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BOOKS HIV/AIDS activist Sean Strub talks 'Body Counts'
Book review, event dates below
by Frank Pizzoli
2014-01-15

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Sean Strub has lived at the crossroads of the LGBT Movement and the AIDS Epidemic most of his life. One easily finds his influence in many seminal events of the two overlapping spheres. From the first serious financial solicitation by the Human Rights Campaign—he talked Tennessee Williams into signing the organization's letter to donors—to the founding of POZ magazine, his hand has moved the levers of change.

In his Body Counts: a Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival ( Scribner, out Jan. 14 ), Strub tells all, not as juicy tales at the expense of the players but as honest vignettes of human frailty and success, of human comedies and haunting dramas. In an email about his book, he wrote, "honesty is what I hope this book will spark a discussion about..."

In all, this is not your father's history of turbulent years when gay men dropped like flies from AIDS. No revisions but also no regrets. For a glimpse of Strub's perspectives today, see vimeo.com/75181260 and Strub's blog, www.seanstrub.com/blog.

Strub talked with Windy City Times about writing a memoir of his life, especially the AIDS years in New York City, a period not yet well covered.

Windy City Times: Your memoir opens—both prologue and first chapter—on a note of fear. Yet fear never takes a front seat throughout the whole manuscript. How did you, your friends and colleagues, summon the strength to fight back?

Sean Strub: The most profound moment of fear shedding was when I came out of the closet. Even with everything that has happened in my life, before or since, that was pivotal and afterward, nothing ever was quite so frightening.

Even the fear of death was not all controlling and pervasive in nearly my every thought as was fear of exposure as a gay man before I came out. Resilience in the face of fear of AIDS itself, or death, or the suffering and deaths of friends, came from the community we built with each other. We fought back by becoming close, sharing the pain and working in concert to combat it.

WCT: In piecing together this history, especially the New York City AIDS history not yet well documented, do any memories strike you as different upon reflection?

Sean Strub: In the early '80s I didn't understand how the gay and lesbian movement's leadership in New York was primarily responding to the epidemic through a political prism, as opposed to what little was known about the science.

The earliest efforts often involved disassociating AIDS from gay male hypersexuality, bathhouses, backrooms, etc., that so greatly expanded in the post-Stonewall years. We tried to convince each other that it "was just a coincidence" that the epidemic "hit gay men first" when that was obviously not true. We were engaging in behaviors that weakened the immune systems of many of us, making us vulnerable to infection and disease, and rapidly facilitated its transmission.

This isn't judgment, this is science, but we couldn't separate the two. I think that is also why we were so eager to make AIDS "an equal opportunity disease" to use a phrase common at the time, which resulted in us greatly exaggerating the risk of heterosexual transmission.

Having said the above, it is important to understand the context and the degree to which we were under attack. By the time the epidemic hit, we had lost the gay movement's major legislative accomplishments to date, namely the non-discrimination ordinances in Miami, St. Paul, and elsewhere that were repealed in the late '70s. One of our few contemporary living icons, Harvey Milk, was brutally assassinated in 1978. Milk's killer had just been let off with the lightest sentence in 1979. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority hit primetime in 1980, playing a key role in electing the reactionary Ronald Reagan. Two weeks after Reagan's election a mentally ill man with an automatic weapon, homophobically ranting, shot up the Ramrod Bar in New York, injuring and killing a number of patrons.

Of course, the politics colored our community leadership's perspective, but in retrospect they paid too little attention to the science or the reality of how our behaviors facilitated transmission. Truth tellers like Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz were ignored or ridiculed.

WCT: In the next to last chapter, you note longtime friend John Berendt ( Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ), guided you from your darker days into a life not centered around AIDS. After the tick-tock of all the experiences in your book, was it difficult to leave behind such stunningly emotional days?

Sean Strub: While the late '80s and early '90s were painful and with loss beyond description, and by the mid '90s I came very close to death, for me personally the darkest days were later, after I began to recover. Depression ultimately was more invasive in my life, and more of a threat to survival, than HIV ever was, strange as that may sound. While my Kaposi's sarcoma lesions ( KS was a common cancer afflicting gay men prior to combination HIV therapy ) cleared up within a couple of years, I gained weight and my CD4 count rose, my life had been turned upside down after having lived it for so many years with a background expectation that I may not survive. Relationships changed dramatically, I was bereft, missing friends and uncertain what to do with my life.

My friendship with John was like a lifeboat thrown my way and it came just in time. John, like all of us, was profoundly affected by the epidemic, but he doesn't have HIV and went through those worst years from the other side of the experience, including having to help his best friend end his own life. But his life wasn't defined by it as mine was and he had interests and friends and an interesting and exciting life into which he welcomed my participation and friendship, while always respecting what I and so many of us had gone through.

WCT: With such high infection rates in the United States and worldwide among younger gay/bi men, what do you think needs to happen in order for infection rates to subside?

Sean Strub: Prevention funding has to be dedicated to the communities most at risk. Prevention messaging must be honest, useful and straightforward, not shame-based. We need to respect the anus as a sex organ with the same respect given the vagina or penis and address the epidemic through a human-rights lens, which means various injustices and inequities must be fought in concert with the virus.

Domestically, our prevention funding is disproportionately spent everywhere except on young gay men who have sex with men. Abstinence-only sex education has replaced even the nominal sex education that was credible in years past, especially in communities of color. Emergency interventions, like post-exposure prophylaxis ( PEP ), are available to healthcare workers who get a needle stick or occupational exposure, but not widely known or available to gay men ( or others ) when a condom breaks or they do something that they realize put themselves at risk.

