AIDS apathy

Risky behavior on the rise—Nevadans need to pay attention

Orland Outland (standing) and James “Steve” May tell young people that their choices now may have brutal consequences later.

Orland Outland (standing) and James “Steve” May tell young people that their choices now may have brutal consequences later.

Photo by Deidre Pike

The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial starts at 7 p.m. May 20 at the First United Methodist Church, 209 W. First St. Call 328-3647.

Washoe County Health Department offers free tests weekly. Call 328-6174.

Call Northern Nevada HOPES at 786-4673.

When Orland Outland graduated from Reno High School in 1980, he couldn’t wait to leave town.

“I was unhappy here for a lot of reasons,” Outland says. “One, I was gay. Also, I was working with PCs. There wasn’t a lot going on in Reno then.”

So Outland moved to the Bay Area, where he could make a living doing what he enjoyed. But he didn’t really find what he was looking for.

“I still wasn’t happy,” he says. “You don’t leave your problems behind when you leave town.”

Outland, now the author of six published books, including a gay detective trilogy, sums up the next part of his personal history simply.

“I did drugs. I had unsafe sex. I got infected with HIV,” he says. “I think when I was doing drugs and having a lot of sex that I was looking to wall out anything that might hurt me. Getting high is an easy way to do that.”

Outland is a member of an AIDS awareness speakers’ group that is part of the Northern Nevada HIV Outpatient Program, Education and Services. He tells young people his story of getting AIDS and losing a friend to the disease.

“It’s hard enough to watch your best friend of 14 years die—and he was my best friend, not my lover,” Outland says. “And die in such pain that you couldn’t even give him a hug, because the pain from being touched was so bad that he screamed.

“And the whole time you’re thinking, ‘This is the truck that’s going to hit you.'”

Outland’s friend, Clint, died in 1994—three days after his 29th birthday.

Outland hopes that young people can learn from hearing about these mistakes, that history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

“When I’m talking to kids, telling my story, I can see the wheels turning in their heads, ‘Yeah, this could happen to me.'"Complacency about any disease is dangerous. But when it comes to something as stigmatized as HIV, apathy is deadly.

“People have told us that they just don’t want to know what their status is,” says Jennifer Howell, health educator at the Washoe County Health Department. “They’re engaging in risky behaviors and not realizing the consequences of the behavior. Nevada has high drug abuse rates and high pregnancy rates. These show that [the consequences of these risks] are not on the forefront of the community’s mind.”

That’s not helped by the misconception that AIDS is becoming a manageable disease.

“People nationwide have become very complacent about HIV and the impact it has on a community, any community,” Howell says. “People are dying. The drug regimens don’t work for some people, and there is no magic pill for HIV.

“People need to know that it’s not over. It’s not even close to being over.”

With that in mind, Howell helps organize the annual AIDS Memorial in Reno. This year’s memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at the First United Methodist Church.

“It’s a chance to visualize the impact that [AIDS] has had here,” Howell says. “To remember that there are faces to this disease."Kids aren’t always aware that decisions made lightly can permanently alter their futures.

“When we were teens, we didn’t see how a choice we made today could affect our whole lives,” says James “Steve” May, who also speaks publicly about getting AIDS in order to educate the community. “We didn’t see that those choices could have brutal consequences, or even be fatal.”

May reminds kids of the value of sexual abstinence. He tells them that drinking alcohol and using drugs isn’t going to help them make good choices. May, who’s lived in Reno since 1984, was diagnosed with HIV about eight years ago. He was told he had a year to live.

“That was more than I could handle,” May says. “I went crazy and lost my job.”

May remembers staying in his apartment for days. He was afraid to tell his friends that he had AIDS. The phone rang. He didn’t answer it. The phone rang some more. He yanked it out of the wall.

Friends visited. May didn’t let them in. After not paying rent for months, he lost his apartment.

“One day, I left, and when I came back, there was one of those big locks that they put on doors,” May says. “After that, I was homeless for 10 months.”

Sometimes, May went without eating for days. He’d find people to give him drugs, or hang out at bars where he could get comp drinks.

“I’d do crank, drink alcohol and not eat,” he says. “At one point, I weighed about 71 pounds.”

May finally got help from Washoe County Social Services and Bridges in Consciousness, then a group home for AIDS patients.

“They made sure I had a place to stay,” he says. “They knew that if I stayed on the street for even a little longer that I’d die on the river."An AIDS diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. But the treatment can sometimes be worse than the disease, says Kevyn Wood, client services program coordinator for HOPES.

“There’s not a guarantee,” Wood says. “And it’s extraordinarily expensive.”

The assemblage of drugs used to keep the virus at bay can run $1,600 a month, almost $20,000 a year.

“Many people don’t make that,” Wood says. “And even if they do, there’s not much left for rent.”

Wood describes the HOPES House as the “hub” of the HIV support community in Reno. The organization, started in 1997, now offers AIDS testing, a clinic, an outreach program, meal delivery, a food pantry, grocery vouchers, counseling and utility or rent assistance. Not to mention plenty of companionship and support.

And whether it’s due to an increase in HIV in Reno or merely a better outreach program that’s made people aware of HOPES, demand has more than tripled in just a few years. In 1997, HOPES had 167 clients. Now the group serves the needs of 540 HIV-positive individuals.

“We are one of the fastest-growing centers nationwide,” Wood says.

Even as they moved into their clinic, the staff knew they had outgrown a 1,700-square-foot building where 100 patients are seen every week. The group expects to get a one-time allotment of $1 million from the state to build a new clinic. The money is in Gov. Guinn’s budget. But the staff hopes the money proposed in AB 515 won’t be cut, as legislators debate where to hack the millions that the state may not be able to fund, given recent revenue forecasts for Nevada’s gaming industry.

“We have a unique community,” Wood says. “We have politicians that believe there’s not an HIV problem here. … It’s obvious we have a problem, and it’s not going to readily go away."This is no time to be complacent, Outland says. Nevada has had 5,381 HIV infections to date, out of which 599 were in the 14-24 age group, according to the Health Department. The Nevada AIDS rate for males is ninth-highest in the nation. And that’s not counting the cases that go unreported because individuals are afraid to be tested.

“Part of the complacency is to say this is a gay disease," Outland says. "This was a gay disease 20 years ago. And it still affects the groups that are having the most sex with a lot of partners. But now, the fastest growing demographic having sex with a lot of partners is heterosexual teens. I tell people, ‘It’s not who you are, it’s what you do.'"