B E E N  T H E R E:  S T D s

April 1997

"I'm a gay Native American and that's not bad."

Darrell first tested positive for HIV when he was 19. His lack of self-respect led him to make many choices that were not in his best interest. Now, at 24, he has refocused his life and is helping others through Bay Positive, an organization that serves HIV positive youth in San Francisco.

The InSite: Darrell, tell us about your background.

Darrell: I'm Native American born and raised on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. I am 24 years old. I am openly gay. I tested positive for HIV when I was 19.

TI: When did you "come out"?

Darrell: When I was 18. When I was a kid I pretty much knew that I was different. I wasn't quite sure what it was that was wrong with me, so I kind of associated myself as not being full-blooded Native American. Or adopted into the family or something. So I had this little fantasy of who I was or where I came from. I always pictured myself as being a little white kid. When I started school, kids would tease me about acting different. I kind of had an idea that I was gay but I didn't know what the terminology was.

Traditionally there has been a place for the gay person in our Navajo culture.

TI: What was it like growing up gay within the Navajo culture?

Darrell: I was raised by my mother and my grandmother who have strong cultural and traditional beliefs. However, my mother was somewhat influenced by Catholicism, a religion that pretty much does not accept homosexuality. And I think religion has played a major factor in our Navajo culture in terms of not accepting homosexuality. Traditionally (and this is information I have learned within the past three years) there has been a place for the gay person in our Navajo culture. Gay men had a certain role to play. A lot of times they were considered closer, spiritually, to our Creator. Therefore they were respected. There were also certain chores that gay men would do. For instance, if a wife was "on her moon" (having her period) or pregnant, she would be limited to certain things, then the gay person would come in and do certain things that she couldn't do.

Because of the dominant white society, a lot of this is forgotten. Now it's not good to be gay [within the Navajo culture]. It's just not accepted.

TI: So that must have been difficult for you, considering how close you were to your family and this cultural tie that you had to say "This is who I am."

Darrell: Yeah, it was. Even now it's kind of difficult. My relationship with my mother and my family in general has always been strong. And to "come out" to my family was a big deal for me because I thought that relationship was going to be hurt. It was affected, definitely, but not so much negatively. Now it's even stronger. I told my mom that I was gay and HIV positive. It was devastating for her. And a lot of it she took personally, but I think she's coming to terms. I mean... it's not her fault.

I knew there was a disease that was
affecting the gay white male population...

TI: What did you know about HIV and AIDS before you became infected?

Darrell: Not a whole lot. I knew there was a disease that was affecting the gay white male population in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

TI: And you knew how it was transmitted?

Darrell: Through anal sex.

TI: Did you know that it was also transmitted by sharing unsterile needles (IV drug use)?

Darrell: No. Drugs weren't even a concern for me. The only concern was alcohol use because I was surrounded by it. A lot of my relatives were heavily into alcohol use. Actually that was one thing that I didn't want to get involved in. Which also contributed to my little fantasy of my not being Indian, because I associated a lot of Indians as being alcoholics. And I was embarrassed.

TI: So you thought that because you weren't white that you didn't need to worry about getting infected with HIV?

Darrell: Right. I was a little Indian boy who lived on the reservation, so I didn't have to worry about this disease, and I wasn't out there having sex with everybody anyway.

I was a little Indian boy who lived on the reservation, so I didn't have to worry about this disease...

TI: So when did you go out into the bigger world?

Darrell: I graduated from high school in 1990. I was 17, and I moved away. But that was difficult, and I didn't last very long on the outside.

TI: Where did you go?

Darrell: Idaho. I had a full athletic scholarship to attend a junior college. My intentions were to go to a junior college and then move on to a university. But I found myself using a lot of alcohol, and I pretty much withdrew from school before I could lose the scholarship.

TI: What sport were you into?

Darrell: Cross country and track. I was actually a state champ in cross country. And a fairly decent runner in track.

TI: So you got into alcohol in spite of what you saw around you on the reservation?

