Op-Ed: Yes, I Have An STD, But It Shouldn't Be a Scarlet Letter

When I tell people what I do professionally – I’m the founder of The STD Project, a website all about STDs from someone with an STD – colorful responses abound. When I launched the site, the shock and utter loss for words I elicited even from friends and family was palpable, to say the least. Never mind the small bit of crazy it takes to spend one’s days brazenly telling others you have an unsightly disease that resides on your genitalia. To make matters worse, I quit an incredibly lucrative career to launch the site.

As an accountant working for a Big Four accounting firm, and then a Fortune 500 corporation, I’m certain my new vocational choice was far from anyone’s mind when I announced the website in April 2012. Understandably, my decision to replace a highly coveted career with a financially insecure and lofty goal had my loved ones worried. But my parents understood why I’d chosen to take action.

In Search of a Better Condom

Fourteen years ago, at 16, I contracted genital herpes. Diagnosed and shamed by my family doctor, I rode home with my mother in tears – convinced I would never have a “normal” sex life, a loving partner, or a healthy relationship ever again. In the years that followed, I was cast out of the church and labeled a harlot, made to sleep separately from friends during overnight stays for fear of transmission, and called a bevy of names. I was scarlet-lettered.

Rest assured, however, this is not a “woe is me” kind of story. On the contrary, having herpes never stopped me from dating, having a (very) healthy sex life, or accomplishing my goals, despite my initial misconceptions. In some ways, it likely lit a necessary fire within me — I’ve always been rather indignant and reticent toward social constructs — so I set off to prove to others, and mostly to myself, that I deserved more and could be more than just a woman with genital herpes. Having auditioned for “American Idol,” conquered my fear of heights by skydiving (three times), run a 25K, and earned two honors degrees, I’ve accomplished that.

So, when I launched The STD Project, I felt I was finally ready to tackle the embarrassment and shame I’d experienced years ago. I was healed, resilient, and could begin to forge a social movement despite the inevitable reproach headed my way.  What I hadn’t anticipated was what happened in the months following the site's launch: an array of questions and earnest interest, an outpouring of support, and message upon message from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers the world over sharing their personal and unmistakably paralleled sexual health and STD journeys.

Sharing my story with others, reading and listening to theirs, and honing my skills as an educator, speaker, and writer has also afforded me the peace I would have paid anything for years ago. Sometimes it feels selfish, attaining the healing – healing I wasn’t aware I still needed – that The STD Project has prompted.

Keeping me grounded is the realization that there’s still so much work to be done. Stigma abounds and people are made to feel like pariahs – alone, ridiculed, and shunned when diagnosed – the same stigma that paralyzed me, when what we really need are more education, awareness, and treatment.

So, I’m carrying on.

I am an STD advocate. I will continue to be an advocate until others don’t have to endure what was once, for me, a very arduous journey.

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Jenelle Marie is the founder of The STD Project, an award-winning website and progressive movement aimed at eradicating the stigma associated with contracting an STD and living with an STD by facilitating and encouraging awareness, education, and acceptance through storytelling and resource recommendations. You can also find The STD Project on Facebook and Twitter. Look for her e-Book, “The Relationship Survival Guide to Living with an STD” available in 2013. TakePart.com

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.