It’s been been more than 30 years since activist and author Sean Strub was diagnosed with HIV, and every year since that moment he’s been making a major impact in the fight for justice for people with HIV. The activist-turned-politician founded Poz magazine and the Sero Project, and authored Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival. In 1990 Strub became the first openly HIV positive person to run for the U.S. Congress. Though he's now mayor of a small rural town, Strub continues to run Sero's anti-HIV criminalization efforts. His bio recounts a remarkable life that has intersected with some of the country's most interesting literati and artists, including Tennessee Williams, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Gore Vidal.
Strub just won his second term as mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania. He spoke to Plus after his recent election victory.
Strub’s history with Milford goes back over 20 years, when he got involved in restoring buildings and helping to launch festivals there, and eventually became engaged politically. Several years ago, he helped a group of candidates run for Borough Council. In a big upset, all five candidates that Strub supported won. Not long after, the mayor resigned mid-term. The council appointed Straub to complete the term, who then decided to run for a full term as mayor this year — and won.
“I'm sure it is an issue to some people, but I'm so out and have been so long, that it wasn't a surprise to anyone," says Strub. "As a public official, though, I am sensitive to what it felt like years ago when the LGBT community was so routinely ignored, belittled or marginalized by almost all elected officials and I try to treat every constituent, and every inquiry, with respect.”
A longtime proponent of HIV decriminalization, Strub reflects that the recent bill passed in California, “was a good step, and adds to the momentum, However legal reform is important and we have many more states to go, but that is only part of the problem. Having the government make a different law that only applies to some people in society is the most extreme manifestation of stigma. Ultimately, that stigma — which is persistent and deep-rooted against people living with HIV, queer people, POC, those who engage in sex work, use drugs, are undocumented, and all sorts of other characteristics — is what is used to define an other.”
Strub continues, “As long as there are communities that are disempowered, disenfranchised or marginalized, there will be stigma. Legal reform, or media campaigns, or other initiatives help in certain ways — but ultimately the only antidote for stigma is empowering individuals and communities. I think we spend too much of an effort trying to change the minds of the stigmatizers and not enough effort to lift up the stigmatized communities.”
Strub believes that while the legal reform work is important — as it has helped bring attention to the deeper stigma issues and has mobilized a lot of people — it ultimately needs to be backed up with the network building, peer-to-peer support and other strategies that truly reduce stigma.
In the future, Strub wants to see greater cohesion and organizing by people living with HIV, “In order for us to determine our own advocacy and policy agenda, define leadership of our choosing (rather than being represented by leaders chosen by others), enable us to speak with a collective voice, and provide to each other the peer-to-peer support that is vitally important to living successfully with HIV.”
Strub also wants to see more solidarity and cooperative efforts between PLHIV (people living with HIV) and advocacy efforts on behalf of those with other chronic health conditions or disabilities. “It would be nice if I lived long enough to see the U.S. Supreme Court render a decision that would make it unconstitutional to create different laws for different parts of society based on the viruses or pathogens one carries.”