Thinking Positive

HIV activist William Brawner speaks out.

By Brian James Kirk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Sep. 10, 2008

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At the time, people knew little about the disease. But Brawner's family knew enough to understand that if his secret got out he'd live as an outcast. His mother and aunt made a pact to tell no one.

Brawner knew something was wrong--his mother told him he was sick--but it wasn't until he was five years old, with his mother seated nearby, that he was told he had HIV.

Dr. Richard Rutstein doesn't remember the exact words he used to tell Brawner, but he says telling a child that kind of news always starts with a series of questions. Do you know why you take medicines? Have you heard about HIV?

"It's different telling a [child] who has no idea what a virus is and telling an 18-year-old who has a clear idea of their future and mortality," Rutstein says. "His main concern was number one, could he still go to camp. I said yes. Two, could he still play ball? I said yes. Third, would he have more blood tests? I said no."

Rutstein had just begun practicing at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and back then treatment for HIV amounted to little more than psychosocial support for families, a far cry from the 28 medications offered today. The first medicine to treat HIV--azidothymidine (AZT)--wasn't available until 1990.

It seemed possible Brawner might not make it through adolescence. Though transfusion patients often had a better chance of survival, the life expectancy of someone with HIV back then was eight years.

His mother made life as comfortable for her son as she could. Friends were allowed to visit whenever he wanted. At Thanksgiving the table was filled with the food he requested. To make life easier, the family moved out of their struggling neighborhood to suburban Wyncote.

At 14, with symptoms that indicated an opportunistic infection--the type that takes advantage of a weak immune system--he was diagnosed with AIDS.

"At 10 or 11 Billy had very low T-cell counts," Rutstein recalls. "So low that you'd expect his survival might've only been a few years. But he kept on ticking. Something about his body kept his virus at bay, which is very unusual."

Rutstein continued to see his young patient throughout his adolescence but lost touch after Brawner graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1998 and was accepted at Howard.

"Ostensibly, while he was in college he was still my patient," Rutstein says. "But it was hard for him and I to connect. I can't go further than that."

Inside the student center at Howard University, some 130 people fill the auditorium as Brawner prepares to speak.

Looking at ease in a light gray pinstripe suit, a well-kept goatee framing his smile, Brawner chats with his wife and the teenagers from Philly who made the road trip with him. He swaggers to the podium when introduced, sizes up the crowd and begins to speak about a reality few of us will ever know.

"My name is William Brawner," he says. "I am 28 years old and I have been HIV-positive for 27 years."

When the crowd reacts slowly, he claps his hands enthusiastically, encouraging their applause, and quotes a statistic from the prior speaker: In the District of Columbia, one in 20 adults has HIV.

"When I heard those numbers, I heard a lot people, like, 'Ew, ew,'" he says, mimicking the crowd. "Like people with HIV are dirty, or like they did something that most of us in this room didn't."

He tells the Howard University audience they should thank God they're not HIV-positive because most of them had almost certainly participated in some kind of unprotected sexual activity.

Brawner's been to almost 50 colleges and high schools, raising awareness of HIV and proving by his very presence that AIDS isn't a death sentence. At the end of his talk, there's no roaring applause, no standing ovation. But it doesn't seem to matter to Brawner.

The teens from Philly who made the trip with him are the most devoted members of HAVEN Youth Center. For some it's their first time out of Philly. The hope is that when snapping photos of Brawner arm in arm with Magic Johnson, they'll see it's possible to be successful even with the infection.

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Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. Jennell McHugh said... on Sep 11, 2008 at 07:11AM

“This exploration of observations reads well while subtly exposing us to complexities with which many infected individuals have dealt since the conception of the virus, although they are not alone. From misunderstanding to anger to denial to detachment to depression to awareness to acceptance to empowerment, these metamorphoses are universal but in the context of Brawner's life, crucial towards reestablishing our attention and priority to the goals of promoting education and healthy lifestyles, especially among young people. It is important to recognize the positive proaction of individuals rallying against the status quo of those more comfortable ignoring the problems that harbor Philadelphia and the world at large, especially in a way that does not slight the windy and troubled road in which those, like Brawner, traveled. This cover story is absolutely worth a cover; Bravo. ”

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2. Christopher said... on Sep 11, 2008 at 01:35PM

“I really liked the lede graf and the jump back to how Brawner got HIV positive - not obvious, effective.”

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3. ecortes said... on Sep 11, 2008 at 07:24PM

“This was such a great cover story. People are always asking, "Where is the good news out there!?" Well here it is. His story hopefully can inspire everyone out there whether HIV positive or not. This man struggled but at the same time knew he was doing wrong so he changed it. As long as you know what you want in life, no one can stop you; that's what I always believed in. It may take time and patience and he got it. ”

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4. Dekia said... on Sep 12, 2008 at 09:57AM

“Will & Bridgette! Im am so happy and proud of what you are doing! God has truly blessed you both. Im always touched by your story every time i read or hear it and I truly feel honored to know you! Keep on keeping on (as the church folks say!!)”

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5. Ricky S. said... on Sep 12, 2008 at 01:24PM

“It is an honor, and makes me feel proud, to know the both of you personally. I thank you for sharing your lives with the world.. you DO make a difference (even if they don't get up and applaud or offer ovations after speeches)... it's hard to applaud when you are facing a deafening reality in your own life.. when you are grasping what could be so very possible for yourself... when we are left to examine our own risky behaviors and judgement.. there isn't too much to clap about.. but it's VERY necessary and take the absense of the ovation as confirmation that you were heard loud and clear. Thank you for blessing my own life... thank you and thank God for using you in this mighty way and giving me a little glimpse into what my own life means.”

