Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vandalism of D.C. newspaper boxes gets hate-crimes designation by police


by Chuck Colbert

For a couple of years now, vandals have been striking out against two LGBT weeklies, damaging their distribution boxes and destroying copies of the publications. But in a new development, the Washington, D.C., police have opened an investigation into the incidents with a view of them as hate crimes.

It’s pretty “disgusting,” said Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff recently during a telephone interview. The incidents started, he recalled, late last spring or early summer with “large quantities of papers stolen from boxes.” Someone damaged boxes by kicking them, Naff said. Others had their display windows broken, with clips that hold newspapers destroyed. Yet other distribution boxes were spray-painted. Perpetrators even left feces inside some boxes.

Both Metro Weekly and the Blade ran news stories covering the vandalism

The Metro Weekly piece reported vandalism to its distribution boxes, which included “filling them with everything from rotting food to what seems to be human and animal waste.”

Vandalism of the Blade’s boxes occurred in the heart of the gayborhood, the District’s Dupont Circle area at 16th and Q Street NW, and 17th and R Street NW.

Metro Weekly reported incidents at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and R Street NW and an area on P St. between 15th and 14th streets NW.

Naff said that he was “glad” the police gave the incidents hate-crimes designation. “It’s appropriate when you have a line of boxes, and City Paper [a local alternative publication] and others are untouched, but the two gay publications are vandalized,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Both Metro Weekly and the Blade are working with D.C. police through the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. Naff said the Blade had informal discussions with the police last summer. The hate crimes designation, he said, came without “our pushing.”

Naff voiced praise for the police taking the vandalism “seriously.” The mayor’s office has also been “supportive, monitoring it. Government officials are doing everything they can. It’s a matter of time before we catch” the culprits.

According to former Metro Weekly co-publisher Sean Bugg, the incidents of vandalism are hate crimes “even though it’s not the same as physically attacking someone and beating them up,” he said, quoted in the publication’s Sept. 14, 2012, article. “The vandalism goes beyond a hateful and disgusting attack on the magazine and its readers, but on the neighborhood where the incidents occur.”

Naff agrees. Such vandalism, he said, “illustrates that despite all the progress we’ve made, in the heart of the gay neighborhood in Washington, D.C., there is still animosity out there. Without being melodramatic, what’s unnerving is, what’s next? If someone is willing to vandalize a box, are they willing to assault one of our readers, someone reading the paper?”

Naff said there are two effects of the vandalism. One is the cost of having the distribution boxes, spoiled by feces, steam-cleaned by distributors before they can be restored to a location. “It’s also confusing for advertisers and readers, who say, ‘I can’t find the Blade,’ or ‘I don’t see the Blade. What’s going on?’”

Still, there is a takeaway message for publishers. “Call the police and file a formal report every time it happens,” said Naff. “Police need a paper trail.”

And yet, Mark Segal, publisher and founder of Philadelphia Gay News (PGN), offered another perspective.

Over the last three decades or so, “We have seen every form of vandalism,” he said over the phone, noting cars smashed into boxes, boxes glued shut, smashed windows, fires set in boxes — and yes, human excrement.

“Of course, it’s a hate crime,” said Segal. “It’s ridiculous to think otherwise.”

Still, “Our goal is to show the haters they can never win,” he said. “We always held back some boxes in our offices. If a box is destroyed, we’d put another one in the same location. That’s easier than going through a legal process of reporting it as a hate crime. We’re busy here putting out a newspaper every week.”

PGN has about a hundred distribution boxes spread out over Center City, West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and New Jersey.

“What we’ve done in Philadelphia is create a committee of all the newspapers, working together within Center City,” said Segal.

While there have been no recent incidents like those in Washington, D.C., Segal said that the vandalism that now occurs is similar to other newspapers. “The biggest culprits are graffiti and stickers.”

IN THE NEWS
Volume 15
Issue 10

Boston Spirit Magazine’s coverage goes daily with new web site


by Chuck Colbert

A Boston-based LGBT publication has a new web presence, one that makes bimonthly Boston Spirit Magazine more dynamic with day-to-day relevancy for its readers.

There are two major differences to the new site, said publisher David Zimmerman, both having to do with updated content. 

For example, one new feature is a section called the “Fab 5,” which are the top five stories from the LGBT world, updated almost daily. 

“We search the net to find the biggest stories, nationally and internationally, and we link to them,” Zimmerman explained in email correspondence. “It is a one-stop-shop to see the biggest stories all in one place.”

“On the blogs” is another new feature. “In this section, we link to some interesting and sometimes quirky stories that we think will interest people,” he said. “Between these two sections, we have quite a bit of new content that is updated all the time.”

Boston Spirit’s new site, launched last October, also includes digital versions of past issues of the magazine.

What prompted a freshening of the publication online? And what purpose do the new features serve?

“We have been thinking of updating the website for a long time. We just needed to work out a way to do it economically,” said Zimmerman. “The purpose of the new site is to have an LGBT portal where people can go, on a daily basis, to see the big stories of the day in the LGBT world. We want a site that will be a daily-visit spot for the LGBT community in this area.”

