Daniel in the Lion’s Den
HIV Educator Daniel Garza Shares His Struggles & Triumphs in His Quest to Stay On-Message and On Top of His Health
by John Francis Leonard
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Many of us have struggled in life. Certainly, many of our readers have faced the realities of living with HIV/AIDS, as well as the host of ancillary conditions and problems that come after one’s diagnosis. What’s really remarkable is how many of us survive the news when we first receive it as well as the additional challenges that are sure to come our way. What’s even more inspiring is how many of us go on to triumph, to take these obstacles and turn them into accomplishment. Daniel Garza is one of those people. He’s survived many struggles that would fell the best of us and gone on to make a difference in the world. With strength, determination, and a lot of guts he has triumphed, all the while keeping his positive attitude and generosity of spirit intact. I keep thinking that “taking lemons and making lemonade” is such a tired old trope, but, in thinking about his personal story, it is just so appropriate.
At the age of three, Daniel and his family left their home in Mexico and emigrated to Dallas, Texas. His was a typical Mexican Catholic upbringing in many ways. He was the youngest child, the only son, with two elder sisters. Being the only son in a Mexican family, there is pressure. Being gay isn’t always welcome news in a culture that puts such emphasis on traditional masculinity. It took years for his parents to adjust. His parents were either disappointed with him, or blamed themselves.
Daniel was always different from the other kids. “I liked Tonka Trucks and Barbie dolls,” he recalls wryly. “I pretended that my Barbie dolls were truck drivers.” He began to realize he was gay around the age of five. The other kids sensed that difference. From an early age he stood out. “I wasn’t into sports but I was pretty smart. Just pretty lonely, I learned to be alone at an early age, bullied quite a bit, sexually abused by my bully.” As a young boy, he learned to defend himself with his words and his logic. By the sixth grade, he’d had enough. He asked to move and finish junior high and high school while living with one of his older sisters who had returned to Monterrey, Mexico, the city of his birth. Things got easier there. The other kids attributed his being different to having lived in the States. “He is just eccentric,” they’d say. It let him relax a bit. By the time he came out during his last semester of high school, he was well liked and his many friends rallied around him. It was a happy time for Daniel, but all was not perfect. At the age of fifteen, he began a long battle with alcohol. It would stay with him, through good times and bad for about twenty-one years.
Back in Dallas at the age of eighteen, he encountered the man who would change his life forever. Getting off the bus and walking the few blocks to a cousin’s home he would see a man. As it’s been with gay men since the dawn of time, there was a pull, an attraction. The man eventually introduced himself and invited Daniel in. Their physical relationship began and continued, happily for both, but there was something different about the older man. “I remember one time we got naked,” recalls Daniel now without irony or rancor, “…the blotches, and not knowing what they were. Not wanting to say anything, we continued to have sex.” The affair continued; he’d call before getting on the bus so that he’d be expected. Then one day, someone else answered the phone. Nonplussed, Daniel hung up. Walking by the man’s house on a subsequent day, he summoned up the courage to knock. The man who answered the door informed Daniel that his friend had died the week before. It was the very last years of the eighties, the initial decade in which AIDS flourished, but Daniel was naive to what was happening around him. Seeking closure, Daniel has assigned becoming positive to this time, person, and place. That way, he doesn’t need to constantly worry the facts of how or why. He’s gained closure.
This is a place in his story where Daniel’s remarkable strength and self-awareness shine through. Looking back, he’s not angry at this man. His only anger now is from regret at not having been able to know him better. “It’s more about me than him,” Daniel tells me now. “I don’t want to carry that around. It happened because of him. But if hadn’t been for me being positive, a lot of great things that have happened in my life wouldn’t have happened.”
It’s no coincidence that at this same time, the other disease with which he struggled, addiction, reared its ugly head again. At this time, something new, drugs, entered the picture. He partied hard and often, the “happiest miserable person in the room.” On the surface he was the life of every party, but it was hiding deep feelings of pain and insecurity. He went from relationship to relationship, long-term commitments eluded him. He used drugs and alcohol to mask the pain of his failed relationships as well as to just fit in.
