Talks with Press Pass Q about “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival”
by Chuck Colbert
The AIDS epidemic is not over for the LGBT community, even as AIDS activism and media coverage have waned. That point, a pressing matter for POZ magazine founder Sean Strub, is just one thread in the narrative of his new book, “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival,” recently released by Scribner.
Already, reviewers are comparing the book to Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” and Paul Monette’s “Borrowed Time,” two classics chronicling the epidemic.
As a recent gay-press review puts it: “‘Body Counts’ fills in nicely between Shilts’ historical account and Monette’s intensely personal elegiac memoir,” wrote reviewer Frank Pizzoli. “Strub’s book is definitely memoir, but reads like a gripping right-with-them history, especially around the New York City epidemic, which hasn’t yet been well-documented.”
Another review points to the new book’s importance.
“In the end,” writes Michael Bronski for the San Francisco Chronicle, “‘Body Counts’ presents us with an insider’s view of American political life that is almost inevitably left out of the history books, and even more alarming, absent from recent historical memory. More importantly, it forcefully reminds us of the impact an individual can make in changing the world around him.”
During a recent hour-long interview with Press Pass Q, Strub spoke of the epidemic, his activism and motivation in writing “Body Counts,” as well as where he sees the LGBT community at this point in the battle.
“I resisted writing it for a long time and am not entirely sure why,” he said over the telephone. “There’s a part of me, when my health came back, that didn’t want to be defined by the epidemic. I did other things and got back into historic preservation, which I enjoyed.
“And then I started to feel more of an obligation to witness and share what I saw, participated in and learned, as well as remember a lot of friends, people who are not able to tell their stories. The realization dawned on me that as time passes, there are fewer and fewer persons who were there and can speak about what happened firsthand. If someone like me is not telling the story, then who’s going to tell it?”
“Body Counts” is indeed a tell-all memoir, both confessional and historical, spanning nearly four decades from 1976 — when Strub, an Iowa native, arrived in Washington, D.C., with political ambitions — to present times living in New York City and Milford, Penn., where he lives with partner Xavier Morales. They co-own the historic Hotel Fauchère and are active in historic preservation.
Counting bodies along the way, Strub details the ultra-closeted world of powerful gay men in the nation’s capital in the 1970s to his three decades in Manhattan hobnobbing with the rich and famous straights as well as their A-gay muckety-muck counterparts. From Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal to Yoko Ono to Andy Warhol, “Body Counts” is full of anecdotes and stories that vividly recreate the excitement and earnest ambition that transformed a closeted Midwestern Irish Catholic youth into a proud and out gay man, a successful entrepreneur and an outspoken AIDS activist, locally in New York City and nationwide.
Strub makes clear that reading gay media, the Washington Blade and now-defunct New York Native in particular, helped inform his developing political consciousness — decidedly liberal to progressive from the beginning — and ultimately his coming out of the closet.
|Author Sean Strub
On one level, “Body Counts” is a survivor’s tale. In one chapter, Strub describes being sexually abused while attending a Wisconsin-based Jesuit boarding school.
“The sex abuse has been far more defining and disruptive in my life than has been HIV, and to some extent, I think the experience of having been abused led me to engage in behaviors that put me at vastly greater risk of acquiring HIV,” he said.
Thanks to protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s, Strub has survived the epidemic long enough to bare witness in “Body Counts” to his near-deathbed experience and subsequent Lazarus-like recovery.
After attending Georgetown and Columbia, Strub, now 55, ran campaigns and pioneered direct-mail fundraising for progressive causes, most notably Democratic campaigns, LGBT and AIDS organizations, including National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), Human Rights Campaign, America Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP and many others.
In 1985, however, Strub tested positive for HIV. It changed his life forever as it did for so many other gay men among the baby-boomer generation. But instead of stopping him, his diagnosis spurred him to run for the U.S. Congress in 1990; he didn’t win, but he was the first openly HIV-identified candidate for federal office. Two years later, he produced the landmark play, “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” and then, in 1994, he founded POZ magazine, a leading publication focusing on the real-life experiences of people living with HIV.
Personal storytelling is one thing. For gay America, another key message in “Body Counts,” said Strub, is “knowing our history.”
“If we don’t share our history, nobody is going to do it for us,” he said. “Others are not going to do it accurately as we move forward.”
In going forward, Strub explained, it’s important to “understand how very little concern the institutions of power, whether institutions of government, private sector, or the church, have regarding the care and welfare of LGBT people and how critical it is for us to speak up for ourselves.”
And referring to HIV treatment controversies, he points out, “Even when people in positions of power act in ways they believe are responsible, with every best wish, they can still be wrong, which we’ve had to learn the hard way.”
Strub said he hopes “Body Counts” will underscore “how important skepticism is in understanding the political, cultural, economic and environmental influences on medical advice and choices presented to us. I know that if I had done what medical experts advised at the time, I wouldn’t be here today.”
