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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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.

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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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