A politician, an activist, a journalist, an author, a survivor.
Is there anything Sean Strub hasn’t done?
The founder of POZ magazine, the first openly HIV positive person to ever run for Congress, and a whole resume of more accomplishments, Strub spoke with The Mirror about his life and his book “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.”
Strub’s story begins in his hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, where the youngster was surrounded by the student demonstrations at the University of Iowa. He witnessed the cry for black power, women’s liberation, and a plea to end the war in Vietnam. It also opened his eyes to his own sexuality.
“I started to become aware of gay people, and I do remember when I’d see posters for the gay people’s union at the University of Iowa,” he said.
When he was 16, he parked his car across from their meeting and watched members walk in and out of the church, seeing “live homosexual people,” people who were like him
Living near a politically active university, Strub became engrossed in politics in the summer of 1975 when Democratic candidates were crisscrossing the state. As a page in the state legislature, he drove them around the area. He met Iowa Sen. Dick Clark, who got him a job to run the senators-only elevator at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. — every day, he was surrounded by policymakers.
“I saw the process up close and for a political junkies, it was like a contact high every day,” he said. “I thought, at 17 years old, I had the greatest job in the world.”
In 1976, the country was celebrating its bicentennial, a time of rebirth for the country with the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War behind it. For Strub, he was also coming to grips with his attraction to men and feeling that it would be impossible to be gay and a politician.
Even so, Strub started hitting the nightlife scene and discovered the gay newspaper, The Washington Blade, where he was astonished that people in the paper were openly gay and used their real names.
Searching for a place where he could be open as well, he moved to New York City in 1979 after coming out to his parents. When he first moved to the city, he had an awakening after leaving Studio 54 with a friend, cutting through Central Park at 6 a.m., and for the first time, he held hands with a man in public.
“It felt so daring and so exciting and liberating,” Strub said. “I knew I had to live in that city, and that city would be a central part of my life for the rest of my life.”
The city would also become the center of the AIDS epidemic. In the first news story about the mysterious disease, Strub, then 23, read about three symptoms he was experiencing: weight loss, night sweats, and swollen lymph nodes. Then, in 1985, when he got sick over Labor Day weekend and there was finally a test — but still no treatment — the doctor had tears in his eyes when he told Strub he had two years at most to live.
“Most people didn’t take the test because if you had it, there was nothing you could do about it,” he said.
Strub sold his home in the city and bought a weekend house in Bucks County, Penn. and prepared for death. Then he discovered the People With AIDS Coalition, a group of people who were not sitting idly by waiting to die, but instead called for action. Then, he joined ACT UP and participated in the famed movement where they put a 35-foot canvas condom on the Washington, D.C. home of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who was opposed to government funding of AIDS research and treatment.
“We were going to more funerals and memorials than birthday parties,” Strub said. "We felt we were being allowed to die.”
In 1990, Strub became the first openly HIV positive person to run for Congress. He then founded POZ magazine in 1994 and also produced “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.” In 1996, when a treatment therapy was finally available, he jumped back from near death and has since been a huge advocate for HIV patients and a litany of other causes.
“Those years showed the very best face of the LGBT community. It showed an incredible outpouring of love and mutual support and a transcendent of things that had divided this community with the broader society,” he said.
Visit SeanStrub.com for more information on Strub.