AIDS Activism Comes Alive in Sean Strub’s "Body Counts"
A large contingent of fans, friends, former co-workers and fellow activists braved nearly a foot of snow and sub-zero temperatures to come together at the New York Public Library's main branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan on the evening of Jan. 22 to hear longtime AIDS activist Sean Strub read from his new memoir. "Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival" tracks Strub's evolution from a closeted gay teen from Iowa to one of the most influential AIDS activists in the nation.
"The spine of the book is a story of social change," said playwright and actor David Drake, who introduced Strub and sat with him, prompting him to share his stories. Strub produced Drake's early staging of the now-seminal gay hit, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me."
"Body Counts" documents Strub's childhood in Iowa, and his teenage years as an elevator boy in the U.S. Capitol building, navigating the super-closeted world of D.C. lawmakers. It also looks at his move to Manhattan in 1979, partying at Studio 54 and being among the first on the scene when John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In 1990, Strub became the first openly HIV-positive person to run for U.S. Congress. He later went on to become founder and publisher of POZ Magazine (disclosure: I served as managing editor of POZ in the '00s).
The book also tracks Strub's realization that he had HIV, his take-no-prisoners battle for awareness and funding for the disease, and his amazing recovery in the mid-'90s, after the advent of protease inhibitors.
In the prologue, we hear about Strub's involvement in the infamous ACT Up die-in and protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral, taking to task John Cardinal O'Connor for his virulent anti-gay rhetoric. "The St. Patrick's protest was like the Stonewall of the time," said Strub.
"Body Counts" charts Strub’s early involvement with ACT Up, raising crucial funding for and participating in many of their most notorious demonstrations, including the infamous action in which they covered anti-gay politician Jesse Helms’ home with a giant condom.
His childhood experiences with feminism, the civil rights struggle, anti-war protests and student riots came in handy in the battle for his life, and he "learned to see health care as a political struggle for sovereignty over our bodies. The theme that emerged in the book was the struggle for my body from church abuse, from the government, from the virus and from the drugs. That’s how we ended up with the title, ’Body Counts.’"
But as the body count mounted, "we didn’t have time to grieve, to look backwards. There was another death, another demonstration. When we finally got out the other side, there was all this unprocessed grief and other emotions that we bottled up at the time."
When he finally came up for air, Strub realized that his was a story that needed to be told. "I thought that someone had to be the memory of this," said Strub. "There were fewer and fewer of us around that were on the front lines. Writing the story became a compulsion."
But as Drake noted, "This is not an ACT Up memoir; it is a document of the struggle by one who lived it."
Although he championed his time with ACT Up, Strub also noted that "there was an activism before ACT Up," speaking of the early ’80s support groups for people with AIDS in cities like San Francisco and New York, and Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen’s 1983 book, "How to Have Sex in an Epidemic." He recounted the Fifth Annual Gay and Lesbian Health Conference, and the Denver Principles that emerged from that, which outlined the rights and responsibilities of people with AIDS. Foremost among those was the right to reject the label "victim."
"This was the first time in history that people with a disease asserted their political voice in decisions that impacted their lives," said Strub, remarking that while lepers or mental patients had organized around living standards in their institutions, no other group of sick people had ever claimed the right to be involved, active participants in their disease.
And active they were; Strub and his cohorts launched the first peer-to-peer groups, which later became huge AIDS service organizations. They started buyers’ clubs to access new treatments. They focused on the external locations of power to push the government and drug companies to get AIDS drugs to market.
But "Body Counts" doesn’t just look back at Strub’s powerful and engaging reports from the front lines; it also keeps an eye toward the future, with an assessment of today’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and powerful strategies for curbing new HIV transmissions while finding an end to the growing phenomenon of AIDS criminalization. As Strub tells it, stigma, not treatment, is now the biggest barrier to ending HIV.
There is also a bit of sex and intrigue, stemming from what one audience member referred to as Strub’s "Forrest Gump" factor: his knack for being in the middle of the action, from his nights spent shaking his ass at Studio 54 and the St. Mark’s Baths, convincing artist Keith Haring to join ACT Up, pissing out a window with Gore Vidal, and getting Tennessee Williams to sign the first-ever fundraising letter for what was then known as the Human Rights Campaign Fund.
As Strub tells the tale, he ran into Williams years later at a restaurant, surrounded by a group of admirers. The famed author called Strub over, and gave him the ultimate validation, introducing him as, "the guy I helped start the Gay Rights Movement with!"
In the book notes, legendary feminist Gloria Steinem remarks that, "By taking us with him on his journey from a conservative family in Iowa to the heart of a global movement for human rights, Sean Strub gives us ideas, strength and heart in our own journey."
"Body Counts" is a journey of Strub’s life, but it treads over the same ground that many of us in the LGBT have also run, fighting for our lives, fighting for our rights and refusing ever to yield. It’s a story that demanded to be told, and one which will compel you to read.
Upcoming readings include:
Jan. 23: The Strand, NYC
Jan. 24: Bureau of General Services - Queer Division, NYC
Jan. 28: Politics & Prose, Washington, D.C.
Jan. 29: Books Inc. in the Castro, San Francisco
Jan. 30: Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz
Jan. 31: Let’s Kick (ASS), San Francisco
Feb. 1: Just Fabulous, Palm Springs
Feb. 1: Antebellum Gallery, Hollywood
Feb. 4: West Hollywood Library Complex, West Hollywood
Feb. 5: Book Soup, West Hollywood
Feb. 6: Laguna Beach Books, Laguna Beach
Feb. 10: Rollins College, Winter Park, FL
Feb. 11: Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL
Feb. 12: Stonewall National Museum & Archives, Ft. Lauderdale
For more information, visit SeanStrub.com, Facebook.com/BodyCounts or on Twitter @BodyCountsBook.