If It Smells Like Fish, That Cat's Not Right
Infected With HIV at 15, a Young Peer Educator Tells It Like It Is to Teens
As a youth peer advocate for Circle of Care in Alameda County -- home of Oakland, California and across the bay from San Francisco -- Lizette Green goes into high school classes to educate teens about the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"I've been certified in a million things, but I don't talk that medical mumble jumble," says Green, 25. "Teens are having sex at a younger and younger age, and they don't know what they're doing.
"I always ask, 'Should a female smell like fish?' There's always two or three kids who raise their hands. I say, 'Okay, that's a sign that you have to step away from that cat, because that cat's not right.' "
Green says, "I do not tell them to have sex. I tell them that if they are going to have sex, to protect themselves and respect themselves. I tell them that there are consequences."
Last year Green did not disclose that she is HIV-positive. This year she did and talked about how she was infected, at the age of 15. She said "even some of the boys cried. I was younger than anyone in the class when I was infected."
The most common question I get is like, "Can I get it if I get into a fight?" They don't understand transmission.
Forget risk assessment. Throw that risk assessment bullshit into the garbage. Have you had unprotected sex? Then you're at risk. When I was infected 10 years ago, I was not considered to be at risk.
Kids don't think oral sex is sex. I tell them, "You want to see a picture of gonorrhea of the throat?" They say, "You're kidding. You can't get gonorrhea in the throat." I say, "You guys, it ain't pretty. The pictures of syphilis and herpes -- they ain't cute."
Kids ask if they can get HIV through "regular sex." I ask them what "regular sex" is. I tell them, "What's regular sex to you may not be regular sex to me." They're talking about vaginal sex. They don't think "regular sex" is dangerous.
At the same time, some young people think anal sex is the way to avoid HIV. They also think it's a way to remain virgins. It's really true. It's really true. If they have not had vaginal sex, given or received, they think they're still a virgin.
Like a Virgin
Kids will say, "Oh, yeah, I'm a virgin." Then you ask them what they have. They say "vaginitis." You ask them what kind. They say, "Trichomonas vaginitis." Well, you didn't get that by yourself.
Teachers are a bunch of old people who teach prevention because it's mandated, not because they think [HIV infection] might actually happen.
The parents really want to protect their kids and keep them out of danger, but they're not talking to them. They don't want to think that their 14-year-old girl is having sex. They don't want to know that their son is gay.
Medical providers who are not in touch with today's reality and statistics, they're saying you're not at risk. That's what happened with me. Granted, that was 10 years ago, but it's still happening today.
Give Me a Bubble
I feel for these young men and women. I wish I could just take them all and put them in a ball, so they wouldn't get hurt ... but I can't do that. Our house is made out of glass and HIV is the stone.
I see so many kids on the down-low. They're having sex with men and then going back and having sex with a girlfriend who they can put in front of their families.
Girls feel safe when they're in love, especially Latin women. We were taught to be with one man forever and ever. That's how I got infected.
That's what we see so much in our community. This man of our dreams is bringing things home to us, including HIV and other STDs.
Expectations have changed. They're not what they were 20 years ago. The whole virgin thing is out the window, so be honest about what's going on. Thinking that a young girl is going to stay a virgin until marriage is not realistic. People don't want to see it until it's in their face. They don't want to think that HIV is in their community.
Society says, "Alright, guys, be responsible and wrap it up," but society doesn't say that to the girls.
If a girl asks a guy to use a condom, he thinks that she must be having sex with a whole lot of guys. It comes back to your reputation. Girls can't carry condoms because they're not supposed to be having sex and having a condom means you're having sex.
Then they're going to a party or a friend's house and having sex. Hormones take over. If they don't have anyone to turn to and have a support system, they're going to get infected.
It freaks me out. I'm already talking to my nine-year-old about getting her period. I'm totally stressed about this.
Permission for Sex
I tell them, "The only person responsible for you is you." They say, "Our parents are responsible for us." I ask them if they're asking their parents for permission to have sex and they say no. I ask them if they're asking their parents for permission to buy condoms and they say no. Well then, you're responsible for yourself. That makes them stop and listen.
I make them own their responsibility.
How'd That Happen?
When people test positive, they're dumbfounded. They don't know how it happened. I ask them if they had unprotected sex. "Yeah." Well, that's what happened.
