Brad Shreve: 0:47
Sean Strub, I want to welcome you to Queer We Are.
Sean Strub: 0:51
Well, thank you. I’m delighted to be here, Brad.
Brad Shreve: 0:54
Sean, we’re going to talk about quite a few things, including new founding POZ magazine. And we’re also going to talk about the Sero Project, the organization you launched and our executive director of and it’s about a serious problem affecting people with HIV that I was completely unaware of. But I want to start off by talking about Jesse Helms, because I learned something you did that gave me a big belly laugh. Jesse Helms served as a Senator for North Carolina for 30 years. I lived in that beautiful state for 12 of those years. And unfortunately, Jessie was my senator the entire time. listener, you may be too young to know who he was. Or maybe you have willingly forgot about him, and I don’t blame you. If you don’t know Jesse Helms, he was a racist, homophobic, vile man. He called civil rights workers, I quote, communist and sex perverts and quote, he also said gays and lesbians were again, I quote, weak morally sick wretches. So Seann, let’s start with you sharing what you and Peter Stanley did in 1991. That made me laugh so hard. But one question first, do you regret your actions?
Sean Strub: 2:08
Not in the least. I mean, I think the pride in that particular action is only increased over the years. It wasn’t just me and Peter and me. Peter was sort of the instigator and organizer of it. And Peter and I went up on the roof with what we did well, let me explain what it was was we put a gigantic condom, we had a gigantic condom made out of parachute material. And on the side of it, I think it said protect yourself from unsafe politics. Jesse Helms is more dangerous than the virus or something like that.
Brad Shreve: 2:41
Yes, that is what it said. And we’re gonna talk about that and more. So let’s do it right after this music.
Sean Strub: 2:48
Brad Shreve: 2:48
I’m your host, Brad Shreve,
Sean Strub: 2:51
and I’m Sean Strub
Brad Shreve: 2:52
and Queer We Are. Welcome to Queer We Are where you’ll hear inspirational and motivational, yet entertaining stories by LGBTQ entertainers, athletes, politicians, activists, or maybe even someone right there in your neighborhood. I’m Brad and I’ll discuss with queer individuals about their successes, their challenges, and what they learned along the way. The gentleman I’ve been talking with is Sean Strub, and he is the mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania and has been married since 2016. He has been a longtime LGBTQ and HIV activist, he founded POZ magazine. And he’s also the founder and executive director of the Sero Project, which focuses on ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions with people living with HIV and AIDS. Sean, you stirred the pot quite a bit during the AIDS crisis. So let’s talk again about Jesse Helms, in addition to given me a big laugh, he kind of shines a lot on that era and why he was a target.
Sean Strub: 4:14
Helms had been the obstacle in Congress, with any funding, he was a very clever and skilled parliamentarian. So the bills would go through the process, he would find a way to put in sometimes what seemed like an innocuous sounding amendment that actually gutted or severely impaired, you know, what the legislation could do. And it had been a recurring problem. And we thought, you know, we thought Jesse Helms was a joke, but unfortunately, was a joke that was deadly for our community. But we came up Peter, Peter came up with this idea to have people kind of laugh at him. And so there were seven of us we were in affinity group within ACT UP. Others didn’t know what we were doing. That’s the way a lot of things in act up worked, especially if you’re doing something that might risk breaking the law. We stayed at a cheap motel the night before and alerted the press, and they just followed us they didn’t know what we were doing or wherever you’re going. But at that time, we had credibility for making news. And we went to his house in suburban Washington DC and think Alexandria, Virginia was and pulled up 738 o’clock in the morning in a panel truck. We pulled up we unloaded thing, started unfolding it and setting up the ladders and the generators and the blowers and petered I hauled it up a ladder on the side of his two storey brick colonial house and spread it out on the roof of the house and and deflating it. And it wasn’t quite fully tumescent it had a little reservoir tip at the top, which is probably 30 feet in the air. It wasn’t quite fully tumescent when the first police officer showed up. And it was a woman officer. And forgive me for falling the stereotype. But she was pretty much. And she got out of her squad car and was cracking up. She was just laughing. She said, I haven’t even had my coffee yet. And then a neighbor came over who was screaming at us and and the cop, you know, wanted something done. The officer had called, or sergeant or Lieutenant. So soon there were several ones there. The neighbor who was sort of a Karen, before we use that that phrase the way it’s used today, with apologies to my friends named Karen. One of her lines was, well, Jesse Helms doesn’t come in bother you and your neighborhoods, kind of of course, we responded to that pretty aggressively. So the officer called from the scene. And this is interesting, because I remember this computer doesn’t that called helms his office, and he was on the floor of the Senate, and they patched him through the floor of the Senate. And the officer was describing and wanting to know if he wanted us arrested. And, and helms obviously said, he didn’t want to give them the damn publicity. Just get him out of there. Not knowing that, you know, CNN or somebody was right there filming everything.
