Daniel Hernandez, the 20-year-old college junior who saved Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life by tending to her wounds until the ambulance arrived after Saturday’s horrific shooting, doesn’t consider himself a hero. “Doing something one-off is not heroic,” Hernandez told a reporter. “I think the heroes are people like Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.”
His behavior after gunfire rang out in front of a Tucson supermarket where Giffords was hosting a meet-your-representative event, however, is the very definition of selfless sacrifice. Hearing sharp reports from Jared Lee Loughner’s 9mm Glock, Hernandez ran toward the sounds. Seeing more than a dozen people, including a 9 year old girl, bleeding on the ground, he used his high school training as a nurses’ assistant to check their pulses. Realizing that Giffords had been shot in the head, he took the gravely wounded Congresswoman in his lap and cradled her to keep her from choking as supermarket employees brought out clean aprons to stanch the flow of blood from her wounds.
It took half an hour for the EMTs to arrive, surely the longest 30 minutes of Giffords’ and Hernandez’s time on Earth. But if the Congresswoman survives, she won’t have to look far to find the young gay Latino who saved her life. Hernandez began interning in Rep. Giffords’ office only last Monday, though he has known and respected her for years.
Did I say the G-word? I did. Hernandez is not merely gay — he’s proudly, vocally, forthrightly, politically actively gay, as he informed a Texas newspaper over the weekend, adding that Rep. Giffords is “a great ally to the LGBT community.”
In other words, Hernandez is precisely the kind of rare hero who would have been discharged from the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the regulatory kluge that Hernandez’s senator, John McCain, defended in an inarticulate, sputtering rage on the floor of U.S. Congress just before a majority of his fellow senators voted to repeal it a couple of weeks ago.
With the rollback of DADT, people like Hernandez will finally be allowed to serve their country without lying about who they are. But gay men and women in his home state have another cross to bear that won’t be going away anytime soon: a 2008 amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage exclusively as “one man and one woman,” proposed by 16 Republican state senators and passed by majority vote.
Marriage equality was already illegal in Arizona. Proposition 102 was a pure piece of legislative bigotry crafted to add insult to injury, concocted in response to the short-lived legalization of marriage equality in California. Proponents of the amendment spent more than $7 million to fund TV spots like this, which one might reasonably assume is an ad for a jeweler having a sale on engagement rings or a travel agency offering honeymoon packages — until the punch line clues you in to the fact that it’s an ad designed to prevent a certain class of person from ever achieving the kind of happiness, security, and fulfillment depicted onscreen.
Rep. Giffords is an active opponent of laws like that mean-spirited amendment. She has cosponsored bills against anti-gay discrimination in employment and federal benefits, and she was in favor of repealing DADT. As Hernandez pointed out this weekend, she had been a hero to people like him for years by the time a deranged young man obsessed with fringe right-wing ideas about currency and grammar took aim with the gun he bought legally at a place called Sportsman’s Warehouse and loaded with bullets he picked up at Walmart, despite the fact that he had already kicked out of community college for being a frightening presence in class.
Self-effacing courage — the mark of a real hero — is so refreshing and inspiring at this historical moment. The national stage seems so crowded with self-promoting blowhards like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, and Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, whose tormented, deeply personal reasons for her obsessive crusade against gay marriage are on display in a recent debate on the issue in The Economist.
Modest performance of good works is a familiar mode of life for many gay men and women, who often have to keep mute about the landmark events in their lives for fear of letting the truth slip out — the truth of their loves, the truth of their life-long commitments, the truth of their sacrifices. One of the more benign stereotypes of gay people is that they often end up in “helping” professions, as nurses, teachers, therapists, and counselors. Of course, gay people also end up becoming Olympic gold medalists, reproductive biologists, and conservative talk-radio hosts.
Indeed, the Vietnam veteran who saved the life of former President Gerald Ford after a 1975 assassination attempt, Oliver Sipple, was also gay. After being outed by a San Francisco newspaper columnist, Sipple’s story ended tragically. His devoutly Baptist mother temporarily disowned him and never fully accepted her son’s identity. Sipple became alcoholic and paranoid, dying at age 47 after being denied VA health benefits for his breathing problems.
The big lie about laws like DADT and Prop. 102 is that they effectively prevent gay people from taking part in venerable institutions like military service and life-long committed relationships. Of course, gay people are already everywhere, deeply woven into the fabric of mainstream society even where they’re invisible, quietly doing what needs to be done. All the laws do is to try to deprive them of human dignity while they do it.
Hopefully, Rep. Giffords will be able to survive her terrible injuries, recover, and return to her service in Congress, so that she can continue to be an advocate for every man and woman in Arizona– straight, gay, white, Latino, Christian, Jewish, rich, poor, Republican and Democrat. But after the headlines fade, the first-class hero who saved her life, Daniel Hernandez, will have to go back to fighting the laws in his home state that have branded him a second-class citizen.