When Antigone Hodgins went in for an HIV test three years ago, she never thought she might be positive. "I was totally unprepared," the twenty-five-year-old San Francisco native says. "I had no pre-test counseling. The woman who gave me the results was someone I'd never seen before. I didn't understand anything, not even the difference between HIV and AIDS. I cried for three months."
After the initial shock wore off, Hodgins focused on her anger. She quit college to look for a way to make a difference. But no one was dealing effectively with the population she belonged to: teenagers and young adults, especially young women.
Seeing a need for HIV-positive speakers young people could relate to, Hodgins started speaking in area high schools. Despite bad experiences with judgmental parents and school administrators, she formed a speakers' bureau to train other young speakers. The bureau now has nineteen speakers under the age of twenty-five.
"One parent told me I didn't look like I'd sleep with a scummy drug user," says Hodgins, who had practiced safer sex for several years before she tested. "What do you say? We're the faces of AIDS. Tell your daughters. Deal with it."
Statistics back Hodgins up. A United Nations study released last summer describes teenage girls, whose thin vaginal linings make them more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases than older women, as the "leading edge" of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. A 1991 Centers for Disease Control study showed that by ninth grade, 40 percent of all students have had sex, and by twelfth, that number rises to 72 percent. And while heterosexual transmission still accounts for fewer than 10 percent of all reported AIDS cases, rates are rising precipitously. By this year, HIV infection/AIDS had become the sixth-leading cause of death among U.S. citizens ages fifteen through twenty-four.
Hodgins now works full time at Project AHEAD (Alliance for the Health of Adolescents), one of a handful of federally funded Pediatric HIV/AIDS Demonstration Projects aimed at adolescent HIV/AIDS issues. She is also forming a national task force of young HIV-positive men and women to participate in national and international AIDS conferences. Hodgins thinks that one young voice is not enough. "Testing empowered me," she says. "It can empower other young people, if it's youth-specific and if there is good pretest counseling, but we need to get together so our voices can be heard."