The new site also “allows us to cover daily news and bring daily news to our followers. As a bimonthly magazine, we had been more focused on feature articles, and there was a gap in that we were not delivering daily content to our [readers]. The site allows us to fill that gap,” said Zimmerman. “We can now bring everything to our followers — daily news, features stories, events and more.” 

Reactions from readers and advertisers have been positive. “People like the new site, its design/layout and the content,” said Zimmerman.

When asked how the site’s new features fit within the Greater Boston LGBT and mainstream media landscapes Zimmerman replied, “Everything we do at Boston Spirit, we do with an internal lens. We do not think about other media when we make decisions. It is all about our offerings and how we can better serve our readers.” Previously, “There was a gap in our portfolio of offerings,” Zimmerman said, referring to the print magazine (published six times a year), sponsored events and a Boston.com blog.

But Boston Spirit was not covering daily news. “I thought if we could add that to our mix, it would be a tremendous benefit to our readers and it would really allow us to be the media outlet for the LGBT community in this region.”

IN THE NEWS
Volume 15
Issue 10

Windy City Times publisher creates new board game that’s so gay


by Chuck Colbert

The indefatigable publisher and executive editor of Chicago’s Windy City Times is at it again. 

This time, when Tracy Baim is not organizing a march of the Illinois state capital in support of same-sex marriage or publishing books on gay media or President Obama, the Chicago native is playing — better yet — creating games. This one is a board game, designed to be as much fun as it is a teaching tool for LGBT community empowerment.

Similar to Trivia Pursuit, the new board game, called “That’s So Gay! A Game of LGBTQ Discovery,” takes its name from the playground putdown and adult pejorative.

During a recent telephone interview, Baim talked about the game’s genesis.  “My family and friends play a lot of board games,” she said. “I felt it could be a fun idea.”  After all, “I have all these facts in my brain.”

Furthermore, “Different parts of the [gay] community don’t know about the other parts.” Overall “knowledge” of LGBT history and culture “is pretty sparse. We don’t learn it in high school or college. It’s just not part of everyday knowledge. We may know about Ellen DeGeneres, but not about Tchaikovsky, Thornton Wilder or Audre Lorde.”

"We just don't do enough of it," she added, referring to teaching “our” history. "Beyond the most recent episode of 'Glee' or pop culture stuff, it feels like our community sprang up and out of the ground 10 years ago. We're even lucky to remember 'Will and Grace' and who was on it.”

Sure enough, straights like "That’s So Gay!" too, she explained, pointing to how well her father played. A lot of the questions are general culture, but with a gay twist.

Take the case of Tchaikovsky, the 19th century Russian composer. “If you know who wrote the ‘1812 Overture,’ you’re are going to get the right answer,” said Baim. “There are a lot of questions like that.”

Straights also like “That’s So Gay!” because “they want to learn more about the community,” Baim said.  At a recent event, a woman told her, “Oh, good, now I have something to give to my friends” for a wedding shower.

In all, the game comes with a booklet consisting of more than 2,400 questions of LGBT history and current events. Two can compete at “That’s So Gay!’ but “it’s better played in teams of three or four,” said Baim.

There are 1,200 main questions that are mostly multiple choices. If players get a question right, they get a bonus question, but those are not multiple choice.

Along the way, players collect colored Bingo-like chips, with the goal of filling in the red, orange, yellow, blue, green and purple stripes of the rainbow flag.

The six categories of questions are color based, with a variety of topics, including:

Red: Celebrities, Athletes and Historical Figures. Orange: Politics, Protest and the Courts. Yellow: Movies, Television and Media. Green: Music, Theater and Dance. Blue: Literature, Art, Fashion and Culture. Purple: Science, Spirituality, Health and Grab Bag.

“You can play across any color of the flag,” explained Baim. (It takes five correct answers to fill a rainbow stripe.) “Or you can win by getting of one of each color.” For marathon competitors, “You can play the whole rainbow.”

At four times along the way, a player or team can use a pink chip for outside help, for example skipping a question or asking a friend for help.

Baim said she had the idea for the game a year ago — before she came up with the name. “I tossed around a whole bunch of names,” she said. “But once I thought of ‘That’s So Gay!’ I couldn’t think of anything else.”

Still, at first she worried about backlash, like when the community first heard of Queer Nation or the Dyke March. “I suppose 'Fag Rag' had that problem in the 1970’s and 1980’s,” she said.

So far, that has not been the case. “I’ve sold 300 games in the last month,” Baim said. Sales are strongest on both the East and West Coast (Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), also doing well in Michigan, Ohio, but the best is in Illinois, where Baim has been able to host game parties and sell at events. Boston is also a strong market, she said.

“That’s So Gay!” has a Facebook page with about 150 likes to date. It is available for purchase at Amazon for $25 at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GXKD13E.