Darrell: When I first got into alcohol I found it made me feel better. It took me away from all the problems. It was my form of release. And it was my form of acceptance at the same time, because I was looking for acceptance amongst a different community. I totally started drinking when I was in college. And I was living in an area that was racist. There was a KKK (Klu Klux Klan) camp three miles away! There were three Indians who were going to school at the college. And there were six African Americans who came from the east. And when I left there were four African Americans that were still there. Two of them had gone home because they couldn't take it. Since I was fairly new off the reservation, living on my own... I didn't know anyone there. That was my introduction to life. So it was kind of a hard introduction. And the alcohol totally gave some sort of acceptance into some kind of culture, some kind of group out there.

TI: How long did you last there?

Darrell: One semester. Then I went home, but I didn't want to face all the disappointment from my family, so I moved to Albuquerque and started school there in a technical institute. I was there for about a year and a half. Actually it was there that I started the coming out process. I met a couple of people who were gay. They introduced me to the gay bars, and I didn't realize they had any of that in New Mexico. And I totally got into that scene where I went out drinking with them. And I got lost in that scene there.

TI: Did you still have the same uneducated view of how people get infected with HIV?

Darrell: Well, I knew there were three stages to the disease: HIV, ARC, and AIDS. I still didn't think there would be a whole lot of people in Albuquerque [infected with HIV].

I didn't even know I had contracted an STD,
the side effects were tremendous.

TI: Were you practicing safe sex?

Darrell: The first time I had sex it was protected, but it could have gone either way for me. It didn't really matter. I just wanted to have sex with a man. Because I thought that that's what being gay was about. And the second time was unprotected, and that's when I contracted an STD [Sexually Transmitted Disease]. Gonorrhea. I didn't take care of it. I didn't even know I had contracted an STD, the side effects were tremendous. I was pretty much bedridden that summer with arthritis [a crippling disease of the joints].

I was kind of aware of what could happen to me, but HIV was definitely not a concern for some reason. I was still out there dating, but I wouldn't have intercourse. I was scared because of what happened. When I finally did meet someone that I really liked who liked me and we moved in together and had unsafe sex for about three months when I decided to go take a test. Only because my friends were taking the test. And the nurse was asking me all these questions. Questions that I had never thought to ask my partner. These questions were still in my head, and so I would kind of hint around to my partner about some of the questions. Like, I didn't even know his background. Then I find out that he had been in prison for 17 years and had just been released that year I met him, and he was an avid drug user.

I thought, "I'm negative. I probably won't get it."

TI: If you had known this would it have made a difference?

Darrell: Not really. Because I had such low self-esteem. This person totally liked me and that was all that mattered. And when I got my test results and it was negative I went back to him and told him that I had a negative test result and he was like... kind of shocked. Well, he was shocked that I would take the test in the first place. Because he didn't even think about it [HIV], not that I know of, anyway. Before me, I know he was having unsafe sex with men and women. And the drug thing. So I was totally confused, "Why am I not positive?" I think the thing that really kicked in was "I want to be with this guy. It's the first guy that I can say that I loved and who loves me." This is my first relationship, and anything he said I did. It didn't matter having unprotected sex with him. It wasn't a concern for me. It was just like keeping him. So we continued having unprotected sex. And I thought, too, that "I'm negative. I probably won't get it."

TI: Did you go back and get another test in six months?

Darrell: Yeah. I kind of hinted around to the nurse that maybe I finally got a background check on my partner and that he's positive... so she had me take another test. When I went back to get the results the doctor tells me that I'm half positive and half negative. That means "Inconclusive Results." So we took it again that same day, but I was so afraid to go back for the results that I waited for a couple of months.

TI: So you finally went back and got the results. Why?

Darrell: I think I kind of wanted to use that as a weapon because at this point in my life I was totally focusing on being positive, and I was like heavily into using drugs... whatever he brought home. Heroin... it was mostly cocaine though. And then I started using it intravenously with him. I think just to stop questioning myself as to whether I got it. That's probably what made me go back.

I was positive, and it didn't matter because we were going to be together forever and we were going to die together.

TI: It sounds like you were doing everything to get infected.

Darrell: You know, I was thinking about that, and I think it was the case. And I think it was just to be with him. And when my results came back, I was positive, and it didn't matter because we were going to be together forever and we were going to die together.

