Growing up in private, Catholic education settings, Maggie Hannick (she/her), a junior Health Studies major at George Washington University, said sex education was almost non-existent.
“We had abstinence-only education that was very rooted in religious language. It was about chastity,” she said. “We really had nothing in terms of positive sex education.”
Hannick described the graphic sexulally transmitted infections talk they would have every year and the time a woman who had an abortion came into her class to talk about why she regretted it. “The scare tactics were alive and well there.”
HIV/AIDS education was also limited. Aside from learning about the protests in the 80s and 90s from a paragraph in her history book, Hannick relied on her family and independent research to learn about HIV. Her mother was a nurse in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s. She is thankful that her mom could share her firsthand experience and educate her on what HIV is and how it can affect anyone, not just gay men. Many of her peers were not so lucky and continued to harbor ignorance about people living with HIV due to the Catholic Church’s history of anti-LGBTQ sentiments and stigmatizing sexuality.
But this trend transcends private religious schools.
According to Guttmacher Institute, only 27 states and Washington, D.C., require sex education and HIV education. Of these states, just three prohibit religious promotion in the classroom. As a result, Gen Z and Millenials are drastically undereducated about sexual health.
Luckily, young people are taking matters into their own hands.
Hannick is using her major to research maternal health and health of people living with HIV. She is using her passion for advocacy, policy and education alongside her skills as a communicator to promote inclusive medicine and sex education. She encourages other young people to use their skills as part of their advocacy.
“That could look like our generation becoming teachers that teach comprehensively about HIV and AIDS. Or our generation becoming politicians where we prioritize that. Or our generation becoming doctors where we are aware of our own implicit bias, but we are actively working against that to help ourselves, the system and our patients. Do what you’re doing, and add that to this fight,” she said.
That’s exactly the mission of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization composed of young people fighting for sexual health, rights and justice. Among these advocates are Khouri Latisser (she/they), and Alejandro Rodriguez (he/him).
Rodriguez and Latisser both described their sex education as inadequate.
“It didn’t address what consensual sex looks like; it didn’t address sex outside of the binary [or] anything like that. So it was very basic. This is what it is, this is what you can get if you practice it unsafe. Don’t do it,” Latisser said.
Rodriguez said his education was heavily focused on abstinence as well.
“I feel like it beat around a lot of bushes and it didn’t face the problems of the LGBTQ community head-on. It was more geared toward the heteronormative and, honestly, I feel like that’s a direct cause of me, you know, now living with HIV, because we weren’t being honest with our youth and giving them the proper information and education to protect ourselves,” Rodriguez added.
In classroom settings, educators allowed heterosexual students to pass off HIV as “a gay disease” that they didn’t have to worry about. This only perpetuates stigma and sets people up to practice unsafe sex because they think they are not vulnerable to HIV.
Now, Latisser and Rodriguez are actively fighting misinformation and stigma with a combination of education, advocacy and policy work.
Both Latisser and Rodriguez set up booths on their college campuses dedicated to destigmatization. Before COVID-19, Rodriguez ran a program called Kisses and Condoms where they set up a spinning wheel of facts and myths about HIV. A person would spin the wheel, decide whether the statement was a fact or a myth and then get to kiss whoever was at the booth if they were correct. This was not only an educational tool, but it addressed the myth that a person could transmit HIV through kissing.
Latisser’s events include policy updates and education.
“Sometimes bills are really hard to read and digest. So, breaking down that bill [and] saying this is how you can actively support young people living with HIV,” they said. One bill she is actively breaking down is HR Bill 3312 the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act of 2021. This bill promotes evidence based, trauma-informed, culturally competent, equitable sex education for our youth.
“Not having this education is hurting more folks than you think,” Latisser said. Young people deserve inclusive, comprehensive sex education in order to live their healthiest lives.
Comprehensive sex education is just one step towards ending the HIV epidemic. We also need to abolish discriminatory laws created to criminalize people living with HIV with HR Bill 1305, the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act of 2021. This bill directs federal agencies to review state, federal and military policies and regulations set in place to outcast people living with HIV.
Rodriguez was directly affected by these outdated laws.
“When I learned about my status of HIV, I learned that I will no longer be able to enlist in the Navy. And that was something I was looking forward to my whole life. It was a part of my political plan of action, and then my plan was uprooted, and it still makes me very upset that there’s laws that are based on old science that are still affecting our communities,” Rodriguez said.
Going forward, these youth advocates encourage young people to continue to advocate and vote for people who are actively supporting progressive HIV legislation.
“Keep advocating, keep lobbying, keep protesting [and] keep doing whatever it is that you’re doing because, eventually they’re not gonna be able to ignore you,” Latisser said.
They will have to listen.
“And if they don’t, then we will replace them,” Rodriguez said with a grin.
AIDS United and Advocates for Youth are members of the Partnering and Communicating Together initiative. Together, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PACT members work to empower our communities with resources for HIV testing, treatment and prevention. Learn more at cdc.gov/StopHIVTogether. To access free, at-home testing kits, visit TakeMeHome.org.