Strub pens memoir
by Matthew S. Bajko
Sean Strub, the founder of Poz magazine, occupied a unique perch that bisected political circles, gay high society, and activist groups throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America.
He has documented how his personal and professional spheres interconnected as he moved from the Midwest to first Washington, D.C. and later New York and rural Pennsylvania in his fascinating new memoir Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival (Scribner, January 2014).
"About three years ago I seriously began working on the book. I had actually resisted writing this kind of thing about the epidemic," Strub, 55, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview ahead of his visit to the Bay Area next week to promote the book.
He changed his mind after being interviewed by a New York Times reporter about his life – Strub was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 – for a story about long-term survival with the virus.
"That history is not well documented and certainly isn't well known," said Strub, who with his partner, Xavier Morales, splits his time between New York and the couple's home in Milford, Pennsylvania. "That was when I started feeling more of a need and urgency to write all this."
The Iowa native details how, early in his youth, he discovered a love for politics and landed himself a job working a Senate elevator in the U.S. Capitol during his freshman year at Georgetown. He recounts being invited to a dinner party one night where he befriended the gay playwright Tennessee Williams and later enlisted his help for the first fundraising appeal on behalf of the newly formed Human Rights Campaign Fund.
His entrée to a political career came from Alan Baron, whose insidery newsletter The Baron Reporter was the must-read publication of its day. From another mentor, Roger Craver, Strub quickly learned he had a knack for direct-marketing and fundraising appeals.
By 1979 he had moved to Manhattan to enroll at Columbia and began frequenting gay bars, bathhouses, and sex clubs, something he avoided doing while in Washington, D.C. For him and many of his young gay friends, "bathhouses were an important part of life," he writes.
The sexual mores adopted by many gay men as a sign of sexual liberation, however, "created the perfect storm" for HIV to spread so rapidly, writes Strub. "The lack of knowledge about gay men's sexual health and access to health care that respected gay sexuality compounded the problem."
Strub became active with the New York Political Action Committee, hung out at the offices of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, and befriended the doormen of famed dance club Studio 54 to gain free admission.
In October 1980 he ended up in the hospital due to contracting hepatitis B and swelling in his lymph nodes. Bedridden for months, he only realized years later that his ailments in his glands likely signaled he had contracted HIV.
Later that year he happened to walk by the Dakota apartment building shortly after John Lennon was shot and witnessed his being put into a squad car. Numerous news outlets quoted his first-hand account of the scene.
In 1985 he and Todd Collins opened their own firm to provide fundraising and marketing assistance to groups pushing progressive causes, including AIDS and LGBT issues. As more and more friends and acquaintances died of AIDS, and he dealt with his own health issues, Strub became more involved in AIDS activism, participating in ACT UP/New York demonstrations.
"I really believed my involvement in ACT UP was critical to saving my life," said Strub in the interview.
But he also now believes the group's push to have the federal government expedite the approval of HIV drugs before they were fully vetted had unintended outcomes.
"We felt we had a right to take that risk and experiment with them even if they were two years away from approval," Strub said. "It made perfect sense then and makes perfect sense now. However, the way we went about and did that, changing the regulatory policies, I don't think we understood we were doing the pharmaceutical industries' desire for deregulating work."
In 1990 he unsuccessfully ran for a congressional seat in upstate New York. Some years prior Strub and his partner, Michael Misove, who died due to AIDS, had moved to the small town of Piermont.
Later he produced his friend David Drake's one-man off-Broadway show The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me . In 1994 he released the first issue of Poz and oversaw the chronicling of the AIDS epidemic from the perspective of people living with HIV.
While his chronicling his own fight against HIV won plaudits, the magazine's coverage also caused controversy, whether on bare-backing sexual practices or detailing the side effects of AIDS drugs.
A decade after its launch, Strub sold off the groundbreaking magazine to several staffers. His most recent efforts have focused on the issue of HIV criminalization as executive director of the Sero Project.
Questions health officials
He is critical of the lack of attention national LGBT groups and the community at large has paid toward HIV in recent years. And he questions the validity of the latest mantra from health officials who embrace a "test and treat" approach to HIV prevention.
"It is more like treating it chemically rather than addressing the underlying conditions that lead people to engage in behaviors that put them at risk," said Strub.
San Francisco has been in the vanguard of moving resources toward testing people for HIV and encouraging those who test positive to start taking medications. But Strub worries people are not fully informed about what opting for early treatment entails.
"These drugs are not benign," he said. "In the absence of scientific evidence, the idea of putting people on treatment with high CD4 cell counts is very concerning to me."
He has similar concerns about encouraging negative men to take a pill-a-day, known as PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis, to help prevent the transmission of HIV. He doubts recent news coverage that the lack of usage of PrEP by gay men is due to doctors unwilling to prescribe it.
"I think the squeamishness of doctors has been overstated and the limited desire on gay men's part has been under-recognized," he said, adding that his "concern on PrEP is the broader shift to biomedical prevention. There is an over emphasis on it over other prevention strategies."
He remains convinced the best prevention strategies are those community members design themselves.
"What is effective for gay men living in the Castro is different for gay men living in the closet in rural Louisiana," he said.
His advice for the best step a person living with HIV should take, said Strub, is "more than anything else, connect with other people who have HIV."
Strub has a number of events planned in the Bay Area next week. Wednesday, January 29 at 7:30 p.m. he will be reading from and signing copies of his book at the Books Inc. Castro location at 2275 Market Street.
Thursday, January 30 at 7 p.m. he will be at the Bookshop Santa Cruz at 1520 Pacific Avenue.
Friday, January 31 at noon he will speak before the Luncheon Society at Fior d'Italia, 2237 Mason Street, San Francisco. To RSVP email mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
That night at 7 p.m. he will take part in a Q&A session at an event hosted by Let's Kick ASS, which stands for AIDS Survivor Syndrome. It takes placeat the San Francisco LGBT Community Center at 1800 Market Street.