America is in the midst of a small, building cultural awakening when it comes to the AIDS epidemic. More than three decades into one of humankind’s deadliest sexually transmitted diseases, there have been relatively few books and films addressing firsthand the early years of the AIDS crisis. Until recently, the average person might have cited Philadelphia and the play Angels in America. Sean Strub’s Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is a serious and eloquent addition to this recent burst of cultural production.
Diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, Strub—activist, entrepreneur and founder of POZ magazine—reveals in Body Counts his own privileges of access, race and money as he weaves together vignettes that include heady ACT UP protests, visceral moments of personal loss, community infighting over prevention tactics and anecdotes dotted with bold-faced names like Keith Haring and Vito Russo. The memoir is meant to serve as a “corrective to history,” according to Strub. We would be foolish to forget the lessons of that history—when an entire community mobilized its disparate elements (men and women, black and white, poor and wealthy, out and closeted) in a fight for its existence—as HIV infection rates climb amongst a new generation of gay men.
“There’s very little broadly understood about the earliest days of the epidemic. As I’ve survived longer, I’ve felt more of a compulsion to bear witness,” says Strub. “There are fewer and fewer people alive who were there who can speak firsthand as to what it was like.”
Much of this material, personal and fraught with emotion, may be cathartic for those who lived through these years and uncharted territory for many who are too young to recall them. While delving into the willful neglect of politicians like Reagan and Koch, cloying bureaucracy at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Health and inept pharmaceutical companies, Strub doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the LGBT community’s response to the epidemic. “I try to provide some fresh perspective, not to blame anyone but to understand,” he says. “You cannot separate the gay community’s response to the epidemic from the broader culture’s response to gay people, particularly gay men.”
Bearing witness to these years also means revealing intimate details about his own status as a long-term survivor—POZ began to regularly publish his blood work in the magazine—as well as his experiences with sexual abuse and coming to terms with his sexuality. “It was difficult but it also was healing. The more I wrote about it and understood it, the easier it became to share the detail of it,” says Strub. “These are stories that I hear again and again, and people with HIV are far more likely to have experienced sexual abuse when they were children and various kinds of partner violence. I wouldn’t be what I am right now without some of those experiences, negative and positive.”
With studies showing HIV infection rates unchanged from where they were a decade ago or rising amongst younger gay men, clearly some lessons from those early years have not been learned. As Strub chronicles, the first few years were filled with disagreements over prevention between the gay leadership and the people on the ground at the grassroots level. Shortly after the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, two men named Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz put out what was then a ground-breaking, honest pamphlet titled “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.” Filled with practical and rational information about why certain behaviors were more risky and strategies for keeping yourself and your partners safe, the pamphlet rejected the more politically correct messaging—that AIDS had nothing to do with gay male sexual culture—which was being embraced by many gay leaders.
“We ended up supporting what was basically a lie: It was not an epidemic that could just as easily have hit housewives in Westchester,” says Strub. “It wasn’t a coincidence that it happened in the gay community. We had created a sexual ecology that was exclusively efficient at transmitting pathogens.”
Rather than a more focused prevention message targeting certain types of riskier sex, a more generic “use a condom every time” message was embraced by the mainstream—in Strub’s mind, to the detriment of many. Even today, the New York City Department of Health still recommends using a condom for oral sex, failing to make a distinction in risk.
In his last column for POZ, Strub wrote words that seem just as applicable in today’s marriage-equality atmosphere as back then:
…We searched for truth and campaigned for justice. We learned that it all starts in our own hearts, in how we live our lives and treat others. No amount of activism will change the world until enough of us change ourselves.
“It’s been a cathartic process, but it’s really satisfying when people understand this and read it and see that so many of the things we did in the early days of the epidemic made sense,” says Strub. “We just need to go back to doing them.”
Christopher Carbone is a writer living in New York City. He has also written for Slate and The Nation. Follow him on Twitter.