Tomorrow I’m giving a short talk about the work I’ve done this year to combat herpes stigma. Here’s the catch: I’m doing it at my office. For my entire company. Including everyone who works remotely on an internal live-stream. That’s somewhere between 150 and 200 of my coworkers, give or take a bunch of interns.
I work at TED. That might explain things a little.
The people I interact with at work on a daily basis have known about my herpes writing since day one (January 24th, 2015, for anyone following along). My manager knew about my herpes status before I even started writing about it (what can I say, it comes up in conversation a lot). I have the support of coworkers at all levels of the organization and there’s no real risk in tomorrow’s presentation—my secret has been out for a long time. One of my strongest memories of my second viral wave over the summer was a jovial video editor stopping me in the kitchen to give me a hug, having seen me on BuzzFeed the previous week. Friends at TED have been some of my loudest champions and supporters. I wouldn’t be here without them. That being said, there’s still a large chunk of the organization that has no idea what I’ve been up to after hours. They’re in for a real treat tomorrow afternoon.
One of the first questions I’m asked by other people with herpes is what it’s like to be open about my status at work. As an STI, herpes seems much less appropriate to discuss in a professional environment than complaining about your allergies or telling your manager that you can’t come to work because you have the flu. I’m lucky to work for an organization that recognizes my STI isn’t a reflection of my moral character and in no way diminishes my value as an employee. Not everyone can say that about their job, and for most people, fear of losing their position or not being hired for future opportunities is a huge motivator to stay silent. My job is a privilege—I never had to worry about getting fired for the virus that lives in my DNA. I came to TED from an erotica publishing house. Herpes wasn’t going to be a deal-breaker when it came time to promote me.
That being said, I encountered herpes jokes at work before I decided to go public. They were the casual, relatively inoffensive cracks we often hear on television: someone referred to glitter as the herpes of craft supplies, and I shuffled my feet and let the moment pass. These little comments are ignorant but not mean—TED only hires exceptionally nice people—and they stopped entirely right around the time I started blogging. I didn’t realize the extent to which people in my office read my blog until I went viral and it felt less creepy for them to tell me they were following my project. When I appeared on HuffPost Live, my entire team watched and emailed me after to reassure me that I’d been great. Later, Chris Anderson shared the interview on Twitter.
Even before the Internet fame situation happened, an essay I wrote about my experience working the 2015 TED conference (and having an outbreak at the 2015 TED conference) was emailed around the office in March. Coworkers shared it on Facebook and praised my bravery, and I started to receive the occasional invitation to lunch from folks on other teams who also had STIs. At a recent office happy hour, multiple people pulled me aside to talk about family members who had herpes and how much my work had meant to them. I know a lot of weird, personal stories about the folks I work with. It’s great.
I can’t speak to how my herpes status has impacted the way my coworkers see me, but I have never encountered anything but love and support. My career has continued to grow with the help of wonderful mentors. I have yet to run afoul of the HR department. Herpes may be a part of my office identity, but I am Ella from the social media team first and foremost.
For any curious TED staffers reading this after seeing my talk (hi from the past!), thank you for your kindness and (hopefully) laughing at my jokes. Here are some of the articles I mentioned in my talk:
My characters care about safe sex because I have to — the first blog post I wrote about having herpes.
The Herpes Interviews — conversations with my exes about what it was like to date me, a person with herpes.
What happens after you tell the Internet you have herpes — reactions from my friends and family after I went public.
Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes — my viral essay for Women’s Health.