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‘Real life’ sex education

HIV rates in Illinois are up by 50 percent since 2004, with half of new infections occurring among those under 25 years old. But many Chicago students report that they aren’t being taught about HIV, said Paula Gilovich, education director of About Face Theatre.

Young people were central players is creating a new, LGBT-inclusive program on HIV prevention and sex education which combines a theatrical performance, a video, and a curriculum for classroom instruction.

“Condom Sense: A Real Life Education” will get a public viewing on Friday, February 20 at 6 p.m. at the Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan. The event features About Face’s play “Fast Forward,” BeyondMedia’s video “HIV: Hey, It’s Viral!” and a panel discussion.

The play has been touring schools around the city and state, accompanied by a sexual health educator to answer questions. The entire program is under consideration for use by Chicago Public Schools.

CPS has a comprehensive sex education policy, but its application is left up to individual teachers, with widely varying results, said Joseph Hollendoner of Howard Brown’s Broadway Youth Center. Too often “students are exposed to education that is misleading or incomplete,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just, HIV is this terrible disease and you’re going to get it if you’re sexually active.”

In extended workshops in the summer of 2007, young people related “bizarre and strange and often hilarious stories about sex education,” Gilovich said. “That’s when the play really took off.”  They also told of “incident after incident of homophobia — from administrators, from teachers, from fellow students,” she said.

Participants concluded the two issues are related, Gilovich said. HIV often isn’t discussed because it’s considered a gay phenomenon. And the abstinence-oriented instruction which some teachers provide isn’t applicable to gays and lesbians, who are legally excluded from marrying.

Gilovich recalls one girl telling of a class where she pointed out that she couldn’t wait till marriage, because she wanted to marry a woman and couldn’t. The teacher was “completely flustered” and responded, “We don’t discuss that kind of thing in this class,” she said.

“We interviewed a lot of teachers” and many said “they didn’t get sex education and feel ill equipped to deal with it,” Gilovich said. Illinois hasn’t standardized sex ed, she said — and unlike many other states, Illinois continues to accept federal abstinence-only funds, which effectively bar discussion of condoms.

The program’s lesson plans, developed by Howard Brown Health Center’s experts, are intended as a “tool to empower teachers to change the way they address HIV,” said Hollendoner. Students “need to be receiving information that’s medically accurate” in ways that are accepting and affirming, rather than fear-based or moralistic. And if it’s going be effective at preventing HIV, education has to address the full range of human sexuality, he said.

He also hopes the program will help change the culture of many school communities, where too often LGBT youth don’t feel accepted or safe.

The video aims at accessibility, using animation to depict HIV transmission and prevention, and featuring young activists, community advocates, and young people living with HIV and AIDs, “so it’s not just adults talking down to kids,” said Joanne Archibald of BeyondMedia Education.

The play is the ice-breaker, with young people enacting the real-life stories of young people, by turns humorous and moving. It addresses “the sex education crisis in America,” including some of the conundrums faced by teachers, as well as bullying and other problems confronted by sexual minorities among student populations.

In one of its true stories, which came out during the workshops, a group of girls go on a field trip to a skating rink; in the bathroom there’s a condom dispenser. They’ve never seen condoms, and they each purchase one. For that offense, the entire group is suspended.

Fast forward to the days before graduation, and the group is going through their yearbook. They start noting the students who have become pregnant and count 50, out of a class with 400 girls. A few months later, one of the group reveals that she is HIV positive.

“It’s just bizarre that we’re 25 years into this pandemic, and millions of people have died, and infection rates are going up, and youth just aren’t getting proper information because we don’t know how to talk about it,” Gilovich said. “And it’s so easy to protect yourself.”

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