Sophomore Year

Chapter Thirteen

By Grant Bentley

If any nice person, nasty person, place, event, happening, thing, or sport, seems familiar, it is purely coincidental.

Unfortunately, holidays always come to an end. We had a week of review, two weeks of final exams, a three day break, and a new semester. Of course, a new semester meant new courses and new teachers. No more Mrs. Lawson…thank God, my hearing would survive another year. Unfortunately, no more Ms. Spencer or Mr. Jameson, except at GSA meetings. Once back in school, Todd became a regular at our table in the cafeteria…well, Todd and Marcus. Marcus, it turns out, was also staying at Bristol House. He was not only Todd’s boyfriend, but his best friend and roommate. He had been with his grandma for a few days, including the day of the skating party and the day we invaded their room and semi-kidnapped Todd.

For a while, Joel, Craig and I became a threesome, although there were usually so many people around, it was seldom just the three of us. Jeff and Carol were usually with us as were Chad and Jake…and Brett, although Brett had become Brett and Carmen soon after Christmas. We also had Todd and Marcus with us quite often. Being foster kids and living in a group home, they had pretty much kept to themselves, even at GSA gatherings, though they always worked hard. Now, they were right in there as part of our ‘extended family,’ which was getting bigger all the time. My belief that Todd was quiet didn't last long as both he and Marcus proved to be hilariously funny and extraordinarily talented. Their big thing was the Drama Club, and either of them could quite easily have been a cast member on Glee.

The next couple of months were pretty routine. We had no new dramas to contend with, which was just fine by me. Our threesome came to an end at one of the GSA meetings in March when Joel met Chris. Chris had just moved to Canada from Sweden and started school in mid-March. He was blond, blue-eyed, had a body to die for, and the coolest accent. I'm sure he could have had his pick of any girl in the school. However, he joined the GSA soon after he arrived and it was soon quite evident that he was not one of our supportive straight members. He and Joel hit it off immediately. Within a couple of weeks they were seldom seen apart. Chris became a regular at our place and very quickly became family. Chris was also a hockey player and was immediately picked up by the coach, who was desperate for a high-scoring forward. Needless to say, we ended up watching far more hockey games than we ever wanted to. In fact, I learned a whole new vocabulary: things like icing the puck, slapshot, offside, leftwing, rightwing, and on and on. We couldn't even use homework as an excuse because Chris was in all our classes.

The GSA was running smoothly. We were up to a hundred and seven members. Our biggest accomplishment was a fundraiser at the end of January. We worked together with two other GSAs. It was for a local group called The Back Door that helps street kids get off the street. Since our skating party had gone over so well, we started with a skating party at the arena, followed by a dance in the community centre next door. It succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. There were more than three hundred kids from three schools who attended, and we raised seven thousand five hundred and sixty dollars.

We also had a Diversity Rocks Week that was seriously cool. We placed blank eight-by-eleven sheets of construction paper all over the walls of the school hallways. Then we asked every student in the school to write one or two things that made them different from most other students. Obviously, there were a few that couldn’t be left up for the week like, ‘I have a….’ But, for the most part, it was really well accepted and was actually taken seriously by the kids. There were very few who didn’t take part and very few who made stupid remarks like the aforementioned. There were tons like, ‘I am Irish.’ ‘I am Cree,’ ‘I am a nerd,’ ‘I am bilingual,’ ‘I have a black belt in Karate,’ ‘I am Filipino,’ and so on. Considering we had a hundred and seven GSA members, fifty-six of whom were straight, it was surprising to find a hundred and forty eight, ‘I am gay’ statements. Of course there were a few…very few, that said, ‘God hates fags,’ or ‘Hell awaits all faggots.’ A few just made us feel sad like, ‘I can’t be gay,’ and ‘I want just one person to like me.’ One we liked said, ‘I am homophobic-but I’m working on it.’ There was also one that added humour to the whole process for several reasons. It read, ‘Fagits suck.’ At the end of the week they were taken down and the Graphic Arts class designed a huge poster entitled ‘Diversity Rocks’ with all the 'reasonable' comments on it. We tried to convince Mr. Jameson to let them put ‘Fagits suck’ on the poster but, although he could see the humour in it, he felt it wasn’t appropriate. After all, the poster would be placed in the main entrance and everyone entering the school would see it.

