Paige Rawl is 17 and HIV positive, but while her life has been shaped by HIV it isn't ruled by it.
When Paige Rawl starts her senior year at Indianapolis’s Herron High School next month, she'll be cheer captain and a member of the student government and prom committee. This summer, the 17-year-old held down a part-time job at Hollister, hawking the popular Southern California-inspired clothing brand.
The all-American girl — who happens to be HIV positive.
Paige was infected unknowingly at birth by her mother, who wasn’t aware of her own HIV status. Paige's mother got the virus from Paige's father, who she says passed away in 2001 due to an AIDS-related illness.
Between 100 and 200 American children are born HIV positive each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 35,000 people under age 24 live with HIV/AIDS in the United States today.
In addition to teens like Rawl who were born with HIV, a significant and worrisome population of kids have been infected through sex. Starting with middle-schoolers at age 13, teenagers and young adults account for almost 40 percent of all new annual HIV infections in the United States. Every hour, two young people between age 13 to 24 are infected, according to the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.
Born With HIV: A Rough Beginning
Rawl was so unaware of HIV/AIDS as a child that “I’d heard the word HIV at doctor’s appointments, and I started wondering why I was taking medication,” she says. And then at school, “We started talking about girls and guys, and HIV was brought up a couple of times.”
Her curiosity grew, and when was in fifth grade she asked her mom if she was HIV positive or negative. Rawl’s mother told her the truth and assured her that as long she kept taking her medicine, she’d be fine. “I wasn’t really old enough to completely understand at the time,” Paige says.
Her mother never told her she should be ashamed or secretive, so in sixth grade Rawl says she confided to her best friend at the time.
“I still didn’t really understand what HIV was yet,” she recalls. “To me it was like telling her that I had asthma. I didn’t see the big deal.
"That ended up kind of blowing up in my face.”
Within two weeks, the entire school knew, Rawl says. People called her “PAIDS.” Some students threatened to beat her up.
“That’s when I started realizing that not everyone’s going to be completely fine with me being positive.” Rawl says none of her middle school peers received more than a verbal warning for their bullying and threats.
Students weren't the only perpetrators of ignorance and HIV stigma. Early in Rawl’s eighth grade year, she says a soccer coach asked her during a game while they sat on the bench, " 'By the way, I’ve heard that you have AIDS. Is that true?’ ”
Rawl told her no. “She didn’t ask me if I was positive. She asked me if I had AIDS, and I didn’t. I felt like I didn’t really owe her an explanation.”
Rawl's mother confronted the coach, who Rawl says responded this way: “ ‘We can use her HIV status to our advantage because players from the other team will be afraid to touch her and she can score a goal.’ ” Completely aghast, Rawl, her mom, and her doctor met with the school administration to halt the abuse. Instead, Rawl says the principal told her, “I wish you could go here but I can’t promise to protect you.” Rawl was home-schooled the rest of eighth grade.
A New Start in High School
At Herron High School, the public charter school she entered in ninth grade, Paige says the administration has been extremely supportive. Her sophomore year, she spoke before the entire school, disclosing her HIV status and sharing her story. “The principal ended up going up and saying, ‘If Paige has any problems because of her HIV status you will no longer be a student here,’ ” she recalls.
However, she still has occasional unfortunate reminders that prejudice against HIV/AIDS is alive and well. Outside of a McDonald’s, the older sister of her supposed best friend from sixth grade “drove by and ended up throwing a drink at me,” Rawl says. In a recent incident at a frozen yogurt shop, Rawl saw a couple of girls from the township where she used to attend middle school. “I heard them say my name and something about AIDS,” she says. “I didn’t even know these girls. I don’t understand why, four years later, they’re still talking about it. I don’t go to school there. I don’t go to the football games there. Why am I still a topic of discussion?”
She is not deterred. Since she was 14 she’s been an HIV/AIDS peer educator and speaks regularly on the topic. Last year she joined the Indianapolis Urban League’s "I Need You to Listen, Hear and Understand Me" tour, an entertaining and interactive youth empowerment event that visits schools, churches, and other community groups promoting healthy sexual choices and personal responsibility. “Whoever comes to me, and if the timing’s right, I’ll gladly speak,” she says.
But Rawl is also aware that no matter how you pitch the message about the importance of safe sex it can be a tough sell to teens.
“They kind of just brush it off their shoulders,” she says. “They’re like, ‘She might be our age, but she was born with it.’ ”
Pregnancy Trumps HIV as a Teen Fear
Even among her friends and schoolmates, she says, pregnancy, not HIV, is the main concern. Friends tell her, “Well, I’m not gay and I’m not black," to which she responds, "Well, I’m not gay and I’m not black." When they retort, "Yeah, but you were born with it," she tells them, "But there are other people out there that have it and they might not even know, or might not tell you. There could be someone who looks like me who was born with it who’s out there not telling you guys. And you can’t always trust what someone says.’
“People are always saying, ‘He didn’t tell me,’ or ‘She didn’t tell me.’ And it’s like, well, you have to protect yourself. It’s not only about protecting the other person. You have to protect yourself as well.”
The risky attitude Rawl sees among her peers is verified by the CDC. The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 1991 to 2011 found that the percent of high school students who used condoms “at most recent sexual intercourse” has been stuck at 60 percent since 2003.
From her position on the front line, Rawl says a frank discussion about sex is necessary.
“At my school and other schools they offer pregnancy tests, but they don’t offer condoms,” she says. Often, when she speaks at a school, administrators will ask her not to talk about sex or how to use a condom. “I understand that you might not want me to get up there and talk about sex, but I get asked questions,” she says. “They’re teenagers — it’s going to come up.”
In addition, she says, too many parents either refuse to see the problem of youth HIV/AIDS, or just aren’t aware of it. “They don’t realize that [HIV] is out there, and that it’s better to give kids condoms and have them be safe than not,” she says.
Dating With HIV
Rawl has run up against these issues personally in her own dating life, and has found that a little bit of education goes a long way. She says the guys she’s dated tend to already know her HIV status, because they’re friends before starting to date. “I’ve never really had a problem with a guy,” she says.
A guy’s parents, however, are another story.
“I think at first they’re just shocked to hear that their son’s dating someone that’s HIV positive,” she notes. “At this age, it’s not something that parents hear every day.” Still, in her experience, “Once [parents] get that little bit of education behind it, they’re fine."
As her senior year approaches, Paige Rawl is enjoying the last days of summer, and socking away some money from her job. A year from now she plans to attend college and begin pre-pharmaceutical studies with an eye toward one day becoming an HIV/AIDS researcher.
But that’s next year. Before she gets there, she has a cheerleading squad to captain, a prom to help plan, and a lot more speaking and educating to do.
By Ian Landau - Everyday Health