Questions About Sex and HIV in Guatemala

- A Liberman, PCV

I was getting blank stares from a sea of uniformed fifteen-year-olds as I fumbled through explaining how AIDS doesn’t actually kill an infected person. Opportunistic infections are what inevitably bring about the demise of the patient. It was a struggle. I felt like I was explaining the process well but I didn’t get a single reassuring nod from the crowd. I hesitated and then turned to my counterpart for the HIV/AIDS training I was conducting for help. In previous sessions he was quick to jump in and eloquently state what my Spanish language deficiency prohibited me from spitting out. Not that day. I glanced over to the side of the room where he was standing silently and noticed he didn’t jump in to save me because he was otherwise occupied; occupied texting on his Blackberry. If he had taken a second to look up from his mobile device he would have seen the look of, “Are you kidding me?” on my face. It seems not even the developing world can escape the digital world.

He never did look up from his phone so I continued to explain myself in circles until I asked the students, “Understand? Clear as water?” And the responded with a resounding, “Sí.” We ended up wrapping up the training with much success, despite my counterpart’s diminishing interest. In three days we gave three HIV/AIDS education and prevention training sessions to the entire high school, a total of 79 students.

Throughout the process I was surprised at how easy it was for me to talk about sex in front of a classroom full of pubescents. Every time I had to say, “secreciones vaginales,” I thought to myself, “those words would not roll so easily off my tongue if I was speaking in English.” Maybe they would, I just never have had the opportunity to test it out.

My favorite part of the sessions was a question and answer period. Right after an activity we did acting out how HIV attacks white blood cells, I’d give each student a piece of blank paper and ask that they write a question on it. Any question pertaining to HIV/AIDS or sexual activity in general. I received a lot of broken/ripped condom questions, a few asking for the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and even one that asked if a girl could get HIV from having sex with a 40 year old man. I’m still a little worried about the girl that asked that question.

The purpose of conducting HIV/AIDS training is to educate the adolescent population on the disease, how it is transmitted, how it can be prevented and to discredit stereotypes about the disease. A secondary benefit of these sessions is to allow the teenagers to speak openly about sexual reproduction, sexuality and the inherent risks of being sexually active. The sessions in themselves were truly gratifying however, there was one moment, outside of the classroom that I am most proud of.

During the question and answer session of our first training, my counterpart took charge of reading the papers and I did the answering. Nearing the end of the pile he picked up the following question and read it aloud, “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from male to male?” I could tell the question made him uneasy. Homosexuality is a touchy subject in Guatemala. Machismo is deep-rooted in Latin culture and often hinders many Guatemalans from being accepting of non-heterosexual sexual orientations. At that moment I was experiencing the negative impacts of that ideology. It pained me to watch him read the question with discomfort and then it broke my heart to hear him squeak an awkward giggle after the question. He did this in front of the entire classroom. Not the best behavior for promoting tolerance. I resolved to have a discussion with him before the next session.

The next day before our second training I pulled my counterpart aside and told him that I thought we did a wonderful job the day before, the kids seemed really receptive, blah, blah blah. There was only one thing we needed to watch out for today.

“We have to remain completely professional, especially during the question period, I noticed yesterday you laughed when reading the question about HIV being transmitted between two men.”

“I did?” He responded with seemingly genuine astonishment.

“We can’t laugh at any question especially ones pertaining to homosexuality because if there is a homosexual in the class we don’t want to make her or him feel uncomfortable. We need to be completely accepting and professional. If you don’t feel comfortable reading those questions, let me know because I can read them instead.”

“No,” he replied, “I can do it.”

Sure enough, during the second session we received a question identical to the one he had laughed at the day before. As he breezed through the papers at the onset of the answer session I saw him move the question from the middle of the stack to the end. When it finally came up, the slip of paper gently rattled in his quivering hand. However, he read the question aloud in a completely unwavering voice. “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from one man to another?” No giggle.

We both gave a sigh of relief.

 

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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