By Kenny Bissett

When Rebekka Armstrong was 18 years old, she wanted nothing more than to pose nude for Playboy. Armstrong fulfilled her teenage dream in 1986 when she was selected as Playboy’s Miss September. After four short years of living her life on top of the world, Armstrong’s dreams dreams died when a STI test came back HIV positive.

“The only thing I knew about HIV was death,” Armstrong said in an introductory video filmed nearly two decades ago. “I knew that I was going to die.”

Photo courtesy of Rebekkah Armstrong

Photo courtesy of Rebekkah Armstrong

Armstrong visited the University of Nevada, Reno on Wednesday to promote HIV/AIDS and safe sex awareness for National AIDS Week. According to the Associated Students of the University of Nevada unity commissioner Nathanial Hughes, 30 students gathered in the Joe Crowley Student Union’s Glick Ballrooms to hear Armstrong’s cautionary tale.

“One thing I really loved about her speech was it was just so raw and real,” Hughes said. “She didn’t have like a speech made, everything was just from her experience and it all came from the heart. I really appreciated that.”

Hung on opposite walls of the ballrooms were several panels of the Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, bearing the names of Nevadans who had died as a result of complications of HIV/AIDS.

“(The quilt) is the face of AIDS,” said Paco Poli, the editor and publisher of The Reno Gay Page. “Each one of those panels represents a person, a living human being that has passed because of the disease. To see a huge amount of that quilt is very moving and powerful, and you do it in silence. The strongest of people that I have seen at quilt displays end up crying because it’s just too much.”

Armstrong believes she contracted AIDS as a teenager in high school, after a relatively “normal” sexual encounter at a fraternity party.

“It was a good reminder, a big flashing red light, reminding me, and probably a lot of other people, that safety is number one,” Zhu said. “Especially when she said that she contracted HIV just from that one incident at a frat house.”

Poli reported on the AIDS panic that swept across UNR in April 2012 after several false reports of HIV/AIDS broke out on social media. He believes that no matter how “safe” someone is about their sexual practices, they should still get tested for HIV/AIDS.

“My belief is that every single person needs to have an AIDS test,” Poli said. “I don’t care if you’re the straightest-laced person in the world. Everybody needs to have at least one AIDS test to know your status.”

After being diagnosed with HIV in 1989, Armstrong constantly switched between “living healthy” versus “numbing out” with drug and alcohol abuse, an attempted suicide and the “pain and fear” associated with her daily struggle for survival.

“I just wanted to forget that I was dying of AIDS,” Armstrong said. “I was staying as high as I could possibly stay.”

Armstrong said she made it through several years living with the devastating side-effects of medication and her symptoms because she retained “a positive mental outlook.” In a humble tone, Armstrong took full responsibility for contracting AIDS, saying at one point, “ I infected me,” while she acknowledged that it takes two people to have unprotected sex.

“I thought she was amazing, the way she told her story without preaching,” said Director of Campus Unity, Desirae Acosta. “She was just so honest and open and genuine. She was just so passionate about educating people.”

Armstrong has lived symptom-free for the last nine years, without succumbing to an opportunistic infection. Despite being “really religious about taking my meds,” Armstrong encouraged the young crowd not to think about HIV/AIDS as a treatable disease, but rather, a preventable one. Armstrong even began bodybuilding to develop a “safety net” because during her struggle with AIDS, “it was nothing to lose 20 to 30 pounds,” in a matter of several days.

“It’s still a death sentence,” Poli said.  “It’s not really the disease that you probably die from. You die from complications from the disease. Your generation hasn’t seen all that. You haven’t seen that face of AIDS.”

Armstrong stressed that AIDS is no longer a disease that can be pigeon-holed as a disease that solely affects the LGBT community, the African American community or the sexually promiscuous.

“This is everyone’s disease,” Armstrong said. “AIDS doesn’t discriminate … it’s just looking for a host.”

Kenny Bissett can be reached at kbissett@nevadasagebrush.com.