Ultimately, Baim envisions “That’s So Gay!” as an LGBT empowerment tool for schools and homeless shelters as a way of saying to those who disparage gay people and the LGBT community: “No, ‘That’s so gay’ is not a slam. We are gay and proud.”

Of course, gay media has picked up on the game-board phenomenon of “That’s So Gay!” Bloggers Karen Ocamb (LGBT POV and Frontiers LA) and Joe Jervis (Joe My God) have posted about Baim’s latest endeavor, along with Huffington Post Gay Voices, The Advocate and Bay Windows.  Locally, Baim also played “That’s So Gay!” on radio talk shows in Chicago.

IN THE NEWS
Volume 15
Issue 10

Bay Area Reporter expands its repertoire of kink with new columnist


by Chuck Colbert

The leading LGBT weekly newspaper in San Francisco has a kinky new hire. 

Bay Area Reporter’s BARtab Editor Jim Provenzano recently announced the venerable publication would take on a new leather columnist. Race Bannon will replace outgoing leather columnist Scott Brogan.

Bannon, who blogs at www.bannon.com, is a prominent writer and member of San Francisco’s LGBT and leather communities. He has spoken and co-hosted many panels on leather, kink, HIV, aging and other issues in the Bay Area.

Bannon’s inaugural column appeared in the newspaper on Jan. 23. He penned it while attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, held from January 17-20, in Washington, D.C.
Race Bannon

In his debut, Bannon wrote: “San Francisco and the overall Bay Area have one of the most vibrant leather and kink scenes in the United States and indeed the world. Yes, it’s changed and morphed as various factors have influenced how LGBT kinky folk live and express their alternative erotic identities and sexualities. But the scene is still rather awesome here, and I’m comfortable saying it’s in pretty good shape nationally as well.

“Thus all the more reason I am honored to have been asked to carry on the legacy of the original writer of this column, Mr. Marcus (Marcus Hernandez), who established the Bay Area Reporter’s leather column as one of the preeminent leather news and information sources in the world. Upon Mr. Marcus’ passing, Scott Brogan took over this column and truly did justice to Mr. Marcus’ memory. I promise to always try to live up to both men’s history as I embark on being the caretaker of this important piece of journalistic real estate.”

Bannon’s column will be part of the Bay Area Reporter’s BARtab, the publication’s expanded third section that focuses on nightlife and sexuality. After two and a half years as a monthly supplement, BARtab became a weekly section of the newspaper in September 2013. Three of the arts section’s columns —Donna Sachet’s “On the Town,” John F. Karr’s saucy “Karrnal Knowledge” porn reviews and the leather column — were moved to the BARtab section.

In announcing the new hire, Provenzano praised departing columnist Brogan.

“Having edited the late Marcus Hernadez’ historic columns each week for several years, I was always amused and amazed by his thoroughness, his gossipy tone and his devotion to this community,” said Provenzano. “For four year’s after Marcus’ passing, Scott provided a personable style to his writing.” 

Brogan decided to resign from writing the column for personal reasons.

“When Scott announced his departure, the first person I thought of was Race,” said Provenzano. “I’m totally thrilled to have him on board.”

For her part, Bay Area Reporter news editor Cynthia Laird said, “I was excited to hear that Mr. Bannon would be joining [our] team. He has a deep history with the leather community in the Bay Area and I think our readers will enjoy his columns. I also want to thank Mr. Brogan, whose writings enabled the paper to continue its groundbreaking tradition of having a leather columnist in the aftermath of Mr. Marcus’s passing. ”

Among some of Bannon’s numerous achievements include his co-founding (with Guy Baldwin) of Kink Aware Professionals, a non-profit service that refers people to kink-sensitive psychotherapeutic, medical and legal professionals. Bannon recently turned over ownership and management of Kink Aware Professionals to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom; and they now maintain its web site at https://www.ncsfreedom.org/.

Bannon also served as project leader of The DSM Project, a grassroots coalition of worldwide psychotherapeutic professionals who banded together to influence the categorization and diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the book most psychotherapeutic professionals consult when diagnosing mental-health issues. The project led to a beneficial change in the way the psychotherapeutic profession views kink.

IN THE NEWS
Volume 15
Issue 10

TRANSITIONS AND MILESTONES


(What’s happening at your publication? Let us know at editor@presspassq.com.)

THOMAS BASGIL JR., editor of Trenton, N.J.-based OUT IN JERSEY magazine, stepped down after the October-November 2013 issue. He was replaced by the publication’s first female editor SAM MARTINO in December 2013. She was previously the news features editor at the publication.

BAY WINDOWS, based in Boston, launched its 32nd year in publication with its Dec. 12, 2013, issue.

CURVE, based in New York, N.Y., launched its 24th year of publication with its January/February 2014 issue.

HIV PLUS MAGAZINE has launched a free Treatment Guide mobile application. The app includes information on every FDA-approved medication for the treatment of HIV and HIV-related complications. It also allows users to set daily pill and appointment reminders. find an HIV specialist pharmacy nearby, and access articles from the magazine. The new app is currently available for free and downloadable on all mobile platforms.