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6. Lady Lib said... on Sep 15, 2008 at 01:34PM

“I thought this was a well written piece. With the upcoming AIDS Walk Philly (Oct.19) and World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) not too far behind it--the PW should run a listing of where people can go to get free HIV Counseling and Testing in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware--by zip code.”

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7. Gail Ramsey said... on Sep 16, 2008 at 05:09PM

“Quote from the ariticle: "Something about his body kept his virus at bay, which is very unusual.” Wil and Bridgette: May God continue to keep you both in His amazing grace. Love, Gail”

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8. hahnah said... on Nov 12, 2008 at 02:03PM

“william, this is your sister Bambi. I never knew of your struggles and love you even more for sharing them!!!!!!”

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9. N. O. said... on Feb 2, 2009 at 08:26AM

“I went to Howard with Red and Langley. I was with them through the good and bad times. Will, as close as we were, I had no clue! I am proud of you for the man you have become and the inspiration you given others. Keep up the great work. N.O.”

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10. Sharday said... on Dec 7, 2011 at 09:52PM

“This guy goes out of his way to infect people with AIDS, and just because he's stopped it, he'd being lauded as a hero? He should be in jail!

Also, the whole story sounds fake. Burned in the bathtub so severely that he needed skin grafts? Did they have boiling water coming out of that faucet? And then no one bothered to test the temperature, and just dropped an infant into a tub of boiling water accidentally? Why did no one question such an outlandish story, and explain how that could happen, before just publishing it as "fact"?

So we've got a kid who ran around deliberately trying to infect people, and who now seems to still be extremely selfish and disrespectful of other people- he's mentioned as being late, i.e. leaving other people waiting on him (for 90 minutes in one instance!), and now we're giving him accolades for becoming an "activist." He was already an AIDS activist-he was actively spreading AIDS. He basically attempted to kill his sexual partners. Nice guy.”

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11. WTF said... on Dec 10, 2011 at 07:26PM

“I cannot believe people are applauding this dude. He deliberately had unprotected sex with the females at HU.I don't want to that bullshit he didn't know if he supposedly caught HIV the way he say he did the he had yo have been on medicine from that point on. I can see as a child u not knowing but as u become a teenager and a adult... how stupid do he thinl people are?? He wants to be a victim and a hero but he's an disgusting dirt bag.. I have no sympathy for him but my heart goes out to the females he could have exposed..”

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12. Shaheed said... on Mar 26, 2012 at 10:28AM


I just lost a sibling to the disease and I bet he did his dirt too but here is what I know. Our society doesn't have open conversations on the issues of sex so we have to take a stand.

I wish more people that messed up would redeem themselves by trying to educate and save someone else.

It takes two too tango and if you have sex unprotected you own 50% whether you are positive or not. Women have to own up to making a Brother strap up in love or not.

A bad start doesn't negate a good finish.”

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13. marian duss said... on Sep 6, 2013 at 03:28AM

“HI My Name is MARIAN DUSS, I wish to share my testimonies with the general public about what this man called Dr lawcy of( ] has just done for me , this man has just did what I thought nobody will ever do for me, i was HIV positive when one of my family friend introduce this man to me, I never believed that great DR LAWCY could do this, when I contacted him on this same issue on ground, he casted some spell for me and gave me some parcel to drink, now I am so happy to say that the virus I was having In my body have left me. All thanks to DR LAWCY. If you are out there passing through this same kind of problems you can contact him today on his mail (
and he will also help you as well with his great spell caster, THANKS BE TO DR LAWCY....”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 2, 2015 at 04:00PM

“Just saw the documentary. Although i disagree with how he began his sexual lifestyle I sm happy he has come out and made such positive actions towards coping and curing hiv. We have all done things whether we know it or not yo out conceive in harms way. Whether it be drunk driving or not paying attention but there's lessons to be leather and life goes on. Hopefully this piece encourages all to do their part in the prevention and awareness of the disease”

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15. Sandria Walton said... on Mar 19, 2015 at 12:54AM

“I really admire and respect you for admitting/acknowledging your mistakes. Raising awareness for AIDS is very courageous and not everyone is brave enough to announce their status. Despite the negative backlash, the world needs to be aware of this disease and continually practice safe sex. I just finished watching your film and I'm happy to see a REAL reality movie that's not scripted.

Continue to fullfil your purpose!!! #Awareness4Aids”

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16. Anonymous said... on Mar 29, 2015 at 11:54PM

“Knew his girlfriend at hu and I am mortified he subjected innocent young girls to this. I'm mortified he and his mother only cared about keeping reds secret and didn't value the lives of others. You put other kids at jeopardy...sounds criminal to me. You gambled with lives. I hate I watched the doc b/c I am so disturbed.”

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17. amanda said... on Sep 8, 2015 at 02:23AM

“I am amanda from Sweden, During my search on the internet for help to
get my lover back i came across this wonderful man called Dr.savior who did
a nice job by helping me to get my lover back within 48hours.. I never
believe that such things like this can be possible but now i am a living
testimony to it because Dr.savior actually brought my lover back, If you are
still doubting why not contact him on i promise you that after 48hours you will
have reasons to celebrate like me..amanda


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