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Students to receive free HIV tests

by Zoe Weisman

For the first time ever, free HIV testing will be available on The School of the Art Institute campus. Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), a Chicago-based non-profit organization, will be in the MacLean Center, 112 S. Michigan building on October 11th and 13th at 4:30 to meet with students. Test results must be retrieved off-campus, so that students can have a readily available resource should any questions arise. TPAN is a peer-led organization, educating the community about reducing the risk of infection, and providing resources for those that are positive.

Before July, 1982, when there were hardly 800 students at SAIC, AIDS was referred to only as GRID—“Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease”. It struck the gay community first, and the uninformed public reacted violently, shunning homosexuals and associating the demographic with disease and gay sex. Doctors were baffled, attributing the growing number of deaths to some new form of cancer. AIDS was difficult to understand because people weren’t dying from AIDS. They were -- and still are -- dying from such opportunistic infections as pneumonia. People die from the flu, the common cold -- it’s hard to trace. It’s the immune system that’s weakened.

In 1993 Linda Pas, Director of SAIC Health Services, and several motivated students started an AIDS awareness group known as “Aware.” A handful of students approached Pas with concerns about sex becoming demonized since the AIDS scare. So they started having “sex parties”; community organization leaders along with volunteers and students all met in the Michigan Avenue Ballroom to enjoy sexy party favors, dance music, penis-shaped hotdogs, and raffles. The Pleasure Chest, located in Boystown, donated over $200 worth of merchandise, with something for everybody. If you were lucky, you walked away with flavored lube, a life-size fist, or a giant vibrating egg.

“I remember there was this one stuffy guy in a suit that got up to speak to the group and began with a depressing intro, and the whole room got nervous and heavy,” recalled Pas. “And then he ripped off his suit, revealing a skimpy outfit, and made light of the situation!”

As time went on, these “sex parties” had to be updated. It was decided that the Week of Sex in 2003 could be more successful. It needed more pizzazz. Linda Pas admitted that the administration thrives on students' ideas. “Just tell us what you want!” she gasped, “We know we don’t know everything. You have to come forward.”

Enter David Cordero and Meg Manuel. Cordero had grown discouraged by the slow progression of his one-man HIV awareness campaign. Though the screenings of movies such as “And The Band Played On” were well attended and accompanied by ample discussion on the topic of HIV and AIDS, the Senior Resident Advisor (RA) craved more substance. Cordero and Manuel acknowledged how difficult it could be for students to seek out STI and HIV testing on their own, so they decided to bring the testing to them.

The Jumpstart

Manuel, who was busy with student government and SUGS, jumpstarted the movement with a student and faculty petition, aiming for around 100 signatures. “At the very least, I knew we could raise awareness and get people involved,” she stated. The two of them worked on the petition, and Manuel later stood outside of the 112 S. Michigan building in order to collect signatures. “There’s a snowball effect,” Cordero gushed. “People start thinking about their health, their status, knowing their status, working on staying negative or getting treatment if positive. There was kind of a buzz. Someone who didn’t know I was involved said, ‘Hey Dave did you hear about the petition?’” The heightened level of awareness was invigorating. That’s when they decided to meet with Tony Jones, the President of SAIC.

When the two first proposed the idea, Jones seemed receptive yet hesitant. But once they showed a petition with 772 signatures, Cordero reminisced, the momentum went from “‘Ok’ to ‘Oh my God!’ He saw that it was really big and that there were a lot of people involved." It was as if 772 students had walked into his office at once, demanding free testing.

After working out the logistics of the testing, the administration decided to use an Oral test and to focus exclusively on HIV. This was a big success for Cordero. “The petition made me realize that the students have a lot of power. Without the petition, the response would have been really different.” Before receiving word that the testing was approved, Cordero declared, “If we don’t get the response we want, we’ll get 50 people and walk into his office. So what if every school in the U.S. doesn’t have it? Shouldn’t we be more progressive? Why wait until it’s a trend and all the schools do it?”


Look out for So the Story Goes: Photographs by Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Larry Sultan, from September 21st through November 16, 2006. The Photography collection features five contemporary photographers who address the immediate effect of AIDS among friends and loved ones. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago is collaborating with the Art Institute of Chicago to provide guided tours on Thursday evenings between 4:30 and 6:30 pm, for high school and adult groups. Museum educators will lead educational tours for high school students at 4:30 pm, and for adults beginning at 6:30 pm.