Brad Shreve: 7:18
Well, I must say, for that one event. You are my hero.
Sean Strub: 7:23
Brad Shreve: 7:24
We’re gonna get back to your more activist days. And some would say you were pretty radical. And I look forward to getting deeper into that. But first, let’s talk about your current job. One, I’m sure you and many never expected. You are the mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania.
Sean Strub: 7:44
There was a documentary made about my campaign for mayor in this very small, you know, Trump oriented community rural conservative community in Northeast Pennsylvania. And it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, and it’s a wonderful film, a Dutch journalist and Max Westerman made it he’s a longtime friend of mine, had been the US correspondent for Dutch television. And when I told him I was running for mayor, he thought I was crazy. Why on earth are you doing that in this incredibly conservative area. And so he came here and ended up making a film called My Friend, the Mayor, Small Town Democracy in the age of Trump, since I’m still the mayor, and got reelected, and I put on my mayor and Milford promotion hat. I think it gives a really wonderful depiction of our community, which has a growing and thriving gay component now as well.
Brad Shreve: 8:41
If I’m correct, you were an interim mayor. And then you were actually elected twice. Is that correct?
Sean Strub: 8:46
That’s correct. I was appointed. I had run the campaign for what became a majority on our Borough Council. And the mayor then resigned when that majority took office. And no one ever thought I could get elected to anything. So it’s just kind of like, okay, let’s Sean do it. The mayor does. The mayor runs the police department, that’s the one area I have real authority, but otherwise, I don’t have much authority. And it’s sort of ironic that in my mayor role, I run a police department. And in my activist role, I’m dealing with some of the worst abuses and horrific aspects of the criminal justice system. So they appointed me to complete the term of the mayor who had resigned, with no one including me expecting that I would run for reelection. And it turned out I, I enjoyed the job, I felt like I was being effective. And as the community got to know me, you know, they looked beyond the labels and their own sort of, you know, assumptions about, you know, me being some liberal left wing, commie, pinko fag, or whatever. And it really understood that, you know, in a mayor, the most important thing is competency, that it’s not a republican or democratic way to pick up the garbage or plow the streets. So I decided to run for it. And, and that was in 2017. And I was running against the great grandson of a former mayor who was very deeply rooted in the community. His Father had been with the sheriff’s department for decades. His grandfather had been with our volunteer fire department for even longer and he was a former member of the council and about half that community. I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that he would not win. But it was just slightly less than half the voters thought. So I did win and and then ran for reelection last year and and won by a larger margin.
Brad Shreve: 10:42
That is so fantastic. We obviously need more LGBTQ people in public office, and it is happening. And I think we neglect the importance of running in local elections. That’s where things really get started. And it’s really a lot of laws that affect us more on a day to day basis. But I want to get back to an earlier time. You grew up in Iowa, somewhat conservative, it’s a mix of conservative and liberal. It’s kind of a strange state. You attended a Jesuit boarding school. But after high school, you went east, you got out there. But I’m curious, was there what we would consider a coming up period for you?
Sean Strub: 11:24
Sure. I grew up in Iowa, which at the time, the state was quite politically progressive. We had one of the most liberal congressional delegations in of any state in the country in the United States Congress in the mid 1970s. That changed, of course, but I was in Iowa City, which is a university community and reflects, you know, more progressive values. You know, when I first you know, realized I was attracted to men, you know, it was was typical, repressed that, for a while I looked at the priesthood, you know, when I realized this wasn’t going to go away. I then began to, you know, embrace it politically through activism. When I was 17 years old, before I was out to my parents, as a school project, I did a sort of newspaper kind of thing, you know, fake newspaper that we mimeographed. And I included an article in that advocating for gay marriage, and another one for reproductive rights, and another one for legalizing marijuana. And we endorsed Morris Udall for president who was a wonderful member of Congress running for president at the time. So that was what I kind of trace is my first overt, you know, gay advocacy or whatever. Although it was more covert, because I wasn’t out yet. Then I moved to Washington after high school. And that’s really where I came out. I was going to school at Georgetown, I was working on Capitol Hill for US senator, and kind of entered into that, you know, mid 70s, deeply closeted gay political milieu, in Washington, which, interestingly, at that time, you know, in the bars and in social circles amongst, you know, the gay men who are out enough to have a gay social circle, political differences, were not an issue. I mean, you’d go to a party, and you’d be there with people who are staffers for right wing members of Congress, and there might be a right wing member of Congress, as well as those on the left. Because the brutality and intensity of the repression, our shared closet was so powerful that that gave us more in common. This has been a time when, you know, I never attempted suicide. But I spent a number of years where I believed that if anyone knew I was gay, if it ever came out about me being gay, and my parents, my family said that my only recourse would be to end my own life. That was somebody who wasn’t