When he was about to turn thirty, the other shoe dropped. Chronically underweight and sickly, he initially blamed his hard-partying lifestyle. A caring boss and friend in the restaurant at which he worked sat him down and essentially fired him. He would take him back, but only after he sought help. Daniel wound up in hospital with 108 T cells and weighing 110 pounds. The news he had avoided for years was now there in black and white. He had the frighteningly real diagnosis of AIDS. “Oddly enough, as a kid, I never saw me going past thirty years old. I always thought I would die at thirty.”
In one way, it was a call to action, launching his long career as an activist and educator. In another way, it gave him the excuse to continue to use. His parents and family, who had just begun to come around to his being gay, were ill-prepared for an AIDS diagnosis. Daniel found himself lacking the adequate knowledge and tools to allay their fears. He got involved with HIV advocacy and outreach, learning as he went along. He ended up volunteering at an agency where he himself had gone to learn about his disease. He stayed in Houston for twelve years. He worked for Southern Texas organizations such as The Valley AIDS Council, The Thomas Street Clinic in Houston, The Houston Ryan White Planning Council, and Child Protective Services of Houston. He was now an activist, an HIV Outreach Ambassador, he was an educator for youth and families. Ironically, he went back to college and studied to be a drug and alcohol counselor while still using himself.
Eventually, he sobered up and in 2009 moved to Laguna Beach, California, where he still resides and is busier than ever making a difference. He wears many hats and works for many prominent Southern California organizations. Daniel is an AIDS counselor and educator, and he tests and certifies other HIV/AIDS counselors and educators. He is an Outreach Ambassador and public speaker for the University of California, Irvine, and Shanti Orange County. For AIDS Services Foundation in Irvine, California, he provides volunteer testing as well as counseling. A particular accomplishment for him personally is his tenure as Chair of the Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Committee, an organization that advises his City Counsel on HIV and AIDS related policies and services. With grit and passion, he is busy fighting in the trenches of HIV/AIDS activism everyday.
He shares his story with students, from junior high all the way to those doing graduate work in medicine, on their way to becoming the next generation of physicians. They are not sugar-coated, the stories he shares. He dispels the current myth many have about managing living with HIV, that one simply pops some pills and everything is better. “I let them know all the complications that come with it, all the side effects. All the extra surprises you get every year.” He is a witness and advocate for the those of us who’ve been living with HIV long-term. His story has changed over the years. Daniel says, “The way that I teach is different [now]. I have to come from, I hate to say a fear tactic, but there is a little bit of fear I put into kids.”
In 2015 he received a diagnosis that changed his life yet again. Seeking treatment initially for a hernia and chronic constipation, a mass was found during an anal check. His colo-rectal doctor confirmed the worst. It was anal cancer, HIV-related anal cancer. He was diagnosed on Cinco De Mayo at forty-four years of age and soon began months of chemotherapy and radiation. I first encountered Daniel at the conclusion of his treatment. He interviewed me for his popular podcast Put It Together, where we talked about my writing and work with this magazine. I would never have guessed he was anything but the picture of health. He was positive, funny, and upbeat. Meanwhile, his body was debilitated by treatment. He was underweight, had lost his hair and much of his energy.
The cancer and treatment caused a lot of damage. There were a lot of unpleasant accidents and smells; he was dependent on adult diapers. A fistula, which is a hole in his inner rectum to the outside of his body, developed. The Monday before Labor Day, an artery in his rectum burst. He was at the home of his partner, Christian, and when he went to take a shower, his diaper was full of blood. “The EMTs told Christian that five more minutes and I would have died.” Luckily, Christian’s home was a few blocks from the hospital, “Any further, and I wouldn’t have made it.” Arriving at the ER, his hemoglobin was so low, the nurses were shocked that he had made it alive. “I saw a light,” Daniel recalls now, “there were a lot of very spiritual moments that day.” That April, he had colostomy surgery and was fitted with a bag because the wounds just weren’t healing. In yet another show of spirit, he calls his bag Tommy. He points it out when he speaks now by tapping against it under his shirt. He has a video journal on YouTube, one of many he does, called “A Bag Named Tommy.”
He’s not in remission yet, but he’s on his way. His journey and struggles have taught him a lot. “I’ve learned that my mind is a lot stronger than I give it credit for, my body is a lot stronger than I give it credit for,” he says with much spirit. Many times he’s made the choice to be out having fun or doing the work that he loves despite being tired and in pain. It’s that, or stay at home tired and in pain. “I try to teach that to the younger kids,” he says “Let your mind push you! Live!”
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.