LAVENDER MAGAZINE, based in Minneapolis, published its first Wedding Resource Guide as part of its 2014 GLBT YELLOW PAGES. The decision to have a separate section for wedding-specific resources came after Minnesota approved marriage equality last year.

LIVING OUT, Long Island’s LGBT newspaper based in Garden City, N.Y., celebrated its first anniversary with its December 2013 issue.

HARRY LOWINGER, longtime photographer with BALTIMORE OUTLOUD, passed away on Dec. 11, 2013. He began his work as a photographer in the gay community in the 1980s with BALTIMORE GAY PAPER (now known as GAY LIFE). Lowinger died from lung cancer and heart failure. He was 80.

TRANSITIONS AND MILESTONES
Volume 15
Issue 10

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TOP STORY: POZ founder Sean Strub pens new book on AIDS epidemic


Talks with Press Pass Q about “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival”
by Chuck Colbert

The AIDS epidemic is not over for the LGBT community, even as AIDS activism and media coverage have waned. That point, a pressing matter for POZ magazine founder Sean Strub, is just one thread in the narrative of his new book, “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival,” recently released by Scribner.

Already, reviewers are comparing the book to Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” and Paul Monette’s “Borrowed Time,” two classics chronicling the epidemic.

As a recent gay-press review puts it: “‘Body Counts’ fills in nicely between Shilts’ historical account and Monette’s intensely personal elegiac memoir,” wrote reviewer Frank Pizzoli. “Strub’s book is definitely memoir, but reads like a gripping right-with-them history, especially around the New York City epidemic, which hasn’t yet been well-documented.”

Another review points to the new book’s importance.

“In the end,” writes Michael Bronski for the San Francisco Chronicle, “‘Body Counts’ presents us with an insider’s view of American political life that is almost inevitably left out of the history books, and even more alarming, absent from recent historical memory. More importantly, it forcefully reminds us of the impact an individual can make in changing the world around him.”

During a recent hour-long interview with Press Pass Q, Strub spoke of the epidemic, his activism and motivation in writing “Body Counts,” as well as where he sees the LGBT community at this point in the battle.

“I resisted writing it for a long time and am not entirely sure why,” he said over the telephone. “There’s a part of me, when my health came back, that didn’t want to be defined by the epidemic. I did other things and got back into historic preservation, which I enjoyed.

“And then I started to feel more of an obligation to witness and share what I saw, participated in and learned, as well as remember a lot of friends, people who are not able to tell their stories. The realization dawned on me that as time passes, there are fewer and fewer persons who were there and can speak about what happened firsthand. If someone like me is not telling the story, then who’s going to tell it?”

“Body Counts” is indeed a tell-all memoir, both confessional and historical, spanning nearly four decades from 1976 — when Strub, an Iowa native, arrived in Washington, D.C., with political ambitions — to present times living in New York City and Milford, Penn., where he lives with partner Xavier Morales. They co-own the historic Hotel Fauchère and are active in historic preservation.

Counting bodies along the way, Strub details the ultra-closeted world of powerful gay men in the nation’s capital in the 1970s to his three decades in Manhattan hobnobbing with the rich and famous straights as well as their A-gay muckety-muck counterparts. From Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal to Yoko Ono to Andy Warhol, “Body Counts” is full of anecdotes and stories that vividly recreate the excitement and earnest ambition that transformed a closeted Midwestern Irish Catholic youth into a proud and out gay man, a successful entrepreneur and an outspoken AIDS activist, locally in New York City and nationwide.

Strub makes clear that reading gay media, the Washington Blade and now-defunct New York Native in particular, helped inform his developing political consciousness — decidedly liberal to progressive from the beginning — and ultimately his coming out of the closet.

Author Sean Strub
On one level, “Body Counts” is a survivor’s tale. In one chapter, Strub describes being sexually abused while attending a Wisconsin-based Jesuit boarding school.

“The sex abuse has been far more defining and disruptive in my life than has been HIV, and to some extent, I think the experience of having been abused led me to engage in behaviors that put me at vastly greater risk of acquiring HIV,” he said.

Thanks to protease inhibitors in the mid-1990s, Strub has survived the epidemic long enough to bare witness in “Body Counts” to his near-deathbed experience and subsequent Lazarus-like recovery.

After attending Georgetown and Columbia, Strub, now 55, ran campaigns and pioneered direct-mail fundraising for progressive causes, most notably Democratic campaigns, LGBT and AIDS organizations, including National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), Human Rights Campaign, America Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP and many others.

In 1985, however, Strub tested positive for HIV. It changed his life forever as it did for so many other gay men among the baby-boomer generation.  But instead of stopping him, his diagnosis spurred him to run for the U.S. Congress in 1990; he didn’t win, but he was the first openly HIV-identified candidate for federal office. Two years later, he produced the landmark play, “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” and then, in 1994, he founded POZ magazine, a leading publication focusing on the real-life experiences of people living with HIV.

