you put your head down, you're not going to win.
In order for you to combat HIV successfully, you've got to say, "You know what? This is my body, this is my life. I'm not going to stop living. I refuse to put my head down."
I think if I could generate that message to everybody who just gets diagnosed with HIV, if they have that little inkling of hope in their mind and in their heart and they let the seed take, it'll grow into this big tree that HIV will not be able to cut down at all.
I really get offended when I hear somebody moping about, "It's sad, and I want to feel sorry for myself." You don't have time for that. You really don't. You've got to just keep pushing forward. It's okay to be scared, just don't hang your head.
This is wonderful, Enrique. I think we've covered all the topics. I want to thank you for your time and your honesty in talking about living with HIV. I think this is going to be very powerful and very useful for other people who may be dealing with the same issue.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
To connect with Enrique, click here.