A former schoolteacher who was shunned in the late 1980s when it was revealed he was HIV-positive is now a recipient of the Community Hero Award from the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project.

Eric Smith, now 53, was teaching at Cape Sable Island Elementary School in 1987 when word got around that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Parents in the rural area at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia threatened to keep their children at home, and some demanded that homosexuals be banned from the classroom. Smith was moved to a non-teaching position and was eventually given an education-related position in the Nova Scotia Task Force on AIDS.

'Changed a lot of people's attitudes'

Smith, now a prominent AIDS activist living in Halifax, says he's glad the backlash happened. "I can look back and see that there was a big benefit to it, in that it changed a lot of people's attitudes," he said before Saturday evening's award presentation.

Smith said he appreciates the award because when the controversy erupted he wasn't sure how much support he was getting from the gay community. "It feels good that they're letting me know that they appreciate what I did," he said.

Back in 1987, Smith thought he'd be lucky to have a year or two to live. Now he's aiming for life as a senior. "I still want to hit 65 so I'm getting my pension," he said. "I'm not in any rush but I'll get there." 

The Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, a 15-year-old organization advancing the interests of gay, bisexual and transgendered people, arranged the award presentation as part of its annual fundraising gala, with a keynote speech by Michelle Douglas, who successfully fought for lesbian and gay equality rights in the Canadian Forces.