[UPDATE 3:32pm EST] Loop21.com just posted an exclusive first look at the trailer for “25 to Life,” the William “Reds” Brawner documentary the site covered on World AIDS Day. Predictably, the trailer centers on Brawner’s failure to disclose his HIV status to some of his sexual partners when he was in college. To me, what’s more compelling—and instructive—is Brawner’s take on his collegiate promiscuity: “Because things were a game to me, I was always looking for my next conquest. That’s how I expressed my manhood. That’s how I expressed my bravado.”
Juxtaposed with an image of Brawner and a friend literally laying their heads in a woman’s cleavage, this quote lays bare the danger of using sexual manipulation to define masculinity. I hope the filmmakers, who are raising funds to complete the film, explore this idea further.
Loop21.com, an African American news and lifestyle site, devoted lots of energy and real estate to HIV/AIDS last week. In the run-up and on World AIDS Day, the site ran a three-part series about the disease’s effect on ball culture (“Underground Gay Dance Culture Keeps ‘Voguing’ Legacy Alive”); covered Obama’s remarks at a ONE Campaign event (“President Obama Talks ‘The Beginning of the End of AIDS’”); and debunked down-low mythology in a statistics-laden piece about HIV risk among young black men who have sex with men (“Young Gay Black Men Are Most at Risk for HIV Transmission”).
But two pieces, which appeared side by side on World AIDS Day, crystallized the challenges of talking about sex, responsibility and HIV, 30 years and millions of words into the epidemic.
The first focuses on “25 to Life,” an upcoming documentary about Philadelphia AIDS activist William Brawner. It’s a heartbreaking story: As an 18-month-old under the care of a family friend, Brawner was scalded with boiling water. While undergoing a skin graft, he received a transfusion of HIV-infected blood. It being 1981, a time when the virus was considered an automatic death sentence and overt discrimination was rampant, Brawner’s mother chose to keep her baby’s diagnosis a secret. And Brawner, who grew up to be a magnetic, popular young man, carried that secret with him to Howard University, where he became sexually active at 18. He admits that he didn’t disclose his status to several of his partners and that he sometimes skipped condoms. To Brawner’s knowledge, none of his former partners have tested positive for HIV. Today, at 32, Brawner is married to an HIV-negative woman, has a son and he runs a residence for HIV-positive teens.
Through quotes from college friend and documentary filmmaker Michael Brown, the article attempts balance and nuance:
“We try not to villify him, and at the same time we don’t want to make him a martyr, either,” Brown says of his treatment of Brawner in 25 to LIFE. “This is not some type of an apology piece. We just tried to present a piece where viewers can answer some of the tough questions about Will’s life within themselves. And I think it kind of humanizes the experience of being HIV positive or having AIDS. You will wish that Will made some better choices. And seeing him work through some of these issues, you’ll feel for him, too.”
Unfortunately, key elements of the story render balance and nuance DOA.
The salacious headline,
“25 To Life: In New Film, Man With AIDS Confesses Unprotected Past”
“Infected as a child, William Brawner practiced unsafe sex at Howard University”
and even the URL
essentially brand Brawner an AIDS predator and his partners duped damsels with no choice in the matter. [Editor’s note: Research shows that the overwhelming majority of people who test positive take steps to protect themselves and their sex partners, according to federal health officials, who have identified undiagnosed infections as the key driver of the epidemic’s spread.]
In addition, the opening paragraph sets up Brawner as a campus player and assigns a “boys will be boys” playfulness to romantic deceit:
Howard University campus heartthrob William “Reds” Brawner was a hot commodity. His former roommate and friend Mike Brown recalls an incident from their junior year. “I didn’t know that Reds had a female guest in his room when another girl showed up unannounced,” says Brown, who was left to answer the door. “Will liked the girls and the girls liked Will,” Brown says with a chuckle. They were young men in their college prime. This was a simpler time.
Interestingly, the piece doesn’t hold Brawner accountable for this behavior. It makes HIV the sole consequence of his disrespectful promiscuity, and it even negates Brawner’s own explanation for withholding the truth about his health status. Take a look at the following paragraph:
Brawner simply convinced himself it simply did not exist.
“Imagine being at a party and everyone knows that you’re HIV-positive or have AIDS,” Brawner explains. “No one’s going to want to dance with you.”
No one would want to have sex with you, either.
And so Brawner had girlfriends. He had sex. Some of it was unprotected.
What I see in this passage is a missed opportunity. To me, Brawner’s quote doesn’t suggest denial. It very plainly states that as a young adult he feared rejection and social stigma—two of the most visceral realities of living with and preventing the transmission of HIV, particularly if you buy into the player-player version of black masculinity.
Sadly, by painting Brawner with an AIDS predator brush, the piece and many of the inevitable comments reinforce what he feared as a young adult. Orlando Bagwell, the director of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative and a supporter of the Brawner documentary, reveals a more productive approach:
“One of the essential parts of the equation for arresting HIV and AIDS is honesty and disclosure and getting rid of the stigma as well. How we think about treatment, and how we think about how a new way to address those who are sick with this disease is really important.”
This brings me to the adjoining story, “Dating with HIV/AIDS: A Q&A with Hydeia Broadbent.”. Now 27, Broadbent was born with HIV and became a prominent face of the disease at age 12. In this excellent piece, she details how she navigates HIV in her romantic life:
Loop 21: If you’re HIV-positive, when do you disclose your status? On the date? Before a date? As soon as you meet? As soon as you’re interested?
Broadbent: I have a three-date rule. By the third date is when it’s time to let someone know—but a lot of people don’t start dating until after they have already had sex. You need to let your partner know before you take it that far. If the person rejects you, then look at the bright side—at least you find out sooner then later what type of person they really were.
She also gives the reader language to discuss very natural fears:
Loop 21: Once you’ve told someone you’re involved with (or hope to be involved with) that you are HIV-positive, what are the best questions he or she can ask to help things move forward?
Broadbent: The best question: “What are the ways I can stay negative?” It’s important that people understand a person’s first reaction may be fear. Make sure you have all the answers to their questions and be willing to take that person with you to a doctor’s visit so they can ask other things themselves. I made such a point of taking my ex-boyfriend with me that my doctor would ask where he was if he didn’t see him by my side.
And finally, she points out the consequences of failing to protect yourself:
Loop 21: What’s the best way to encourage people to practice safe sex?
Broadbent: Be real with them about what can happen if they don’t. Simply by Googling pictures of STD outbreaks can be a wake-up. Or let people know there is no cure for AIDS and not everyone has access to the life-saving medications they may need. If you don’t have health insurance, it could cost almost $4000 a month for medications and that doesn’t include the cost for doctor’s visits, blood tests or other medications you may need. At the end of the day, safe sex or no sex is better then a positive test result. Please remember people are still dying—maybe not at an alarming rate, but some do lose their fight against AIDS.
Of course Broadbent is a professional speaker who has been telling the world about her disease since middle school. And the Q+A format allows her to give direct prevention and disclosure advice; it doesn’t delve into her mistakes or demand that the writer interpret her life story. But in a media landscape rife with confusing, unproductive messages about HIV/AIDS and black romantic life, I’d prefer the stigma-free, clear, empowering prevention messages over a juicy morality tale. As old folks say, the devil is in the details. With a less salacious headline, a neutral URL, a keener ear to what Brawner actually said, and a prevention paragraph as visceral as the rest of the tale, the Brawner piece might not have let him win.