Strub, Sean. “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival”, Scribner, 2013.
Loss, Hope, Survival
AIDS is certainly part of modern American history and for those of us who were alive during the epidemic, a mark was left that will never be erased. Sean Strub, the founder of POZ magazine, not only lived through it but is an activist, a producer and the first openly HIV-positive candidate for Congress. He has quite a story to tell that is not just about politics and AIDS but also one of loss, hope and survival.
After moving from Iowa to Washington, D.C. in 1976 to study at Georgetown University, Strub who had always been politically oriented soon landed a part-time job being an elevator man for the Senate. In 1976, not many gay men came out and Strub kept his sexuality secret. It was not long, however, that he found his way around political and social circles and he discovered the world of gay Washington where men often lived double lines. By the early 1980s, Strub was living in New York and the AIDS epidemic had exercised its hold on the city’s gay community. He soon was a regular on the “funeral circuit”. He was both scared and angry and became an activist and he and his group demanded research and fought discrimination. Then he received the news that he was HIV-positive and became involved with ACT UP, the somewhat radical organization that changed AIDS from just a disease to a powerful political movement.
There is a lot of history in this book as well as a look at New York City trying to survive the terrible epidemic. Strub was at that famous demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then again at the home of Jesse Helms. There are many famous names here—Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Keith Haring, Bill Clinton, and Yoko Ono. This is such an important book and an inspirational memoir of a period in time by one who was thee and part of it. This is the story of ordinary people who dared to demonstrate to save lives. I know that there are many who do not want to remember how it was and what we went through but Strub tells of it in a way that is humane and somehow he is able to channel pain into a hopeful future.
By the time that new drugs were ready to be used, Strub was emaciated and his skin was covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions which were the symbol of what the disease did to the body. Yet, he managed to rally and return to life. This is a life story as well as a near-death story not just of Strub but of thousands like him.
There is another side to Strub and that is his love of politics and justice. That was put on hold during the time that he was ill but at the same time he is a man who survived being sexually abused, rape and HIV yet he continues to fight for the rights of humankind an against any government that attempts to regulate our bodies. His journey is our journey—maybe not to the same degree but nonetheless he represents what all of us want. We watch his transformation from conservative Iowa to fight for human rights. His journey is as important to us as it was for him because his able to situate it within the bigger history of the time.
We see how the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s brought out the best and the worst in people. Strubs’ heroes are the ordinary men and women who fought to save lives. His enemies, and rightly so—are the public officials who did nothing to save lives and Reagan’s presidency will always be marked by this. This book is labeled as a memoir but it is so much more than that. I marvel at the author’s courage, humanity and honesty.