HIV activist William Brawner speaks out.
The big fun came to an end when a former girlfriend from high school emailed the president of Howard.
"Bill Brawner has AIDS and is infecting everyone in school," read the email's most damning sentence.
Brawner says he and his high school girlfriend had dated for nearly two years, and she was the only one he told. If she went this far, he feared she might start showing up on campus to tell everyone.
Brawner began to psychologically separate himself from his HIV status. He created a persona for himself: "Reds," a nickname he'd been given for the sheen in his facial hair.
He bulked up, partied and chased more girls--somehow thinking that now that he was Reds, no one would believe his ex-girlfriend. The more detached he became from his real self, the more reckless he got.
He replaced his medications with alcohol, and he continued to have sexual relationships without disclosing his status.
"It was a mistake. I was so busy trying to disassociate," he says now, pausing to pick his words carefully. "There's no word I can give you but 'disassociation.' I don't know what else to tell you."
Today Brawner avoids discussing the immorality of his actions; he simply says he wishes he could change the past. Still, some of the things he talks about reveal a man struggling with his decisions. He professes his guilt, but then blames the public perception of HIV for stigmatizing the choices he and others--including the HAVEN kids--sometimes make.
Some of the kids at HAVEN think Brawner shouldn't be telling his story, says Theresa Parrino, family services coordinator at St. Christopher's Hospital in North Philadelphia. Parrino treats several HAVEN patients.
"When I talk to kids about what's responsible in terms of disclosing to partners, I'm really torn because I've seen lives fall apart," Parrino says. "I had a kid who had 'AIDS boy' written on his locker. He disclosed to his girlfriend and when they broke up, her way of getting back was to disclose his status."
At Howard, once he became "Reds" and neglected his meds, Brawner's immune system took a beating. When he returned to Philadelphia after graduating in 2003, Dr. Rutstein told him he had two years to live.
Yet once again, Brawner defied the odds. By summer of 2005 he was thriving. He was pursuing a master's degree in social justice by telecommuting to Marygrove College. He was taking his medication, working at the city's Office of HIV Planning, revealing his HIV status to friends, and attending services at Sharon Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.
|Sign language: The name of Brawner's organization is appropriately welcoming. (photo by michael persico)|
Bridgette Carter was beginning her doctoral work at Penn, researching HIV prevention, when she got her first glimpse of Brawner at church.
"He was always the loud one making a scene, being silly, riding through the parking lot with his music blasting," she laughs. "That wasn't what I was looking for."
They first spoke at a church event where Brawner was offering HIV information pamphlets to passersby. He invited Carter to a monthly roundtable. Their relationship quickly turned into more than business.
Six weeks later, sitting in her home, Brawner told her his story: how he'd been burned as a child, the subsequent blood transfusion and HIV diagnosis. He told her his behavior in college should've killed him, and that God spared his life so he could change the face of HIV.
"It was attractive to see how much he wanted to be a better man," she says, "to fulfill the purpose that God put him on this earth for."
A year after they met, they married. Brawner says he wavered on the decision to go public with his HIV status, but his pastor's sermons helped give him a clearer understanding of himself. He wanted people to understand the dangerous balancing act of being a sexually active HIV-positive person.
More than a few voices caution that in the decade-plus since effective antiretroviral meds have transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable infection, too many people have lost their fear of the virus.