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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

Don't Be Afraid to Let Your Voice Be Heard

By Enrique Franco

January 20, 2010

When I took the D.C. metro on my daily commute to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, there was an advertisement that caught my eye. It wasn't on every train, but I would see it from time to time. It was a simple depiction of 10 human silhouettes. Of the 10 silhouettes, one was all red. It was at the very end, after all of the other silhouettes in black.

Underneath the silhouettes were the following words: ONE OUT OF EVERY TEN PEOPLE YOU ENCOUNTER HAS HIV/AIDS. When I first saw it, I couldn't help but stare at it for what seemed an eternity. I thought to myself -- the silhouette in red is ME ... I'M "the one."

It bugged me for a moment. But then another thought came to me. I may be "the one," but I have a name. In fact, WE ALL have names. Mine is Enrique Almodovar Franco.

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And who are you Franco, I asked myself. I am a 34-year-old Mexican American going to my work as a financial specialist. At Walter Reed Army Hospital, I assisted with our Soldiers [capitalization of the "S" in soldier shows respect] who have been injured in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am a former sergeant who served 10 honorable years in the U.S. Army. I'm a guy who goes to the gym three times a week and conducts weight lifting training. I run four to five miles on the treadmill.

Oh yeah, I also have HIV.

I look back upon that sign and think of the red image again. This time I think of it without fear. This time, without shame. This time, without ignorance.

I gave that sign some negative power, but only for a brief moment when I first noticed it. But, knowing what I know now and being the person who I've become, its power has been sapped.

However, I realized that the guy sitting next to me might not have grown in the ways I have grown. He would probably view the sign differently. He might read it and think ... Damn, thank God it's not ME. I wonder who it is that has that stuff. And I bet he would have clear images of who that person could be.

I am the person I am today, because I refuse to be defined by the labels that are placed on me.

I can easily label food products and commodities, because those things will never change. An orange will ALWAYS be an orange. A car will ALWAYS be a car. And on and on we go.

But, I believe that a person -- no matter how long they live -- should never be labeled. Of course we can label a person a person, but that's not what I mean. I mean that each and every human being who is alive right now will go through so many scenarios and life experiences that will change their lives one way or the other from day to day. From all that I have seen through my own experiences and all that I know, one rule is clear -- we are all SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

How do I know this? Let's look at me for a moment. Let's take a look at old Sergeant Franco. I joined the U.S. Army in 1998. I had the opportunity to serve out in Fort Hood, Texas. From the day I got to my unit, all I wanted to do was be the best damned Soldier I could be.

I volunteered for highly competitive Soldier of the Month board contests. I practiced and studied the Army regulations so that I would ace the questions thrown at me on those boards. I maintained a strict personal physical training program. I would run up to 60 miles in a month's time period. I would go to the gym every day on my lunch breaks.

I would enroll myself in Army correspondence courses to further my chances of getting promoted above my peers. I basically lived Army for the first part of my career.

When I made sergeant, they sent me off to become a U.S. Army recruiter. I did that for three and a half years, earned my gold badge for success too. When that time was up, I opted to leave Connecticut and return to Fort Hood. So I did.

That was back in 2006. I mean EVERYTHING was going as planned.

Then, I met HIM. He was a Soldier too; built, fanatical, a field guy. This part was not planned, by any means. We met, fell for each other and started seeing one another.

We were together for about four months. He received orders to leave for another assignment. We sat down to talk and he said it was time to end our relationship. I was devastated. I asked him why. He said because it was wrong, that we were both guys. OK, so what's the problem? I thought.

"This whole thing is stupid!" I told him. "If one of us was a girl, we could tell our chain of command and get married and get stationed together." I said this even though I was well aware that, because we were both men, we could not say anything. It would violate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. We argued, he left and, of course, nothing was done. I thought, If we loved each other, how is that wrong?

Ten years after joining the Army, I finally realized that the Army is basically wrong with its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

One thing led to another. My personal thoughts and broken heart could not be kept silent.

Soon my work performance began to falter. I started to drink extremely heavily. I would consume at least two bottles of Jack Daniel's a week, on top of frequenting the bar and drinking my Coors until I was drunk. Sometimes I would show up to work an absolute mess. I no longer could face myself in the mirror, because it had become clear to me that I was living a lie.

I was the supervisor for the special actions section in my finance unit at the time. I would say that about three weeks after the breakup, my supervisor had had enough. He could see, probably like EVERYONE else saw, how bad I was getting. He knew that something had to be done. He came to me and we had a private conversation. All he asked me was, "Is everything alright?"

I thought to myself that I needed to take action NOW. I sat there, with conviction, and looked him straight in his eyes. And for that one moment in my life, I decided to speak the truth.

I explained to him that the person I had recently broken up with was not a girl, but a guy. He knew that I was seeing someone, but he thought, like everyone else did, that it was a girl. I told him that I was gay and that I had had enough of pretending to be something else.

He was shocked. His eyes widened like I had never seen him do before. He also was completely speechless. I could see that he was getting his thoughts in order when he came out and told me what was going to happen because of my revelation. But he had no need to tell me what would happen, since I knew exactly what was to happen. I knew, because I had heard stories from other Soldiers of so and so coming out. I read the regulation on my own for some insight. They would investigate the whole thing, assign an exit code or chapter code on me. And process me for removal from the Army.

But on that day that I came out, I didn't care anymore. Like I said, I had had enough.

From then on, things were different. Soldiers in my unit started to ask each other questions about what was going on with me. My supervisor and commander were very respectful and did not speak of it. My commander explained to me that it was up to me if I confided this to any of my friends. I figured that it didn't matter anymore. I was now liberated from their chains. I told some of my closest friends.

I went from Sergeant Franco to "that queer." My fellow troops never said anything to my face, but I could read it in every glance -- and in their demeanor. I was no longer even invited to play basketball.

So, I kept to myself. I kept on being the Soldier that I was before. This is what I mean: You would've labeled me "the Soldier" if you could have seen me back in the day. But when I revealed to my fellow troops that I was gay, I got labeled a faggot -- some dirty, nasty, gay man who probably only thought of sex.

The thing is that, I hadn't changed at all! I mean, my experiences had changed how I felt and how I thought. But I was still just a Soldier. I had been on two six-month deployments -- one to Bosnia in 1998 and the other to Kuwait in 2000 -- before my fateful revelation.

I had achieved the rank of sergeant. I busted my butt as an Army recruiter for three and a half years. I maintained a PT score well over the 300 mark every time. [PT = physical training, as in the Army Physical Fitness Test, in which Soldiers must score a minimum of 60 points in each of three events: push-ups, sit-ups, and a timed, two-mile run]

Did ALL of this simply disappear when I came out? Did it all never happen?

I tried to continue Soldiering the best I could while my paperwork was being processed. Then, another big event unfolded on me. It was the morning of June 14, 2007. I will always remember that day, because it was the day I found out I was HIV positive.

You see, we have to take a physical when processing out of the Army, and I had decided to get my blood checked. Talk about having a bad year, huh.

I can remember the look on my supervisors' faces and my friends' faces when I told them: NOW you can be labeled "the sick guy."

Wait a minute, I thought. Am I still an outcast? How does HIV rank compared to my revealing that I am gay? All of these labels. People can label me whatever the hell they like. But I know what I am. When it comes down to it, I'm just a simple man trying to make it happen every day. I refuse to let signs like the sign I saw in the Washington, D.C., metro have ANY power. I refuse to let other people tag me. I refuse to hide and be ashamed of my life.

Most important, I will not give up on living. I know what the real deal is and so does my God. He knows EVERYTHING about me and HE is the only one that counts.

So let them label and whisper and give dirty looks. They do not have a clue.

So my message to my fellow gay and lesbian family, and to my fellow HIVers, is: Do not let labeling shame you. Do not let fear drive you.

Anyone who may be timid in using their voice, I say to you, it's OK to be afraid, but don't be driven by that fear. You are a beautiful human being.

Stand up and let your voice be heard. Stand up and tell them that you are no longer afraid. Break free from the labeling and live boldly. The road, like mine, will not be easy. But it will be YOUR road. I say claim it and live boldly. And then, when you hear the smart comment at work, or see that sign on a bus, you can sit there and smile.

To contact Enrique, click here.

