How HIV-Positive Paige Rawl Overcame Bullying

After enduring brutal bullying, Paige Rawl is working to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV.

Paige Rawl
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Rawl just finished writing a memoir, and she regularly hears from people who follow her on social networking sites. She notes a recent message from a 17-year-old HIV-positive girl who wanted an outside perspective on how to approach dating. Rawl, who loves helping others, was quick to respond. And dating is something she knows a thing or two about. "When I start dating someone new, I like to get my status out there and open in the beginning, just so if the person has a problem with it I don't get hurt in the long run," she says. And most prospective boyfriends have responded well. "I've actually never had a problem with a guy. It's once they tell their parents they're dating someone who's HIV-positive, and their parents get a little weird."

These days, bullying is more of a distant memory than an active threat, but Rawl knows significant work remains before other kids can say the same. Every now and then, she's reminded of how mean – how pointlessly heartless – people can be. During high school, for example, Rawl ran into her former best friend's sister in a fast-food parking lot. The girl threw a drink at her. "It was surprising to me," says Rawl, who's learned not to dwell on anyone who doesn't accept her for who she is. And she hasn't had trouble finding friends, either – in fact, she just joined a sorority at Ball State, where she's studying molecular biology. She hopes to become an HIV and AIDS drug researcher, and she also plans to continue her education and awareness efforts.

[Read: 14 HIV/AIDS Beliefs—Which Ones Are True?]

Rawl's HIV is undetectable, which means the amount of virus in her blood is so low it can't be measured by most tests. It doesn't mean that she's cured, but it does mean the HIV is under control and her antiretroviral treatment is working.

"I've learned not to be ashamed of the fact that I have HIV," she says. "I realized that I am a normal teenager – just because someone has HIV doesn't make them any less of a person."