Emily is an activist who uses her knowledge and experience in sexual health to educate others and to help eliminate the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections.
Q: Walk me through some of the events that sparked your inspiration and interest to become an activist.
A: My activist interests really started in 11th grade. After overcoming an eating disorder, I developed a desire to help people who experienced similar feelings of shame surrounding their bodies. I recognized that many women like me shared these negative feelings. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know anyone who was truly happy with themselves. During my junior year of college, I spent a semester researching body image in relation to sexuality; that was my first real research component in my field. I developed a school project about how women evaluate themselves, their own pleasure and things like that. After that, I not only gained substantial confidence in myself as a researcher, but also the perspective that “maybe I’m onto something here, people identify with this. People want to know more.”
A few months after I graduated from college, I was diagnosed with genital herpes, HSV 2, and that really tore me apart. Every ounce of self-esteem that I had built for myself was torn right back down. I buried my emotions in alcohol, was involved in toxic relationships with acquaintances and friends. The guy who transmitted herpes to me ultimately broke things off through a Snapchat text message. After a while I was just like, “you know what? I’m done mourning. This is me and I’m going to own it. I know that other people feel this sense of pain and disgust and it’s time to be real, be me, and be honest with everyone around me. This is the experience that I have felt and I know I’m not alone in that.” I reclaimed the confidence I knew I’ve always had and propelled myself forward. Since then, I have received an overwhelmingly positive response, and I was kind of surprised by that and it has really taken off since then.
I first came out–I label it as ‘coming out’ because it is in its own way, on a Facebook status. I said, “this is what I have and this is real and it has affected me for the last seven months, but I finally have my feet on the ground.” It was a lengthy post that can now be found on my blog. People were very open and said “wow, you’ve made me reevaluate how I see these individuals who carry sexually transmitted diseases and infections.” That’s when I knew I was onto something. There is potential for change and there is a need for it.
Q: It’s incredibly brave of you to take these experiences and be a model for those feel alone. What kind of support do you have around you that allowed you to find the courage and strength to share and be an activist in that way?
A: I always felt different. In 6th grade I came up with a personal manifesto where I told myself that “I am born different to make a difference.” My views have shifted over time, but that has carried me through a lot. I really found my peace through this phrase. I also, for the first time in my life, have a really good group of friends who support me, and who I know will always love me. I came out to them before I publically announced my diagnosis. When I told them they said, “oh my gosh, what can I do for you?” I said to just be there for me, support me, read what I write and have my back–they did and they still do. I know they always will. I started networking with professors, people in my field, people online just talking and trying to send my endeavors in a professional direction where I desire to be.
Q: That’s awesome. I like that you took something that negatively impacted your life and turned it into something that’s so positive for other people; it seems like a blessing in disguise. Do you think this event helped you find your purpose?
A: I completely 110 percent believe that it did. In 2013, I received a false-positive reading from an IGM test. (If you are being tested for herpes, this is not the test you should take as it is known for producing false positives. You should seek out an IGG type 1 and 2.) After testing positive, I got retested and my results returned negative each time. I never had an outbreak, nothing. I think that was an outside universal force that offered a glimpse into my future, but I was unprepared. Now that I have graduated from college and had additional education and background in sexuality and gender, I was ready. This time I exhibited symptoms and tested positive in my bloodwork. This was the universe saying, “you weren’t ready before, but now you have the tools, connections, knowledge, and inner-strength to move forward with your sense of purpose.”
Q: A: You mentioned how this experience helped you move forward. What is your vision for the future and how have you adapted to move forward with your purpose?
A: Starting the blog was the first tangible action, then I began writing for Thought Catalog and Elite Daily and I had a piece published on The Feminist Wire. Before I was diagnosed with herpes, I planned that the internship I worked so hard to attain would transition into a full-time job, then I planned to apply and attend graduate school the following year. That plan fell through, but I now know why. I had so much more work to accomplish and it’s so clear to me now why things didn’t happen how I wanted them to. I just received word that I was accepted into a graduate program in which I will receive a dual degree—a masters of social work and a masters of education of human sexuality.
What I envision is a holistic health center that promotes fitness, sexual and emotional therapy, STD testing, yoga and things of that nature. I would like to create a counseling and guidance program– not only for people who are going to be clinicians, –but also medical professionals dealing with these often-heartbreaking diagnoses when they are ill prepared. I want to normalize this process and provide guidance because from my personal experience, people are afraid to open up to professionals because they are afraid of judgment. I would also like to be one of those professionals in the field, and I want to embrace my vulnerability and my truth. People tend to see me as a safe space and that is something I really honor; I want to use that gift to change the world. I am also doing my 200-hour yoga certification and I would like to use the power of healing through touch when applicable.