I first came across the work of Paul Gallegos through Twitter. (He’s @pauly1999) Paul uses social media voraciously in support of his advocacy for people living with HIV and the need for testing of those who aren’t. One Twitter trail led to another, which in turn led me to find a story about Paul in a Palm Springs journal.
The bare bones of his story are this. In 1999, Paul already had years of heavy drinking and drug use behind him. In preparation for a construction job, he’d decided to get a physical. The results of a routine blood test sent him and Kelley, his girlfriend of five years and expecting a child, into shock. Paul was HIV positive.
He spiralled, his drinking getting heavier, leading to trouble with the law and jail time.
While Paul was still imprisoned and support seemed unlikely, Kelley searched for help and found it in the Desert AIDS Project. After being released he has devoted himself to outreach work, including public speaking and regular stints on the sidewalks in the hot desert climate of Palm Springs.
The story seemed so intriguing and Paul such a remarkable guy, I contacted Paul to see if he would do an interview for PositiveLite. He readily agreed. Here it is.
BL Tell me a little bit about yourself. You live in Palm Springs, California, right?
PG I'm unable to work. Married, with four kids and one on the way. I live in Sky Valley, about 10 - 15 miles NE of Palm Springs.
BL I was intrigued by a picture I saw of you on the internet, standing on a sidewalk holding a placard promoting HIV testing. Whose idea was it for you to do that?
PG I got the idea when driving home one day from the doctor and saw different types of people holding signs for businesses or even the homeless.
BL It’s called the Intersection Project, right? I like that name. It works on several levels. But tell me what it is you want to achieve.
PG I want people to know that this fuckin’ disease is out there and they should think about getting tested, to know their status. I don't want to see anyone go through what I have gone through in the past 12 years.
BL Now Palm Springs can get unbelievably hot. I know, I’ve been there. Isn’t the heat an issue for you standing out there on the sidewalk?
PG I don't think about the heat, I think about the hundreds of people I'm trying to reach out to.
BL What kind of reaction do you get from motorists or passersby?
PG Some smiles, some dirty looks, thumbs up, people honk at times, or they just look away as if I were not there. I've had a few people stop and take pictures.
BL I see you mentioned in another interview that you have neuropathy. ( Me too.) That must make standing harder. Are you taking anything for it that’s working?
PG I'm allergic to neuropathy meds, because most are used for anti-depressants. They give me pain meds and I also smoke medi-juana.
BL You’re very public about your HIV status. Was it always that way?
PG No. You can say and try to get bad with me all you want, but don't fuck with my family! I didn't like the treatment my wife and kids got, so we kept it a secret until a couple years ago.
BL What made you decide to come out about being HIV positive?
PG The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Was it an easy thing to do? It was very hard to do, I talked with the wife and kids first; once I had their support, it was on. How did people react? You have friends and you have those you thought were your friends.
BL You’ve had a pretty difficult past life – drinking, drugs, prison. What was it like being in prison with HIV?
PG That's a whole different interview, but I will say this, I was called names, horrible names, they wanted my life on the line not theirs, they figured I was gonna die anyway, MOTHERFUCKERS!
BL Were you out to other inmates?
PG Segregation is against the law, but those of us with HIV/AIDS were put in a prison inside a prison, isolated from all other inmates. Other inmates were afraid they could get it from us through the air vents, stupid fucks. Getting (HIV) treatment is hard; they will not give you the medication you are on no matter what; it's a long process before you get any meds. It took me about 3-5 months before I got mine.
BL Was it prison that put you back on the straight and narrow or something else?
PG I would say prison, I saw a lot in prison. The worst thing was to watch guys that had AIDS die slowly, with no family or help from staff. They were there one day and gone the next. Broke my heart.
BL You are a straight guy, with a wife and kids, whom I know mean a lot to you. How do your kids deal with a dad who is HIV positive?
PG My kids are constantly worried for me, they help me with whatever I allow them too. They really hate to see me get sick. I got pretty sick earlier this year and my kids thought I was gonna die. As a father it makes it really hard to see them worry for me, I always try not to let them see me sick, but they always seem to know.
BL And your wife, Kelley. I’m guessing she’s one of your biggest supporters, right?
PG Without her I could not fight alone, she supports everything I do 100%. I probably would'nt be here today without her support.
BL Some people say HIV is the best thing that ever happened to them in that it allowed them to take stock of their life and make some needed changes. Do you agree with that?
PG No, I don't think we should wait for something bad to happen to us.There are plenty of people out there that are willing to speak about their lives so that others will take caution in theirs.
BL One last question, Paul. What makes you happy?
PG Spending time with the wife and kids, taking photos; if I had a bike cycling would be one, even if I still had a motorcycle I would go out cruising. I really enjoy reaching out to the community in any way I can. I have done speaks at high schools, juvenile halls, on World AIDS Day, Palm Springs AIDS walk and some private events. Got to get the word out! Also just because there are meds people need to think about the consequences from this disease and the meds too.
BL Anything else you'd like to say, Paul?
PG If I wanted to add more you and I would have to get together and write a book. I have done speaks and the last speak I did was last year at the Palm Springs AIDS/5k run. One thing I spoke about was how HIV is a HUMAN disease and not GIV - a gay disease. I have many gay friends and it did not offend them. My point is that, in and out of prison, I have been called names for being HIV-positive, names I would never use. I get tired of people always wanting to blame someone else for their actions. What happened to me was my own doing and I blame no one. I'm not out to offend anyone but to get the word out that HIV/AIDS is still out there and people should be safe in what they do.
PG Thank you again for everything. I want to take this message as far as I can and with all the support I can.