HIV may no longer be the death sentence that it once was, but stigma, ignorance, and fear linger around the issue. Part of this stems from "moral" reasons; AIDS, the syndrome that results from untreated HIV infection, is still often seen as a "gay disease," and homophobic sentiments are inflamed wherever the issue arises, be it a matter of condom distribution or fact-based sex ed.
At the same time, there’s a dangerous perception that becoming positive is not a major problem. Many people, including those too young to recall the waves of devastation that the disease brought in its wake in the 1980s, have an idea that being positive means nothing more than having to take a pill every day, as though treating HIV were as simple as taking a multivitamin. (A very expensive multivitamin: HIV drugs can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars per year, a bankrupting prospect for those who have to pay out of pocket.)
Neither extreme--intense fear nor homophobia, versus a dangerously casual attitude toward infection--is constructive or appropriate to the ongoing pandemic. Tragically, it’s among the young (and especially youths who are also racial minorities) that new HIV infections continue to rise dramatically. Charlie David’s documentary "Positive Youth" takes a close look at four HIV infected / HIV affected young people.
For Charlie, 25, a resident of Vancouver, the choices about how to deal with his HIV-positive status are not so clear-cut. Charlie doesn’t want to take medication to keep the virus in check; he relies on homeopathic preparations and a healthy lifestyle to maintain his strength and keep opportunistic infections at bay. Charlie’s education nudges him toward going on medication, however, and becomes the audience’s education, as well: By reducing his viral load, Charlie learns, he could drastically reduce the chances of transmitting the virus to his boyfriend. Moreover, the longer he waits to go on anti-retrovirals, the more damage the virus can do to his body. The risks to his long-term health are severe.
For Chris Brooks, 24, a resident of Orlando, being positive and young comes at a time when the nation’s economy is particularly unkind to those just starting out. Brooks, unemployed, scours the city for employment; meantime, he has to live with his mother, who doesn’t know his status. Being gay and African American is already tough, but being HIV-positive carries an even steeper stigma. What gets Brooks through his days, he tells us, is his religious faith... even though it’s the clerics of his faith who work to keep homophobia alive.
Austin Head, 27, lives in Phoenix. He’s got style and sass; everywhere he goes, he attracts people of both genders. It’s not easy being HIV-positive and trying to stay active on the dating scene, so Austin comes up with the idea for a new dating site, "Positively Frisky."
The phrase "HIV infected or affected" keeps popping up throughout the film, leading to the obvious question: What does it mean to be "HIV affected?" Rakiya Larkin, 18, fits that category: Her mother has long been HIV-positive. Over the course of Rakiya’s life, this has meant taking on extra responsibility: Going to work at age 15 to help support the family and, when her mother’s meds result in debilitating side effects, taking a large role as a caretaker for her younger brother.
Health care providers such as Dr. Frank Spinelli and HIV counselor Heather Drummond offer their insights. Dr. Spinelli points out that even when people practice safer sex there’s still a risk involved; he also makes it clear that though HIV means facing health concerns that others may not have to deal with, those on an effective regimen are "probably going to die of what everybody dies of--heart disease."
But it’s Rakiya’s mother, Kecia, who summarizes the mot intransigent problem with HIV, which is the negative reactions people still have toward those who are positive. "The whole stigma of HIV is really the stigma of sexuality, the stigma of difference, the stigma of socio-economic status," Kecia, who was 18 when she became infected, observes. (Another woman is cited as saying, memorable, "Don’t judge me: I swim in a HIV-positive zip code.")
"Positive Youth" is a reminder to the young and not so young alike that the best treatment for HIV is prevention, and the best form of prevention is education. The reality show-style editing is designed to appeal to younger viewers, who are the target audience, but viewers of any age will find this documentary to be a valuable resource. "Positive Youth" originally aired May 19 on LOGO.
This article is part of our "18th Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival" series. Want to read more?
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