Body Counts: Sean Strub Talks Gratitude for AIDS Survival

Gratitude defines the life of an activist and AIDS survivor.

Posted Feb 26, 2014

Sean Strub

Sometimes lives criss-cross. Coming upon Sean Strub was one of those serendipitous moments when one of my sisters recently moved to Milford, Pennsylvania. She became enchanted with the town and the energy of the co-owner of the Hotel Fauchere, one of the few in the United States designated as a Relais & Châteaux. Trying to convince me to visit, she began by telling me about the hotel. And then she talked about his book asking how it was that in my travels at Yale’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health—working on policy issues for chemically dependent mothers—I had not met Sean Strub, author of the recently released Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.

Then I began thinking of one of my classmates and friend who came from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Health Collective, Bill Sabella. I recalled that Yale had it own story of AIDS which was talked about quietly among researchers and in our classes. But even as grant funding came through Yale began to witness colleagues dying: William Sabella, 47, An Educator on AIDS. And "yes" activist Strub is well-known there. As such, answers to questions I posed to him were a reminder of the gratitude expressed by advocates, survivors, and those still in the trenches.

What compelled you to write Body Counts, given the time demanded of such a draining process?

Sean Strub: “I resisted writing about the epidemic for years after my health returned. After coming so close to death, my life had changed and I needed to chill out for a while and reassess, try to understand why I survived when so many others didn't and find new meaning and purpose in my life.

“But at a certain point I realized how quickly history can be forgotten and how vulnerable it was to being rewritten or twisted to suit some agenda. That, combined with the fact that there are fewer and fewer of us around who can speak first-hand from the frontlines, led me to feel a sense of obligation to witness, share what I experienced and hope there are lessons from the past that are relevant to how we address the epidemic today.

“I understand how easy it is to forget governmental malevolence or indifference, and societal neglect, on a massive scale.” 

How do you make time to be an advocate, businessman, organizer, and writer with a hotel to run?

Sean Strub: “I have always been a multi-tasker who gets bored easily and need multiple challenges at any given time to hold my attention.

“I also find it therapeutic to be able to switch from one focus to another, particularly to relieve the intensity and sometimes despair I feel when addressing the epidemic and systemic social injustices.  Writing ‘Body Counts,’ however, required a discipline and ability to extract myself from my present circumstances and go back to difficult and painful times, so it took longer and was more draining emotionally than I had expected. 

“I also find that as I engage in HIV policy and advocacy work on a national and global level, it is important for me to keep centered with advocacy in the immediate community where I live. So on the same day I can be speaking to a UNAIDS group meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, while also in the midst of a local battle over historic preservation in the tiny village of Milford, PA, where I live.” 

How does gratitude play into your life?

Sean Strub:
 “Gratitude defines my life, starting with the obvious, which is gratitude that I have survived. I am grateful that I have people in my life who love me and grateful that I am able to pursue the work and priorities I feel are important. 

“But I'm conscious not to allow recognition of that for which I am grateful to become a sense of entitlement. I constantly wonder why I survived, when so many others—many far more deserving than myself—did not. 

“Why am I loved and others are lonely and neglected? These are existential questions and I've never found anything resembling an answer, but I know it is important to contemplate them and I expect to do that for the rest of my days. The expression of gratitude, to me, is found in being of service to others. It doesn't answer the question as to why I survived, but it makes my survival more meaningful and my life more purposeful,” he concluded.

To learn more about Sean Strub, the POZ Magazine founder and advisory editor, please see the Body Counts Website. He is also executive director of the Sero Project, a network of people with HIV and allies fighting HIV-related stigma. Keep in mind, as Strub reminds us, that March 10 is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day -

Copyright 2014 Rita Watson