At the end of March, our peaceful, drama-free existence came to an end. Although this bit of drama didn’t directly involve our group, it did involve the GSA. Sandra, one of the GSA members, was attacked on her way home from a basketball game at the school. She ended up in hospital for a week with cracked ribs and a concussion. A week later, another one of the girls in the GSA, Beth, was attacked. She was lucky because someone driving by stopped to help. As soon as they stopped, the assailants ran. The people in the car did get a good look at them though, and were able to give the police some very good descriptions. It was three guys and two girls. The descriptions were immediately posted on the school’s main bulletin board. It took less than an hour for several kids to go to the office and report who they thought one of them was. One thing not to do if you are committing a crime is wear a totally unique jacket. This idiot did, a white jacket with a brilliant red diagonal stripe across the front and back. He was also not very loyal to his friends and named all four of them.

Unfortunately for the wrestling team, all three boys were stars on their competitive team. The two girls were the girlfriends of two of the guys and had been removed from the basketball team for referring to some of the other girls on the team as dykes. Apparently, they had decided that the dykes, Sandra, Beth, and two other girls, were the reason they got kicked off the team and needed to be taught a lesson. I’m not sure what that lesson was, but it got them expelled from school and charged with assault causing bodily harm, issuing death threats, and use of an illegal weapon, bear spray. Three were to be held in a youth detention centre until their court appearance as the judge deemed them to still pose a threat. Two of them were already eighteen and held in the Remand Centre. The other three were close enough to eighteen that they would all be tried in adult court. That meant much stiffer penalties. The bitches had seriously screwed up their boyfriends’ lives, and the boyfriends were stupid enough to let them. They learned the hard way that hate has a price, as does stupidity.

April started off nice and quietly. School was going well. The GSA was going well. Winter was finally over and it was really warming up. The cafeteria food was starting to look more and more like what it said it was on the menu. Life was becoming predictable and comfortable, which meant it was time to shake things up a little. Curtis, one of our original GSA members and organizers, did just that.

He expressed concern that too many kids he knew, both gay and straight, didn’t see themselves at risk of getting HIV and didn’t take precautions during sexual encounters. After some considerable discussion, that statement became painfully obvious within the group. Nearly all of the straight couples assumed that because the girl was taking birth control they were safe. They hadn't even considered STDs or HIV. Close to 80% of the kids at the meeting said they would feel safe being intimate with each other. The consensus was, we were young, we were still in high school, therefore we were safe. STDs and HIV were things older people got, people who had had several partners. However, when it came to partners, only 8% of the couples were both in their first ever relationship. Of those who were sexually active, only 5% had been tested and knew they were negative. To say the very least, that was somewhat sobering.

However, he wasn't done with us yet. What he told us next shocked the hell out of all of us. He was our friend, seventeen years old, a junior, and still had more than a year to go before his high school graduation, and he was HIV positive. He had learned three months ago that he was positive after getting a call from his ex-boyfriend warning him to get tested. His ex was his first boyfriend. He assumed he was safe. He was wrong.

It took us all a few minutes to process his announcement. Once we did, he got a lot of hugs and was having a hard time keeping himself together. Then, once he managed to refocus, he brought up the fact that there are usually no symptoms when you get infected with HIV and that one in three people living with HIV is unaware that they're infected. It was instantly clear how naïve most of us were. The truth was simple: if we were sexually active and not taking appropriate precautions, we were playing with fire and sooner or later, we were likely to get burned. There was no more debate; we decided right there and then that we wanted to have a presentation on HIV/AIDS.

During the discussion that followed, Curtis quoted some other statistics that made it clear this was not just a GSA issue. It was an everyone issue. Of the estimated fourteen hundred people living with HIV/AIDS in 2008 in Calgary, 44% were gay or bisexual men, 21% were intravenous drug users, 25% were straight men and women and 5.5% were heterosexual men and women who had immigrated to Calgary from endemic countries. Of the approximately two hundred and fifty new HIV infections in the city, well over half of them were women. Not that we needed to hear them, but those facts only reinforced our need to have the presentation.

Up to this point, all our GSA functions had been aimed at tolerance and acceptance. This would be the first time we stepped out and did a presentation on something contentious. This would be for everyone in the school but, in our minds, this would also be for Curtis. Mr. Jameson made all the arrangements for permission and booking the main gym. Curtis contacted his doctor to speak. Craig and I contacted AIDS Calgary and booked two speakers from there. Once we knew everyone was available, the date was set for April 15th.

