Sense of Self
Amid crisis, Daniel Berilla finds out who he really is
by Dann Dulin
At age twenty, Daniel Berilla stood at the edge of his four-story apartment complex roof in Los Angeles, California, peering down to the street below. “I wanted to jump,” he sighs, reliving that critical, petrified moment.
His hopelessness emerged out of a culmination of events. He had recently been diagnosed HIV-positive, then revealed to his Christian, conservative family that not only was he gay but HIV-positive as well. They practically disowned him. Later, he confided his status to his boyfriend, who broke up with him. Daniel was shattered. Being a fresh transplant to the City of Angels, he felt desperately alone.
What kept him from suicide that day was the revelation that he, this person ready to jump, was just a tiny part of who he really was. “I just realized that this isn’t who I am. I’m not someone who gives up because something bad happens. I was so much more, and if I died, the world would kind of miss me,” Daniel says with a sheepish smile and tilt of the head. He leans down to graze his fingers along the surface of the man-made lake where we sit side by side outside on a Roman style stone bench, here at The Grove shopping promenade in L.A.
Daniel eventually went to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, saw a physician, and got treatment. He picked up a job at a funky, upscale restaurant, but was soon being sexually harassed and so he quit. He scrambled for jobs, doing temporary work such as catering and assisting friends with odd jobs. Though fraught with meager income and struggling with bills, he burst forth with an idea. “I just had this urge to spread awareness of HIV!” he raves with exhilaration. The former Bible college student trained for six months and, in December 2010, ran the AIDS Honolulu Marathon. Around Halloween that year, and well into his training, Daniel had another blow. Julio, a friend who he looked up to as a big brother, died of AIDS.
“When I was underage, Julio took me to all the house parties, pool parties, et cetera. He was always the guy I could call up and he’d listen to my problems. Whether it was mental, financial, family, friends, HIV, whatever, he was always the guy that would try to help me out when he could. He was a nurse by profession, so he was used to helping people,” he remarks, arching his thick dark eyebrows. “He was a great guy and I miss him very much.”
Julio’s death incited Daniel even more to be open about his status and, in turn, he gained support from others, like his fellow trainees. “At one point during training, I told them my story about being HIV-positive and it brought everyone to tears,” he notes. “I was team pace leader for my group during the six months of training. When we finally ran the marathon in Honolulu, it was 80 degrees with ninety-eight percent humidity.” Daniel finished in five hours and thirty-four minutes. “I made friends that I have to this day, and it feels like one of the biggest accomplishments in my life to date. It was very rewarding…and painful.”
Since the marathon, Daniel has donated his time to such events as the AIDS Walk and AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), and he speaks publicly, sharing his personal story.
In his talks he also addresses HIV prevention, when many of his audience members consist of younger gen’ers, like himself. “[I tell them] it’s not fun going through what I go through, the doctor appointments, the check-ups, the eight to ten vials of blood drawn every few months, the medication, and so on. I mean, the medication can [elicit] allergic reactions. I sometimes get weird nightmares and dizziness.” He pauses. “And I’ve learned to always ask questions [of my doctor]. Never feel like you’re impeding in any way. If you do feel that, then get another doctor,” declares Daniel. “If you don’t ask, they don’t tell.”
Just a couple of months ago Daniel did a PSA for the CDC and afterward they selected him, along with a friend of his, to do a national campaign for their HIV awareness department. You can now see Daniel’s face on billboards, in subway stations, and on television and radio commercials.
Before all this recognition, Daniel was attending church every Sunday in his hometown of Yuma, Arizona, Cesar Chavez’s former residence. His parents were hardcore Bible-thumpers, not a welcome sign for a gay boy. He came out to a few friends in high school, all the while living a double life of teaching Sunday School and being the leader of “Disciples of Christ,” a worship team that treks to schools converting kids to Christianity, and then playing the gay card, sneaking sex with guys. He’d meet them on Yahoo messenger. “Unbeknownst to my mom, she would be taking me on a date,” he expresses matter of factly, without playing up the irony. “I didn’t drive until I was seventeen, so at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, she’d drive me to the movies to meet my date, who was my age. Other times, since it wasn’t permissible for a girl to sleepover, my mom would pick up my date at his house and bring him back to our house to have a sleepover. We’d have sex in my bedroom.”