Personal storytelling is one thing. For gay America, another key message in “Body Counts,” said Strub, is “knowing our history.”

“If we don’t share our history, nobody is going to do it for us,” he said. “Others are not going to do it accurately as we move forward.”

In going forward, Strub explained, it’s important to “understand how very little concern the institutions of power, whether institutions of government, private sector, or the church, have regarding the care and welfare of LGBT people and how critical it is for us to speak up for ourselves.”

And referring to HIV treatment controversies, he points out, “Even when people in positions of power act in ways they believe are responsible, with every best wish, they can still be wrong, which we’ve had to learn the hard way.”

Strub said he hopes “Body Counts” will underscore “how important skepticism is in understanding the political, cultural, economic and environmental influences on medical advice and choices presented to us. I know that if I had done what medical experts advised at the time, I wouldn’t be here today."

For example, "So many things presented as conventional wisdom in this epidemic later turned out to have been wrong. We have a for-profit-driven drug development system. Its priority is profit, not your health and no one should ever forget that fact.”

Here he is drawing on insights from the women’s movement, specifically the 1971 feminist classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and feminist wisdom encapsulated in the phrase, “the personal is political.” And in the case of HIV/AIDS, the personal is also medical.

Regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, where are we in the gay male, or within the men who have sex with men (MSM) community?

“The excitement over biomedical advances — particularly the use of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP) and ‘treatment as prevention’ strategies — has kind of drowned out and facilitated an abandonment of or less emphasis on the human rights approaches to the epidemic,” said Strub. “Unfortunately, we are never going to solve the epidemic unless we have both.”

By human-rights approach, Strub was referring to a host of issues intertwined with the epidemic, namely stigma, poverty, racism, sexism, addiction and mental health issues, housing and HIV criminalization.

Those issues, he said, must be addressed “in all their complexity, their intertwined complexity” because “we are not going to treat our way out of the epidemic; the ultimate solution isn’t as easy as a pill or a shot.”

Of course, social location in the HIV/AIDS epidemic is vastly different for younger gay men, especially MSM of color. “It’s like 1981 all over,” Strub said, referring to their sero-conversion rates, which he termed “astonishing, quite frankly.”

In fact last year in Atlanta, during the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference, a Center for Disease Control official assigned to the White House’s Office of National AIDS Policy told a gathering of activists that if current trends continue, 20-year-old MSMs are expected to face a 50 percent infection rate within 30 years — and a whopping 70 percent for black MSM.

“Those numbers double the highest prevalence estimates during the height of the epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s,” wrote Todd Heywood for Michigan-based Between the Lines, an LGBT weekly publication.

Just as Strub criticizes governmental and societal indifference to HIV/AIDS, he calls out the gay community regarding HIV transmission among LGBT youth and people of color.  

“We need to take some responsibility for that, significant responsibility,” he said, “because when combination therapy came out, over the next several years the gay community largely left this epidemic, even though the epidemic hadn’t left us.

“LGBT groups and much of our community’s national leadership abandoned the epidemic and turned their attention and resources elsewhere, like to marriage equality and repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said. “On issues concerning HIV-related stigma, criminalization, confidentiality and patient autonomy in particular, they became almost entirely absent or even went to the wrong side of the issue.”

Although Strub sold POZ magazine 10 years ago, his AIDS activism and concerns about HIV-related stigma continue. He still serves as an advisory editor and blogs for the publication, and from time to time suggests ideas for stories.

Since 2012, moreover, Strub has served as executive director of the SERO Project, “a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice,” according to its web site, www.seroproject.com.

SERO Project’s focus is on halting the inappropriate use of one’s HIV status in criminal prosecutions, including those for so-called “HIV crimes,” like spitting or non-disclosure.

“HIV criminalization is the most extreme manifestation of stigma, when government enshrines it in the law and it is contributing to the spread of HIV because of how much it drives stigma and discourages testing,” said Strub. “You can't be prosecuted if you don't get tested.

“In terms of SERO, we describe HIV criminalization as the inappropriate use of one's HIV status in a criminal prosecution. Sometimes that is because of HIV-specific criminal statutes — mandating disclosure before sex or donating blood — but other times people are charged under regular criminal statutes, but because they have HIV, face more serious charges or penalties.  

“While about two-thirds of the states have HIV-specific statutes, geography is no protection. Texas and New York don't have HIV-specific statutes, but Willy Campbell is serving 35 years in Texas for spitting at a cop and David Plunkett was just released from a New York prison after serving six years for spitting.

“Pennsylvania doesn't have a law that specifically mandates disclosure, but just [recently] they charged a woman with a felony for failing to disclose — despite how rare it is for a woman to transmit HIV to a man, without any consideration for the treatment she was on that made it virtually impossible, if not impossible, for her to transmit. HIV transmission is rarely a circumstance in these cases.”

Asked about the role of gay media vis-à-vis AIDS/HIV coverage, Strub said LGBT outlets “have an enormous role in telling our history and correcting the record.”

