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Sean Strub's 'Body Counts'
Author and AIDS activist talks about his book detailing history of early HIV epidemic
Mark S. King
"Body Counts" is such a marvelous
achievement, Sean. So much history
here, personal and otherwise, and
witnessed from such close proximity.
Thanks for not holding back the juicy
stuff about politicians and celebrities!
For better or worse, politicians and
celebrities are intertwined with the history
of the epidemic, in ways both bad and good.
My perspective at times is unusual--like
when I was running the "Senators Only"
elevator in the U.S. Capitol--and I tried to
present the humanity, good and bad, of
those I write about.
Also, in terms of the epidemic, it was
a conscious decision and key strategy
to exploit celebrities to gain attention
and action in response to the epidemic.
Elizabeth Taylor knew this better than
anyone and she was amazing at getting
others to join her in spending their celebrity
capital on behalf of something important.
And you're our tour guide through
those years. I think your criticism of
President Bill Clinton's AIDS response
might be surprising to people. Aren't
we supposed to love him?
Others have suggested that Clinton's
post-presidency focus on the global
epidemic is an effort to atone for his failing
in this regard during his presidency. When
salon.com published an excerpt from
"Body Counts" that was about the Clinton
Administration, it generated a lot of nasty
comments. It was the epidemic driving a
generation of gay men out of the closet and
into activism that ultimately was critical to
electing Bill Clinton, yet as soon as he was
elected it seems like the air was let out of
our activist balloon.
In some ways I think we--as a queer
community--are more effective as
outsiders, where we had to learn to survive,
than we are as insiders, where we haven't
been as welcome or skilled. When Clinton
was elected, many of our leaders became
insiders and didn't take everyone with
I'm glad you're not letting people off
the hook. Was it important for you to
save our AIDS history from those who
might revision it?
Initially the impetus for writing "Body
Counts" came from the realization that, as
time passed, there were fewer and fewer of
us around from the early days who could
tell what happened first-hand. It was also a
way of validating my own life. I didn't grow
up wanting to be an AIDS activist; I had
other plans, but in the early 80's my life was
hijacked by the epidemic. Writing "Body
Counts" gave me some understanding of
why I made the choices I made.
But the more I dug into the history
I also saw how those years have been
Before my interview with activist Sean Strub,
author of "Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics,
Sex, AIDS, and Survival," let me share a revealing
It was late 2011 and my life was in shambles.
The breakup of a long term relationship had sent
me into a spiral, followed closely by a devastating
drug addiction relapse. I had weathered the
fallout and taken refuge at my mother's home in
And then came a phone call from Sean Strub,
founder of POZ Magazine and lifelong advocate
for those of us living with HIV. We were acquainted
but not yet close friends and the request he made
during the call surprised me. Would I be willing,
he wondered, to come visit him for a few weeks
and help get his new HIV anti-criminalization
effort, The Sero Project, off the ground?
Sean had read a blog posting I had written
about my breakup and relapse, and must have
known I wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. I
was a recovering addict with a trail of wreckage
in my recent past, and yet he wanted me to come
work with him. Like, in his home.
Within days I drove 1,400 miles to his
Pennsylvania town. I managed to get some work
done but mostly I piddled around his home office,
getting my bearings again while we traded war
stories and gossip from across our desks. Sean
was passionate about every topic and a great
teacher on contemporary HIV advocacy issues.
Before long, the real purpose of Sean's long
distance invitation became clear to me. He didn't
really need much help, but he knew that I did. He
saw someone with potential who would benefit
from a little mentorship, encouragement, and a
friend. And God, he was right. Our time together
strengthened and refocused me. Since then, I
have heard many stories about Sean Strub taking
people under his wing and helping to lift them up
to a better place.
My admiration makes it nearly impossible to
objectively review his remarkable memoir, "Body
Counts." I am an unapologetic fan and grateful
friend. That being said, you must finish reading
this article and go directly to Amazon and buy his
"Body Counts" is one of the most wide-ranging
and well written remembrances to come out of
the AIDS crisis. It seamlessly combines the social,
political, and sexual landscape of Sean's journey.
It moved me to tears more than once, and taught
me a lot about what happened behind the scenes
during the dawn of the century's greatest public
All that, and there's a ton of great celebrity
stories about people like John and Yoko (Sean was
there the night Lennon was shot), Andy Warhol,
and a host of colorful others.
Sean agreed to a conversation to discuss
everything from his memoir to body image,
sexual abuse, the legacy of AIDS, and the state of
the HIV community today.
Here is that conversation:
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