For example, “So many things presented as conventional wisdom in this epidemic later turned out to have been wrong. We have a for-profit-driven drug development system. Its priority is profit, not your health and no one should ever forget that fact.”
Here he is drawing on insights from the women’s movement, specifically the 1971 feminist classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and feminist wisdom encapsulated in the phrase, “the personal is political.” And in the case of HIV/AIDS, the personal is also medical.
Regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where are we in the gay male, or within the men who have sex with men (MSM) community?
“The excitement over biomedical advances — particularly the use of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP) and ‘treatment as prevention’ strategies — has kind of drowned out and facilitated an abandonment of or less emphasis on the human rights approaches to the epidemic,” said Strub. “Unfortunately, we are never going to solve the epidemic unless we have both.”
By human-rights approach, Strub was referring to a host of issues intertwined with the epidemic, namely stigma, poverty, racism, sexism, addiction and mental health issues, housing and HIV criminalization.
Those issues, he said, must be addressed “in all their complexity, their intertwined complexity” because “we are not going to treat our way out of the epidemic; the ultimate solution isn’t as easy as a pill or a shot.”
Of course, social location in the HIV/AIDS epidemic is vastly different for younger gay men, especially MSM of color. “It’s like 1981 all over,” Strub said, referring to their sero-conversion rates, which he termed “astonishing, quite frankly.”
In fact last year in Atlanta, during the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference, a Center for Disease Control official assigned to the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy told a gathering of activists that if current trends continue, 20-year-old MSMs are expected to face a 50 percent infection rate within 30 years — and a whopping 70 percent for black MSM.
“Those numbers double the highest prevalence estimates during the height of the epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s,” wrote Todd Heywood for Michigan-based Between the Lines, an LGBT weekly publication.
Just as Strub criticizes governmental and societal indifference to HIV/AIDS, he calls out the gay community regarding HIV transmission among LGBT youth and people of color.
“We need to take some responsibility for that, significant responsibility,” he said, “because when combination therapy came out, over the next several years the gay community largely left this epidemic, even though the epidemic hadn’t left us.
“LGBT groups and much of our community’s national leadership abandoned the epidemic and turned their attention and resources elsewhere, like to marriage equality and repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said. “On issues concerning HIV-related stigma, criminalization, confidentiality and patient autonomy in particular, they became almost entirely absent or even went to the wrong side of the issue.”
Although Strub sold POZ magazine 10 years ago, his AIDS activism and concerns about HIV-related stigma continue. He still serves as an advisory editor and blogs for the publication, and from time to time suggests ideas for stories.
Since 2012, moreover, Strub has served as executive director of the SERO Project, “a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice,” according to its web site, www.seroproject.com.
SERO Project’s focus is on halting the inappropriate use of one’s HIV status in criminal prosecutions, including those for so-called “HIV crimes,” like spitting or non-disclosure.
“HIV criminalization is the most extreme manifestation of stigma, when government enshrines it in the law and it is contributing to the spread of HIV because of how much it drives stigma and discourages testing,” said Strub. “You can’t be prosecuted if you don’t get tested.
“In terms of SERO, we describe HIV criminalization as the inappropriate use of one’s HIV status in a criminal prosecution. Sometimes that is because of HIV-specific criminal statutes — mandating disclosure before sex or donating blood — but other times people are charged under regular criminal statutes, but because they have HIV, face more serious charges or penalties.
“While about two-thirds of the states have HIV-specific statutes, geography is no protection. Texas and New York don’t have HIV-specific statutes, but Willy Campbell is serving 35 years in Texas for spitting at a cop and David Plunkett was just released from a New York prison after serving six years for spitting.
“Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law that specifically mandates disclosure, but just [recently] they charged a woman with a felony for failing to disclose — despite how rare it is for a woman to transmit HIV to a man, without any consideration for the treatment she was on that made it virtually impossible, if not impossible, for her to transmit. HIV transmission is rarely a circumstance in these cases.”
Asked about the role of gay media vis-à-vis AIDS/HIV coverage, Strub said LGBT outlets “have an enormous role in telling our history and correcting the record.”
A recent incident, he noted, was in December when amfAR’s board chair, shoe designer Kenneth Cole, asserted on national television that 25 years ago, the gay community was “afraid to speak up” about AIDS.
Strub took the fashion mogul to task, calling that assertion “a fabrication that is an insult to an entire community.” Bloggers such as Mark King and Michael Petrelis, as well as the Windy City Times and other outlets, then took up the criticism.
Still, Strub said, “One issue for gay media is that because HIV treatment and prevention science has become so specialized,” many LGBT outlets “don’t have the resources” or expertise for a full-time AIDS/HIV beat reporter, diminishing the volume and sophistication of the coverage.
His advice to LGBT media when it comes to reporting about the HIV epidemic: “Dig deeper into original sources,” avoid “just responding to press releases from organizations,” and “never write a story that doesn’t include the perspective and reaction from people with HIV themselves.”