When Carrie mentioned World AIDS Day and asked if I’d write about the impact of HIV and AIDS on my life, I thought, “They haven’t really had much of an impact on my life.” I’ve only ever had friends who had friends who were sick. I’ve been extremely fortunate.
One of the parts I paid the most attention to in “Family Life” (That’s what they called sex ed in my high school.) was how to avoid contracting HIV. How to minimize my health risk while engaging in an activity that can be so incredibly fulfilling. So, until I became monogamous, I’ve used contraception and gone for testing every six months.
I suppose that’s an impact. Knowing myself as well as I do, I can say, with a good amount of certainty, if it weren’t for the fact that there are incurable and/or terminal illnesses that are transmitted sexually, I probably wouldn’t use contraception when M and I have sex with people outside our relationship. I’m not particularly fond of the feel of condoms, though seeing them in use turns me on. My tubes are cut and burned. And curable STDs, to me, are the same thing as having strep throat: contagious and a little uncomfortable. So what would be the point?
I envisioned myself having to hunt for statistics and gut-wrenching human interest stories and… And then I remembered my best friend in high school. We’ll call him Lance. Lance is a good name. I don’t know any Lances.
Lance and I were inseparable from freshman to junior year. Our clique had an idea he was gay, but before junior year, he’d never come out and said so, and we’d never asked him. It was just sort of obvious in the way he handled his girlfriends freshman year. And how he never had one again after he broke up with Sally the week before Homecoming.
In the nineties, though everyone involved in AIDS awareness was fighting to do away with the stigma, HIV and AIDS were still viewed as “homosexual diseases”. The fact that they can be contracted through medical procedures, blood transfusions, accidental bloodshed on an open wound and needle sharing was hardly talked about. We needed someone to blame for this wasting disease, and homosexuals were the target of the times. So every time you heard about someone contracting HIV, the first question that came out of anyone’s mouth was, “Is he gay?”
I went to such an odd high school. “Progressive”, I think, is the word we use, now.
We were taught the realities of America’s history, rather than the pretty picture so many history books have painted. We learned about both Evolution and Intelligent Design. Teachers didn’t play favorites in the classroom. Students got the help they needed, regardless of the school being slightly understaffed. Social studies courses were a little preachy about tolerance and educating the ignorant. And “Family Life” was a required course that covered all forms of contraception without using scare tactics or distorting the statistics.
The faculty believed in treating us with respect and being honest with us. And they did their best to maintain an open line of communication between themselves and the students. They believed that approaching us this way was crucial in turning immature teenagers into upstanding citizens.
Seeing teens and teachers (Lance was always among them), both male and female, handing out condoms, or dental dams, or latex gloves during lunch or our mid-morning break was not unusual. Pamphlets about STDs and clinics and free testing and counseling were readily available in the nurses’, guidance counselors’ and principals’ offices. The school was positively gleaming with red ribbons and buttons and posters and stickers every December 1st.
What was even stranger, still, was that it was a public high school located smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.
Because of Lance, I took Drama. He was heavily involved in theater both in and out of school, which made it impossible for us to hang out, so I joined the drama club, too. But even then, we hardly found time to spend together. Until one day in the middle of junior year, we both canceled all of our previous obligations, and I went to his house for the first time ever.
It was bizarre. Lance ran the entire length of the school’s campus to meet me at my third period class before I left for work. And he asked me to meet him at his house when I got out. He was antsy and upset, but he didn’t want to talk about it until we got to his place.
Rent had been on Broadway for a year. The plan was to cuddle up on Lance’s futon with hot chocolate under his ginormous fuzzy dancing bear blanket and watch the recording he’d borrowed from one of his theater buddies. Or at least, so I thought, as I sped from my job to his house after promising my boss I’d make it up and dashing out the door an hour early.
Lance had the door open before I nosed my car into the drive. “I have to get tested for HIV.” he blurted out, as I was heading up the walk.
I froze mid-stride. I stared at him for a minute. Then I quirked a grin and said, “Yeah, right. You’re too careful for that. Did you remember to grab the video?”
“Rayne, I’m serious. My appointment’s in ten minutes. Since you’re here… will you come with me?”
And for the first time in my seventeen years, I was speechless. Lance had a family friend who was HIV positive. He co-created the groups in our school that passed out free contraception. He spearheaded the World AIDS Day campaign in our school every year. If ever there was a poster boy for safer sex, Lance was it! And here he was asking me to go with him to get tested.
We fretted in the lobby of Planned Parenthood until they called his name, and then I sat there by myself with a fiery lump of coal the size of Texas boiling in the pit of my stomach while Lance got tested.
His eyes were red when he returned. “I have to come back, regardless.” he mumbled as we shrugged on our coats and I followed him out the door. “Will you come with me then, too?”
I nodded, afraid my voice would betray my thoughts. And when we got back to his house, we made hot chocolate and cuddled up under his dancing bear.
“How’d this happen, Lance?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes. I flopped my legs over his thighs and pulled him into a hug. And while tears streamed down both our faces, he told me how one of the older boys in his theater troupe raped him. How the boy was promiscuous and was involved with someone who was HIV positive. How Lance often heard the boy bragging about his reluctance to use condoms.
We never did watch Rent. I still haven’t seen it.
A week later, we had the results. Lance hadn’t contracted the disease yet. We fretted out the wait for his next appointment and he was tested again. The results were still negative.
We lost touch when I dropped out halfway through senior year. But last I heard, Lance was still HIV negative and the poster boy for safer sex. And if I’m to be honest, I would have to say that my continued precautions are due, in part, to Lance’s experience.