I first learned about Paige a few months ago, when I read this article about a sixteen-year-old in Indiana (Paige) who had been bullied and harassed for one reason: She was HIV-positive.
I’ve previously written in this space about bullying, and I think we can all agree that’s it’s a pretty despicable thing to do. Bullying someone because she has a disease seems especially hateful to me. Isn’t that when compassion is needed the most? Sure it can be hard to know the right thing to say when you find out someone else’s bad news, but I suspect if it had been any other illness, the reactions would at least have been well-meaning. Maybe people would have dropped notes of support in Paige’s locker, or baked cookies, or offered to help her with homework. What’s more, with the medication available today, people with HIV can lead normal, healthy lives. So there was no reason to treat Paige any differently than before.
Instead, like the article pointed out, the reactions she received were similar to what Ryan White, another Indiana teenager, faced. It sort of blows my mind that twenty years after his death, people still find it acceptable to harass others based on their HIV-status. But also like Ryan, Paige Rawl decided to take a stand. I’m sure you’ll find her as amazing and inspirational as I do.
Courtney: Welcome, Paige! Thanks so much for stopping by. First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself – like what are a few of your favorite things?
Paige: My favorite type of food is Chinese. My favorite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My favorite movie is The Breakfast Club. My favorite subject is Journalism. My favorite musicians are Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. My favorite book series is Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard. My favorite sports are softball and cheerleading.
Courtney: I love the old school pick for your favorite movie! Now onto the more serious stuff – how old were you when you were diagnosed with HIV, and do you remember the moment you were told?
Paige: I was diagnosed right before I turned three but I wasn’t told until I was eleven. I do remember when I found out. At the time I didn’t really understand how serious HIV/AIDS is.
Courtney: Did HIV change your family dynamic in any way?
Paige: My family life is totally different than what it would be if HIV had never come into our lives. My dad died of AIDS when I was only seven years old. But actually I think my life was pretty normal with until I started being stigmatized because of my disease. It was then that my mom and I decided to take a bad situation and turn it into something good. We both are advocates for people with HIV and work with many organizations. I know we wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t living with it.
Courtney: Can you tell us about your experience with disclosure?
Paige: I was in sixth grade and I thought that telling someone you had HIV was like telling someone you had asthma or that you were diabetic, so I told my best friend. Within a couple weeks, the news had spread throughout the whole school and I received threats that I’d be beaten up. Someone left a note on my locker saying "No AIDS at This School.” People were told not to drink after me – even though you can’t contract HIV that way! I was referred to as "PAIDS” (my first initial, combined with AIDS). Basically, I went from being popular to hardly having any friends at all. So my first experience with disclosure was really about the stigma that surrounds the disease.
Courtney: It’s chilling to me to hear your story, and I think it’s one of the things that makes this disease unique – you don’t hear stories like this when kids are diagnosed with cancer. When did you decide to take action?
Paige: Right around the time I withdrew from school, which was September 23, 2008. My soccer coach had approached me at a game and asked me in front of other players, "By the way, I heard you have AIDS. Is that true?" My response was, "No I don't have AIDS." I was telling the truth because I don’t have AIDS. I am HIV-positive, and there is a difference. I told my mom about this incident and she confronted the coach. The coach admitted to asking me if I had AIDS and went on to make a joke about it: "We can use your HIV status to our advantage – the players on the other team will be afraid to touch you and you can score goals!” My mom and I spoke to the school administration about it, but the coach was only given a verbal warning. A couple weeks after withdrawing from the school I decided to take a stand for my rights and file a lawsuit against the school's township.
Courtney: I heard that in addition to fighting for your own rights, you’re also educating others about HIV/AIDS. Is it true that you’re the youngest certified HIV/AIDS educator in the US?
Paige: Yes, I am the youngest certified HIV/AIDS educator in the country through the American Red Cross. To be certified through the American Red Cross you have to be eighteen years old, but I was fourteen when I got certified. After sharing my story and letting them know that I was going to start educating about HIV/AIDS with this certification, I was granted special permission to be certified.
Courtney: What’s it like to live with HIV?
Paige: I’m not sick and I don't look at myself as living a different life than other people besides the fact that I have to take medication to stay healthy. Right now I take only one pill a day.
Courtney: What's a typical day in the life of Paige (when you're not traveling the country and being crowned Miss Indiana Teen Essence 2011)?
Paige: A typical day in my life would be attending school, cheerleading practice or games, and hanging out with friends or family.
Courtney: I admire you so much for standing up as an example of what it’s like to be a teenager living with HIV. You’ve accomplished so much already. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Paige: I plan on attending college and majoring in Journalism, with a minor in Health Education. I also plan to dedicate my life to educating about HIV/AIDS and sharing my story. I can see myself working for a non-profit organization or some day even starting my own organization.
Courtney: I have no doubt that you can accomplish all you set your mind to. THANK YOU, Paige!
Some things to keep in mind on National Women’s & Children’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (and everyday):
- Like Paige said, HIV is not AIDS – HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks the immune system and may cause a condition called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
- Every 35 minutes, a woman or girl tests positive for HIV in the United States.
- HIV is the leading cause of death in women ages 15-44 worldwide.
- There are only three ways to contract HIV: Through unprotected sex with an infected partner, through contact with infected blood (e.g., sharing contaminated needles), or an HIV-positive mother can pass the virus on to her baby in utero or through her breast milk.
- Here are some things that CANNOT give you HIV: hugs, kisses, spit, tears, sharing a drink, shaking hands, using a toilet, sneezes, coughs, mosquito bites, any kind of insect bite.
- Knowing your status can save your life! If you are negative, stay that way. And if you’re positive, take steps to protect those around you and seek treatment for yourself.
- There is never a reason to bully anyone based upon their HIV status.
And now for a GIVEAWAY!!! I happen to know that Paige is pretty crafty and another one of her favorite things is bedazzling different items. She’s generously agreed to bedazzle something for a lucky blog commenter … and I’ll include a signed copy of Positively. So please comment away.