It's difficult enough for teenagers to get accurate, comprehensive information about safe sex. Every time I peruse a pamphlet geared toward educating young adults about their sexual health, I'm convinced that public health officials won't be happy until everyone under the age of 20 is completely terrified or ignorant of sex.

So I can only imagine the difficulties teenagers face trying to learn the facts about their legal rights, especially once HIV enters the picture. Unlike a discussion about sexuality, which can be cloaked in comforting metaphors to minimize the embarrassment to adults who can't imagine teenagers with fully functioning genitalia, an explanation of the law must be frank and to the point. So let me get started answering some of the more important legal questions which may be in the forefront of many teenagers' minds.

Do I need permission from my parents or guardians to get tested for HIV?

No. If you are 12 years of age or older, you don't need anyone's permission to get an HIV test, or to get tested or treated for any sexually transmitted disease. So if you go to get an HIV test and the doctor tells you that you need your parents' permission, that doctor is wrong.

Of course, getting an HIV test can be a frightening experience. It takes a lot of courage to prepare yourself in case the test comes back positive. It's often a good idea to find a responsible adult to help you through the process, whether it's a parent, teacher, minister or friend.

Do I have to give my name to get an HIV test?

No. Illinois law says that every person has the right to an anonymous HIV test. You can get an anonymous test at most public health clinics. [Check with the AIDS legal council nearest you for the laws in your state.]

However, if you go to your regular doctor for an HIV test, the law does not require him to do it anonymously, even if you ask him to. So if anonymity is important to you, make sure that you ask about it before the doctor draws your blood. If the doctor says he won't do the test anonymously, you have the right to stop the test from continuing, even if your blood has already been drawn.

If I test HIV positive, do my parents or guardians have to be told?

Usually. If you are under 18 and you test HIV positive, the Illinois public health code says that the health care worker who gave you your test result must first encourage you to tell your parents or guardian. If a reasonable amount of time passes and the health care worker has reason to believe you have not informed your parents or guardian of your HIV status, then the health care worker must make an effort to tell them.

However, if the health care worker believes that it is not in your best interest to tell your parents or guardian that you are HIV positive, then he or she must not do so. For example, some young adults have been abused or kicked out of their homes once their parents discovered they are HIV positive. If you believe your parents or guardian will do something like this to you if you test positive, be sure to tell the person taking your HIV test.

If I am a student and I test HIV positive, will my school be informed?

Yes -- or at least the law says that your school is supposed to be informed. According to Illinois law, whenever a student aged 3 to 21 tests HIV positive, the department of public health must notify the principal of the school that student attends. The principal must then inform the superintendent. These are the only two people who must be given your name. And in case you're wondering, this is a stupid, pointless, nonsensical law.

This stupid, pointless, nonsensical law goes on to say that the principal may inform your school nurse, your classroom teachers and those people who are required to decide placement or educational programs for you -- so long as those people have a need to know. If you can figure out why your algebra teacher or your music teacher would ever need to know your HIV status, let me know, because I'm still scratching my head.

It's important to realize that you don't have to inform the school about your HIV status. Neither do your parents.

It's also important to realize that you do not have to inform any of your fellow students about your HIV status.

Once the principal finds out that I'm HIV positive, can the school keep me out?

No. You have just as much right to be in school as any other student. The only time the school could temporarily keep you out would be if you pose a "direct threat" of infecting other students. It's very unlikely that any HIV positive student would ever pose a direct threat, since HIV is not spread through casual contact.

If I test HIV positive, does my doctor have to tell my employer?

Absolutely not. Most people who test HIV positive don't want their employer to know, because they worry that their employer will discriminate against them. Your doctor has no right to tell your employer about your HIV status unless you say it's all right. And you don't have to tell your employer, either.

If I test HIV positive, do I have to tell anyone I have sex with?

Yes. Illinois law says that if you engage in "intimate contact" -- which means anything that might transmit HIV -- without first disclosing your status, then you are breaking the law. You don't have to actually infect someone to break this law. Just putting someone at risk is enough.

As you can probably tell, this law is extremely broad. To protect yourself legally, the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago recommends you disclose your HIV status before engaging in any kind of sexual activity.