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September 8, 2014

Today’s Generation and HIV - Guest Post by Paige Rawl


What would you do if you told your best friend your deepest secret --- and than she told everyone within the hour? That's exactly what happened to Paige Rawl, who divulged her HIV positive status to her friend and soon after was bullied by the entire school with nowhere to turn for help. At 15 she found herself facing a bottle of pills, but pulled herself back, fought the system about bullying laws and has become an inspiration for teens everywhere.

Paige tells her story in her new memoir, POSITIVE, and gives us a brief taste in her blog post below, where she explains what  happened to her in middle school and why HIV education is so important. Read below, and be sure to check out our interview with Paige, an excerpt from POSITIVE, and contest, where you can win a copy of the book!

Since the early 1980s, HIV/AIDS has been an epidemic across the globe. In the beginning, HIV was considered a white gay male’s disease. Now about 1 in 4 of new HIV infections are found in young people, ages 13-24.

            In just 35 years, this particular disease has gone from being one of the most talked about epidemics to an out of sight, out of mind issue. HIV is not one of teens’ biggest concerns when deciding whether to become involved with someone --- they worry more  about getting pregnant or catching another STD. Teenagers seem to believe that they are safe if the person they are getting involved with doesn’t look unhealthy. Little do they know that HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. You can’t tell by looking at a person that they have a positive HIV diagnosis --- and one in five people have the disease.

            HIV is surrounded by stigma and ignorance. Our generation’s parents grew up when HIV was considered a nasty disease. People were not educated enough to realize that you cannot catch the virus from a simple hug, kiss or cough. This misconception carries a negative attitude towards all those with the disease. But today’s generation determines tomorrow’s future. If there is any way that the AIDS epidemic is going to end, then it must be through education in schools.

            The stigma is still a huge issue. I personally experienced the bullying that goes along with being HIV positive. My mother discovered that I had been born HIV positive right before my third birthday. She had contracted the disease from my father, and she found out when I was just two and a half years old. My mother chose to fight for herself and her daughter, even though many people might have hidden in shame. My father was the opposite. He hid the disease from his family and friends. He denied until his death bed that he was HIV positive. When I was just six years old, my father passed away from an AIDS related illness.

            When I found out that I was HIV positive, it didn’t change my life. I grew up thinking all my medication and doctor’s appointments were normal. I thought having HIV was no worse than having, say, asthma (which I have as well). But in sixth grade, I confided to my best friend that I was HIV positive from birth. She told her older sister --- and it spread through the entire middle school within weeks.

            I received the nickname PAIDS, lost most of my friends, and was bullied so badly that I had stress induced seizures. It wasn’t just the kids who were cruel when they found out my HIV status. My school counselor advised me to deny that I was HIV positive. My soccer coach told me that I could score goals because the kids on the other team would be afraid to touch me. My school principal told me that she wished I could go to school there, but that she couldn’t promise to protect me. These were adults that I was supposed to look up to. This was the kind of response that showed a generation that it was okay to bully someone for the thing that makes them different.  

It was wrong.

            After all that I went through, I decided to do something about how I was treated. I didn’t want to see anyone experience what I did.

There is no true cure for this disease, but more education in schools will help young people learn how it is and isn’t spread --- and how to prevent it. Speaking and sharing my story became my own way to cope with the fact that I was HIV positive, but it also became a way for me to try to influence the actions of teenagers who see bullying on a daily basis.

            It never surprises me when I get up to share my story that some people in the audience gasp when I mention I am HIV positive. They think that it can’t happen to a “normal” person. They look at me and see a little bit of themselves: a young all-American teenager, going to school, doing all the things that they do, and more.

            Even though I have spoken to thousands of students, I feel like I still have a lot more educating to do to pave the way for a brighter future for those living with HIV --- and those who are being bullied --- every day.

Paige Rawl is an accomplished speaker and an inspirational figure for the tens of thousands of kids to whom she has spoken. Today, Paige is a national youth advocate, antibullying crusader and powerful HIV/AIDS educator. Paige has been featured in multiple national media outlets, including USA Today, People magazine, Seventeen magazine, Nick News with Linda Ellerbee, the Huffington Post, and Poz magazine. Since Paige was eight years old, she has participated enthusiastically in pageants. Most recently, Paige was Miss Indiana Teen Essence 2011 and Miss Indiana High School America 2012. She is currently a student at Ball State University, where she plans to study molecular biology.