World AIDS Day is Thursday, and local students want to raise awareness.
“AIDS doesn’t get much attention,” said Conor Butler, 17. “We still need to spread awareness so people can’t sweep it under the rug. There are still people who have this horrible disease.”
The auto-immune disease, often saddled with stigma and misconceptions, can be hard to talk about.
“What publicity it does get is usually really negative,” said Gabrielle St. Clair, 16.
St. Clair and Butler are the informal leadership of Jackson Hole High School’s Gay Straight Alliance.
The alliance is partnering with Teton County Public Health and Jackson Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, to sponsor a free program in Jackson Hole High School’s library. The program will include a showing of the film “A Closer Walk” at 6:30 p.m.
Before the movie begins, community members are invited to gather at 6 p.m. to demonstrate concern about HIV and AIDS and remind others of the continuing need for their support and commitment.
“A Closer Walk” depicts the realities of global AIDS. It was conceived by the late Dr. Jonathan Mann, considered by many to be one of the most important figures in the 20th-century fight against global social injustices and a key player in the international response to AIDS.
Mann has a local connection as the brother of Jackson resident Carol Mann.
“My brother Jonathan considered health a human right,” Mann said in a press release. “He tirelessly and passionately worked to educate world leaders that the resolution of the global AIDS pandemic must include both scientific research and a human rights perspective. When people asked why he though he could change the world, he would answer, ‘If we don’t try, will it ever change?’”
“A Closer Walk” was directed by Academy Award nominee Robert Bilheimer.
According to Bilheimer, “The whole point was to level the playing field in terms of what we all, as a human family, understand about AIDS. Making a film that would somehow engage people around the world on this issue was obviously a challenge on the creative side.”
The students hope audience members leave the film screening with awareness and kindness.
“We hope it gives them an educational view so that they don’t just ignore it, but face it,” St. Clair said.
Butler advocated looking at the disease from a human angle.
“It would be great if people were more aware of AIDS as a continuing problem and a problem that real humans with real feelings face,” he said.
The alliance’s mission includes addressing homophobia — which students stay still exists, even in relatively liberal Jackson Hole.
“We’re a lot better than the rest of Wyoming,” Butler said. “But there’s still stigma and discrimination.”
St. Clair agreed.
“There’s not a lot, but there’s a little,” she said.
Mark Houser, the coordinator of PFLAG in Jackson and an advocate for LGBTQ safety issues for more than 20 years around the country, said he has also noticed remnants of discrimination. Almost 300 Wyomingites live with HIV or AIDS.
“There’s still stigma in portions of the community around LGBTQ issues,” Houser said. “This is one way students can feel like they have an impact on the adult community in Jackson.”
Free and confidential testing and counseling for HIV are available through Teton County Public Health.
“Our hope is that this evening will raise our community awareness about HIV and AIDS,” Houser said. “In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many perceived HIV and AIDS to be a ‘gay disease.’ Now it is apparent that the virus can be transmitted in many ways and among diverse populations.”
Houser sees progress.
“I see Jackson, and Wyoming, becoming more aware and more accepting,” he said. “We now have a high school with an active Gay Straight Alliance. Students feel embraced here.”
Journeys School will also have a LGBTQ+ Community Pride Party on Friday to celebrate similar goals as part of the eighth-grade capstone projects.