Omar Garcia, advocate, photograph by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine--America's AIDS Magazine.

Feature Story: Finding His Resolve

A #tbt interview and photo shoot with advocate Omar Garcia published in A&U Magazine [2017]

Finding His Resolve
Omar Garcia sounds off about the effects of machismo in the Latin culture, dating while HIV-positive, and the generational gap in the gay community
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald

I have a story for you,” my friend Omar Garcia says. I’ve known Omar for a couple of years. He has a big heart and a warm smile that he always carries on his face. We are at a friend’s party and find our way away from the crowd, so that we can chat. Listening to Omar’s story, I realize that he is not only a friend in need, but also an activist we all need—a quiet activist, that is, who wants to remain quiet no more.

We decide to pick up the conversation at a later date, and plan to get together in my studio.

Omar Garcia. Photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
Omar Garcia photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.

“I’m thirty-nine years old, born and raised in Miami,” Omar begins. “When I was in my twenties, I lived in Los Angeles for about six years. That’s when I became [HIV] positive, in 2006. I was aware of HIV, but I was nonchalant about it. By then [the virus] was so controlled, I was just thinking that it’s not going to happen
to me.”

And yet it did happen, and he knows exactly when and where and why. “I partied that weekend,” Omar recalls. “It was one of these casual encounters. I remember that at the time I [had a feeling] that something very bad was happening to me, but I was high on drugs and couldn’t quite think straight.” He falls silent for a moment then goes on. “I got sick the following week. I got all the symptoms—the cold, the chills, all that stuff. It was June and there was no cold virus out. That’s how I knew [that I had seroconverted.]”

Omar went to get tested for HIV and got his answer pretty much right away. He remembers that they called him as he was already on his way home. The results were back and the doctor could not discuss them over the phone.

Once back at the doctor’s office, they sat him down and told him that he had tested positive for HIV. He still distinctively remembers how he received the news.

During the early to mid-2000s, doctors didn’t start HIV patients on medications right away, but rather waited to see how the patient’s body responded to the virus. Luckily, Omar was very healthy.

The doctor eventually put him on Atripla, the first once-a-day pill that became available in 2007. But Atripla had its pros and cons, and a long series of side effects, such as hallucinations; hence, patients had to take the medication at night. “One time I [forgot to take it at night and instead I] took it in the morning,” Omar explains. “I was driving to work and had to pull over and call my friends to [ask] them to come pick me up, because I felt like I was drunk and high, and seeing lights and colors.” But then again, while taking Atripla at night, he soon discovered that it caused insomnia. So, he had to take sleeping pills. To this day, he cannot sleep without sleeping pills.

Omar Garcia. Photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
Omar Garcia. Photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.

“After I became HIV-positive, I went through all the phases—self-hatred, self-loathing—but I never missed my medications because of fear of dying,” Omar confesses. He then adds, “The guys on PrEP don’t need the pill to survive. We do.”

Omar was on Atripla for two or three years. Eventually, new and better medications became available. Nowadays, even better meds are in the pipeline, about to become available—the much-anticipated one-injection-a-month medications, for example. “It helps you escape reality,” Omar comments on the advantages of such a treatment, “because taking a pill every day is a constant reminder that you’re sick.” On the other hand, that daily reminder helps patients stay ahead of the virus and remain undetectable.

His doctor advised him to see a therapist, but Omar insisted that he was fine. Only he wasn’t fine, and instead of taking his doctor’s advice, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. “That didn’t work out,” Omar points out. “It should have never been my resolve, but at the moment it made sense because it was an easy fix.” Eventually, he went to rehab and got clean. But he still didn’t tell anybody about his HIV, not even his family.

Omar grew up in Miami’s Latino community, the child of Cuban parents. Omar, himself, is bilingual, fluent in both English and Spanish. At an early age he realized that it’s difficult for someone to come out as gay in the Latino community. He also realized that, on the other hand, coming out has its advantages. For one, you figure out who your real friends are.

Omar was seventeen when he came out as gay to a handful of very close friends. They all grew up together, and he thought that they would understand and accept him. Instead, he was surprised by their reaction—they stopped talking to him and didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore.

A reason for such behavior is rooted in religion and religious beliefs, in particular when it comes to Latin culture. “There’s [also] a certain hierarchy of masculinity in the Latin culture,” Omar explains. “If you come out as gay, you’re [considered] lower on the masculinity [scale]. Being HIV-positive on top of it takes you a step grade below.” Therefore, in the Latino community, oftentimes, individuals who are gay and HIV-positive find themselves living in a closet within a closet.