A recent incident, he noted, was in December when amfAR’s board chair, shoe designer Kenneth Cole, asserted on national television that 25 years ago, the gay community was “afraid to speak up” about AIDS. 

Strub took the fashion mogul to task, calling that assertion "a fabrication that is an insult to an entire community.” Bloggers such as Mark King and Michael Petrelis, as well as the Windy City Times and other outlets, then took up the criticism.

Still, Strub said, “One issue for gay media is that because HIV treatment and prevention science has become so specialized,” many LGBT outlets “don’t have the resources” or expertise for a full-time AIDS/HIV beat reporter, diminishing the volume and sophistication of the coverage.

His advice to LGBT media when it comes to reporting about the HIV epidemic: “Dig deeper into original sources,” avoid “just responding to press releases from organizations,” and “never write a story that doesn’t include the perspective and reaction from people with HIV themselves.”

TOP STORY
Volume 15
Issue 10

SIDEBAR: Strub says safer-sex messaging is more complicated than we think


by Chuck Colbert

While Sean Strub’s confessional and historical memoir “Body Counts” raises awareness and prompts important questions about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment for men who have sex with men (MSM) and the larger LGBT community, one thing seems absolutely clear: Younger MSM view the epidemic through a different lens than baby boomers and seniors.

During a recent interview, Strub discussed the changed landscape of the epidemic and the implications for safer-sex messaging. “The truth is that the consequences of HIV exposure and transmission are very different today than they were 25 years ago,” he said over the telephone. “Younger people look at [HIV/AIDS] through the present reality, not the historical one.”

In criticizing fear-based messaging, Strub said, “The messaging too often has been either HIV is the most horrible thing that can happen in your life, your life is over; or it’s no big deal at all, just take a pill.”

Neither of those approaches, he said, is “quite right.”

“The focus should be that acquiring HIV is a life-changing event, it’s not a little thing, it’s a big deal,” said Strub. “There’s an expense — health and stigma issues — that are enormous; it is truly life-changing. But that doesn’t mean your life is over, or that you can’t be intimate, fulfilled and successful, just as people who don’t have HIV are.”

Strub also qualifies a mainstay of HIV-prevention messaging: Use a condom every time!

“In terms of condoms specifically, we’ve never been able to get more than about half of gay men at any given time to use condoms regularly,” he said, going as far back as 1989 when “the consequences were much more deadly then than they are for people today who have access to treatment.”

Strub was referring to any number of studies (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6014a1.htm?s_cid=ss6014a1_w), including one released last year, which found that among MSM who meet sex partners through mobile apps like Grindr, 46.4 percent of those surveyed acknowledged having bareback sex, “always, often or sometimes,” at the same time 80.9 percent of respondents said they knew HIV transmission resulted from “unprotected anal sex, vaginal sex, and  — less frequently — oral sex.”

Conducted by New York's Community Healthcare Network, the study is titled, "Zero Feet Away: Perspective on HIV/AIDS and Unprotected Sex in Men Who Have Sex With Men Utilizing Location-based Mobile Apps,” available at http://www.chnnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/Zero-Feet-Away-Report.pdf.

Eighty-four percent of respondents said they barebacked because “with condoms, [sex] does not feel the same,” while 73.8 percent attributed unprotected sex with “impulsive sexual behaviors.” Men from Australia, South America, Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S. participated in the study, which had a sample size of 725 gay and bisexual men. There were 498 U.S respondents, representing three quarters of those surveyed.

A better HIV prevention strategy, in Strub’s view, isn’t about focusing on just condoms or just on biomedical prevention, but points to accurate medical and scientific knowledge to enable better-informed risk analysis. “There are many ways to reduce risk, and gay men have always found their own path,” he said, “We need to make sure they have information that is accurate so their risk-analysis is more effective.”

“Quite frankly, having an undetectable viral load possesses a lower risk of HIV transmission than just using condoms,” Strub explained, readily acknowledging since there is a failure rate for condoms, “That’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.” 

But that failure rate is a far cry lower than the 50 percent suggested in the late 1980s by the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, said Strub. “Most of the credible studies” point to a “failure rate between two and nine percent. Failure rate has a lot to do with how aggressive the intercourse is.

“So while there is a failure rate in condoms that result in HIV transmission, so far no one has even proven sexual transmission of HIV from someone known to have an undetectable viral load at the time of the sexual contact— not a single documented instance.” 

Strub is not, however, saying don’t use condoms. “There are lots of good reasons to use them, including the fact that they do protect against many other harmful sexually-transmitted infections, and just because someone says they are undetectable doesn’t necessarily mean they are. For people who are HIV negative, condoms are cheaper than and don’t have the side effects caused by taking anti-retroviral treatment prophylactically (PrEP).

“And some people will not or cannot use condoms and for them, it is important they have access to PrEP, as well as understand measures they can take to help reduce their risk of HIV transmission.”

