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Positively Speaking : High School Students Get a Wake-Up Call on HIV and AIDS

July 28, 1994|LINDA BETH MOTHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fernando Peraza learned he had HIV while he was an inmate at Chico State Prison in 1987. He decided to have the test done on a lark, as an excuse to get out of his cell for a while.

Although he had engaged in unprotected sex and IV drug use in the past--two common ways that AIDS is transmitted--he said he never imagined that the test would come back positive.

But when the 38-year-old former thief was asked to undergo a second test 10 days later, he recalls his terrifying premonition of the outcome.

"I wasn't afraid of dying. But I wanted to die with the SWAT team after me. I didn't want this 'gay disease,' " Peraza recalled.

For all the flashes of bravado, Peraza's story had a sobering effect on the California High School students who gathered recently to listen in the Whittier campus cafeteria.

Peraza and Dora Gallagher, another speaker with HIV, visited the school as representatives of Positively Speaking. The program, run by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, attempts to reduce the spread of HIV among young people and give the AIDS epidemic a human face. Positively Speaking presenters spoke to more than 5,000 students in grades seven through 12 in Los Angeles County during the school year.

In 1987, Gallagher told the California High students, she owned a flourishing Venice Beach beauty salon when she began to feel sick. Because diabetes runs in her family, she asked her doctor for a glucose-tolerance test. But she also suspected that promiscuity in her late teens and early 20s and drug abuse put her in the high-risk category for AIDS. So she also asked for an HIV test. It was positive. "I think hearing (about AIDS) from people whose lives are going to be affected forever is very, very important," said Amy Reinholtz, a science teacher at the school.

Three women spoke to the students last year, Reinholtz said. "They hadn't done drugs. They weren't gay. They had received (the virus) from husbands to whom they had been faithful their entire lives. It shows that it can happen to anybody."

Peraza stressed that point to the students.

"AIDS is not a gay disease. It doesn't care who you are, what you are, or where you come from," he told them.

For the four years after his release from prison, Peraza said, he lived in denial of his disease. Then after watching a late-night television commercial about an intravenous drug user, he contacted an HIV support group to ask for help.

Although most of the group's members were homosexual, Peraza said, "these guys were cool. They had jobs, cars. They motivated me to take my medication. They became my friends."

Peraza, a Monterey Park roofer, has become an AIDS counselor. In 1992 he was named Volunteer of the Year by L.A. Shanti, an organization for people with life-threatening illnesses.

He acknowledged that he technically has AIDS, based on his low immune-cell count. But, he said, "I don't accept it. I feel pretty good. I just hope they find a cure."

The speakers fielded questions from students. What were their plans? How did their families feel? In turn, the speakers asked a few questions themselves.

"How many of you practice abstinence?" Gallagher asked. "How many practice safe sex?" Young people are one of the most at-risk groups for getting AIDS, she said.

Having the virus changes more than just health, she said. She told them her problems multiplied after she tested positive for HIV because her business dropped sharply and she eventually lost her beauty salon.

This occurred, she explained, when an acquaintance who accompanied her for AIDS testing spread the rumor of her illness.

"That hurts," Gallagher said. "I was a prominent businesswoman, and because one person had a big mouth, I don't have a business today."

A slender, striking woman with shoulder-length dark hair, Gallagher warned her audience not to be deceived by her seemingly healthy appearance.

"Every day is not a good day," she said. " Don't think, 'They seem fine. HIV isn't that bad.' It is bad. You don't want it."

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