Dangerous Liaisons

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I am a proud Howard University grad.  The university and the city have meant so much to the development of the woman I am today.  Perhaps that’s why this story upset me so deeply:

Former Howard University Student with HIV Reveals Lots of Unprotected Sex He Had on Campus

As a student who graduated from the university in 2006, Brawner had a long list of female friends, many of whom were willing to do whatever he wanted at the drop of a hat.

One thing these women might have wanted to know about the man with whom they were sharing their bodies is that Brawner was HIV-positive the entire time.  Even worse, he now admits that he had a great deal of unprotected sex during his time at Howard University.

I had to know more.  I found this 2008 article in the Philadelphia Weekly:

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1979, William Brawner was accidentally burned from the waist down in hot bath water as an infant. He was rushed to Children’s National Medical Center where skin tissue was grafted onto his legs and blood transfused into his tiny body, replacing the blood he’d lost in surgery. *** Then, when Brawner was three, his mother received a call from Children’s National Medical Center. A longtime blood donor had died of complications from what we now know as AIDS. The donor’s blood had been used in Brawner’s surgery. 

The article goes on to recount his mother’s decision to keep the diagnosis from nearly everyone, save her sister and William himself.  William followed suit, telling only his high school girlfriend of two years.  The veil of secrecy continued at HU, even as William became sexually active.

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 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.

Perhaps as a testament to just how amazing this story is, a documentary is being made about William called 25 to LIFE.  In yet another interview, we get a glimpse into William’s thinking about the situation.

“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.”

Asked if he wished had disclosed his status sooner in his life, Brawner demurred. “Nah, I think everything happens in its time. Everything has its time and has its purpose. It was just my time.

I don’t know about you, but I see a huge elephant in the room: the missing apology.  Some will say that William’s apology lies in his actions.  He is creator and director of Haven Youth Center, a Philly drop-in center for teens living with HIV.  The center gives teens a place to be themselves without stigma or discrimination.  William also attempts to mentor the children and encourages them to attend medical appointments and take their meds.

To his credit, Haven sounds like a wonderful center.  There is not doubt in my mind that without Haven, dozens of HIV positive teens would have little or no support and even less chance of breaking the cycle of ignorance and infection.

That doesn’t relieve him of the need to apologize.  He knowingly put the lives of my classmates in danger.  Mr. Brawner, we’re waiting.

William isn’t the only person that has made some questionable decisions in this story.  The secrets didn’t begin with him.  I respect that his mother was in a horrendous position.  I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to have my child diagnosed with such a devastating disease.  But I do know about motherhood.  I know that it’s not a picnic for anyone.  Tough decisions and uncomfortable discussions are the rule, not the exception.  There should have been not 1, not 2, hell not even 3, but a dozen or more discussions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.

When we choose to parent, we choose to raise the next generation of adults.  It is imperative that those adults be responsible – – about their bodies, about their health, and about sex.  Anything less is a disservice to them and our society.

My wife has proposed a 3rd person, actually persons, deserving of some blame here — the women who chose to have unprotected sex with William.  I agree, to a point.

Every person is responsible for the safety and health of their own body.  With or without an infection, being sexually active with multiple partners and sexually responsible means using protection.  Period.

But let me offer you an analogy.  Let’s say that sexually active people are drivers.  Those who don’t use protection are motorists driving without their seatbelt on.  It’s a conscious decision and they can blame no one else for it.  If someone else runs into them, i.e. they have sex with an infected person, they are at a much higher risk for harm.  Easy enough.

Now the HIV+ driver?  That’s a drunk driver.  Every time they have unprotected sex, they’re getting behind the wheel after 5 too many drinks.  And they know it.  Admittedly, not every sexual encounter with an HIV+ person will result in infection, just as not every drunk person behind the wheel hits another car.  But when they do, watch out.  The effects are devastating and life changing.  If the second driver isn’t wearing their seatbelt, we certainly look to them to accept some responsibility.  But I dare say that we’d all expect the drunk driver to shoulder the brunt of it.

Finally, we can’t tackle the topic of HIV without also discussing the stigma surrounding it.  Look at William’s quotes.  He blames stigma for his failure to disclose, and stigma motivated his mother to keep it all a secret.  While I don’t think that excuse is worth the air he used to speak it, stigma is real and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

In fact, the stigma has gotten so bad, that it’s gone from sideways looks and discrimination all the way to criminalization.  This video, HIV is Not a Crime, tackles the subject.  I dare you not to be shocked.

The idea that someone would be imprisoned for 25 years for being a sexually active, HIV+ positive person troubles me.  In fact, it infuriates me.  A lifetime of registration as a sexual predator is equally infuriating. But I’m also infuriated by the cries of “but I didn’t infect anyone.”  Really?  Are we also acquitting drunk drivers who don’t get into accidents?  All three persons featured in the video failed to disclose their status until after the first sexual contact.  That’s not ok.

It’s not ok because HIV, while not warranting the level of paranoia sometimes encountered, is not like other STIs.  Syphilis? It’s a bacteria.  Like other bacterial STIs, chlamydia, gonorrhea, etc…, it can be cured with penicillin or other antibiotics.  Other viral type STIs, HPV and Hepatitis B for example, can be prevented with vaccines.  Without a way to prevent or a way to cure, HIV is different.  No longer a death sentence, it is still a life changer in a way that no other STI is.  That has to be respected.  The only way to respect that is to disclose.

Let me put it like this.  I’m a drinker and I love sex.  I wouldn’t ask any healthy, responsible adult to abstain from either.  Did you catch that key word there?  RESPONSIBLE.  After a hard night of partying, you take a cab home.  And before you start partying between the sheets, you disclose.

P.S. While William Brawner and I were in the same freshman class, I only knew him in passing, and only as “Red”.  I have no knowledge of who he slept with other than what is in the sources I’ve read.  I plan to watch the full documentary once released.  I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it here.

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