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.
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.