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Q&A: Dab Garner and HIV activism

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  • August 7, 2012 - 7:07 PM

Dab Garner and his partner took in 6-week old Candace in 1985. She was HIV-positive and had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Her mother, a prostitute, died shortly after childbirth. They didn't know who her father was. 

“No one wanted a child with HIV, especially one born deformed…Even the nurses weren’t paying attention to her,” Garner said. “I couldn’t leave her to die.”

Garner and his partner couldn’t legally adopt Candace because they were gay, so they became her godfathers instead. They took care of her until she died of AIDS, just shy of her fifth birthday in 1989, before she could benefit from the antiretroviral drugs that would ultimately help thousands of HIV-positive children

“I promised her I’d make other people like her feel loved,” Garner said. 

In her honor, Dab organized a Christmas party for children at the hospital where Candace had been treated. Garner wanted to “give them a little bit of hope,” he said. That party started the Teddy Bear Touchdowns, holiday parties for children living with HIV/AIDS now held around the world. During the events, children get Christmas presents. (Christmas was Candace’s favorite holiday.) 

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, almost 8,500 children have been diagnosed with AIDS. Roughly 4,800 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Garner spoke to the Star Tribune about Candace, Dab the AIDS Bear Project and his work as an HIV/AIDS activist. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Star Tribune: How did the Dab the AIDS Bear project start?

Dab Garner: It started in 1981. I was living in San Francisco. My best friend started getting splotches on his skin. When they finally diagnosed the purple splotches as Kaposi’s sarcoma, he was given the GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) diagnosis and put into quarantine. [During the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, AIDS was called GRID because of its high prevalence among gay men.] I was 18, and it hurt me that I couldn’t visit my friend.

I’m Greek and Italian and very hairy. In the gay community, hairy men are called bears, so I thought what better present to give him – [a teddy bear] to hold while he was dying in quarantine? 

Three months later, my first partner came down with a bad cold. He was diagnosed with a type of pneumonia – PCP – which is mainly in people with full-blown AIDS. Before I knew it, he was put into quarantine. It was bad enough watching my best friend [in quarantine], but when it’s the person you’re in love with, it tore me apart not being able to hold him. So I got him a teddy bear.  

ST: When were you diagnosed?

DG: In January of 1982, I started getting sick with what I thought was a cold. I was diagnosed on Valentine’s Day in 1982. I was told I probably wouldn’t live to see my birthday, six weeks later. 

ST: Were you in quarantine?

DG: I ended up in San Francisco General Hospital. I knew quarantine had to be one of the scariest, most horrific places from watching my best friend and partner, but until you’re the person put into quarantine you have no idea how lonely, scary and frightening that is. When I finally was released, I was told I was the first person to make it out alive, at least in San Francisco. 

ST: What was your reaction to your HIV diagnosis?

DG: We started the first HIV support groups, [with] people who made it out of quarantine. We were trying to figure out how to keep ourselves alive. In 1982 in San Francisco, we had less than 14 people. We would meet in secret. Back then, you were even stigmatized by other gay men [because] no one knew how the virus was passed. There were no medications. I became an activist.  I just wanted to make sure people weren’t dying in vain. 

ST: How many bears have you given out?

DG: By 1995, I’d given out 10,216 bears. I used to write down names [of recipients] in a book. I stopped counting because it was just too hard. 

ST: What advice would you have for someone caring for a loved one with HIV/AIDS?

DG: The first thing I would say is to educate yourself about HIV. The second is that a lot of times, your loved one just needs you to listen and to accept them for who they are.

ST: Who did that for you?

DG: My family. I’m very lucky. I come from a southern, Catholic, Republican, military family. Being gay and being diagnosed with HIV was not in the game plan. I flew home a week after finding out and I told my family, “I’m gay. I have a new disease and I’m probably going to be dead in the next few weeks.” My mom started crying. I had never given them a clue about being gay. I grew up in Pensacola, Flo., I didn’t know any other gay people.  

ST: What has been the most memorable moment for you in your fight against HIV/AIDS?

DG: What sticks out in my mind is you can always tell when a person’s eyes light up [the moment] they realize they don’t want to be HIV-positive. It’s like a light bulb going off in their heads. People will come up to talk to me or [they’ll] send me an email or a message, sharing their story about living with HIV. Or they’ll tell me about how one of our bears comforted someone they knew as they were dying. They’ve reduced me to tears telling me how their partner, husband of child were holding their bear as they died. The best gift is the hugs and thank you’s [I get]. 

ST: How many bears exist worldwide?

DG: At the last count, at the end of the year, more than 39,000. Before 2003, you had to be HIV-positive to get one. Now people can donate money and get a bear through the website, which is how we fund events for children.

ST: Did you ever think your bear project would become so big?

DG: No. It started off as a simple act of compassion and kindness from one person to another. I never expected to be alive 30 years later, to work with senators and heads of countries and organizations around the world to help people who are infected. 1989 was the first year we did the Teddy Bear Touchdown. We’re now in our 23rd year and we do it in 17 countries around the world for about a quarter of a million children. The teddy bears let them know they’re being love, [and] that made me know I was keeping my promise to my little girl. 

ST: What type of work does your organization do in Minnesota?

DG: We used to have four people, but they’ve passed away in the past two to three years. Two of them were minority women, two of them gay men. We try to reach out to all populations affected by HIV. We would like to have three or four people become ambassadors of hope. [Their] HIV status doesn’t matter. All we care about is that they have a passion for helping people with HIV/AIDS.

ST: What do you hope to accomplish through Dab the Bear?

DG: There’s something about a teddy bear. For almost everyone, it brings back a sense of innocence, hope and love. We have over 827,000 pictures [of Dab the bear] taken since 1981. We like to think of this as ending stigma one picture at a time. 

 -- DANIELA HERNANDEZ

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