Proof Positive

Entrepreneurial spirit and a quest for social change have propelled Sean O'Brien Strub since he was a nine-year-old marching in anti-war protests and selling cinnamon toothpicks at a gift shop in Iowa City. He's done everything from running for Congress to producing an off-Broadway play. The latest result of his combined business acumen and passionate activism is POZ, a nationalbi-monthly magazine for people affected by AIDS (which these days is just about everyone). As the founder and the executive editor of POZ--as in HIV-positive--Strub (pronounced "stroob"), who is living with AIDS, is dedicated to covering the issues surrounding HIV and AIDS as no other publication does. it>POZ covers politics, media, entertainment, arts and sex all in the context of AIDS and HIV. It's glossy, colorful and well-written, drawing on the talents of writers, illustrators, photographers and designers from the likes of Vanity Fair, The Advocate, The Village Voice and The New Republic. One issue of POZ featured an examination of AIDS on the silver screen, an undercover investigation on anti-AIDS fanatic Fred Phelps and his clan and a report on a drug that synthesizes THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Another issue offered an AIDS fundraising special, a condom taste test and a fashion photographer's photo essay. POZ has the information you'd find in a medical journal presented in a form that's easily digested by readers who don't have medical degrees. The Gazette section reports AIDS-related news, including updates on medical research and obituaries. The POZ Partner section is full of "ideas and resources for survival," such as essential phone numbers for payment assistance and guidelines for choosing a home health agency. "What This Means" is a very personal regular feature in which physicians analyze Strub's lab tests and medical conditions in order to help readers understand their own. Strub's liver values are the subject in POZ No. 7 , and in POZ No. 8 an opthamologist writes about examining Strub's eyes for HIV -related problems. But the core of POZ's power is the profiles. Every face that graces the cover is that of a person who has AIDS or is HIV-positive-and is living a life. In a recent phone interview from Long Island, Strub explained POZ's basic premise: "By and large we focus on trying to tell the story of the epidemic through the personal stories of people who have survived it thus far. You know, we don't do a lot of stories on doctors or on institutions or on nonprofit organizations or on executive directors. We tell their stories through the peoplethemselves who are positive. I think that regardless of where someone is on the political issues or the cultural issues or the technical issues, everyone relates to other people and so we use that as the entree to get people's attention." The first issue premiered March 15, 1994, with a cover story in which Ty Ross, the grandson of former Arizona Senator and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, disclosed that he was HIV-positive. The covers of each of the following seven issues have all displayed a single face of an artist or activist, even an athlete-all living with AIDS or HIV. POZ No. 2 featured dancer Bill T. Jones. POZ No. 4 featured Mary Fisher, the Republican AIDS activist who rattled the 1992 Republican Convention. The most recent issue, POZ No. 8, features boxer Lamar Parks. But it was the cover of POZ No. 3 that has best fulfilled POZ's mission so far. That issue featured Pedro Zamora, the AIDS activist-turned-MTV-hero who brought his message of AIDS awareness to millions of "The Real Word" fans before he died last fall. "When we had Pedro Zamora on the cover, we had a lot of teenage kids pick up the magazine who had no idea what it was about. The yjust bought it because it had Pedro on the cover." After that issue, POZ received "some incredibly moving" letters that made Strub and his full-time editorial staff of four realize that "the magazine had a really profound impact on how [such audiences] view this issue.""In the early days of the epidemic it was clear to me that access to information was survival," Strub said. Through his own quest to be well-informed about new treatment options, Strub found that vast numbers of people who were positive and their physicians were not aware of successful treatment options, so that became the main focus of POZ: "to get information to people for whom it could improve the quality or length of their lives" One part of that mission is to send nearly half of the 100,000 copies of each issue to people whohave AIDS or are HIV-positive--free of charge. The Des Moines Register and CBS Evening News' just don't give you enough," Strub said, "and yet most people who have been profoundly impacted aren't going to read the technical newsletters or things that are more like homework. I wanted to come up with something that was interesting and provocative yet also informative, and that's what I try to do with POZ." Through POZ, Strub also works to challenge society's perceptions of what it means to have AIDS. "If I was a woman five years ago and had a malignant tumor on my breast and survived five years, I'd be called a 'breast cancer survivor,'" Strub said. "Statistically I'd still have a great chance of somefurther cancer complication, but I'd be called a breast cancer survivor. I've been HIV-positive probably for 16 or 17 years and I'm still called terminally ill. How long do I need to survive until I'm considered a survivor rather than terminal?" Strub explained that language is important when dealing with one's health because "to a large extent our bodies are cooperative organisms and if our mind is assaulted with 'fatal disease,' 'dreaded disease,' 'death sentence' and 'terminal illness' constantly, that's the message it sends to the body. So without any expectation of the chance of survival, you greatly diminish any chance there is." Thus, POZ's name takes on a greater meaning than just "HIV-positive." In POZ No. 2, Strub wrote: "If we believe ourselves to be terminally ill , then we void everything else about our lives. Our love, passion, vision and vitality. Our hopes and dreams. We might as well just plan the funeral and wait to die. POZ can't be shy about covering death, nor the ugly, painful and vicious aspects of AIDS. But we will aggressively cover the issues that survivors must face: Falling in love, breaking up, getting fired, getting promoted, making decisions about treatment, travel, financial planning and other issues." In other words, POZ is about life, not death.Sean O'Brien Strub is living proof that life does not end after you've tested positive for HIV. Strub has done more since he tested positive for HIV 10 years ago than most people do in their entire lives. The 37-year-old Iowa City native earned a reputation as a pioneer in direct marketing by starting his own company, Strubco, which specializes in brokering databases of gay and lesbianconsumers. He also co-founded the Uncommon Clout credit card, which raises money for AIDS, lesbian and gay non-profits and sends out a newsletter updating cardholders on gay-friendly companies. Strub also owns Community Prescription Service, a company that sends prescriptions through the mail and offers total insurance claim management to people with AIDS and HIV. In 1990, Strub ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in New York. His HIV status was never questioned by the mainstream press, and Strub said he would have been truthful if asked. "I wanted to get it into the press, and I finally did in an interview with the Advocate and they quoted me so it actually was in the press but oddly enough they didn't really pick up on it. At the time, Strub was HIV-positive but had not yet reached the stage of clinical AIDS diagnosis. The press missed the story by asking Strub if he had AIDS, but neglecting to question his HIV status. He lost the primary, but received 45 percent of the vote. Strub, who lives in Manhattan with his partner, Xavier Morales, has co-written two books about corporate America. Rating America's Corporate Conscience evaluates and ranks companies' "social performance." Cracking the Corporate Closet ranks the best and worst companies in terms of their attitudes policies and actions regarding gay issues. He also produced the successful off-Broadway play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The one-man play about growing up gay in America is currently playing to audiences in Argentina and Portugal.Then about two years ago, Strub began his latest venture. He sold his life insurance policy, and POZ came to life.Eight issues ago, Strub had a hard time convincing people that a magazine such as POZ was possible. "When I talked to advertisers or potential writers or other people, they just thought I was crazy," he explained. "There were people who thought I had really gone over the deep end and was getting dementia." Once people saw the first few issues of POZ, some still questioned whether there were enough stories to fill more issues. "Then, people who never would have guessed they would be reading a magazine that was dealing with these issues now eagerly await each issue, and we constantly are told by people that it's the only magazine they read cover to cover. But I have a habit o f doing things that other people don't understand until they see it, so I don't nee d that kind of approval or encouragement or support from others. I was very focused and had an extremely clear vision in my own head of what it could be and went ahead." While Strub might have had a clear vision of POZ, advertisers are still having trouble seeing it. In POZ No. 4, Strub wrote that while the magazine was far ahead of projections in both newsstands sales and subscriptions, ad sales were "significantly lagging." Advertisers in the magazine's first few issues were somewhat sparse compared with other magazines of the same quality. Large companies, such as Benetton and Perrier, were few compared with the numerous ads for pharmaceutical companies and viatical settlement corporations, which help people with AIDS sell their life insurance policies. Benetton and Perrier have disappeared, and the duller ads for nutritional supplements and water filters prevail, except for the recent Miller Brewing Company ads on the back cover urging readers to give generously to their local AIDS organizations. While ads for Strub-owned companies have begun appearing more frequently in recent issues, more and more ads for non-Strub companies are starting to fill POZ's pages. Strub said that ad sales are now picking up, but selling POZ to advertisers is not without its challenges. One problem is that advertisers don't want to market to a group of people they see as terminally ill. But, Strub said, it's becoming clear that people are living longer and longer with AIDS. "Now there's some research that shows that people, when they find out they're positive, theytend to accelerate their consuming patterns at the level they are able," Strub explained. "One travel agent told me that she thought half her customers were HIV-positive, gay men and she said whatever they can afford -- whether it's the around-the-world cruise or whether its taking the Greyhound bus to Dollywood -- they do it now rather than later." Strub said that advertisers also face the dilemma of wanting to be supportive of a community-empowered media, but don't want to look like they're trying to exploit it as a market niche, which was the case with Benetton. "That's been a problem because they'll come in once or twice just to be supportive," Strub said, "but they're afraid if they're in there all the time people will think that Benetton is looking to sell sweatshirts to people with AIDS, which isn't their point at all." Not only is it difficult to find and maintain advertisers, but it is also a challenge to get them to conform to POZ's positive attitude toward life with AIDS and HIV. Strub described some of the first ads for companies that specifically target people who are HIV-positive as "almost ghoulish. The ads themselves were selling somewhat impending death and we've worked very hard at getting that turned around so that what the viatical insurance companies are marketing is the life a person still has to lead." These advertisers once used disclaimers in their ads that said, 'this is not a person with AIDS, this is a professional model," but POZ solved that problemby helping to identify a group of people who are HIV-positive and willing to be openly-positive models. "Some of the ads even actually show people smiling now," Strub said.In recognizing a neglected audience, Strub also has opened himself up to criticism from those who believe that he is exploiting people who are living with AIDS and are HIV-positive. He argues that POZ is not a money-making endeavor. "There's virtually zero chance that this magazine will ever break even in my lifetime," he said. "In terms of my personal financial perspective, it'sa very, very foolish place to spend whatever resources I've collected." As for advertisers who are accused of exploiting