TI: How was his health?

Darrell: He was slowly, slowly deteriorating. I was there when he was going through some of the symptoms like shingles, diarrhea, fatigue, night sweats.

TI: Did you feel appreciated?

Darrell: Yeah I did. That's what made me stay. It was a sick relationship. I see that now. I got my results in July, and two months after that he was sent back to prison, so I think that's where reality struck. I didn't know what to do. I can think about it now and say, "What the hell was wrong with me?" The only thing I could think to do was go home. My mom was totally worried about me. I wasn't taking care of myself. I looked horrible because of all the drugs. The thing about him going to prison was that he took the drugs with him. But the alcohol was still there. So I was drinking and drinking. I never quite came out to my mother as to why I was drinking so much. I got in trouble with the law. Just being stupid, basically. Until finally... I was getting in trouble with the law mostly on purpose so I could hopefully go to prison and be with him, but the last crime I committed was on the Navajo Reservation and any crime committed there is a federal offense. So I would have most likely been taken not to a prison in New Mexico but to a federal prison somewhere.

TI: What did you do?

Darrell: Breaking and entering and robbery. But that's what scared me. Just to be sent to a prison out there, somewhere. So I tried to get my life together. Got a job that lasted only three days. That job was actually the turning point. I started communicating with my mother. I told her that I thought I had a problem with alcohol, and she said, "I'm glad you realize that." We both got me into a 30 day alcohol program.

TI: And while you were being honest about the alcohol were you also honest with her about being gay and being HIV positive?

Darrell: The gay thing she had an idea, because I was flamboyant. In the program is actually when I came out to her and told her I was gay and that I'm HIV positive. But I didn't really get to deal with issues around the HIV thing just because that's something that wasn't talked about. Even in the program itself. That was almost 4 years ago. I was clean and sober for about 6 months when I decided that I needed to get away from there because it wasn't working for me. And I felt that I was going to start drinking pretty soon. So my counselor worked on getting me to San Francisco, and I didn't know anyone here. But my aunt who lived in San Diego knew this Indian guy who is HIV positive and who lived in San Francisco and worked for this AIDS organization. So she connected me with him.

I kind of relapsed after 18 months...
I guess there's no "kind of" about it.
I relapsed.

So I bought a bus ticket and came first to San Diego and then to San Francisco. That was three years ago. And I was pretty much homeless at first. I utilized all the "homeless youth" organizations. Started off in a transitional house for homeless youth and got a job and started working my way up. And started dealing with being HIV positive and everything about it. I did a lot of support groups, but I kind of relapsed after 18 months of being clean... I guess there's no "kind of" about it. I relapsed. Just got into the whole scene again about using. That lasted for about 10 months. I lost everything I had worked so hard to gain. I was almost homeless again. I lost my job. (Well, I quit before I could lose my job.) And I was going to return home, but I didn't want to go home with two bags and a hundred dollars and a Greyhound ticket. That's how I got here and I didn't want to leave here the way I got here. So I got into a program in San Francisco.

TI: It takes an incredible amount of strength to do what you did. What was it that turned you around?

Darrell: I think it was my mom. I think it's her. I don't want to hurt her. She's my life giver. There's so much I still want to do for my mother, it's just not right for me to be abusing myself.

TI: Why do you think that program made such a difference?

Darrell: Because it was a Native American specific program. For me that's like starting from the ground, it's not just like jumping into something and trying to deal with an issue. It's actually where I got to start dealing with being different and who I am. I'm a gay Native American. I finally focused on issues... not just homosexuality, but on being a Native American and that it's not bad. I can totally appreciate who I am today and where I come from. Sometimes when I think about the things I've put myself through I kind of get all depressed. I think about well, maybe I should have done this or should have done that. Then I have to come to a realization that everything I put myself through was to get me to where I am today.

TI: The fact that you blame no one for your situation and that you accept where you've been and see that it contributed to who you are now is a remarkable.

Darrell: Well, I guess sometimes I don't give myself enough credit.

...everything I put myself through
was to get me to where I am today.

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