In chapter 30 of “Body Counts,” entitled “Barebacking,” Strub mentions other risk reduction strategies gay men have employed, with varying degrees of success, such as “sero-sorting,” which means having sex only with partners  of the same HIV status, and “sero-positioning,” which means topping only if HIV-negative, bottoming only if HIV-positive.

True enough, as AIDS activist and blogger Mark King (www.MyFabulousDisease.com) reminds: “Condom use will almost certainly continue to decrease in the future because of new tools that have joined the growing list of HIV prevention options,” he wrote in “Your Mother Liked It Bareback” (January 28, 2013).

Those new tools include pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which entails taking medication before having sex with an infected partner, or post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, which requires taking two to three doses of anti-retroviral medication within 72 hours of possible exposure to HIV.

Another tool in the future is rectal microbicides, which would come in the form of lubricants or douches, preventing infection.

Meanwhile, biomedical advances, including protease-inhibitors of the mid-1990s, have resulted in people with HIV living longer.

And while there are side effects to anti-HIV medications, “The short-term effects are vastly improved from years ago,” said Strub. “From my experience, most people diagnosed today who go on treatment do not experience any significant tolerability issues in the short term,” although that “varies somewhat by treatment. But that is very, very different from years ago.”

Nonetheless, long-term side effects remain unknown. “I am someone who often talks about how much we don’t know,” Strub said, referring to “what it means to take [anti-retroviral] drugs for 20 years, what it means to take these drugs in combination with other medications, whether anti-depressants, statins or anything else. We will find out in time, but right now there is much we don’t know. I think it’s important for people to understand that.”

SIDEBAR
Volume 15
Issue 10

SIDEBAR: Strub recounts how he took activism to the streets, and the Church


by Chuck Colbert

One need not be Roman Catholic to understand that Sean Strub’s new book “Body Counts” is in no small measure fueled partly by his faith. From the very beginning, Strub calls out the Church and its hierarchical leadership on many fronts, everything from hypocrisy to hostility, as the AIDS epidemic continues to wreak havoc on gay men and others.

The preface, for example, recounts AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s (ACT UP) liturgical disruption, staged on Sunday, Dec. 10, 1989 at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, arguably a major power center of American Catholicism. Inside, Strub was among the protestors.

Indeed, crashing then-Cardinal John O’Connor’s Sunday Mass was controversial, if not the most controversial of ACT UP’s activism.

“After Mass, I pass through the cathedral’s heavy doors into bright sunlight, and it seems to me into the arms of my true community,” Strub wrote. “I am exultant, in a state that feels like grace, certain that if I am to die of AIDS, I will die a fighter.”

In chapter 17, Strub’s sharpened quill reminds readers that O’Connor “condemned LGBT activism, opposed anti-discrimination statutes, called homosexuality an ‘intrinsic evil,’” at the same time he “prevented groups of gay Irish-Americans from participating in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and kicked Dignity, the gay Catholic group, out of all facilities controlled by the archdiocese, where they had celebrated Mass for many years.”

Strub recalled how New York City’s cardinal archbishop banned church-run hospitals from distributing condoms or discussing safe sex with patients, even as staff nurses, doctors and nuns widely ignored his directive.

Most egregious perhaps, O’Connor funded a disinformation campaign, claiming on billboards, buses and subways that “condoms don’t work,” by citing discredited statistics that suggested a 50 percent failure rate or greater. The cardinal “even opposed condom use between two partners when one was known to be HIV positive.”

“At the same time,” Strub wrote, “O’Connor took every opportunity to boast the Church’s compassion toward people with AIDS who were dying in church-run hospices. His hypocrisy was galling; most of the world hated gay people when we were healthy and sexually active but accepted us as dying ‘AIDS’ victims.”

The last straw for Strub and others was the cardinal’s blocking safer-sex education via condom use in New York City schools. “We knew we had to do something,” Strub wrote, explaining in part ACT UP’s decision to disrupt Mass.

During a recent telephone interview, Stub, who for a short time thought he had a calling to the priesthood, spoke of his Irish Catholic upbringing. “I certainly grew up in a Catholic environment,” he said, noting his father’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Nuns raised his mother, an orphan.

And yet Strub acquired “skepticism about the Church,” growing up in Iowa City, Iowa, a college town where he was “exposed to a lot of different kinds of values and perspectives,” he said. Just as Strub absorbed Catholicism’s social justice tradition, so he learned the “you-will-do-as-we-are-told aspect of the Church,” he said.

“When I came out in the late 70s, that started a fissure with the Church that only grew over time,” as the epidemic only exacerbated the rift. With the death of his partner Michael in 1988, Strub said, “I went into a kind of hyperactive activist overdrive.”

The cover of “Body Counts” features a picture of Strub and then-partner Michael Misove.

