POZ magazine founder Sean Strub in North Texas this weekend
Sean Strub has been telling the stories of people with HIV and AIDS since early in the epidemic.
“If we’re not telling those stories — those of us who were there — they’ll be told by others with agendas,” he said.
Strub was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 when the first test for antibodies to the virus was released. But he’d been suffering weight loss, persistently swollen lymph glands and night sweats since the beginning of the epidemic.
He began publishing POZ magazine in 1994 and sold his interest in 2004 when the magazine needed a cash infusion.
“In the mainstream media, AIDS was described as fatal with no survivors,” he said. “Any possibility for survival had been taken away from us.”
He said he started POZ to bring a positive message of hope, highlight research and treatment and tell stories of survivors like himself.
In his new book Body Counts: A Memoir of Sex, AIDS and Survival, Strub talks about his own battle with the disease and his involvement with ACT-UP and a number of celebrities involved in the fight along the way.
In describing his encounter with Tennessee Williams, Strub said he confused the playwright with singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. Despite the mythical image the playwright had, Strub describes the evening as quite normal: Williams invited him over to his Key West home and said they’d figure out what they’d do that evening once he got there.
In New York and Washington, ACT-UP had a reputation for being extremely militant. While Dallas had an active chapter that forced changes in the county and at Parkland Hospital, members of the group always said they did ACT-UP “the Dallas way.”
Strub’s account indicates maybe Dallas didn’t do it so differently. In 1987, Strub said he was arrested for civil disobedience for the first time. At a demonstration outside the Reagan White House, police donned long yellow gloves.
ACT-UP responded with a typical gay sense of humor, chanting, “Your gloves don’t match your shoes. You’ll see it on the news.”
Strub said he probably couldn’t have written this account much sooner than he did. He compared survivors of the AIDS epidemic to Holocaust survivors.
As survivors of the Holocaust began rebuilding their lives, they rarely talked about their experiences for the first decade or two after their release from concentration camps. Once they did begin telling their stories and building museums to house artifacts, they looked at it with a sense of history.
“Enough time has passed” to write this book, Strub said.
He said it’s important to honor those who were lost to AIDS. At the time, survivors didn’t have time to grieve as they went from one friend’s funeral to another friend’s bedside.
But Strub said he tells stories from the AIDS crisis without assigning blame.
“We just have an obligation to share,” he said. “History is important.”
He noted the generational divide. Telling younger people, “I lost all of my friends” is not effective in HIV prevention work.
“They don’t want to hear grandpa’s war stories,” he said.
Strub said six or seven years ago, he started getting re-engaged with the fight against AIDS with a focus on empowerment and stigma.
“The stigma is worse than ever,” he said.
In the early days of the AIDS crisis, the lesbian community rallied around the gay men who were dying of the disease. Today, Strub said, there’s marginalization and prejudgment within the LGBT community that is even being enshrined in laws criminalizing passing HIV to another person.
Strub will be in North Texas this weekend to talk about his new book, and promises to keep it light, talking more about his encounters with celebrities than his work empowering people living with HIV by reducing stigma.
Strub speaks at 7 p.m. on Aug. 21 at Arlington Museum of Art Rooftop Gallery, 201 West Main St., Arlington in a benefit for AIDS Outreach Center. A $75 donation is requested.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 15, 2014.