They have what I call "Superman syndrome." They just don't think it can happen to them. HIV is our community's Kryptonite. Our communities -- African American and Latino -- this is killing us off.
Straight to AIDS
It's not just people testing positive. They've been positive for years and years and didn't know it. What could be just one quick swab of the mouth [OraSure HIV test] -- we don't want to do it, because ignorance is bliss.
We have young guys 19, 20 years old who have AIDS when they test positive, because they didn't take care of it. When they're real sick and can't ignore the symptoms anymore, that's when doctors test them.
They test positive for gonorrhea or Chlamydia, but don't get encouraged to test for HIV. And that comes back to the medical profession. The lack of awareness is everywhere.
Give Me HIV
People think the weirdest things. Some kids think that if their partner has HIV, they can get it and HIV won't affect them anymore. "If I'm infected, I won't get sick." They think it's like a vaccine.
I can't tell you how it's justified in their mind. Young ladies tell me, "He didn't come inside me." It's in pre-cum as well. Everyone has their own justification.
The Missing Link
It's about talking to your kids. It's about talking to your friends. But those of us who are informed about all this aren't talking. That's the missing link.
It's Your Body
It's not talked about to them. They're having sex and they don't know what's going on with their bodies. Young girls don't know that they're at most risk because the cells of their cervix are still developing. Their cervix hasn't fully matured, and is more vulnerable to HIV infection.
He Loves Me
"He loves me," or I love him. Or he's got a fly body or he looks "clean." Why would you want to face the reality of somebody you care about who could kill you? Who wants to see the reality that they're cheating on you?
People think their partner has only been with them. They don't think about the other people their partner has been with.
Someone putting on a condom is not like saying "I love you" and handing you a rose. Kids also just get caught up in the heat of the moment.
Ignorance is bliss, so you don't want to hear negative stuff.
I tell them I'd love to be stupid. I'd love to not be aware of this. I'd like to wake up and take a couple of antibiotics and it would be gone. But it's here with me forever.
It's Her Fault
Lots of guys don't feel guilty if they infect a girl. They say, "She slept with me, so why should I care what she gets? Why should I feel guilty?" If you just deny [your responsibility], you justify what you've done.
It's a Gay Thing
In 2005, Latinos and African Americans and youth and women have high rates of HIV, but many people see it as a gay man's disease. There are so many myths around transmission.
Would you drive a car without a seatbelt? [EV: A lot of people do.] Well, not at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. You wouldn't jump into a race car and not put it on. Maybe that's like putting on a condom. People think, "Not this time, I'm just going a couple of blocks to the store."
I don't support routine testing. You really need well-trained staff to provide counseling, support and information. I can just hear the test results: "Oh, by the way, you're positive. Good luck with your life."
But I do think testing should be offered more.
The Love of My Life
I was so sure I had met the love of my life. I was 15 going on 16. I'm Puerto Rican and White and he was Mexicano. We started living together and I got pregnant. In the state of Washington, that makes you a common-law marriage.
I had always tested for HIV, because I was not a saint. That was my justification. I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing according to my family -- not having sex.
A couple of weeks into learning of my pregnancy, I got violently ill. I had fever, and diarrhea, nausea and muscle pain. It freaked me out. Five months into my pregnancy I insisted on having an HIV test. My doctor said, "Why? You're not at risk." I insisted. He said, "Why? Are you having an affair?" No. "Are you doing drugs?" No. "Is your husband doing drugs?" No. "Is your husband having sex with men?" "I don't think so!" "Then what are you worried about?" "I don't know, you just need to do it."
Two weeks later I got a call that I needed to come in to the clinic right away. When I got there, they were calling other patients to clear my doctor's calendar that day. That's when I knew. This was in 1996 and people are still fighting for an HIV test today.
My husband developed AIDS within four years, and he died that year, from other complications. We were already divorced. I never got to ask him how he got it. I never wanted to know just because at that point it didn't matter anymore. There was nothing I could do about it, so at that point, why bring on extra agony for myself?
He bled a lot when he had needle draws, and I know now that it's a sign of trauma to the vein, from lots of use of needles. I thought his brother had died of cancer, but he had died because of AIDS and injection drug use. I never knew that. His brother was his best friend.
Green had two children with her husband and now has a third child. They are all HIV-negative. She is on Combivir and Viramune, a drug combination she tolerates well and calls "no fuss."