Strub also discussed the historical significance of taking AIDS activism to a nerve center of the Catholic Church in America. Undoubtedly controversial, Strub always favored the St. Patrick’s Cathedral protest. “If one scans the list of who got arrested” — Strub was not — “half inside and half outside,” he said, “the preponderance of those inside were culturally Catholic with Irish, Italian, and Polish surnames. That explains what drove a lot of the action. A lot [of those arrested] grew up in the Church and still felt some right, some piece of ownership that we could take our redress to the Church. For me, it was the culmination of a year’s mourning.”

For all the controversy, opposition and risk, ACT UP decided to go ahead with the protest. “We did it anyway because it was so important,” said Strub, noting, from historical hindsight, its historical significance:  “December 1989 was 20 years after Stonewall. While Stonewall was the first time the gay community kind of really fought back against the civil code that oppressed us, and it was landmark, opening up a floodgate of a whole generation protesting the civil code.”

By comparison, Strub continued, “The action at St. Pat’s was the first time we did that against the religious and moral code. We did the unthinkable and took it to their turf. And I think that also opened up the floodgates. Right about then marked a peak moment of influence for the Catholic Church in America. It has declined ever since not just because of that action. It was the sex scandals and all that.”

Sure enough, he said, “We took [Church leaders] down a peg, and they never recovered in terms of their political influence. In a sense, that St. Pat’s action ranks up there with Stonewall in terms of importance.”

SIDEBAR
Volume 15
Issue 10

REVIEW: “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival” by Sean Strub (Scribner, 420 pages, $30)


by Chuck Colbert

Sean Strub’s poignant and compelling memoir exemplifies storytelling par excellence.

At its heart, “Body Counts” is the telling and remembering of LGBT history, the heroic tales of those on the front lines in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, both the survivors and the fallen — our stories, our history never to be forgotten, trivialized or minimized.

This confessional and historical narrative spans nearly four decades, from the mid-1970s to present day, providing insights into the life (and death) and times of gay men and others on battlefront, at the same time recounting the incredible transformation of the book’s author from a closeted Midwestern Irish Catholic youth from Iowa into a proud and out gay man of Manhattan.

The narrative of “Body Counts” is also about how one gay man made a real difference, creating change through entrepreneurial prowess, progressive politics and savvy street smarts and organizational activism. Doggedly purposeful and personally resourceful, Strub is determined to stay alive and thrive.

As the book so ably demonstrates, there are more than a few ways to count bodies on the battleground of HIV/AIDS. Early on, Strub chronicles ACT UP’s controversial December 1989 disruption of Mass in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

He writes about confronting with the Catholic Church, but not in rage and hatred. Instead, his is a political, if not theological statement of heartfelt grief.

In receiving the Eucharist, for example, instead of repeating the traditional, “The body of Christ,” Strub responds, “May the Lord bless the man I love, who died a year ago this week.”

He continues, “With my heart pounding, I walked to my pew. My mind fixed on bodies, not just the body of Christ. I think of Michael’s body and the agonizing brain infection that turned his last days into a kind of crucifixion. I think of the bodies of protestors carried out on stretchers and those chanting outside, many struggling to survive. I think of my own body, wondering how much longer it will last.”

Gracing the cover of “Body Counts” is a photo of Strub kissing his late partner, Michael Misove.

Near the end of “Body Counts,” Strub writes about his sex abuse, not by Catholic priests, but by one man at a Wisconsin-based Jesuit boarding school, a senior faculty member; the other abuser is an usher at his home parish in Iowa City.

“These men were imbued with the Church’s unassailable authority,” writes Strub.

Taking aim at the faith of his birth, he continues, “It was Catholicism that taught me to hate homosexuality and fear and repress desire. This self hatred separated me from my body and made me ashamed of it.”

In all, shame, stigma and abuse took its toll on his body, even his heart, mind and soul. However, triumphantly, in “Body Counts,” Strub connects the dots “between the sexual abuse and Catholicism’s psychological torment as a child, and the unhealthy relationships, sexual behaviors, and promiscuity I’d engaged in as an adult. I don’t disclaim responsibility, but I now believe that the sexual and psychological abuse I suffered as a child laid the groundwork for the behaviors I engaged in as an adult and led to acquiring HIV. If gay men as a whole had less shame and self-hatred imposed on them by society when they were children, I wonder if we might have been more moderate in our sexual behaviors as adults when we finally found communities of our own where we could escape society’s torment and be with each other.”

If “combination protease therapy in 1996” arrested HIV in his body, Strub writes, “full recovery” resulted from “the process of self-examination” that enabled him “to understand and reconcile the sexual abuse … I suffered as a child.”

And yet for all of Catholicism’s anti-gay messaging, Strub recalls one of its overarching, uplifting themes — that meaning in life is found in contemplation, penance and service.

“Of these three,” writes Strub, “My only real talent is in service.”

“I have campaigned for one cause or another since elementary school, and I expect to do the same for the rest of my life,” he writes. “When I die, I still want to die as a fighter.”

All said and done, “Body Counts” is a beautifully believable, powerful tale of the resurrection of the body — for everybody.

SIDEBAR: REVIEW
Volume 15
Issue 10