Chelsea Gulden is a name many Charlotteans and surrounding area professionals and residents are familiar with. More specifically, when her name is mentioned most folks immediately think about RAIN (a Charlotte based organization that empowers persons living with HIV and those at risk to be healthy and stigma free).
This interview will give you a bit of an up close and intimate peak into the life of Gulden, the woman at the helm of this organization. She is after all, more than an ally, she’s Our People. She candidly pointed that out at the very start, “A lot of people know me as an advocate for the LGBT community but although I’ve been in a relationship with a man for a very long time, I identify as bi.”
L’Monique King: How long have you been in Charlotte?
Chelsea Gulden: Oooo, I’ve lived in Charlotte since I was 16. I grew up in New Jersey actually. My dad got a job down here, I went to UNC-Charlotte for college, fell into the work and have been ever since.
LMK: Tell me about the work.
CG: Yes. I’ve been living with HIV in my body for 19 years. I don’t mind if you print my age. I turned 40 this year. I fell into the HIV sphere [the work] shortly after I was diagnosed [with HIV] at 21. I actually found out because I was pregnant. My oldest is 18 and my other two kids are 11 and 12 years old. When I was first diagnosed, the doctor said, “Oh you could live for 20 years.” So next year, I plan to celebrate my forty-first in a big ‘fuck you’ HIV kinda way because I’m still here and I’m still thriving.
LMK: Have you always been in an executive position at RAIN?
CG: No. I am currently the President and CEO at RAIN in Charlotte. I’ve been in this position for two years but I’ve been at RAIN for 12 years and in the field for 18 years.
LMK: If you weren’t living with HIV in your body, do you think you’d be in this field?
CG: I don’t know. I was already in school for Social Work [at the time of my diagnosis] and knew I’d be in a helping profession and have always had the heart for community work and service work. Someone once told me that HIV is the vortex of all social justice issues. So, within this work you see trans phobia, racism and so many isms and phobias showing up in the HIV Intervention and Prevention space.
LMK: You sound impassioned. Do you enjoy your work in HIV Intervention and Prevention?
CG: I love it! I grew up in Jersey and remember going with my church every Friday night to feed the homeless under Brooklyn Bridge. In this work I’m able to continue doing the work of feeding people; with knowledge, services and support.
Early on in the field when I was being trained. I realized that the majority of people who were texting at the time were younger people. I realized at that point that we weren’t reaching younger people. And that’s how the youth program EPY (Empowering Positive Youth) which was actually started at MAP (Metrolina AIDS Project) was started and later brought to RAIN. Youth and HIV, that particular intersection, has always been very close to my heart.
LMK: What does it mean for you to be an ally (if you consider yourself one) and why?
CG: I grew up in an extremely liberal family. My sister, who is nine years older than me, came out when I was in elementary school. It’s always been her and her girlfriend coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. By middle school I had my first relationship with a girl. Today, a lot of people look at me as a woman with children, married to a man and they just make the assumption that I’m straight; when I’m actually bi.
LMK: HIV and advocacy work can be challenging and even draining at times. What’s your self-care go-to?
CG: That’s a great question and something I continue to think about and work on. I honestly don’t do a good job with self-care. I know this and am working on changing it. I like to spend time with my kids, but I honestly get a lot of joy out of the work. When a client calls me and they’re doing well, that really gives me the fuel to smile, feel good about life and to keep going.
LMK: What’s your coping mechanism during difficult times or tough days at work?
CG: A phone call to my sister. This work is multifaceted. So, on tough days, I can call my sister (also in a helping profession) get it off my chest and she tells me about experiences that bond us. I also hug my children, play with them and zone out watching Netflix.
LMK: Do you have a favorite show?
CG: Currently, no favorites, but I just got finished with Handmaid’s Tale last season. (A hulu television series based on the book by Margaret Atwood about life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society – previously the United States – ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state and is faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate). It’s really good and also very scary because a lot of people think it’s so unlikely to happen, like it’s so farfetched, but I believe that current events are so close to moving in that direction that a lot of people need to wake up to that fact.
LMK: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
CG: I do believe ranch dressing, cheese or chocolate goes with just about anything. Anything you put in front of me – one of those three things is probably going to go on it.
LMK: Ranch dressing, cheese and chocolate aside, what is Chelsea doing 10 years from now?
CG: Hopefully looking for another job because we’ve come so far in HIV I’m no longer needed. More realistically, probably continuing the work with an intersectional lens. I’m trying to be very intentional about that. I don’t believe we can make movement in ending the epidemic with just a healthcare lens.
LMK: Someone who has recently been diagnosed with HIV may read this. What would you say to them?
CG: Stigma still exists and it’s everybody’s responsibility to talk about it and teach about it whether you feel like it affects you or not. Sometimes we only look [solely] to the LGBT community to change stigma and that’s where we go wrong. To someone just diagnosed, I would say you’ll have good days and bad days but the good days will outweigh the bad days, so take your time, know this is a journey and we’re here for you.