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Everything They
Always Wanted to Know About Sex

Everything They
Always Wanted to Know About Sex


Because their health class doesn't always include the safe-sex lessons that they need, some Chicago teens have taken matters (and the lessons) into their own hands -- by staging a new show.

Growing up the daughter of a conservative Chicago pastor, Pookie, a 16-year-old lesbian, learned little about sex at home, where "it's all about God," she says. A student at a high school on the city's north side, Pookie says she isn't out to her family because, if she were, "my dad would blow up. He'd try to get the lesbian spirit out of me."

School hasn't been any more enlightening: There, Pookie says in her rapid-fire way of speaking, sex education is "all about heterosexual sex and heterosexual diseases...all about a penis and vagina coming together to make a baby, or a penis and vagina coming together with a condom to not make a baby." The only nod to LGBT students is typically a five-minute explanation of what the acronym stands for -- a lesson that benefited her straight classmates more than her, she says.

Whether they're being preached to about abstinence until marriage, with nary a reference to HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, or being taught safe heterosexual sex, chances are many gay kids aren't getting the basic facts about their health needs in high school. If they speak out--like Pookie did, once challenging her sex-ed teacher on the lack of gay-specific info -- they're often told such content isn't in the curriculum. "It was pointless to try," Pookie says.

But that doesn't mean she gave up. She joined the cast of Fast Forward, the latest production from Chicago's About Face Youth Theatre, which addresses the dearth by staging the stories of real gay teens. With a set designed to resemble a classroom, the show features an ensemble of 19 teens and a script based on their experiences and those of their friends. The stories often deal with HIV, says About Face's education programs director and Fast Forward director-cowriter Paula Gilovich, because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of new infections in the U.S. occur in people under the age of 25. Among the tales: a virgin who moves to the big city to become a dancer, only to discover his new boyfriend is HIV-positive; a young woman born with HIV who's stigmatized by her high school peers; another woman in love with her best girlfriend, who's straight and contracts HIV from a guy.

"Not only is current sex education not working, 'no sex till marriage' is blatantly homophobic," Gilovich says. "It's putting these kids at risk."

Gilovich worked with her ensemble for two years to craft Fast Forward. The performers and writers (some pulled double duty) were recruited by word of mouth or at performances of previous About Face productions. The theater group, which is an extension of the "grown-up" About Face Theatre, puts on shows about gender identity and sexual orientation at coffeehouses, galleries, and community centers around town. Once assembled, the teens interviewed each other -- and their peers -- about their sex-related health concerns. Those conversations, often verbatim, became the script.

As part of the process, participants received comprehensive, gay-inclusive sex education from the Broadway Youth Center. They also attended an intergenerational retreat with older gay people, which many students say was an especially powerful experience. "I'd seen Rent but never really connected the dots until I heard these stories -- people who lost 50 friends [to AIDS]," says 16-year-old Scott Jaburek, who in the show plays a student bullied for being gay.

The Fast Forward production finished its three-week run at the Center on Halsted, Chicago's gay center, on August 2, but thanks to a grant from the M.A.C. AIDS Fund, About Face is now taking a workshop version into area schools this fall, along with a full curriculum and an educational video by Beyondmedia Education that teachers can use. A group of teachers in town for a National Education Association conference saw the show during its regular run and seemed to connect with the message; afterward, one high-school health teacher said she now understands the need to "tell the truth to these kids."

Cast members are expecting a positive reaction from the high school students who will see Fast Forward in the months to come. "They're going to love it -- this is what we've been wanting from sex ed," says Pookie, who'll be part of the ensemble. Though she doesn't play a specific character, she delivers a rousing spoken-word performance at the end in which she articulates the hope that her generation will be the last to battle HIV. "We'll change people's ideas about our community," she says. "Maybe people like my dad will hear about it or see the DVD and start to realize we're just people."

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Kevin Hauswirth