Activist Sean Strub bears witness to AIDS epidemic through personal experience

Sean Strub.
Sean Strub.

Today Sean Strub is known as an eloquent, groundbreaking AIDS activist and the man behind POZ magazine and the Sero project, a network of HIV+ people and their allies fighting HIV-related stigma and injustice.

In 1975, though, the 16-year-old Iowa native was not as well-spoken or at all well known.

While working as a page in the Iowa State Senate, Strub often hitched rides home from the capital with Gazette political journalist Frank Nye.

“Frank invited me to the house one night for dinner. There were these other people there, and we were talking politics. And one man seemed particularly well-informed and I turned to him and said, ‘Well, do you work in Washington?’ And everyone started laughing because he was the U.S. Senator from Iowa, Dick Clark.”

Though Strub was embarrassed, Clark found him “worthwhile” and got him an elevator post position in the U.S. Congress.

That post catapulted Strub out of Iowa and into the political scene of D.C., and later into the AIDS activism movement in New York City. Strub details his remarkable life in his new memoir, “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.”

Strub wrote “Body Counts” as a way to bear witness to the epidemic.

“I realized there are fewer and fewer of us who were on the front lines who are still around and can speak first hand about what happened. If we don’t tell the story, we’re going to be subject to the interpretations of others who will.

“And, quite frankly, I’ve experienced just how quickly people can forget. When I speak on college campuses, it’s astonishing how little young people — gay, straight, it doesn’t matter — how little they know about this relatively recent chapter in American history. When I tell them more than 12 times as many people have died of AIDS in the U.S. than died in total of the Vietnam War, they are astonished.”

Strub also found it important to document the leadership and activism present in the gay community at the time of the AIDS crisis.

“One of the things I do in the book that I don’t think has been done elsewhere is I take a more critical look, a deeper look, at the gay community’s leaderships’ own response to the epidemic — not to blame, but to understand. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that things might have been done differently — and we can learn from that for future things that come up.”

“I just tried to be as honest as I could when writing about myself and my community, even when it was painful.”

Strub was able to do this, he said, because there were times in his life when he couldn’t be honest.

“The experience of being gay and having this horrible secret in my teen years made me feel awful, especially having to be so dishonest to my family, my school, my church, everyone. And once I sort of burst out of that, I knew I wasn’t going to live a dishonest life. Being honest about who I was made it a lot easier to be honest about all sorts of other things.”

Strub was also aided, in part, by the sense of independence and self responsibility instilled in him by his mother.

“One of her favorite sayings was, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ She was orphaned at a very young age, grew up in a convent, learned independence self responsibility and conveyed that to her kids. There was a part of her that was fearless.”

Though Strub hasn’t called Iowa home in many years, he makes sure to tell people he’s an Iowa native.

“I’m really proud of Iowa and Iowa City. I also think telling people I’m from Iowa is important to understanding the person I am. One of the luckiest circumstances of my birth is the ZIP code where I was born. I grew up in a community with excellent schools, it was relatively diverse, it was politically and socially conscious, and so I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and experiences. I think that has had as much a part of shaping who I am than almost anything else.”


  • What: Sean Strub will read from “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival”

    Cedar Rapids: 5:30 p.m. Thursday at C Space, CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE. Also, book signing in New Bo Books.

    Iowa City: 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.

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