A former Marine talks about how being closeted led to drug use, which led to HIV infection. But he doesn’t let the virus control his life
Editor’s note: Daniel is identified in this story by his first name only at his request.
DAKOTA SHAIN BYRD | Contributing Writer
Daniel’s lifelong dream was to join the U.S. Marines, and so at age 18, fresh out of high school, he enlisted.
Daniel was determined to be the best Marine he could be, and he trained hard. But when he started to struggle with his sexuality and the difficulty of staying closeted while in the service, all the training couldn’t help. So Daniel, desperate for some relief, some escape, turned to IV drugs. Soon he was addicted.
Eventually, Daniel conquered his addiction and two years ago, at the age of 38 and after 20 years of service and after rising to the rank of master sergeant, he prepared to retire from the military.
Two months shy of retirement, though, Daniel came down with a cold that he just couldn’t seem to shake. So he went to his doctor, who took blood for testing. The results weren’t good.
Daniel had HIV.
As dire as the news seemed, Daniel’s doctor offered some hope, telling him that an HIV infection is no longer the death sentence it once was. The doctor told him, “You can live 30 maybe 40 more years — maybe even longer with the strides they’re making in trying to find a cure for this,” and urged Daniel to find out everything he could about HIV/AIDS and the treatments that are available.
Daniel took that advice and today, at age 40, he is optimistic about his future and refuses to let HIV/AIDS control his life. Instead, he says, his life controls the disease, as he explains in this conversation with Dallas Voice.
Dallas Voice: What do you mean that your life controls your infection?
Daniel: Well, I don’t let the infection keep me from doing what I want to do in and with my life. I’m going to college; I have a loving boyfriend, and I have a career. The disease keeps me from doing some things, and I don’t go to certain places where I know I run a higher risk of getting a cold that could become worse. But really, it doesn’t control me. I do the things I want to do, and live pretty much how I want to live. Well, I want to live in a mansion, but that’s obviously not happening anytime soon!
DV: How do you maintain such a positive outlook?
Daniel: I’m glad you asked me that question, because it’s a really good one. Most people think that when you become infected with HIV it’s a quick death sentence. It was, 30-some-odd years ago, and yes, there are still strains of HIV that can kill a person within a year. But for the most part, HIV and AIDS itself won’t kill you. Your weakened immune system and catching a cold that turns into pneumonia or something like that are what usually kill people. Well that, and hatred and ignorance.
DV: What was it like learning that you were HIV-positive in the Marines?
Daniel: It wasn’t easy. I thought there might be a chance, because I’d remembered somebody I had used with was HIV-positive. But I didn’t remember sharing a needle with them. Turns out I did. Point is, it wasn’t easy.
I’m from the generation that thought being gay was the worst thing ever and that it was a choice whether or not to be gay. We didn’t know much about being gay and what’s worse is that HIV wasn’t taught to us so much. We were taught to use protection, but what about those of us who turned to drugs to ease the pain of our lives? What about those of us who were in the closet and didn’t want to seduce young men, but instead, just have a man our age to come home to and love?
My generation made it hard, and that mentality carried over into Marines.
I went through the five stages of depression, of course, and the men in my platoon were told. They all knew I had been an addict at one point, and that I’d gotten clean. I told them that was how I got infected and they believed me. I kept my orientation quiet and played like “one of the guys.” I had to or else I’d have gotten booted out under [the military’s anti-gay policy called] “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which is still technically in action. It’s being reviewed for a repeal but it still exists on a case-by-case sort of deal.
DV: What is a day-to-day example of your life due to your status?
Daniel: I’m not a cripple; as I said my status isn’t all-controlling. I live my life just like anybody else: I get up in the morning, get a shower, eat breakfast and go to school and then to work. And then come home, make and eat dinner, then, if my boyfriend and I feel up to it, have sex. I’m normal, just like anybody else. That’s what a ton of people’s lives are like.
