An Interview with Sean Strub
Though Body Counts opens with Strub at a now famous ACT UP protest, he
Though Body Counts opens with Strub at a now famous ACT UP protest, he'd been an AIDS activist before that, and, in retrospect, he finds that period more radical than what came later.
“One of the things I’m hoping to do with this book is to alert people to the activism that preceded ACT UP,” he says. “AIDS activism didn’t begin with ACT UP. In many ways the activism that preceded it was more radical than ACT UP”
The AIDS activism, and activists, that Strub is referring revolves around "The Denver Principles" and the group “People With AIDS Coalition” (PWAC), founded in 1983, four years before ACT UP. Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz, Michael Hirsch, and Vito Russo are a few of the key activists involved.
“The Denver Principles spawned the People with AIDS Coalition and the self-empowerment movement,” Strub said. “That was the recognition that institutions like the government did not serve us well. We were going to do it ourselves.
"We started research organizations. We started buyer’s clubs. We started service providers. Fuck ‘em! We will do it ourselves! That’s how it started out but it was really based on feminist health principles. "The Denver Principles made it a document but it was basically Our body Ourselves. This was really radical.”
In the spring of 1987 a new group founded by Larry Kramer appeared. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—ACT UP. Within a few months it would overshadow PWAC in the headlines with its dynamic protests.
Strub says ACT UP changed the focus of AIDS activism while introducing a new group of men that were distinctly different from those in PWAC.
“The distinction that I make about the men in ACT UP is this: the vast majority of them were White. They were middle-class, upper-middle class, and educated. Not everyone fit that profile but that was their mind-set.
"ACT UP wasn’t focused on people with AIDS," he said. "It was focused on the institutions of power: the FDA, the government, the pharmaceutical industry, and how do we put pressure on them to get them to do what they weren’t doing.”
Strub says ACT UP narrowed its focus even more as new drugs became available and though he sees the benefits of the push for better drugs, he feels there were other issues equally as important that were being pushed aside.
“The self-empowerment agenda, as exemplified by the People With AIDS Coalition, and the human rights based approach to the epidemic, became secondary to ACT UP. It became all about the treatment issues. It was treatment, treatment, treatment.
"Things like patient autonomy, privacy issues, and stigma were less important to ACT UP. And then what happened when combination therapy came out? The ‘survival drive’ was not as big a factor. A lot of gay White men left advocacy because they were no longer afraid of dying.”
Strub became intimately involved with ACT UP. He was already running a successful direct mail and fundraising consulting firm, and he used his skills to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the group.
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“For most White gay men of my generation and demographic milieu, the concept of discrimination around sexual orientation, I don’t want to say it isn’t real, but it’s theoretical, sort of ‘intellectual,’ than is practically lived out in our lives," Strub says.
"We’re still getting employed. We’re still getting housing. We are not facing the kinds of things that women, and people of color, and others live with daily.”
Body Counts is full of Strub’s life amongst his “demographic milieu” of A-Gays, celebrities, socialites, and folks living off trust funds.
We see him spending a weekend on the James Biddle estate outside Philly, then he’s at a party at an estate in Beverly Hills, does shots with Tennessee Williams in Key West, meets with Gore Vidal at his Italian palazzo, confers with Keith Haring in an opulent suite at the Ritz in Paris, attends lavish dinner parties where the White queens arrive in "floor-length" fur coats, and guests spout racist venom while dining off fine china.
“AIDS was the first time the System had not served us,” he says. “And we were shocked! It was a real wake-up call.
"There were people who came into that milieu with varying degrees of consciousness about other issues, but a lot of ACT UP was about survival for themselves."
Strub feels there are important lessons, and clues, from the past that could be of use now.
"Michael Callen, in the last year of his life, was telling everybody who would listen, we need to go back and look at the early years of the epidemic to understand where we are today and see where we might have got off on the wrong track."
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