[Interview] Gabby Giffords’ Intern Daniel Hernandez on Politics, Beyonce + Heroism

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When an assassination attempt was made on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, her intern Daniel Hernandez rushed to her side. It was thanks to Daniel’s quick thinking, medical knowledge and bravery that Giffords is alive today. Now Daniel is releasing “They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth” that recounts this. And more.

Many people have called Daniel a hero for his actions — though he shies away from the title. At 23, he’s the youngest, out LGBT elected official in the country whose top issues include LGBT rights, immigration and gun safety. We caught up with Daniel about his book, young people and the political process, and his definition of what makes a hero.

ACT: We’ll start with an MTV question! What musician or band do you listen to when you’re pulling an all-nighter or need inspiration?

DANIEL: I absolutely love Beyoncé. I was really excited when she sang at the Super Bowl and the Inauguration. I also listen to Billie Holiday, and one of my favorites is Shirley Bassey from the UK. I have this really weird mix. When I pull an all-nighter, I’ll sometimes alternate between Beyoncé’s new album, 4, and Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits or Shirley Bassey’s Greatest Hits.

ACT: Many people call you a hero, though you shy away from the title. What is your definition of a hero?

DANIEL: My definition of hero hasn’t changed. It would be someone who has dedicated their lives to help others. The word gets tossed around a lot. “We’re going to call you a hero because of one thing that you did.” But the reality is people who are heroes are the people who work day in and day out without receiving recognition. It’s nurses, doctors, teachers. The people who have dedicated their lives to working and helping their society.

For me, I’m more comfortable with “role model,” because it doesn’t put me at a different standard, it doesn’t put me on a pedestal. It says, “I’m just like you. I’m not perfect by any means, but I’m able to do something that I think is important.”

ACT: Tell us about your book, “They Call Me A Hero.” What do you want readers to take away from your book?

DANIEL: There are a few different things. The first thing I want to highlight is getting involved and becoming part of the conversation. I think a lot of times, especially with young people, we forget we have a very important role and a very important voice. That doesn’t mean we get involved in politics, it doesn’t mean that you run for office. You find what your passion is about and use that as a way to give back to your community.

The other thing that I think is a takeaway from the book is the importance of overcoming obstacles. I think a lot of times people meet me and they think it’s been a really easy journey to get to where I am, that being a young, gay elected official (especially in a place like Arizona) is an easy thing. [laughing] I’ve worked very hard, but I realize I’m not just doing it for me. I’m doing it because I care about my community and I’m really passionate about helping others. You’re a bigger part of the system when you’re not just doing it for yourself. Overcoming obstacles is never easy, and I think a lot of people believe, “I’m the only one going through this and it’s really difficult.” There are a lot of challenges we have that we can overcome; we just have to put in the work, just put our nose to the ground.

ACT: As the youngest out LGBT elected official in the country, what areas of LGBT rights are especially important to you? What are you doing to push for those rights?

DANIEL: Being the youngest LGBT elected official for a long time, and one of the youngest elected officials, I get to wear a lot of hats. When we talk about LGBT issues, it’s not just about marriage equality. Is that a big factor? Yes. But I think we also need to be able to provide services and resources for young people when they’re coming out, and for their families who may not have had to deal with LGBT communities in the past.

When we look at the LGBT community, a lot of people try to say, “Well, it’s one big monolith.” But, as you can hear from the acronym, there are a lot of different factors. What is important to an 18-year-old gay person in New York might not be what’s important to a 65-year-old gay man in a retirement community.

Raising awareness and really trying to connect people to the resources is a big part of what I do. It’s making sure the resources are accessible. There’s no point in having an organization if no one knows how to access it. I think awareness is one of the biggest things I can do, especially because of the spotlight I’ve gotten over the last two years because of what happened on January the eighth. I’m able to shine the light on these things so people can access some of the resources, especially in Arizona and other states that are more conservative.

ACT: What about immigration, as that’s another important issue for you?

DANIEL: The district that I represent is largely a Latino district. I’m really excited that the president has come out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. I think we need to realize it’s not just about border security. Border security is an important component. What we need to do is work with those people who were brought here when they were young and know no country other than the United States. They should be able to be fully productive and represented members of society. They shouldn’t be held responsible for something their parents did. As we’re looking at the next couple of months and we have this bipartisan group of senators working on proposals, we have to look at it as a whole and be willing to make some tough choices. We have to ask, How do we provide a path to citizenship? And, How do we make it easy for people who want to come in from other countries and be an entrepreneur and have a business? The system we have is difficult to navigate through.

ACT: Gun control, gun violence and mental health are being talked about a lot now. How has your personal experience with gun violence shaped your beliefs in these areas?

DANIEL: For the first two years, I didn’t want to be perceived as having politicized the event in Tucson. I really stayed out of this issue. I don’t think it’s about gun control as much as it is about gun safety. I don’t want to take people’s guns away. I’m from Tucson, Arizona. My family and the state as a whole have a really big culture and history with guns. But the guns that were used when the Constitution was written are completely different from the ones now. So let’s talk about gun safety and the fact we have 34 Americans dying each day because of gun violence. We have Americans who aren’t in the press because they weren’t in a mass shooting.

What aren’t we doing that we should be doing? There’s no reason someone needs a 30-round clip if they’re going to be hunting or needing self-defense. There’s also no reason for people to have an assault rifle. We’re evaluating these machines that were made for the purpose of killing as many people as quickly as possible. The other thing that’s important when you’re talking gun safety is the importance of background checks. Even when you talk to Republicans or members of the NRA, the vast majority agree that we need to close the loophole that allows people to say, “I’m not going to go through a background check.” At gun shows, there are no requirements for background checks.

Mental health is an important issue. I think it’s part of the conversation. I think what we need to be wary of is stigmatizing mental health even more. We need to be careful that we’re not saying all people who are mentally ill or have mental health problems are going to be violent, because the vast majority will not be. But we need to be providing, again, resources.

ACT: People often don’t want to get involved with politics because it can be cruel and issues can be polarized to the point that nothing gets done. What you say to them?

DANIEL: I think especially for those of us who are younger, it can be very off-putting to look at politics and see this can sometimes be a very dirty game. But as someone who passed their first bill into law when they were 19, I can say people who are young have a powerful voice. It’s about getting involved and finding what you care about. In the book, I talk about writing a piece of legislation at the age of 19 that would allow students a legal right on election day to be excused from class the same amount of time as full-time employees. I decided this was an important issue to me. I didn’t win at this level because I had a lot of money, I didn’t win at this level because people thought it was the most important issue for them. It was because I took the time to make this an issue that people cared about because they had a relationship with me. I became a voice for so many people who couldn’t speak up for themselves.

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