Derik Cowan

December 1997

Youth and AIDS

AIDS is a fact of life that I think we all like to not think about as much as possible. If you're like I was and grew up in a small town, went to school in a small town, and kept a statistically limited set of friends, then in a lot of ways it did become easy to ignore. Oh sure, I was confronted by the AIDS ribbons littering the various awards shows, I was given safe sex lectures in high school, and, as someone who became involved in gay activism, realized the scope that the AIDS epidemic has reached in its effect on our society. But I was always able to cushion that away from myself, and because of that my knowledge on the subject was distanced from my personal experience.

I was talking to a friend recently who works for the Stop AIDS Project here in San Francisco, and in the course of the conversation realized that in fact part of this cushion that I had developed against the cold hard facts surrounding AIDS was in fact built into my education. Every year in my high school, we would have one day in which one of the nurses at the AIDS prevention center in New London, Ct come and give a lecture. Often she would bring with her someone who was HIV positive to talk to the students about how he or she contracted HIV and how it felt to be living with it. Now, on the surface I'm sure this sounds like a very good program. But in order to judge the worth of a lecture, you must first know the audience. In this case, the audience was a group of high school students from upper-middle class families, many of whom had doctors as parents and had more up to date knowledge on what was going on medically in the fight against AIDS than did the visiting nurse, whose information was usually 3 years behind the times. Furthermore, the HIV positive speakers who were brought in were often (this being New London) IV drug users or prostitutes -- neither of which had much in common with the students of a college prep private high school.

A further factor that put me off in high school was the absolute refusal for any of the AIDS educators or materials they brought with them to address the "gay issue." I had realized that I was gay when I was about 12, and was looking for information that would help me understand what that meant in my life. The first thing I learned was in eighth grade, the first year that the AIDS educators came to the school. During this particular presentation they showed a safe sex video, and the narrator in it took great pains to brush off the possibility that anyone seeing her video would possibly be gay and needing of information on safe sex. I believe the actual line from the video was "Some homosexual men also have been known to transmit HIV through a practice known as anal sex, but none of you need to worry about that."

I won't blame all of my former disinterest in AIDS issues on my high school safer sex education program. In spite of all the bad things that I can say about it, it did serve to educate me on the basics -- always use a condom during penetrative sex, and don't share needles. Now, I highly doubt I'll ever be doing heroine, but penetrative sex is something I engage in from time to time, so at least part of that information was useful. Scarily enough however, the other factor that I would point to in my former disinterest in AIDS issues was in fact my involvement in gay youth activism.

When I was disowned by my parents over three years ago, there was nowhere for me to turn. The gay youth group in the area was entirely social and woefully underfunded, and no one I met in the gay community in the area seemed the slightest interested in my plight other than to say they were sorry and would I let them know how things developed. There were no emergency shelters for gay youth who'd been disowned, no psychiatric services to help me through the emotional aftermath of being cut off from my family, no sources designed to loan money to gay youth in crisis. As I've become more and more involved in gay youth issues, and seen the awareness of these issues grow, I've seen some advances in these fronts, but very little that is truly substantial. This has in the past and in some ways continued to be frustrating to me, to the point where a couple of years ago I lashed out at some older friends of mine about how the older generation is so hypocritical in that it expects gay youth to look up to them as role models even as they've done nothing to help gay youth. The reply I got on the subject was that the AIDS epidemic sidetracked all progress on gay issues. The older generation was so devastated by AIDS that it could only think about pushing for a cure and immediate goals. It didn't think there would be another generation of gay men.

I don't entirely buy that argument in that I think it's pretty obvious that this gay thing's been going on for a while and would be hard to wipe out for good and that even in the highest point of the AIDS crisis, advances were still being made on the local and state levels in terms of gay rights laws, domestic partnership laws, and employees rights laws. Why weren't similar actions being taken to protect gay youths from being bashed in schools? Or, if you want to argue that the above advances I've talked about affected the way people could live with HIV, then why weren't gay activists fighting harder to get resources on HIV relevant to gays and lesbians into the schools instead of the schlock I was exposed to? These are still questions I have, but looking back at the past is a waste of energy, and I prefer to instead work on the future.

It's only been over the past year or so that I've truly started facing the AIDS epidemic for what it is in the gay community. A key point to this has been my discovery that I have several friends who are either HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS. Another point came last fall, when I was active in a coalition at school to fight the Red Cross's discriminatory refusal to allow sexually active gay men to donate blood (by the way: active here means you've had sex once since 1979). Our fight eventually led to us having a meeting with the former head of the FDA, who sets the standards by which blood donations can be given. He was able to give us a whole set of statistics on the rates of infection among various ethnic and sexual orientation groups which were frightening. The current rate of infection among gay men ages 18-28 in San Francisco and New York City according to these statistics (taken in 1996) is 1%. That means that 1 in 100 gay men in these two cities is newly infected with HIV each year. I came home from that meeting extremely depressed, but more importantly with a new realization that even as a gay youth activist, AIDS issues are still highly relevant.

The final straw that brought this post to life however has been my work for Names Project, which has brought me into contact with many panels, and the realization that many of the panels are for people who died in their mid twenties to mid thirties. as I approach that age myself, I realize just how many lives were cut extremely short and how many dreams ended abruptly, and I can't help but think about how I would feel to find myself in that position.

This article has as usual gone around in circles, but it has also come to its point--life may seem to go on forever at this point, and perhaps you, like me, have spent a lot of time planning on not living to see 30. But pay attention to what you were told by the sex educators in your school, no matter how clueless they were, because there will be another generation of gay youth coming up after us, and it's our responsibility to make sure they are protected in ways that we weren't/aren't.


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