See Also
Day One With HIV: Finding Out Your Status, in Your Own Words
TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed
More "Just Diagnosed" Stories

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Erick (Manila, Phiippines) Mon., Feb. 1, 2010 at 12:05 am EST
thanks for sharing your wonderful story, yeah I also have HIV. am wishing that I have the courage same as you, to tell people around me that am sick.... please give me some advise.. thank you again and have a nice day all the time and GOD Bless you always...
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Comment by: Sun., Jan. 31, 2010 at 12:04 am EST
Amazing story Enrique! Very pertinent in light of the current activities around the "Dont Ask, Dont Tell" policy. Thanks for sharing
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Comment by: teapot Thu., Jan. 28, 2010 at 11:07 pm EST
@sammie: i think it's two different ad campaigns, years apart. @enrique: thank you so much for your story! did you see the state of the union last night? obama says this is the year he'll throw out don't ask don't tell!!!!!!!!!!!
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Comment by: Sammie (Toronto) Thu., Jan. 28, 2010 at 8:44 pm EST
The advertisement doesn't not say one in every 10 people has HIV it says that every 9 and a half minutes someone contracts HIV in the US. Inspiring blog aside from that note, congratulations to you for over coming adversity.
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Comment by: L. Skyes (Pheonix, AZ) Thu., Jan. 28, 2010 at 7:48 pm EST
I am always a little suspect when I hear/read something about the resistance to labeling. You are right, labels don't matter, what does matter though is the meaning one places on them.

For instance, one may not want to be "labeled" as HIV positive, yet label yourself as a Mexican-American former Sargent in the U.S. Army.

I am sorry for your experience and the anguish you obviously suffered through. But to claim that everyone should "break free" from labeling is a little disingenuous and may point to some deeper, unresolved feeling you may have about your being gay and HIV poz. Why bother using your name? It is a form a labeling after all.

I say the complete opposite. Take on the labels. Be proud of who you are! But don't impose the stigma that permeates our society onto yourself.

A label, like any other is just a word, a noun. It does not define the humanity in you. But the fact is that we, humans, live day to day with labels and other symbols that represent who and where we stand in society. That is neither a good or bad thing - it just is how we identify each other.

We all have our beauty and our self-worth. To be labeled is gay and HIV poz is only a problem if you perceive as such. I wish you a great journey on your search for your journey.

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Comment by: allen (Flint Mi) Mon., Jan. 25, 2010 at 12:26 am EST

Enrique;
Although I am not a memeber of the US Armed Forces I must say if I were Id proudly serve raight next to you. Rather they realize it or not You are ten times the Soldier,and might I add man, than those idiots that condem you for having the courage to be who you are. Stay strong and stick to your convictions. Peace Love and Happiness Allen



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Comment by: George M (Lambertville,New Jersey) Sat., Jan. 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm EST
I want to thank you Enrique for sharing your story and to confirm your believe on people and how they change. I am a gay man approaching 66 yrs of age and I am so different then I was when I was 36. At 28 I was married with 4 children and by 31 came to the realization that I was Gay and had to turn my life around by leaving my wife, a very difficult decision in 1974. However I slowly became the man I was born to be and live the life that has brought me so much joy.
I have a wonderful partner and feel great love from my family and friends.
We all to be who we are and that includes our wonderful people in our military. Please Mr President change Don't Ask Don't tell and allow our service people be who They are.
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Comment by: RLF (Florida) Fri., Jan. 22, 2010 at 11:03 am EST
Enrique, awesome text. Way to go buddy. I faced very similar situations when I became HIV+, and now I consider HIV to be an asset. It is the fastest way of getting rid of any bad individuals surrounding you: simply tell them you are HIV+. The friends who are worth your time will stick around and even get closer to you, the fake and false people will disappear in a moments notice. HIV+ has made me stronger, never defeated. Congratulations on your text again. Very well written and I can see it comes from your heart.
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Comment by: Ron (Los Angeles, CA) Fri., Jan. 22, 2010 at 5:04 am EST
Thanks for your story, Enrique. You're an inspiration and I applaud your bravery and integrity. xoxo
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Comment by: Mike (London) Fri., Jan. 22, 2010 at 4:41 am EST
Very moving story, and surely something to deeply think about. Being positive and gay does mean people label us, and the fact is - when they don't know any of this they can see us for who we are: good people, neighbours, friends, workers. Why the hell they do stigmatise when they know? No one deserves this and being open is a part of showing - yes, I'm positive. And so what?
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Comment by: bobbo (melbourne australia) Fri., Jan. 22, 2010 at 12:32 am EST
it is so good to hear about your life and share with us. I have been poz for 25 years and even though an AIDS activist, do not regret anything about my conversion from heterosexual to homosexual. Some people don't have our courageand I feel sorry for them.
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Comment by: Christa (South Africa ) Fri., Jan. 22, 2010 at 12:24 am EST
God bless you Enrique. You touched my heart and soul. I have struggled with disclosing, fear, shame etc. But reading writings like yours gives me hope and strength. Thanks for brightening my day. A lot of men, women and parents can learn from what you wrote. God bless you and good luck with everything you do.
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Comment by: Kevin (Dallas, TX) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 11:45 pm EST
Enrique, thank you for sharing your heart-breaking story, both of being discharged from the United States military for being gay, and for becoming infected with HIV in 2007. I was moved to tears while reading of the challenges you endured after having your relationship involuntarily terminated by your then-boyfriend. But trust me, you made the right decision to end your personal exile of living in the closet and pretending to be someone else. I completely agree with your assesment of the US military's decisions excluding LGBT's from serving openly: it is clearly wrong, both in terms of human rights which are afforded under the United States Constitution, and ethically as well. Although you suffered a short-term loss (i.e., your position in the Army as a Sargent), you will find happiness many times over, as you are already learning, from identifying with other gay men living with HIV, and from your LGBT family of choice. It is very sad that the military is so homophobic, and is the dirty little secret that no one is willing to address in this nation, completely analagous to the exclusion to persons of color prior to the decision by President Harry S. Truman to force the military to allow African-Americans to serve in America's military. I'm sure it was not easy at first - for anybody - but it was the right thing to do, and eventually, someone who has the moral imperative will make the same decision for America's LGBT servicemembers as well, and abolish the hated "Don't Ask-Don't Tell."

