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:
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.