Giannina L. Garces Ambrossi

Monday, April 30, 2007

William Brawner is young, charming, outspoken, and aggressive in his message: he has AIDS, but you would never know just by looking at him. At Howard University he was a member of the student council; He was, by his own account, an enthusiastic Casanova; and he now is a fiery speaker and activist. He is also one of the faces in the national public awareness campaign “Does HIV Look Like Me?” which features a series of young adults posing in glamour shots–promos that look more like makeup or fashion campaigns than a public service announcement–all to send the message that you can’t judge HIV status by its Gucci sunglasses. Campus Progress recently spoke with Brawner about living with HIV, his activism on the issue, and the future of being HIV positive in America.

Campus Progress: You were diagnosed with AIDS at the same time you were found to be HIV positive, after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion when you were 18 months old. Having been HIV positive for about 25 years, have you seen any changes over time in the way our culture perceives HIV and AIDS?

William Brawner

: There really hasn’t been a change. There is still the same stigma, disgust, ignorance. Maybe it’s not as overt now as it once was, because now, in general, people have more education about the whole issue. Actually, people are pretty well educated–that is, until it comes to their front door. When it comes to their dinner table, when it comes to their home, there is a revival of all those old fears and judgments.

You call yourself “the new face of AIDS.” Why is that? Because you are a young African American?

People don’t expect someone like me, who looks as good as me, who looks as healthy as me, who can press 240 pounds, they don’t expect me to be someone who can have HIV/AIDS. