POZ Magazine's founder and advisory editor, executive director of the Sero Project and author of Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival.
OK, so maybe that all sounds like petty behind-the-scenes stuff no one else cares about.
But last night Ken Cole was on Chelsea Handler's Chelsea Lately and uttered another flat-out mistruth--a fabrication that is an insult to an entire community:
Handler: "How did you get involved with AIDS research?"
Cole: "This is was like 25 years ago and people weren't talking about AIDS then because stigma was so devastating (and arguably stigma has killed more people than the virus itself has), and the gay community wasn't speaking up, they were afraid to."
Nearly eight years to the day after Lennon's shooting, my partner Michael Misove died of cryptococcal meningitis on December 7. His loss only made this time in December that much more wrought with emotion and painful memory. While today is the 33rd anniversary of Lennon's death, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Michael's. The loss of a beloved partner wasn't an event I either wanted or tried to put behind me; it has stayed with me, a partnership in memory rather than person, bringing as much consolation as sorrow. Writing about Michael in Body Counts (he appears with me on the cover) has in a small way brought him back to life, at least for those who read the book, and that gives me joy.
Prior to his 1980 death, John Lennon wasn't an enormous presence in my life. I knew who he was, of course, and admired his political perspective and advocacy for peace. But music was not a big part of my life. Had I not stumbled upon his murder, I still would have seen his death as tragic, but it wouldn't have had a profound effect on me. In subsequent years, even when friends asked me about the incident, I usually changed the topic, noting I was just coincidentally passing by the building when I heard the shots.
But the truth is that it took a long time for me to understand a simple but powerful truth: what I saw that night affected my life in significant ways in the years to follow. The fall of 1980 was a peculiar time in my life and not just because of Lennon's death. It was also when I was infected with HIV and suffering seroconversion sickness. Ronald Reagan was elected President. And a mentally ill man with a machine gun shot up a gay bar in the West Village. I sometimes patronized that bar and I identified with the guys who were enjoying a beer one evening when gunfire erupted, killing several of them and injuring others.
What I saw at the Dakota that night reverberated in my life in unexpected ways -- through later AIDS charity interactions with Yoko Ono as well as from harassment from conspiracy theorists that ultimately led to the involvement of the FBI. When I began writing Body Counts, I wasn't sure how I would address Lennon's murder. But I knew I couldn't ignore it.
As I wrestled with those memories, I began to understand them in a new way that I found cathartic. Writing helped me finally expunge some lingering ghosts.
In December of 1980, I was 22 years old and thought I knew everything. I spoke calmly and clearly when CBS interviewed me. (The footage of me starts around :48 on this clip below.)
Today I watch that clip and see only my vulnerability. I understand better how trauma is something one must learn to live with -- and perhaps even learn from -- rather than just try to forget.
There is something kind of simplistic, if not cheesy, for someone who came so close to death to give thanks to their doctor for having "saved" them. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend didn't jump in a river to rescue me while I was drowning; he didn't race into an intersection to grab me out of the path of a vehicle hurtling towards me; he didn't talk me off a ledge when I was ready to jump.
How he saved me was by showing me how I could save myself, respecting me as an individual, acknowledging my mistakes without judgment and empowering me with information. He saved me by convincing me it was possible to be saved. For that, I am so very grateful.
Since my diagnosis, I've outlived three of the four doctors I had before Sonnabend, each of whom, while caring and compassionate, had sought to prepare me for my eventual death from AIDS. Joe was the first to prepare me for survival.
Sonnabend provided the encouragement and intellectual foundation for the people with HIV empowerment movement, spoke the truth about how sexually-transmitted infections were facilitating the spread of the epidemic, midwifed the activist team of Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, promoted PCP prophylaxis when the federal government refused, first proposed the concept of "safer sex," conceived of community-controlled collaborative research, launched the first AIDS-related publication and the first AIDS-related civil rights litigation was when his landlord kicked him out of his office for treating people with AIDS.
He has never sought attention for himself, had a publicist, written a book or otherwise taken steps to secure his place in history. That's a responsibility for us--those of us who have benefitted so greatly from his research, guidance and care--to take on, which I do gladly in Body Counts. I'm looking forward to December 15, when Dr. Joe will be honored by the Treatment Action Group, along with Olympia Dukakis and Anderson Cooper.
TAG's 2013 Research in Action Awards take place on December 15. For more information, please click here.
This piece was originally posted on my blog at www.SeanStrub.com this past Thanksgiving--a day on which we gave thanks for and saluted the heroes of the movement.