As he relates his story, a couple of young Mormon boys whisk by in their traditional garb of black pants, white shirt, and black tie. Daniel eyes them briefly, but continues his thought. “At that time, I must have slept with every gay person in Yuma!” When the guys started hanging around too much, Daniel just convinced his mother that they were merely friends. Manipulation and deception was the name of the game, since Daniel’s entire childhood environment was clouded in heavy religious venom.
Today, Daniel does not consider himself a Christian. “That word has so much more bad than good behind it for me. I still believe in God, definitely. But the God I grew up with in church is not my God now.”
After high school, Daniel escaped the small-town mentality to attend Calvary Chapel Bible College in Lima, Peru. While there, he traveled all around South America, which was a stirring adventure for him. When a major earthquake hit Lima in 2007, he pitched in and helped rebuild homes for the victims. It was an experience that set the stage for what was soon to unfold. It gave him backbone and it strengthened what he already knew: that by helping others you help yourself. “Helping others is just who I am!” he points out offhandedly. “I have always had that kind of heart.”
Earlier this year, he gave his heart to Alex, whom he met while playing for the World Dodgeball Society, where they are still team players today. Alex is HIV-negative, so does this present any challenges? “Not many, no,” Daniel quickly answers. “He’s had time to accept it and is more supportive by the day. He knows I can succeed with this virus and he sees me…as me. I have never had that feeling before with a significant other.” While Daniel is talking, Dean Martin can be heard singing”That’s Amore” throughout the mall, as the shooting waters behind us dance and keep rhythm with the beat.
Daniel has come a long way in a very short period of time, but it wasn’t easy. There are many kids in America’s heartland who, like Daniel, are growing up in fundamentalist households. What would he say to them? “I would simply say life is not over…it’s only the beginning. You can still be who you want to be and more. Just keep pushing full steam ahead. Remember, you are exactly the way you are supposed to be. Embracing it is sooo much easier then fighting it.”
After three years of being HIV-positive, Daniel is “extremely healthy.” He currently takes Atripla and his viral load became undetectable after just three months on the drug. “My T cells are at 1,007, and I give all my thanks to Alex for that sudden rise. For three years before I met him, my T cells were at a steady 549. Then I met him. After that, they doubled.” His grin stretches out wide.
I have a feeling he does this frequently, as he has a lot to smile about now. Daniel has made friends, acquired a partner, has hobbies, volunteers his time to the HIV/AIDS community, and has a half-sister, living just outside Los Angeles with her family, who’s very supportive of him. Does he think there will ever be a full reconciliation with his parents? “I honestly do not think there will be,” he says dead-on. “They are Christians who go to church every Sunday, and gay is not in their dictionary. Whenever I try to bring anything up to them about Alex or HIV, it easily gets dismissed.”
Currently Daniel has three incomes. He’s employed as a casting associate, a real estate leasing agent, and a personal assistant to a well-known actress. Career wise though, his heart belongs to acting. Some credits he’s racked up are: Operation Repo, Going Down in La-La Land, Eating Out: The Open Weekend, Dumbass Filmmakers!, and Safe Harbor.
Before he takes off for an audition for a TV pilot, he comments, “These days, people are living with HIV, not dying from it. Always believe in yourself and be the best person you can be. Life is full of surprises and good times as long as you open yourself to accepting them.” Daniel looks up to the cumulous sky for a moment, as if receiving another revelation from the heavens. He concludes, “Sometimes the virus can be a blessing in disguise.”
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.