At the country’s first HIV is Not a Crime conference — a now-annual event that educates, instigate, and trains people to overturn or update outdated criminal statues around HIV — there was a tall redhead that was everywhere. If it had been a prom, she’d have been the queen.
It's not just that 52-year-old Barb Cardell is popular (which she is). It's that she’s a firebrand in this nascent crusade; one burning so bright she's outshining all the other powerful players including politicians, celebrities, AIDS service organizations, healthcare industry leaders, and activists in civil rights, civil liberties, LGBT, and HIV movements. This badass has been pushing for HIV decriminalization legislation in Colorado (where she’s lived in Boulder for decades) and she serves on the board of several national groups.
“Barb is simultaneously a fierce and loving advocate,” says Naina Khanna, executive director, Positive Women's Network-USA and a 2015 Amazing honoree. Just one of the people who nominated Cardell for this year's honor, Khanna has been impressed with Cardell's ability to multi-task. “Within the same afternoon you might find her poring over the details of a policy document, providing testimony at a state-level meeting, strategizing to support women with HIV with disclosure concerns to figure out how they can be more involved in advocacy, and then going to visit a friend in the hospital. Barb fights from her heart, while mentoring others. She's committed to her own growth and development — and she also knows how to throw a great party! Essential attributes of a fabulous advocate. I'm honored to serve beside her in the work of both Positive Women's Network-U.S.A. and the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus, fighting to ensure those living with HIV most impacted by the epidemic are meaningfully involved at the tables where decisions are made about our lives.”
Cardell (pictured here with Bamby Salcedo and other trans activists) was one of the first non-trans allies to join the transgender protest at the U.S. Conference on AIDS last year
Cardell, who has been married for 23 years, credits her husband’s support as one reason she’s able to do this work. “HIV activism is my full time job,” she says. “I am not paid or associated with an organization but my husband and I decided long ago that this is what I could do to make the world a better place. We decided to make do with less in our lives so that I could focus on HIV activism 100 percent. My husband is my biggest supporter and cheerleader.”
A lifelong activist, Cardell was an ally to people living with HIV in the 1980s, long before her own diagnosis. She tested positive in 1993, she recalls, and “started public speaking pretty soon after my diagnosis in my local community.”
That lead to statewide advocacy and in the mid-1990s, Cardell was appointed to the Colorado Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. “I really hit my stride when I joined the Positive Women's Network in 2008,” she says. “This amazing group of women supported my growth, invited me to national groups and networks, and challenged me to always be a better advocate and ally.”
This Rocky Mountain activist is steadfastly committed to the Meaningful Involvement of People Living With HIV, a bedrock of the Denver Principles, which blogger Mark S. King has called a poz person’s “Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence rolled into one.” The Denver Principles were written and delivered by activists living with HIV and AIDS at a gay and lesbian health conference in Cardell’s proverbial back yard in 1983, demanding that people with HIV be treated like people, not victims, and that their voices are included, engaged, and heard.
Today Cardell sees those demands realized in the U.S. PLHIV Caucus engaging with advocates nationally; work she calls “so exciting.” The group is expanding their membership opportunities to encourage and support independent advocates across the United States and partner with networks led by and for people living with HIV across the country.
“We continue to challenge state, local, and national groups that work with people living with HIV, developing positive leaders through the AIDS United Positive Organizing Project technical assistance [fund], and ensuring that people living with HIV are a part of all conversations that impact our lives,” she says.
Back home, she’s made great progress with the Colorado HIV Decriminalization Task Force (dubbed the CO Mod Squad), especially around their partnership with State Senator Pat Steadman. The CO Mod Squad took a concept, drafted a 45-page modernization bill that moves HIV to the sexually transmitted infection codes, got over 120 stakeholders to sign on, spent hundreds of hours of collaborative drafting and editing, and gathered statewide support in part through a series of community forums featuring Cardell and fellow activists and hosted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That bill, SB 146, is in the state Senate now.
“Being involved in the battle to change current laws that specifically target people living with knowledge of HIV in Colorado has been a real labor of love,” says Cardell. “I have loved partnering with our elected officials and champions, the state and local health department, ASOs, and especially the community of people living with HIV — and those who ally to join in the struggle.”
This tireless activist admits that “it has been difficult hearing ongoing ignorant and stigmatizing comments, but I have grown a thicker skin and educate offline when possible. I have great hopes that we will be successful modernizing our STI statutes to reflect scientific advances and support public health partnerships as well [as] repealing laws that target people living with HIV.”
With Cardell — who also is fur mom to The Yeti, one of the service dogs she and her husband have trained, and godmother to numerous children of family and friends she’s “adopted as our own, who bring us great joy” — at the helm in Colorado, many watchers expect HIV criminalization in the state to the go the way of marijuana criminalization. When that happens, don’t expect Cardell to rest on her laurels; not as long as HIV-positive people continue to be stigmatized simply for living with the virus. She’ll continue making sure those people, her people, get heard.
“We are amplifying the voice of people living with HIV,” she says, with that signature wide smile. “Nothing about us without us!”