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HomeNewsArchivesAIDS Day Speaker Drops Bombshell on V.I. Students

AIDS Day Speaker Drops Bombshell on V.I. Students

Dec. 1, 2006 — Outreach speakers from V.I. Community AIDS Resource and Education (VICARE) visited students Friday at St. Croix Educational Complex in commemoration of World AIDS Day. What members had to say left some students in disbelief.
VICARE Executive Director Bruce Smail sent shock waves through the auditorium when he announced he was not only HIV-positive but also bisexual. The auditorium boomed with disbelief, nervous laughter and protestations as Smail calmly answered one student's question as to how he contracted the disease.
Although Smail said he didn't know how he became infected, he addressed the shock that rose from the audience like a nuclear explosion.
"Your reaction," Smail said as the raucous died down, "continues to silence individuals and will continue to increase the spread of HIV." Smail was undeterred by the reaction of the students, yet one student felt compelled to address her peers.
Tenth-grader Marie White took the microphone and admonished snickering students. "I look around at my peers," she said firmly, "and the people who are laughing probably have it themselves." As the crowd broke into applause for her bravery, Smail told the audience their reaction was normal and understandable, yet they may be reaffirming their peers' decision to keep their own sexuality closeted.
"If you want to judge, go ahead and judge," Smail said, "I am comfortable with myself."
Smail and his colleagues agreed the student reaction was common within V.I. culture. "Some kind of reaction is better than no reaction," said youth outreach specialist Cameron Whitley.
Dec. 1 marks World AIDS Day, and every year school nurse Karen Michael makes it a point to help educate her students on the dangers of unprotected sex, in particular HIV and AIDS. "I love these children, and I just want them to be safe," she said.
In 2000, Michael attended a World AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, and was deeply moved by what she experienced. "Ever since [that visit]," she said, "I have been hammering it in."
According to Michael, it was important this year to present someone living with HIV and practicing an alternative lifestyle. Smail said coming out and speaking to audiences about the reality of bisexuality is important in increasing awareness of the spread of AIDS.
He said students who may be silent about their sexuality were able to witness the homophobia and see it being challenged "so now they know it's OK to stand up."
He said the "down-low" effect continues to increase in societies where different sexual orientations are stigmatized, as they are within the territory.
"People on the "down-low" will never come out and share with the homophobia that continues in the islands," Smail said. "It actually fuels HIV."
Despite the student backlash, Smail said that there is usually an increase of people willing to get tested following a presentation. However, Smail said VICARE usually tries to present its message in amore intimate setting, so that interested parties can more freely receive the message.
"We do small groups, too," said Michael, "but for World AIDS Day, we try to get everyone together."
According to testing specialist Melanie Bowers, VICARE is in transition and that its facilities are currently mobile. However, she said that interested parties can visit the organization at No. 43 Queen Street in Christiansted. The organization offers risk-reduction counseling, and Bowers said the age of consent for testing is 13.
The tests are simple, according to Bowers, who said the organization uses the OraSure test, which is a simple mouth swab — a far cry from the traditional drawing of blood, in which results can take up to a week. The organization will be upgrading its testing in the near future, enabling them to give results in 20 minutes.
For more information on VICARE or how to get tested, contact the organization at 692-9111 or visit its website.
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