An Interview with Sean Strub
Sean Strub has done many notable things but he is best known as the publ
By Sidney Brinkley
It’s December 10, 1989 and AIDS activist Sean Strub is about to take part in what would become one of the most famous and controversial protests in ACT UP history: Stop the Church.
I am nervously sitting in a pew near the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York where John Cardinal O’Connor is about to celebrate Mass. It has been years since I attended a Catholic Mass and even longer since I took communion, the holiest sacraments, but that is why I am here. Looking up at the cathedral’s soaring nave, I remember the awe I felt as an altar boy at St. Mary’s in Iowa City and. later the anger when the Church betrayed me.
That’s the opening paragraph of Sean Strub’s anticipated AIDS memoir Body Counts which was published in January. Later that month I met with him in San Francisco as he began his book tour.
Though we had been in occasional email contact over the years, this was our first meeting face-to-face. I was surprised at how tall he is.
Sean Strub has been many things in his 56 years: political candidate, award-winning producer, successful businessman, author (Body Counts is not his first book), as well as a nationally known AIDS activist.
But he is best known as the publisher of the groundbreaking publication POZ, the magazine he founded in April, 1994 at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Given all he's done, and all the protests and demonstrations he's participated in over the years, I asked why he chose that particular one to open his book?
“It was a turning point in my relationship with the Church,” he said. “I had long before stopped going to Mass. Participating in that demonstration, in terms of my relationship with my parents, was about as tough as coming Out to them in the first place. It’s still a sore point. My dad’s one comment about the book was he thought I was too rough on the Church.
"It was also a year after Michael [Misove] (his lover) died. It had been a really intense year for me where I had just become frenetic in my activism. The week before I had produced a big auction for Act Up so I was personally strung out and so anxious about this demonstration. It had been so contentious within Act Up."
Why did you name it Body Counts?
“When I started writing this in bits and pieces three years ago, a friend moved to Milford [Pennsylvania] and I was showing him things that I was writing at the time. ‘Your story is really about the struggle for sovereignty over your body,’ he said. ‘Struggling against the abuse issues as a kid, the Church and struggling over control of your sexuality, struggling against the virus, struggling against the meds. Your ‘body’ is the theme that came through.’ And I said, ‘OK’ and that’s where the title came from.”
How long did it take to write the book?
"I was seriously working on it every day for about seven or eight months and about three years from the start to the end of the project. But I had several spurts before I was done with a lot of editing and re-writing."
Did you have a writing routine?
“I discovered it was hard for me to write unless I was also reading something. So I would have a couple of books that were provocative around the thing I was writing about. Whenever I was so busy I didn’t have time to read, I had a hard time writing, as well. Reading put me in the mind set to write.
"I’m most productive in those early morning hours before the day got busy. My office is on the first floor of my house. It’s like Grand Central Station by 10 AM. People in and out, dogs running around, neighbors' kids, and so those several hours in the morning were special."
I imagine that writing an AIDS memoir would be difficult and emotionally draining, recounting lost friends and lovers, reliving being sick and depressed. Were some parts harder to write than others?
“Yes, but some of the hardest parts were some of the parts I most wanted to share,” he says. “I really did focus on some of the incredibly intimate things, like the sexual abuse. I had moments when I would think, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to put this in here.’ “
Strub reveals how he was sexually abused as a child, and raped as an adult by a roommate while living in Washington, D.C.
“There are three and a half incidents that I relate in the book,” he said. “They weren't all of them. They were the ones I was most certain about and remembered enough of the specific details.
"The incident that I labeled as 'rape' occurred when I was an adult. It took me a very long time to call it for what it was and I thought, ‘Why is that?’ I think it relates to our perceptions of masculinity.
"The two incidents that happened when I was a child, one was a coach in junior high school, and that’s such a cliché. The other was an administrator at high school. I don’t label ‘them’ as rape in the book. I think of them in the context of abuse and I ended up with a sort of sympathy for the two men.”
Years later, during a hometown visit, Strub sought out his abusers. Both are now old men. One is a patient in a nursing home when Strub confronts him with a short but pointed speech.
By then he’s lived in Washington, D.C. and explored the seedy downtown adult book stores, moved to New York and visited sex clubs there like the Mineshaft.
But there's no guilt like Catholic guilt and as he confronts the men, it seemed to me as if Strub wanted to blame them for the active sex life he was now having.
Strub was a young gay man living in New York City during one of its most sexually decadent periods. Yes, the abuse was a terrible thing, but if he was saying he would’ve otherwise been a choirboy, that sounded a bit of a stretch to me.
“What the abuse did, combined with the Catholicism and not being taught anything about my body, anything about sexuality, it disconnected me from my body and I didn’t develop the respect and appreciation for my body — and my sexuality.
"How do you affirm a young person that’s making healthy sexual choices?” he asked. “You start by educating them about their body and I wasn’t.”
This, “not educated about my body” is a recurring theme with Strub. Several times during our conversation he would describe it that way. That his body was such a mystery to him is baffling to me.
A girl’s body is complex but a boy has two balls and a dick that he handles every day. What further education Strub needed about his body is still not clear.
“That was the psychological table that was set,” he says. “When I engaged in sexual behaviors as a adult, going to sex clubs, or doing whatever, I don’t want to say I wouldn’t have done those things, because I enjoyed it, have no shame about it, and don’t regret it.
"But I think If I had been raised with more respect for my body, and not had those abuse experiences, I would’ve experienced those things in a different and healthier way. But this is the complicated stuff. I’m still working some of these things out."