During the past many years, I have traveled to various parts of the globe and have seen firsthand the devastating effects HIV and HIV-related stigma have had on many different kinds of people in many diverse communities.
Understanding the implications of my serostatus has been a profound learning experience. HIV pushed my buttons and helped me appreciate the power of vulnerability, specifically my own and that of those less privileged. Living in New York City and experiencing personally how terribly demoralized living with HIV can make one feel and how disproportionally the disease impacts people of color and homeless youth, I found it deeply sobering.
Being connected to a global experience of stigma and marginalization has been a challenge; yet it serves to connect me to a shared reality that goes beyond national boundary, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, class, gender, race and creed.
For a few years I helped administer a program focusing on human rights in Cape Town, South Africa, to explore issues, one of them being HIV and human rights. It was during this time that I discovered I was HIV positive. It was surreal to go from running my academic program in one part of the city to my HIV support group across town. As you can imagine, I was the only American in my support group and it was not easy.
I was not taking medication at that time, so a sense of being limited by HIV laws for travelers was not at the peak of my awareness. Now that I do take meds, I am painfully aware of my potential vulnerability to border guards and immigration officials. I have wondered what these meds, and unfair laws, might do to block my aspirations of being a global nomad. It is an ongoing process of education as rights keep shifting.
The modern face of HIV is like mine: ready, willing and able to serve internationally with few accommodation needs. In fact, my unique situation, if leveraged correctly, could potentially make me more relevant as a volunteer working with others affected by HIV.
The absence of visible HIV-positive people in the field of international service has been deeply troubling to me, and can be explained by my own experiences being discouraged, overtly ignored, or blocked by some service NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and government agencies. I believe it is time to fight stigma through soft diplomacy and international volunteer service by presenting an alternative image of HIV-positive people. It is for this reason I have launched Volunteer Positive.
What I am trying to do has never been done, and is daring, not only in the field of international service, but for those of us living with HIV who have been economically, socially and politically marginalized. I am hoping that my organization will increase the chance for people living with HIV to be seen as caregivers, not receivers, and highlight their unique ability to contribute to the world because of their HIV experiences, not in spite of them.
Emotionally, there is also a great deal of risk for those of us who have been effectively quarantined, or are too scared to travel even after our health has stabilized. Our need to reconnect to our individual and global futures is great, and finding a way to do this that inspires others, builds a community of care in action and helps define the path of the next wave of survivors is important to our civic, national, intellectual and spiritual identities. Volunteer Positive signifies a movement in the global consciousness of HIV-positive people stressing the visibility, agency and self-worth of each member of our community.
As a survivor, I have a unique opportunity to impact the suffering of others. I think often of those who passed away without the chance to answer this call to action; and I believe it was their courage and sacrifices that allowed me to live well today.
Please come along with me. The world is waiting.
Carlton L. Rounds is the founder and executive director of Volunteer Positive. He is also the assistant director for study abroad in the State University of New York system, and has many years of experience in international service and volunteerism.