very conscious thought in my head. I didn’t want to do that. But that’s what I just believe that would be the only choice I would have. Then that began to change. In the mid 70s. the gay rights movement grew out of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. It was really a sexual freedom movement that had something to offer everyone gay or straight or whatever and liberate oneself sexually. Then it became more about gay rights or added that and about political reform. And Bella Abzug and Ed Koch introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress in 1974. A number of gay rights ordinances non discrimination ordinances were passed at a municipal level in a number of college towns, including Iowa City and Ann Arbor and Eugene, Oregon, I think Wichita pass one prayer early St. Paul passed when primarily then, there was Dade County, Florida, a lovely woman. So Anita Bryant, who was the spokesman, former beauty queen, spokesperson for the Florida orange juice industry with that annoying jingle, it still pops up in my head once in a while, took on a campaign to save our children and to defeat this ordinance. And that was kind of the first national political effort were gay people from around the country and others, you know, donated to, you know, have a response to that, and we lost miserably. So, now that was 1977. In 1978. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1979. I think it was 70 and early 80. Or The Ramrod shootings in New York, which are kind of an obscure note in history, but were very important at the time a mentally ill man went into a gay bar The Ramrod in the West Village and shouted up and killed several people. I think he was screaming homophobe get grants. And then Ronald Reagan got elected. And that was a real, you know, we see, in retrospect, a really important shift to the right, for the body politic. And he, a lot of this election was credited to the rising activism of angelical Christians, in particular, the Moral Majority. Now, up until this time, you know, most people when they thought about homosexuality, which most people did not very often, you know, very few people even acknowledged that they knew someone who is homosexual, they thought about it, it’s like, on that list of biblical sins, you know, fornication, or this or that, or whatever, bestiality, you know, alcoholism, it was seen as an aberrant behavior, as opposed to a type of person. And Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant, really advanced, the idea that homosexuals, these individuals, these people were a threat. They were a person that was, you know, a guy in your neighborhood that changed things. And then in 1981, the epidemic hit. And at that time, you know, the LGBT rights movement, which was mostly a gay rights movement with a little bit of L in it, in terms of how it was, you know, labeled and identified was new, you know, it was unclear whether this was just a peculiar feature of politics, you know, in recent years, or was something that was really going to become the major movement that it was that I can tell you that as you know, already, you know, identifying myself to myself as a gay activist at that time, it felt like there was a target on our back from Ronald Reagan, and Jerry Falwell, and The Ramrod shootings, and Anita Bryant, and Harvey Milk, you know, all of that happened in a very short period of time, and the epidemic. And, you know, I knew some people who died very early on and kind of got involved in early on, I was already kind of politicize both around my, you know, identity as a gay person, but also around the politics of healthcare. Because my political consciousness in Iowa City didn’t arise through being, you know, through gay stuff. It was mostly through the reproductive rights and women’s movement, and through actually anti war activism as well. But I already already understood how health care in the country, you know, was highly politicized. And, you know, who had the privilege to access different kinds of health care. So that just carried right into the epidemic for me and by 1984. So, my life my career plans, anything I thought about my future had kind of been hijacked into, you know, AIDS advocacy.
Brad Shreve: 18:47
Let’s get to the Sero Project, because that’s what you have going on right now. I read a little bit about it. And I could tell people, but really, we’re here to listen to you. What is your organization? You founded it correct?
Sean Strub: 19:02
Yes. You know, starting an organization always involves more than one person. But I was sort of coordinated and initiated the idea. The Sero Project is a US based network of people living with HIV, combating stigma, discrimination, and criminalization, which I’ll explain in a moment. And seeking to build stronger community empowerment amongst people with HIV. Sometimes I tell people to think of what I do is like a labor organizer. But instead of organizing workers, I try and organize people with HIV, to speak with collective voices and to make sure we are at the table and participating in the decisions that so profoundly affect our lives. HIV criminalization, is, to me the most extreme manifestation of stigma or discrimination. One example of it is when the government makes different laws for different people based on their viral status. And about two thirds of the states have HIV specific laws that only apply to people with HIV that enhance penalties. So if you’re charged with assault, if you also have HIV, it might become a felony. Or if you’re charged with prostitution, it might become a more serious penalty. It’s one of the reasons why a man in Texas Willie Campbell is serving 35 years for spitting at a police officer spinnings not very attractive behavior. And maybe it’s you know, appropriate for a misdemeanor or something minor misdemeanor, but because he had HIV, it is classified as a felony. And so he’s now in a cage because of that. Many of the cases involve the person with HIV not being able to prove they had this disclose their HIV status prior to becoming intimate with another person, sexually intimate, regardless has