The presentation took two hours. Curtis’s doctor spoke for half an hour. He explained briefly what HIV was, that it was a retrovirus and attacked your immune system. He talked about how HIV is spread and about how it is not spread. He made it very clear that day-to-day contact with someone who was HIV positive was no different than day-to-day contact with anyone else. You are not going to get HIV from a touch or a hug or a kiss. He also talked about the fact that it is NOT a gay disease and anyone who thinks it is, is a fool. He explained that girls between 15 and 24 are 1.6 times more likely to get HIV than guys are, which definitely got a few gasps from the kids. He also told them that nationally, half of the people who are HIV positive are women so, if guys think they are safe because they are with a girl, guess again.

The guys from AIDS Calgary spoke for more than an hour and had a video clip and photo presentation. They made it easy to understand but made it sound unbelievably complicated at the same time. They went into more detail about what a retrovirus was, how it attacked the helper T-cells of the immune system, how that affected the immune system and made you vulnerable to other diseases that would kill you. They talked about the fact that deciding when to start antiretroviral treatment for HIV can be difficult, as there is no proven ‘right’ time. They explained about the CD4 test that measures the number of helper T-cells in a cubic millimetre of blood. Someone uninfected with HIV normally has between 500 and 1200 cells/mm3. In a person infected with HIV the CD4 count declines over a number of years. Treatment is generally recommended when the CD4 test shows fewer than 350 cells/mm3.

I know many of us believed that if you did get HIV all you had to do was take a few pills every day and things would be cool. However, they destroyed that myth quite quickly. They told us treatment should only be started once the person is ready. They warned that a lot of commitment is needed, since following a drug regime can be very demanding and in most circumstances, the treatment will have to be taken for life. Once it is decided that treatment should be started, doctors will explain the various HIV drugs and combinations available and advise which might be most suitable. They explained that there are more than twenty approved drugs belonging to five groups and it’s not always easy to tell which will be the best option, since a combination that suits one person might not suit another. The combination must be right the first time, as antiretrovirals are most effective in people who have not had any treatment before.

They also warned that even if the right combination is found, drug resistance may develop over time and the drug will be no longer be effective. In some cases, the HIV may already be resistant to one or more of the drug groups especially for those who have contracted HIV from someone who is already taking treatment. Also, if the treatment instructions are not followed, it is likely that the drugs will not be absorbed properly in the body. This can have serious short- and long-term consequences and a greater risk of developing drug resistance. They also warned that adhering to the drug regimen can often be difficult, due to side effects, the frequency of dosage, and the lifestyles changes that are needed.

They emphasized that the effectiveness of the drugs depends heavily upon taking them exactly as prescribed. Therefore when choosing a combination, it is important to think about how the drugs may affect your lifestyle. Some combinations require swallowing many pills throughout the day, which some people would find hard to do. There are a few of the drugs that have to be taken with food to improve absorption rates. Some other drugs have to be taken on an empty stomach, so that would result a need for lifestyle changes to accommodate taking the medications. We were told there could be side effects ranging from mild irritations to serious health problems. Also, other medical conditions could be made worse by some antiretroviral drugs and interactions can occur between antiretrovirals and non-HIV prescriptions.

They also made it very clear that getting HIV was not like getting a cold or chicken pox. It would NOT go away. It could be treated and kept under control with drugs. However that in itself they reminded us could be life changing. The best piece of news we got was that it was not necessarily a death sentence and most people were living long, healthy, active lives even though they were HIV positive. However, they did warn that not everyone could take the drugs and for them it was a death sentence. By the time they were finished, everyone knew more than they ever wanted to know about HIV/AIDS and it's treatment. But…they had impressed upon EVERY person in that gym, gay, straight, bi, or whatever they considered themselves, that he or she was a candidate for HIV if they had unprotected sex. Just because we were young and still in high school DID NOT make us safe.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Curtis walked up to the podium. When he did, you could have heard a pin drop in the middle of the gym. He stood there and looked out over the hundreds of faces staring back at him. Then, he explained what it was like to be seventeen years old and be told you are HIV positive. He talked about the shock, the fear, the anxiety, the emptiness, and the feeling of helplessness. He talked about the fact that his life would never be the same…that every time he met someone he liked, he would have to tell them he was HIV positive…and in most cases watch them walk away. He had more than half the kids and several of the teachers in tears.

He ended the afternoon with a simple warning, "If you or your present boyfriend or girlfriend are or have been sexually active…ever…even once…get tested. There is no second chance with HIV/AIDS and there is no cure."

Everyone left the gym that afternoon feeling emotionally drained. It took Craig and I twice as long as normal to walk home. We didn’t talk. We didn’t even notice what was happening around us. We just walked, hand-in-hand, as we each dealt with everything we had heard, especially Curtis’s words, as they occupied our minds front and center.