When she was an infant, Ashley Rose Murphy was extremely sick. Murphy was born with HIV, which she contracted from her late birth mother. After spending over three months in a coma, she was placed into palliative care, taken in by adoptive parents, and given just weeks to live. Over 18 years later, the teen’s very much alive—and making her voice heard as a fierce advocate for HIV awareness.
“I found out I was HIV positive when I was 7 years old,” Murphy tells SELF. “When my parents told me, they sat me down and they said, ‘Ashley, the reason why you take all of these medications and why you go to all these doctor appointments is because you have a virus called HIV. At the time I didn’t understand what that meant at all, I was in grade two. I was just very oblivious and was like, ‘OK, so what’s for dinner?’” Her parents and doctors told her she shouldn’t tell anybody, but Murphy didn’t understand why. “I asked, ‘Why do I need to keep it a secret? I didn’t do anything wrong.’” Since then, Murphy has spoken to thousands of people, hoping to help educate others and reduce the stigma around HIV.
Murphy says the widespread fear of HIV stems from a lack of knowledge, which is why she speaks so openly about it. She speaks at school and conferences to educate both kids and adults about the virus so they understand what it is and what it’s like to live with it.
She started speaking at medical conferences in Canada (her home country) when she was 10 along with other kids she had grown up with in the medical system in Toronto. She attended a support group for children with HIV, and they occasionally went to speak with groups of medical professionals. "The other kids wouldn't speak if there was media," Murphy recalls, “but I didn’t really care." Her mother tells SELF it was hard at first to see her daughter exposed like that, but Ashley was always comfortable. “I’ve always loved performing and singing, so being in front of people doesn’t scare me at all,” Murphy says.
When she got to high school, the speeches became a little more nerve wracking. When Murphy was in 10th grade, she spoke in front of her biggest audience of 16,5000 in Ottawa, Canada, for an event series called We Day. “Even though I had been out for so long, this was going to be my biggest crowd yet and my school was live steaming it in the lobby,” Murphy explains. “A lot of kids at my school knew, but mostly it was the kids in my grade who had gone to my elementary school, less than 200 people.” After this, her entire high school of 700-or-so kids would know she was HIV positive.
“As I started progressing in high school, I told more people,” she says, but in the beginning, she kept kind of quiet, unsure of how high school kids would react. “I didn’t know if they were going to be mean,” Murphy says. As she made more connections and her friendships developed, she started to tell people. “I’d say, ‘I have something to tell you, I’m HIV positive, I was born with it, if you have any questions let me know.’ And everyone was very positive toward it,” Murphy says.