Real-Life Teddy Bear
Diagnosed with AIDS at a time when it was still called GRID, cuddly advocate and long-time survivor Dab Garner is still going strong in the fight against HIV/AIDS
Text & Photos by Sean Black
Dab Garner, founder and CEO of Dab the AIDS Bear Project, and an aggressive ally for the rights and health of others, points to the right cheek of his ruggedly handsome face; a face that bares no apparent signs of his many years living with HIV and the struggles and losses he has endured.
“Her little mouth was on the side of her face, her ear was over here,” he begins, describing Candace, a crack-addicted infant born with HIV along with a number of heartbreaking physical deformities and challenges as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome.
“She couldn’t hear out of it. She was constantly sick and small for her size.” His voice breaks and tears begin to trickle from the corners of his piercing eyes. Remembering the baby girl who helped bring him into his lifelong fight against AIDS, back in 1985, he notes that Candace was one of the earliest known cases of mother-to-child transmission. The daughter of a troubled woman who died shortly after her birth, Candace entered as her mother exited a world that had already been forever changed.
Navigating mountains of red tape and unable to legally adopt, Dab and his second partner, Brad, both living with HIV and unsure of there own precarious health conditions, were finally able to bring Candace home from the hospital. With a life expectancy of only several months and round-the-clock needs, life wasn’t easy for the ailing child nor was it for her new “godparents.” But, the loving and non-conventional family endured. Dab, a full-time college student and professional model, whose work opportunities were waning after he was publicly named in the press as being infected with HIV (more than a decade before the HIPAA Privacy Rule), and Brad, a San Francisco police officer, received an enormous amount of help from friends; mostly those belonging to a community he still holds sacred to this day.
“My leather group was the only group that really didn’t treat me any differently.” Recognizing the individuals who stepped up to help him and his lover through this difficult time, Dab recalls many by name. “There was Vicky, Vivian, Marilyn, Liz, Terri, Allison, Carol, Ben, Alex, Randy, Marshall, Andy, Bill, James, Jack, Sandra, and Tina. Oh, and Olivia and Sheila who were lesbian leather lovers,” Dab smiles as we acknowledge the playful sounds and alliteration of his words.
Looking back to the cold month before his twentieth birthday, in the winter of 1982, when he had just been diagnosed with PCP and GRID, a familiar nightmare began to repeat itself. “I don’t think I had ever been so scared in my entire life. I just watched two people, who I loved, die alone in those rooms.” Losing loved ones at such an early age was new for Dab and many others at this troubling time. His losses were that of his best-friend Michael, and his first boyfriend Derek, a successful fashion photographer and the reason for his move to San Francisco, just days after graduating from high school. The “Motherland” he sought after leaving his rigid Pensacola roots was slowly sinking around him. After three weeks of his terrifying ordeal, Dab started getting better and was eventually released with the intervention and aid of legal action. “Friends had to get a lawyer to get me out of that room.”
Having to watch Derek and Michael suffer and die alone in isolation upset and angered Dab. “It broke my heart that I could not go into the room to show them love and to comfort them.” Dab took action. “I pondered what I could do to make them feel love since the doctors and nurses wore protective garments restricting any form of human touch. So being a hairy, gay man [i.e., a bear], I decided to give them a teddy bear with a note saying how much I wished I could be in there with them, to hold them, and to let them know they were very much loved.”
While he was in quarantine, Dab made friends with a nurse named Vicky. Taking a large risk by disclosing patient information, she would let him know when someone with AIDS came into the hospital and was placed in similar scary confines. “Even though I might not personally know them, I would go get them a bear so that I could at least let that person know that someone cared about them.”
Dab started helping others and talking about HIV on a broader spectrum at that time, beginning with one of the first international conferences on HIV/AIDS, held in Paris, and attended by over 2,800 people. Dab remembers that French virologist Dr. Luc Montagnier, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of HIV was presenting. Dab also attended the first AIDS candlelight vigil held in San Francisco while a similar one was being conducted in tandem in New York City. Extending his voice as more opportunities availed themselves through early fundraising venues such as the AIDS Walks, bicycle rides, LGBT Pride festivals, health fairs, men’s and women’s events, high schools, conferences, he continued speaking openly about his disease.
Dab also got involved in organizations like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and began making trips to our nation’s capital, which he still does, on a regular basis. Further continuing his legacy of love today, Dab estimates that he presents at more than 150 events each year. “Pretty much anywhere they will put a microphone in my hand,” he attests proudly. In addition, Dab has amassed an army of caring soldiers, 509 to be exact, over the last thirty-two years. Called Ambassadors of Hope, these individuals, who reside in twenty-three countries, spread messages of hope, compassion, and love for people living with HIV while taking pictures with their bears. “Dab the AIDS Bear isn’t just one individual, it’s a collective team of people—activists, community leaders, members of organizations, students, celebrities and every day citizens,” he humbly shares.
Pausing to take a reflective breath, he concludes with how he got his nickname. “Candace had a really bad lisp when she would talk. So when she tried to say the word ‘Dad,’ it came out ‘Dab.’ When my friends heard this, they all thought it was so adorable, so from then on I became ‘Dab.’” After a way too short life, Candace lost her battle to AIDS on August 14, 1989, at the age of four. As this little angel was dying, her “Dab” made a certain promise to her, to which he has held true, to this day—making other children like her feel special and loved.
For more information about how to help the Dab the AIDS Bear Project this holiday season and all year long, log on to www.dabtheaidsbearproject.com.
Sean Black is an Editor at Large for A&U.