people with AIDS and HIV, Strub said that it really depends on what kind of a service the advertiser is providing. "Companies that are making people aware of products they have that can improve someone's life are doing a service rather than exploiting by letting people know about it." Strub added that he thinks it's far more exploitive tomake "zillions of dollars off AIDS and not contribute to the community empowerment movements or not really provide information except through the filter of a direct company or agency or someone with an 'agenda.'" Some critics who are suspicious of POZ say that it is too slick. Strub said that the people who think a magazine about AIDS should be on newsprint and full of typos are in denial. "We seek very consciously to show people with KS lesions, people who are visibly ill, but the fact is the vast majority of the million people in this country who are positive don't look any sicker than the aver agefreshman at the University of Iowa. But that's not what people want to see. People have a level of denial around the issue. They want AIDS to look like someone very ill in the late stages in the hospital. And if it doesn't look like that and if it looks like someone who looks like them, it's threatening and very challenging for them." Strub speculates that this denial is one reason why the media frame AIDS in gloom and doom. "Most of it is about denial, about being frightened of something and not wanting to look at it objectively and honestly." But he also attributed the media's portrayal of AIDS to homophobia and the mystery surrounding the epidemic in its early days. Then people weren't identified as being positive until shortly before death. Now survivors live full lives for years after testing positive, but the media has failed to adjust itsportrayal to fit this reality. Strub calls the notion that AIDS equals death "one of the cruelest lies that have been told by the media, the government, drug companies and even some of the activists. When the mind is assaulted with these death messages, it has to be sending some kind of message to the immune system." Many leading clinicians and researchers agree that at least four or five percent of the people who are positive will never ever have any kind of immune suppression, according to Strub. "Now that's one out of or one out of 25 -- not great odds but it's a lot better than zero, and I think that those odds are going to climb quite substantially. There's a huge number of us who have already liv ed 15 years, and the average from seroconversion [the point at which a person changes from HIV-negative to positive] to clinically defined AIDS diagnosis is almost 12 years now. The numbers are far, far better than the popular myths and perceptions about it, and that's in spite of people being told that they're not going to live." Strub characterizes media coverage of AIDS as shallow. "I find anything on AIDS in the media is just wildly distorted or either overplayed or underplayed. The media, like our culture, want to talk in very simple terms, a kind of one-bug, one-drug, cause-and-a-cure kind of view in really simplistic black-and-white terms. AIDS is far more complicated than that as are so many things far more complicated than that." However, he's quick to add that the re"are people in the mainstream media who are tremendously dedicated and devoted and try very hard. But AIDS is one of millions of issues. We have to compete for real estate in the newspapers the same way every other issue does and the media's very subject to holding the very fickle interest of the American public at any given moment. I think that through Pedro's death and ElizabethGlaser's death and POZ as well, that there's been a little bit of a return to focus on it, but the fact is that the media's interest in AIDS is pretty directly related to the most recent celebrity who's died or gone public with it. It's sort of celebrity-driven like everything else."This spring, Strub announced that he had refinanced POZ and formed POZ Publishing with George Slowik, the publisher of Out magazine; Richard Perez Feria, editor-in-chief of POZ, and a private group of investors. The New Yorker attributed the decision to the fact that Strub had only one T-cell (indicating a risk of opportunistic infection) and implied that he had made thedecision for health reasons. Strub, who said he will continue to be involved with the magazine and retains a significant share of it, said it was largely a business decision. "What happened was, I spent a lot of money to get the thing started and around the end of last year, I started going around looking for investors and meeting with some of the big publishing companies to help take [POZ] to the next level," he explained.What he discovered was that these companies weren't interested in investing money in someone with only one T-cell. "I needed to come up with a new structure and a management team from a business side that was not in such immediate threat of becoming ill and incapacitated to justify outside investment. I'm basically turning over business management to this new group that will raise some money for [the magazine]." Strub said he made the decision in order to protect his investment. "The main thing is that I just wanted to make sure that what I had invested in the magazine both financially and emotionally didn't go away if I had to be hospitalized, because I wanted it to continue to grow and serve the community." Strub's health, while a factor, was not the primary reason he decided to refinance. In fact, Strub said he feels "pretty good. I have a lot of energy and adrenaline. My T-cells tripled from one to three, which is pretty much meaningless statistically." While Strub feels well, he does have to contend with medical problems, the most recent of which is Kaposi's sarcoma (KS), known as "the scarlet letter of AIDS." Strub has -25 Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, some of which have appeared on his face. The lesions bring what Strub describes as "a new era of this particular journey, because I'm starting to look somewhat disfigured and people can recognize it." Strub said he doesn't worry about it too much because, "I re movedmyself from this body some time ago--I never was somebody who went to the gym and defined myself through my muscles or anything like that, so I admit that I didn't have as much of an attachment in the first place, but what's sort of an expectation of physical decline for so long, you just kind of get used to it."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.