nothing to do with whether or not there was a risk of HIV transmission. It has nothing to do with, you know what kind of sexual behaviors they engaged in, it’s just whether the person can prove they had disclosed this or not. So as you can imagine, a lot of these cases become, you know, bad breakups, and a disgruntled partner, you know, goes to the police and says, you know, the person didn’t disclose, or they didn’t disclose, you know, it’s private, personal information. And particularly, today, when, you know, when somebody’s on effective treatment poses no risk of transmission, we all want partners who will care for us and protect us. And, you know, no one should knowingly put another person at risk of harm, but context is important. And you know, people meeting for anonymous hookups or in you know, sex clubs or bathhouses, or just regular date, it may or may not be a safe and appropriate place for a person with HIV to disclose their status, it’s their personal medical information, when any of us choose to become sexually intimate with another person that carries a certain responsibility, you know, we know their risk, their emotional risks, there are all kinds of of risks of sexually transmitted infections, and and we need to be responsible for that and take the measures appropriate to protect ourselves. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting people in prison for decades for behaviors that pose no risk, The Sero Project filed, right to know and freedom of information requests with, I think, a couple 1000 prosecutorial districts around the country, you know, local county prosecutors. And we identified about 1600 instances when people with HIV were charged under HIV specific statutes, the number of times that HIV transmission was a factor in these cases, less than 5%. Very, very rarely was their transmission. So the center project has been over the last decade, first of all, educating people about this, both people with HIV so they can protect themselves from from the legal burden. And the community and, you know, other human rights organizations so we can create the coalition’s necessary to affect change. And in fact, we have been successful. There are a lot of organizations working on this now, which I’m really grateful for. But the laws have been changed in Iowa and Colorado and California and Michigan. And I know I’m missing one or two, North Carolina, Georgia. So you know, progress can be made. And, and we’ve been doing that the We also host a biannual conference called HIV is not a crime, where several 100 really grassroots activists, senator from the front lines around the country, come together and get training and work collaboratively to create strategies and move us forward.
Brad Shreve: 24:01
The person getting 35 years for spitting is disgusting. But what shakes me up is the person that when they break up, they then accuse their ex partner of not telling them because that makes it so we almost when you begin a relationship, you feel like you have to sign a contract.
Sean Strub: 24:22
We actually have a template form that we made kind of first is just sort of illustrate the point and then people started using it. And that’s not, you know, that’s certainly not the preponderance of cases. That’s just one circumstance. I always tell people when you’re thinking about HIV criminalization, think about your worst breakup, and what you or your former partner might have done or said in a moment of anger, you know, and, you know, but if somebody talks to the police or files a complaint, the toothpaste is out of the tube. There are a lot of cases where somebody, you know, did that and then regretted it, and tried to retract it and unsuccessfully, a member of our Board of Directors of the Sero Project is Kerry Thomas, and Kerry is incarcerated in Idaho. He was convicted of not being able to prove you had disclosed, and I say this not being able to prove your disclose because sometimes people do disclose and somebody else lies, or there’s a misunderstanding. You know, I thought you knew what POZ meant. Or you were over at my house, you saw my AIDS meds you saw I had POZ magazine on the on the table, you know, I’m involved in AIDS activism, you know, you didn’t think that, you know, I had HIV. So there are different kinds of ways that this arises. In this case, Kerry was dating a woman and they broke up, the woman went back to her ex partner who initiated actions that led to Kerry being charged Just with non disclosure, even though he had been in the newspapers and the front page in the newspaper and in Boise, Idaho, where it was from as a person living with HIV, no one ever alleged that it was transmitted, and there was even the accuser even acknowledged their use of condoms. So no transmission, acknowledged use of condoms. He already was public as a person with HIV in his community. And he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served about 10 or 11 of those years, and several participant in effort to get a sentence commuted. And we hope that he’ll be released sometime next year.
Brad Shreve: 26:25
Well, I guess I had no idea was this prevalent, and I no offense here. I look forward to the day that you and your staff become irrelevant, and you lose your jobs. And I’m gonna guess that you feel the same way.
Sean Strub: 26:43
Absolutely. The folks with SERO Project, Tami Haught our managing director Kamaria Laffrey, soon to be our co-Managing Director, Cindy Stein, A whole group of us are just unbelievably passionate and dedicated to this work.
Brad Shreve: 26:59
Early you mentioned 1981, which many of us know is when the shit hits the fan. There were whispers of gay cancer then, because HIV and AIDS wasn’t used yet. But let’s go back to what you were talking about earlier. And that is how things were in the 1970s. Yes, we had an Anita Bryant and we had her Jerry Falwell’s. Yet it was also an amazing time, we had gay communities developing more gay bookstores, bathhouses, which were kind of becoming community centers. In I saw an interview with producer Howard Roseman, and he referred to that era as sheer magic. Do you agree?