I admire your courage so much to go against the might of the US military, and take a stand for doing what was right. I have lived with HIV for 21 years and have been through many trying times myself (although not ever dealing with the Army.) I wish you all the best luck and good health, and may your "Mr. Right" be waiting for you in 2010!

Thank you for the ten years of sacrifice and personal service you gave as a Soldier for something you believed in.
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Comment by: Leo (Miami, Florida) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm EST
It takes a lot of balls to do what you just did. I admire that a lot. I'm still having difficulty myself being open about my status but every day is an uphill battle. I keep to myself most of the time and stay in control of my actions. Some days are better than others but I roll with the punches. I've known about myself since 2001 and the people that do know about myself I can count on one hand; which they didn't find out until recently. It's hard to talk about it but I'm glad I have a good support group to back me up. Being more open about myself to my close friends has probably been the best thing I could've done. Thanks for the enlightening and encouraging words. Stay strong.
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Comment by: John (Atlanta,GA) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 5:58 pm EST
Enrique:
As a long-time AIDS survivor, and survivor of broken relationships with Mexican ex-lovers, and after ignorantly being labeled as a gay freak by jail inmates and deputies for a two year stint, I must say that your story really sticks with me.
I love your message and I condone many others to dare do what you have done.
Not only did your ex-lover lose a great person, but the U.S. Army did, as well!
Well done, Soldier!
-JOHN
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Comment by: AL (Romania) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm EST
Dear Enrique,
You made me cry man, thank you for those encouraging and nevertheless brave and strong words, you are a true example for me. I am a 35 years old guy....that have thought his experience might be the worst but yours seems to me inspiring and really ..speechless. I am living in a very conservative country, Romania, only 20 years of democracy and yet we might say some things really changed. But we live in isolation and with an HIV status in poverty and marginalized. Although, you are right, I should break free. Life must go on....a big hug from another part of the world. AL
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Comment by: goldman j. (san diego, ca) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm EST
Good man! I continue to support your journey to be honest and truthful with yourself. I too live with HIV and find labels to damage the true spirit. Continue to be strong and share your love for life with others.
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Comment by: Rhonda (Richmond, VA) Thu., Jan. 21, 2010 at 2:15 pm EST
Enrique, thanks so much for posting this thought-provoking account of your experiences. I absolutely love what you said about people being subject to change - that is so true. No one is the same person at 46 (my current age) that he or she was at 25. In short, life is change and it's unavoidable; to quote a classic rock song, "Changes aren't permanent, but change is". I sincerely hope that President Obama follows through on his promise to do away with "don't ask, don't tell" - our country can't afford to continue losing dedicated military personnel like you. Best wishes for your future endeavors!
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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.


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