“Machismo is a very Spanish thing,” Omar adds, “embedded in the Latin culture. You don’t get rid of it, you [try to] work with it.” The way one does that is by adopting a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of behavior. That is, for example, parents do not ask their gay (adult) children about their personal lives, and children don’t share anything about their personal lives with their parents. “It’s not good not to be able to talk about it with your family,” Omar says, “because [then] you’re denying [being gay] to yourself.”

Eventually, he told his younger brother about his HIV serostatus. “I have two brothers. I’m a middle child and the only one who came out gay,” Omar offers. “My aunt was lesbian. She came out back in the sixties and seventies, and that was tough for a woman, back then. She’s also my godmother. There was a joke she would tell. [She’d say,] ‘I knew you were gay the moment I held you in my arms.’ She was amazing. She passed in 1999 and I miss her every day.”

Omar didn’t tell his parents that he was HIV-positive. He didn’t want them to worry about him. Then, about a year and a half ago, he had an argument with his parents, and ended up telling them. And he regretted his decision a moment later. But his parents surprised him, in a good way. “They were first shocked and angry at me for not telling them sooner,” he says. “They were worried about me, but did not shun me,” quite the contrary.

About five years ago, Omar had enough of the HIV closet and decided to come out, first to his closest friends and then to others. For the past three years, he’s been completely open about his status.

But being honest and upfront about one’s HIV status doesn’t always make it easy to start a relationship. Dating while living with HIV has its challenges.

Omar Garcia. Photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
Omar Garcia photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.

“It was hard at first,” Omar confesses. There were times when because of his honesty he ended up being humiliated and abandoned at the restaurant. Omar recalls one of those dates. “He literally put his napkin down and left me at the restaurant with the check,” he says with a sad smile. He then advises, “If left at the table, finish your meal and take off. You don’t cry, not right there anyway. You cry at home.”

Over the years, Omar learned to put up an emotional wall, to develop a thick skin and a different mindset. “Before I was on the offense,” he explains, “but then I took a defense mechanism. Now, I would start the conversation and ask the questions, in a nice way.”

For example, he’d ask if his date is on PrEP. “[Practicing safer sex] is both persons’ responsibility,” Omar says, “but since it’s your body, it’s your responsibility first [to take care of it]. And I think now it’s silly for a guy not to be on PrEP and take it like they’re supposed to.”

Most of his dates appreciate his honesty. Many are grateful for his bringing up (HIV-related) questions that they wanted to ask all along but didn’t know how.

Most young individuals he meets online usually don’t mind his HIV status. Some even desire it.

“There’s now a trend I don’t understand. I meet people online, on gay dating sites, with the desire of getting infected,” Omar explains. “They are called bug chasers. It’s mostly young guys who did not grow up with this epidemic,” he says. “There is a generational gap within the gay community, between those who lived through the epidemic of AIDS and the ones who are too young to remember what the AIDS crisis was like.”

Too many times Omar gets into endless online conversations with these young individuals, telling them that they shouldn’t be gambling with their lives, especially as today’s political environment could very well make HIV AIDS again.

“It was frightening,” Omar says, commenting on that possibility. It would be one of the many consequences of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a repeal that, in turn, could take health insurance away from over twenty million people or more. “If you don’t have a job to afford proper healthcare or [other] means of having it, you might not be able to get your medications, no matter what these meds are for. [When it comes to HIV that could mean] an increase in infections, and then we’ll have the same epidemic that we had in the eighties.”

Omar Garcia. Photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
Omar Garcia photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.

Ever since his HIV diagnosis, Omar has continued to stay healthy. He goes to his doctor every three months and to the gym five times a week. He also started practicing Buddhism. “You’re supposed to ask the universe for what you want or need in your life, and by chanting it will manifest itself in some form or fashion,” he explains what that entails.

The past eleven years have provided Omar with plenty of lessons in life, lessons that today he’s more than happy to share with others. “I was never mad at myself,” Omar tells me, “I should have known better. HIV can happen to anybody. That’s why we need to educate ourselves about it.” Then he adds, directly addressing the younger generation, “It’s important to know your status at all times,” he says. “Know your partner’s [status and practice safer sex]. Remember that there are other diseases besides HIV. Take care of yourself. Make sure you’re the champion of your own body. Look out for your body, because nobody else will.”

In particular, when it comes to the Latin culture, “we need to change our mentality of machismo. [Fortunately, young people] nowadays have a great advantage that we never had, and consider being gay a part of life. Being gay has become gentrified.

“[That said, when it comes to HIV] I don’t think we should ever put our guard down, and hope that HIV never gets gentrified into the society. Because then we become complacent, and then there’s never going to be a cure.”

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