And domestically, too, it is difficult to address the epidemic in any community in isolation, apart from the racism, homophobia, poverty, addiction and other structural and legal barriers that facilitate transmission. The rise of criminalization is an enormous driver of stigma and discourages HIV testing, when we know that people with HIV who know it because they got tested are vastly less likely to transmit than those with HIV who don't know they have it because they haven't been tested. We punish the responsible behavior ( getting tested ) and privilege the irresponsible behavior ( not knowing your status ) creating precisely the wrong incentives.

WCT: In spite of being drained by your intense AIDS experiences, you have re-entered the fray with Sero Project which focuses on HIV Criminalization. What energized you to jump back into the fight?

Sean Strub: I think that the ACT UP-ification of AIDS activism in the early 90s supplanted the earlier empowerment movement which was more radical, as it espoused a do-it-yourself approach as opposed to ACT UP's focus on manipulating the levers of power. We need both and I am convinced that ACT UP, and my participation in ACT UP, saved my life because of how it expedited treatment approval.

However, in the process, "AIDS activism" seemed to become nearly synonymous with treatment activism, of the sort led by Treatment Action Group, the ACT UP offshoot. As a consequence, the human rights approach to the epidemic, fighting for confidentiality, against mandatory testing, treatment literacy as opposed to just access to treatment, promoting the empowerment of people with HIV through the creation of People with AIDS associations, combating stigma through the people who were stigmatized, got somewhat lost or derailed.

Empowerment versus treatment advances became greatly exacerbated after protease inhibitors were introduced. It became more widely understood that many, most now nearly all of us were going to live with HIV for years to come, rather than were standing on the precipice of an impending, horrific death.

So instead of seeing us as the walking dead, the criminal justice system and the public health system began to see us increasingly through the prism of our potential to infect others, as viral vectors, defining us as inherently dangerous to society.

But we had lost the infrastructure to combat this, AIDS Inc., wasn't particularly interested in combating it, many of our most effective activists were now on the inside, promoting things like names reporting and "routinizing" testing, etc., so it felt like we needed to start from scratch.

Criminalization is only the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon. Ironically, the people who continued with ACT UP after many had left the group when survival became possible have been some of the strongest supporters and participants in this new wave of empowered activism by people with HIV.

WCT: Is how we frame our history important?

Sean Strub: There are fewer and fewer people alive who can speak first-hand to what happened in those early days. Enough time has passed from the worst of the dying in the U.S. to enable people to look back with some perspective. We are seeing this happen now, with books and films and oral histories all of which I welcome. But history itself can become a commodity, created and to some degree owned by those who tell it. Someone has to be the memory—particularly of history unlikely to be documented by the mainstream. But I am conscious of the risk of romanticizing activism, of not adequately understanding the degree of self-interest inherent in the activism of so many of us. We must all be willing to look at ourselves critically.

We have been so in touch with the failings of the Reagan administration, Koch administration, pharmaceutical industry, and Congress, government regulators, but we need to turn just as critical an eye on ourselves, on our own leadership.

We need to understand why we did—for good or bad—what we did. I think that is critical if we are to effectively address the epidemic today, in a better way than we may have in the past. That's what I hope I have contributed to, just a bit, with Body Counts. Now Frank, when are you going to tell YOUR story?

Details for Sean Strub's upcoming events in Chicago, IL.

Wednesday, March 12

2:00 PM — 3:30 PM Center on Halsted

3656 N. Halsted

Chicago, IL 60613

Event: HIV Today: A Discussion with Sean Strub, author of Body Counts

Reading/Signing

Wednesday, March 12

6:30 PM — 8:30 PM Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN)

5050 N. Broadway

Chicago, IL 60640

Event: Body Counts: An Evening with Sean Strub

Reading/Q&A

Review

Sean Strub's memoir opens on a note of fear and trembling.

And that's the last time fear takes a front seat in Body Counts: a Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival. His 401-page hardcover book depicts incredible acts of courage by Strub and his constellation of collaborators.

Against thick walls of institutional homophobia and shrieking AIDS hysteria, they forged battles that shaped seminal moments in AIDS history—a condom over then-Sen. Jesse Helms two-story brick Colonial house in suburban Washington and countless other iconic memories of unbridled activism that inspired others around the world.

With NYC AIDS and gay activism a driving force nationwide, along with San Francisco AIDS and gay activism, Strub's close up portrayals of events and people are an insider's telescope for those alive then and younger readers who want an insider's view.

There is no doubt the book will rightfully take its place. A Librarian quote on Edelweiss ( multi-publisher online catalog for librarians ), says readers will "love, be enraged by, and in the end, be educated by" his memoir. The reviewer calls Body Count "Honest and raw" underscoring that he "has written today's version of Randy Shilts And the Band Played On." One of Paul Monette's closest friends, actor-activist Judith Light compared Body Counts to Monette's Borrowed Time.

Body Count fills in nicely between Shilts' historical account and Monette's intensely personal elegiac memoir. Strub's book is definitely memoir, but reads like a gripping right-with-them history, especially around the New York City AIDS epidemic, which hasn't yet been well documented. Gloria Steinem said," Strub gives us ideas, strength and heart in our own journey."

Still at it, he is indefatigable, Strub remains on the cutting edge of activism. His recently founded Sero Project's mission is to bring HIV laws, nationally and in states, up to current science. seroproject.com .


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