Recollections from a time when everybody counted.
by Rich Arenschieldt
Photo by Greg Gorman
This past year has had a notable number of LGBT-oriented “retrospectives,” chief among them, David France’s brutally tearful film How to Survive a Plague, and now, activist/author Sean Strub’s literary companion work, Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival. Each focuses on the decades that helped to shape the worldview of gays in America. How to Survive a Plague chronicles the genesis of a national movement, and Strub’s book tells the story of an activist who helped foment it.
Many will know Strub from his long tenure as the firebrand publisher of POZ Magazine (currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, along with OutSmart). However, Strub’s multifaceted career has encompassed politics, historic preservation, nonprofit management, and criminal justice work.
Strub grew up in rural Iowa and was educated in Washington DC and New York City. He and his partner have made their home in rural Pennsylvania (complete with dogs, a henhouse, and various other waterfowl) in the metropolis of Milford–—population 1,021. Strub’s life has indeed taken a decidedly bucolic turn.
This pastoral setting has provided a much-needed opportunity for retrospection; his own life has finally caught up with him. “I was initially hesitant about writing this book,” Strub says. “About five years ago I was talking to someone, trying to convey what those years were like. This well-informed person just couldn’t comprehend the immensity of what had occurred—what those who had survived endured. I was lamenting that our history was being lost and that there were only a few people alive with firsthand experience of what had taken place. Frustrated at our conversation, I blurted out, ‘Somebody has to be the memory!’ I suddenly realized that I was part of that collective consciousness.”
Strub’s literary style is fiercely unapologetic, casting himself and those within his sphere in an unflinching light. He writes in a manner that is conversational but imbued with an urgency of purpose. “The book ended up being more intimate than I had intended.” Strub says.
Strub’s political career began with an appointment as a page in the Iowa State House, where, as a high school student, he began to discern the interpersonal dynamics of political power.
He simultaneously attended Georgetown University, interned for a senator, and worked as an elevator operator in the U.S. Capitol building. All of these activities gave Strub access to Washington’s political elite, some of whom were closeted homosexuals. “I’ve had a lifelong fascination with politics. I quickly learned that the closer you were to elected officials, the more exciting life was. That proximity also provided validation of my own self-worth at a time when I was (admittedly) more ambitious than purposeful.” Although his studies suffered, Strub regrets nothing. “Working in the Capitol building garnered me an education that was far more interesting and valuable than any I would have received at a university.”
Eventually, Strub found Washington’s closeted climate too restrictive, and in the late ’70s he moved to New York City to attend Columbia—just as HIV was manifesting itself in gay men. “I came out just seven years after Stonewall, and, like many men, for me personal liberation was synonymous with sexual freedom—what had previously been denied to us was now readily available via bars and bathhouses. It was a redaction of oppression.” Throughout Body Counts, Strub discusses the frequency of his sexual activity with complete candor.
With Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the national response to HIV was nonexistent. “As gay men, we expected nothing from the federal government. We knew how the establishment viewed us. Besides, no one thought we would live long enough to witness any substantive institutional change. As a result, the community developed an internally focused ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to address its needs.”
The activism paradigm quickly shifted when the first treatment for HIV became available. “The same week AZT was approved, ACT-UP was created, which, in its simplest form was a concentrated distillation of a widespread pervasive anger and frustration. Suddenly we became externally focused, targeting institutions of power, media, government, regulatory agencies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Our collective indignation was fueled by the fact that (at that time) our gender and skin color gave us automatic privilege. We, as educated, prosperous white men, were shocked at experiencing blatant, systemic discrimination.”
Strub was running a successful for-profit enterprise while simultaneously raising funds to support gay organizations, something he discusses at length. “Encountering people with power and influence always represented opportunity to me. If I could utilize them to advance social justice or gay rights issues, I would do so.” Strub details meeting political, literary, and artistic giants, convincing each of them to support his nonprofit work in some way. “Being an entrepreneur and an activist was not always enviable. I had rejected the idea that those two endeavors were mutually exclusive, believing that you could accomplish good while doing well. Often, conflict arose between business decisions I had to make and goals I needed to achieve for activism; key players in that arena sometimes mistrusted my motives.”
Strub chronicles his most controversial and riskiest endeavor, the creation of POZ Magazine, something birthed at great personal and financial cost. (Strub viaticated his life insurance and sold his house to raise the needed capital.) When the inaugural issue came out, Strub, weakened by his efforts to bring the magazine to life, was ill with pneumonia. “No one thought that I was making a good business decision—what kind of market would there be for a readership consisting solely of terminally ill men?”
From the onset, the magazine eschewed conventional wisdom in every respect—journalistically, scientifically, artistically, and sexually. “In 1994, what the public hated about HIV was that it involved gay men gathering in these ghettos we had created (bathhouses, bars, and sex clubs) to f–k. This explosion of sexual freedom (and the community it created) defined us. Unfortunately, it also created a pathogenically perfect transmission route into the heart our existence.” The magazine embraced this as ‘sex-positive,’ seeking to expose the public to those living with HIV, while gleefully creating controversy within the HIV-positive community itself.
Strub published pieces on taboo subjects, including the still-famous 1999 article, Both Sides Now by Stephen Genden (in which he rationalizes infecting his partner). “We wrote about sex in a way that enraged people—we debunked conventional wisdom.” He recalls two famous columns—one addressing the rarity of female-to-male HIV transmission, and the other exposing the futility of the much-touted Bush-era “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief” (PEPFAR), the policy that committed $15 billion of HIV medication to Africa. “POZ stated that those funds would be better spent creating a basic healthcare infrastructure. In fact, the reason for PEPFAR was that some countries were going to circumvent existing patent protections (which they legally could do) by declaring AIDS a national emergency, enabling them to produce cheaper versions of the drugs for their citizens. The pharmaceutical industry was terrified that this would establish a precedent, threatening their monopoly on the manufacture of medications for HIV and a host of other treatments.”
Though the magazine was assailed by the media, industry, government, and patients themselves, it continued, indomitable. “I knew that this magazine would be crucial to people with HIV. At the time, I thought, ‘If I’m going to die of this disease, I’m going to leave a legacy of which I’m proud.’ In actuality, the energy created by publishing the magazine probably saved Strub’s life.
Body Counts is now part of the canon of literature examining the gay epidemiological diaspora, something Strub fears may recur in the new millennium. “As the result of current treatments, someone diagnosed today has the option to keep their status a secret—something that was impossible to do while having purple lesions on your face. In a way, people are now more isolated than they were decades ago. The response to HIV infection is radically different and intensely more judgmental than in the past. As activists, how we combat this is challenging.”
Strub’s peers have appreciated his efforts in Body Counts. “As a group of passionate individuals, we are, by nature, contentious. That said, others appreciate the honesty with which I discuss intimate details of our lives and circumstances. The book transcends our individual egos, as well as the arguments and skirmishes we endured. During that 20-year period, the purest, most selfless kind of love exhibited itself constantly. Though this is my story, my memoir, it’s the product of numerous shared experiences.”
We are in a “look back” moment with regard to what happened, and recent works such as Dallas Buyers Club, How to Survive a Plague, and Body Counts illuminate how we responded to others and how we should be prepared to respond as new challenges confront us.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.