Yeah, I have to take medicine for it. But I also live a pretty healthy and fit lifestyle. The medicine is expensive; everybody knows that. If you live a healthy lifestyle and take care of yourself, your life won’t be much different from before.
It might sound cheesy, but to quote Miley Cyrus, “Life’s what you make it.”
DV: You said that you’re sexually active. Is your boyfriend HIV-positive, too?
Daniel: No, he’s not — thank God for that. He’s negative, and we take all the steps possible to keep him that way. … Just be protected and be cautious. A small amount of time and caution could save you from a lifetime of the disease.
DV: What do you have to say to the addicts out there who might be putting themselves at risk of becoming HIV-positive?
Daniel: First off, addiction is a disease. It’s a sad thing that the generation before mine, and my generation, didn’t realize this before. Today’s generation and the generations coming up are becoming more aware of this.
Secondly, addiction has no known cure, just like HIV doesn’t. It’s smarter to sober up — and sober is synonymous with being clean because any substance abuse at all is still addiction, whether it be alcohol or narcotics — and make meetings rather than to run the risk of infecting yourself with a second incurable disease.
If you are out there using, or in the rooms of NA or AA and are thinking about using, seek help. Don’t use, because you may just come down off that high and find yourself in a worse situation than you were before.
Thirdly, if you’re not at the point in your life yet to where you can get clean, be smart. Don’t share needles, syringes or anything like that. If you do a [“play and party,” where you get high and have sex], use a condom. I can’t stress that enough: If you’re going to use, protect yourself as best you can.
I still think you shouldn’t use at all, and I’m a prime example that there is life after addiction and that you can live your life without using drugs. Just get yourself some help. Find some recovery. That goes for the kids who go to raves and clubs to meet people, too.
DV: Why do you think so many people are afraid to talk about HIV?
Daniel: Do you mean besides the fact that we live down here in Texas, where there’s a hell of a lot of conservatives? Well most people are afraid to talk about it because they don’t understand it. As the age-old idiom states: “What we don’t understand, we fear.”
People need to be educated, especially the youth in schools. MTV has its “Teen Mom” TV series, and that’s almost glorifying pregnancy and unprotected sex among teens. We gays aren’t the only ones affected by HIV; the straight community is, too.
Teens and young adults need to be taught about abstinence, I can understand that. After that though, they need to be taught about safe sex, and sex between gay couples. The gay community is majorly harmed by this not being discussed in the health classes in high schools and middle schools.
Teens are teens; they’re going to have sex, going to experiment to some degree. It’s better that they be protected and have knowledge not just about abstinence, but that they also know about safe sex and sex between same-sex couples.
DV: How do deal with the knowledge that you’ve got to live with this disease the rest of your life? And what do you have to say to those out there who find out they are HIV-positive?
Daniel: Well, I kind of feel like I answered this one already through most of my other answers. But here’s how I live life: I make myself get up on the days when I feel like crap. Even when I’m having a horrible day, I think, “Hey, it could be a lot worse. I could be dying right now, or starving to death because my government decided I’m not an actual person, or even be a slave to human trafficking.”
Yeah, I’ve got HIV. Yes, there are times when it is hard, and where I can feel myself being hit. But you just have to force yourself to keep at it. The going will get tough, but you can do it.
I try not to think morbidly, but sometimes I do. And that’s okay, because it puts things in perspective for me.
You have to take life as it comes, one day at a time, and live it on the terms of that day. Sometimes you’ll be a on a pink cloud, happy and enjoying life, when everything is good like an upbeat pop song. At other times, you will have issues and have to live with them.
As for what I have to say for those who find out they are HIV-positive: Breathe, pray, seek out your friends and family, and find out all you can about your exact status and conditions. The more informed you are the better.
Life may feel like it stops when you get the diagnosis, but it doesn’t. You can still keep living life, still follow after and achieve your dreams, and you can inspire others to do the same. You are still the same person you were before you got the diagnosis, and you still have a life to live; so keep your head up and live it.