TUCSON, Ariz. — Daniel Hernandez Jr., an openly gay 21-year-old University of Arizona student, was just five days into his new job as an intern for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) when, during a routine “meet & greet” with her constituents in a suburban Tucson shopping center, a mentally disturbed man open fired in an assassination attempt on Giffords, killing six people among the gathered crowd, including a federal judge.
In the chaos that ensued on that morning of Jan. 8, 2011, Hernandez rushed to his severely wounded boss, cradled her upright to prevent her from choking on her own blood, applied pressure to her open head wound, and refused to leave her side.
Hernandez was widely credited with saving the Congresswoman’s life.
“When I heard gunshots, my first instinct was to head toward the congresswoman to make sure that she was okay,” Hernandez told Christiane Amanpour, in an interview with ABC News.
“I kind of just shut off all emotion because I knew I wouldn’t be any good to anyone if I had a breakdown,” Hernandez remembered. “I had to lift up the congresswoman because she was severely injured, and I wanted to make sure that she was able to breathe okay because there was so much blood.”
“I wasn’t able to get any words from her. She may have been trying, but because of the way that I was having to hold her it was a lot easier to just ‘if you can hear me Gabby just grab my hand to let me know that you’re okay.’”
Hernandez was hailed as a “national hero,” a title he quickly rejected.
But during the nationally televised memorial service for the victims a few days later, President Barack Obama, addressing an audience gathered in a University of Arizona arena, said:
“We are grateful to Daniel Hernandez. Daniel? I am sorry, you may deny it, but you are a hero,” the President said. “We have decided you are a hero because you ran through the chaos to your boss, and helped keep her alive.”
Tragic as that day’s circumstances were, and while acting in an heroic fashion according to others, Hernandez said he doesn’t see anything he did that January day as special.
For him, it was simply the right set of actions to take.
Today — almost one year later — the soon-to-be 22-year-old student sees himself staying the course in the path in life he said he set for himself years ago.
In an interview with LGBTQ Nation, Hernandez said he was honored to be chosen as the news magazine’s “LGBT Person of the Year” for 2011, selected largely in part to his being a role model for LGBTQ youth to emulate and aspire to.
Hernandez said that he really only has ever “tried to be the best I can be.”
“I’ve worked in the background for a very long time, serving several organizations advocating for LGBTQ rights,” he said.
“I’m committed to raising awareness on issues of importance for LGBTQ people to the larger community.”
Among Hernandez’ passions is education — so much in fact that he sought an unpaid volunteer school board member position on the local Sunnyside District school board in Tucson. Hernandez won the seat and was sworn in on Dec. 14.
He acknowledges that there is considerable work ahead of him and his fellow board members, and pledged to do the very best he can to represent the approximately 18,000 students in the district, of which he said nearly 85 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Hernandez says his focus is on local leadership, and while paying particular attention to LGBTQ issues that affect his district, he says he doesn’t want to limit himself to those issues exclusively, although he said he is absolute in his commitment to preventing anti-gay bullying and raising awareness of how deeply that issue affects LGBT youth.
When asked about the visibility his actions last January afforded him, he noted:
“I’ve never craved attention, before, then or even now. I’m just Daniel Hernandez, this isn’t about me being gay or even Hispanic, it’s about me wanting to help others.
“I won’t use what happened for me personally, but yes, it has helped in assisting me to raise awareness in my advocacy work.”
In response to a final question about his future political plans, Hernandez told LGBTQ Nation, “I need to focus now on getting my Bachelor’s, finishing school, and of course I have three years to serve on my school board term and then I’ll see.”