Sean Strub: 27:43
I’m not sure I’d use that phrase. But the era, the years between Stonewall and the advent of the epidemic, were really unique. You know, it was a time of the sense of sexual liberation of finding community, the growth of the the gayborhood, the kind of advocate generation of gay men who are coming out of the closet, not going back, the bookstores, the explosion of, you know, sort of gay cultural outlets, the beginning of the first community centers, which you’re right are often in the bathhouses in the bars. That was really exciting that was even amidst these threats, but as a community becomes visible, it becomes visible to its opponents, its enemies, as well, to those who, you know, who would harm it or kill it, the opposition rises with the empowerment of the community. And we see this, you know, trans community today that’s, you know, sad and painful and was really costly for us, but not altogether. Unexpected. I’m not sure. You can’t say that. The epidemic itself, in some ways is a response a, a consequence of the harm that have been inflicted on gay men in recent decades. You know, we grew up not knowing about our bodies not being educated about sexual health, alienated from our families, or our faith communities are schools, and then finding each other, and literally sexual expression was, you know, for many synonymous with with freedom and with finding oneself and we sort of reveled in that. Yeah, it was a pretty amazing time. It’s an amazing time to be a teenager in the 70s. Let me tell you that
Brad Shreve: 29:40
you were diagnosed with HIV in 1985,
Sean Strub: 29:44
when the test came out, yep.
Brad Shreve: 29:46
And during that time period, a lot of men and women who were tested positive, they just kind of gave up and accepted the inevitable. You did the exact opposite. What do you think makes you different? What is it in you that is just a fighter?
Sean Strub: 30:06
Well, I mean, use the word inevitable. And I think that it is understandable why people believe that death from AIDS was inevitable, because that’s all they were ever told, you know, in the media, every time it was referenced. Inevitably fatal. dread disease, no survivors. No treatment.
Brad Shreve: 30:26
And I want to clarify, I wasn’t speaking my words I was speaking on.
Sean Strub: 30:30
No, no, no, no, no,
Brad Shreve: 30:31
I was speaking on that perception.
Sean Strub: 30:33
No, I understand that entirely. You know, that is the media context that people heard about this. And then you add on top of that people who are isolated, they’re closeted. geographically isolated, they don’t, you know, there’s no internet. But in my life despite getting this diagnosis, which didn’t particularly surprise me at the time, I had had symptoms. So, you know, and I had been involved in the epidemic. So I was surrounded with people who had HIV who were leading vital, exciting lives, even as there was, you know, an unbearable undescribable amount of pain and loss, you know, going to more memorial services and funerals than birthday parties and celebrations. And the I early on was fortunate to meet Michael Callen. And we became friends. And Michael wrote a book called Surviving AIDS in his writing in 1989. I think it came out in 90. And at the time, there were people very critical of him sort of putting out it was called cruel, hope, someone said it was it was by titling Surviving AIDS, he was giving cruel hope. And Michael said, There’s no such thing as cruel hope, hope is hope. But what he did is he went out and talked to about a dozen long term survivors at that time, and 1990, which meant people who had lived three or four years their diagnosis, and he found in general terms that they had three things in common. First, they believed survival was possible. That was within their, their, their imagination. And I remember at the time, I’d read some article about different types of cancers, right. And it’s this one, the survivability rate of different cancers, and the most fatal form of cancer was like 96%. Fatal, that meant 4% survived. Well, that’s one out of 25. Not great odds. But a big difference from no survivors at all right. And that, like my brain processed it that way. The second thing he found was, there were people who could articulate a reason for living. mean, there was something they were looking forward to, there was an expectation they had, right. They were raising a child, or they were making art, or there were things going on in their lives, right, they weren’t ready to leave yet. And they do that in the third. And this is a really important one. And these lessons, I think, principles are applicable to any kind of, you know, life threatening health condition. But the third was when asked what they had done to treat themselves because remember, at this time, there were virtually no treatments, there was AZT, which was, you know, over prescribed and poisonous and killing some people and helping other people. When asked what they had done. Michael said, it wasn’t what they said, because people were doing everything, you know, macrobiotics, and sea algae enemas, and massage and acupuncture and egg lipids and toast spread and experimental things, natural things. It wasn’t so much what they said it was the length of the list. Because, you know, people who survived were very often the ones who went seeking survival, and trying and out there learning about bodies and different strategies that that worked. So that kind of, you know, I believed it was possible someone was going to survive, I didn’t have a lot of confidence, that would be me. But I had gone to someone would survive to tell that tale. I had lots of things I wanted to do in my life. I was a young person, I was ambitious. And I was eager to learn everything I could, and, and try all sorts of different things. And I tried a lot of different, you know, sometimes maybe people thought they were crazy things. But it wasn’t real expensive. And it wasn’t posing a health risk. You know, I was like, why not? You know, my father is very devout Catholic, and I think he credits my survival in some part to, to his prayers and going to First Friday masses, nine months in a row. And who am I to tell him that he’s wrong, you know. So, it was it was fine, everything. And then that turned me into becoming a source of information. You know, I live in the village, you know, I live in the epicenter of the epidemic. So I that gave me a lot of privilege, right, and a lot of access to information, other people going through, you know, similar things. And, you know, at the ACT UP meetings, you know, I used to pick up all the material, because early on, you know, there weren’t brochures from AIDS organizations, you know, I mean, a lot of it was like handwritten stuff that people would Xerox. So you know, I got the spot on my leg. And the doctor says is this and we did that. And it was sharing information among those of us dealing with us. And I would pick everything up and then copy it. And my company had a fax machine, which is new technology at that time. So we’d fax some around, and then we started copying it off and sending it out to friends around the country. And then that grew and turned into a newsletter that ultimately became POZ Magazine. You know, we coined the word POZ you know, it’s kind of entered the vernacular now as he is POZ right. But it wasn’t, then we had to explain to people what it meant. And it was intentionally chosen. Because it was also a new blood entendre for acting positively thinking positively taking control was sort of the idea. You know, I knew that when I got cold feet, or a feeling in the pit of my stomach, or the hair on the back of my neck, you know, Rose, that those are physiological reactions to some kind of intellectual or external, informational stimulus, right? It was afraid or I was excited, or whatever it was. And it just seemed to me like one’s immune system must work in the same way. If it was assaulted with death sentence messages, it just didn’t know work as hard. It doesn’t see the point either. So POZ was really about highlighting people I knew and admired. And you know, what they were doing with their lives both to deal with their illness, but but also, with with their whole lives, treating this holistically with that possibility of survival, showing the example of others, which I found so inspiring to me. And that’s that’s where POZ came from.
Brad Shreve: 37:08
Right now, you can do yourself a favor, it won’t take but a moment, it’s easy as hell, and you will not miss a single second of this episode, look at the app that you’re on, whether you’re on the phone or on the computer, and look for the button that says either subscribe, or follow. Now take your finger and click that button. And from this point forward, you’ll be notified every time a new episode of Queer We Are comes out, so you won’t miss a single episode. This has been a public service announcement. I guess about 20 years ago, or so there was a campaign in LA. And it may actually have only been in West Hollywood. They hung banners along the street with people smiling and talking about some of the activities they do like water skiing or motorsports. I don’t know what all they did. And the final words on the poster were I’m positive. And there was pushback from some because they believe the campaign was implying that HIV is no big deal. What do you have to say about that?
Sean Strub: 38:24
It is there? Is it a difficult tension between telling people who have this virus, you can still lead your life? You know, they’re all whether back then or today, right? That, you know, yes, this is a big burden. And it’s expensive, and you know, changes all sorts of things in your life, you silly, at the same time, that maybe you don’t want to get this virus you want to discourage you want to encourage people to, you know, take the measures to protect themselves to avoid getting the virus because it’s a really life changing, right? It it. In addition to the threat to one’s health, it’s expensive. It’s intrusive in your life, it profoundly changes social relationships, it makes dating and all that kind of thing that much more difficult, you gotta be able to send both those messages. If it’s veered off to one end or the other. You’re not being fair. It’s like, it’s like the other end of that, you know, are the ads that were so grim. And literally, some had the Grim Reaper and it was like, Oh, my God, if you get this, you’re going to die the most horrible, awful, horrific death. You know, I don’t know that may or may not change some behaviors in the short term, make people you know, whatever, frighten them into something, but long term that is not healthy, that is not effective, and contributes to the sense of hopelessness and despair when a person is diagnosed. Ashamed doesn’t work either. Shame and fear are not real good, long term, public health strategies.
Brad Shreve: 39:57
I agree, it is not at all. When you launched POZ magazine, it was when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. It was either that year or the year before that we had the highest AIDS related death rate. And you scrimped and saved to launch that magazine. And it was during a time you became very ill.
Sean Strub: 40:19
First issue came out in 1994. But a few months after the first issue came out, I was diagnosed with Cappasity sarcoma, and that was unmistakable. Right. That was the scarlet letter that announced your disease to others, you know, you know, that was huge. And that was your listeners who aren’t familiar this capsule sarcoma was. I think it’s a cancer of the blood vessels. On that created red and purple spots are splotches on a person’s body. Tom Hanks in the movie Philadelphia, you know, they showed him with with with cast at the time, there wasn’t any treatment to get rid of them or to slow their progression. And so what people would do, they would have them cut out surgically, which, if you had one right in your nose and you took out, okay, you didn’t have it on your nose anymore, they would sort of zap them with a chemotherapeutic agent that would shrink that specific lesion. It didn’t do anything systemically or to slow them, but that one, you know, would make it go away, or cover them with makeup. You know, my view was, you know, first of all, I was already out, the whole world knew I had this thing, I was publishing the magazine, I spent more time at doctors than I wanted to, I didn’t want to go anymore. And so I didn’t worry about it, you know, I just let them you know, Blossom over my body, because there wasn’t anything that would slow them down. You know, and I remember, you know, walking in the village and little kids would point and their mothers would pull them closer to them. And you know, dogs would bark at me, you’re kind of like a spectacle, because again, it sort of announced it, particularly as they became more more severe.
Brad Shreve: 42:02
So you founded POZ magazine during that time when things were looking bleak for you. Am I correct that you didn’t think you’re going to see the magazine really take off that you were likely to die before that happened?
Sean Strub: 42:17
Oh, yeah, no, I was elated when I was there for the first anniversary. But when I started it, starting a magazine is not inexpensive. So you know, I had savings. But then I also had insurance or life insurance that I sold one of these viatical insurance settlement companies and use that money to start the magazine, which concerned some people, my family and some close to me one person even question whether my mental health was was, and was all there, using this money to start the magazine. But I saw it, I guess there was some ego I saw that someone is, you know, legacy, I wanted to do something really well done and beautiful. But I also knew how how powerful its message was, you know, hearing from other people with HIV and how they did things. You know, one of the things we did in POZ that was one of the really most popular features of the magazine was that every month we ran my lab work, literally the report from met path or LabCorp, whoever the lab was at the time quest, we would scan it and run it in the magazine, I think we blotted out my social security number. And then every month, different doctors would comment on it, or we would explain the different things and you know, what is your abdomen level? And what does it mean? What is the hematocrit, you know, all those different measures and values in the thing that you get that don’t necessarily understand. Frequently, we would have doctors who were expert, well respected as informed and knowledgeable, you know, any clinicians on the disease, give conflicting advice. My very favorite one was, was probably the one that we ran, I think it was when my CD for count was one, you know, and, you know, the first doctor said Sean is very, very, very ill. And what he needs to do, as soon as possible is you know, A, B and C. And then a couple paragraphs later, we had the other doctor commenting on it. And the other doctor was saying, this is a critical time for Shawn. What he should really be careful is not to do, you know, A, B and C, basically kind of opposite advice. And, you know, but that was the reality out there for people with HIV. You could get conflicting advice from from people who are well informed and well intentioned, because so little was known about it. And you know, POZ really helped us recognize that those of us who had the disease, you know, who had that lived experience, I guess, is the phrase we use today had something enormously important to contribute. And in learning from us, that’s what I used to tell people when selecting a doctor, you want a doctor because you want good advice and good treatment. But if you get a doctor who’s also curious about your experience, asking you questions is learning from what you have experienced with the disease. That’s a really good sign for a doctor.
Brad Shreve: 45:21
Before I let you go, I have a very important question to ask you. But I want to tell you something. Last week, I watched the film you made the short, HIV is not a Crime. And I want to tell you it was the first I heard of so many people being incarcerated just because they were HIV. I wanted to tell you I was absolutely stunned.
Sean Strub: 45:42
Well, thank you
Brad Shreve: 45:43
and it was incredibly powerful.
Sean Strub: 45:45
Anyone can watch that it’s both on YouTube if you Google SERO Project, or SERO Project dot com.
Brad Shreve: 45:57
Well, since you plugged that documentary, I also want to plug your book that you wrote a number of years ago, Body Counts A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival. And it was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. And your list of accolades that you’ve got is very impressive. Gloria Steinem, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Lily Tomlin, Judith Light, the San Francisco Chronicle it, I haven’t read it, but it sounds like a must read.
Sean Strub: 46:32
Well, it’s, well, I think it’s a must read, but I wrote it. The and what the what the publisher told me when when I was doing interviews, when the book came out, it was published by Scribner in 2014. She said in interviews, be sure to tell people that it has lots of sex and lots of celebrities in it. And I do tell a lot of stories I get into detail about my work with Keith Haring. Friendship with with Gore Vidal and Tennessee, Williams and others. The St. Patrick’s actually the book opens with at the demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, inside the church, when ACT UP interrupted a mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That was a very controversial action at the time, but historically turns out to have been, you know, an incredibly important action. So yes, body counts, which is, you know, I always urge people to buy it from your local independent bookstore if you can, and the film, and the film is called My Friend, the Mayor of Small Town Democracy in the age of Trump, and that’s on Amazon Prime streaming.
Brad Shreve: 47:52
Over the years, you’ve had one obstacle after another thrown at you, you’ve had nonstop activism, you were diagnosed with AIDS to the point that you thought you weren’t going to make it. You found it, I believe, four magazines, is that correct?
Sean Strub: 48:06
Brad Shreve: 48:07
You restored, owned and operated a hotel, which I saw the before and after pictures, and that was amazing. You, you’re the current Mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania, and have been for six years. So these days, things are looking bleak to a lot of people. We have the don’t say gay in Florida, books are being removed from libraries. There’s the looming danger that the same Supreme Court is considering revisiting over, I never get this right. Obergefell versus Hodges, which established marriage equality. There’s a lot of people that are feeling hopeless. What do you have to say to them? Well,
Sean Strub: 48:52
you know, with all those obstacles, and horrific things out there, there also are a lot of wonderful things and incredible opportunities, you know, anybody who meets, you know, these out, you know, young queer kids, and their activism and their passion is just, and their starting point is so different from ours, you know, my generation, a lot of us had to go through years of, you know, psychotherapy or, you know, substance abuse issues, or whatever, you know, we had to deal with before we dealt with being it when our kids are coming out just naturally with peers in middle school, in high school, the demographic is on our side, in terms of acceptance and awareness of it. But the rights, particularly the political rights, and things established under the law, are very fragile. And that is what I fear, people don’t understand, is that Oberfell and I share your challenge with remembering how to pronounce it. Obergfell can be overturned, you know, I can tell you that for most of the last half century, there are not many people who believe that Roe v Wade would ever be overturned. But there were passionate zealots on the other side, who worked strategically over the long term. And they succeeded in doing that. And anyone who doesn’t think that there aren’t many of those same people engaging in similar ambition to overturn, overfill or a number of other things. Whether it’s contraception or you know, whatever. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s happening is nuts because it absolutely is. You know, the far right in this country is has been on a roll. They have tasted blood and they are going for it further and further and further. All this stuff with Trump. It does not impair his Hardcore bass, you know, there’s that 25 30%, he really could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, they wouldn’t care. Because it represents a cultural shift in the set of values that they, they value. You know, in Germany, you know, right up to the end, there was a similar number that is still supported, fully in with enthusiasm, Adolph Hitler. So, you know, and these people have always been there, we’ve known these, you know, haters have been out there, but just in the last few years, they’ve been empowered and given space and, and been funded by your really major capital interests, working over the long term. So we need to understand that threat and be organizing to protect the gains that we have made. And by the way, we’re not going to protect them in isolation, we’re not going to be able to protect, just overfill if we’re not working, you know, on behalf of reproductive rights, and half of racial justice and racial equity, you cannot separate these movements anymore. You know, we’re, you’re 30 years ago, you know, someone’s role in the political system, my Oh, I’m an environmentalist, or I’m a feminist, or I’m a gay activist, I’m a civil rights activist. Well, if you aren’t all those things, you may focus your work on something more specific to that, but that you need to be working in coalition across that, that broad spectrum, because it is that broad swath when we come together, that we are the majority of the country, you know, our issues are the ones that the public favors. So we do have the muscle and the votes, if we organize it, and get it turned out, I am much less concerned about changing the mind of of those on the right, than I am about getting our own community, our own peers and friends and family members and allies and supporters, making sure they turn out to vote, making sure they turn out to vote, you know, I see a lot of people engaged in politics. You know, they ended up yelling at their uncle over the Thanksgiving table or, or, you know, arguing with people on Facebook, and I just hope they put as much effort into making sure they’re turning out those votes that will vote for us if they turn out. And when you have so many people who feel so neglected, harmed, disenfranchised from the political system, it’s tough to convince them why it is important for them to vote. Because when you live in that milieu, and particularly when it becomes you know, multigenerational is really tougher and tougher and tougher to envision a world where it’s different. But it can be, it can be and the key to it is making sure we get all of our friends and family and allies out to vote. I can’t say that strongly enough.
Brad Shreve: 53:44
I agree. We need to get them to vote. But I think it’s a little more than that. I think the left needs to get its act together. And what I mean by that is the right has done an incredible job of being organized. And strategic. Like you said, the majority of Americans support marriage equality, the majority of Americans strongly support abortion rights. But because they are so strategic, and have done such a great job, the will of the people has been cast to the side. I think that needs to change. And I agree 100%, we need to get out of the vote.
Sean Strub: 54:19
Just what I see locally with the campaigns and the local legislative race and county races and so on. It is exciting to see young people who have some idealism and hope and expectation of the future, even as many of them individually are leading what I think of as very difficult lives right now that they’re putting in the time and effort to benefit us all. And, you know, that is where I go to for hope, because it can be despairing, you know, you do this for a long time. And, you know, I think when I got involved in, in sort of social justice work, you know, somewhere at the back of my head, I thought at some point it would be solved, right? You know, we would get past the racism in the country. And that wouldn’t be a problem is you get into it, you realize, you know, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, it is a it is a value you carry with you to your life, you know, in the day that I die, whether it is tomorrow or a long time from now, they’re going to be all sorts of urgent things that still need help. It’s still need work, and it still needs attention. So we need to continue to build the movement for a justice and to protect what we have achieved.
Brad Shreve: 55:24
I’m going to stop the conversation here because I want to end on a high note and I think that we have listener, you can get links to Sean’s website as well as to the SERO Project in the show notes below. And if you go to Queer We Are dot com You can get more information about Sean Strub. I want to thank you again for being My guest it’s been a pleasure
Sean Strub: 55:45
Brad Thank you very much I’ve enjoyed our conversation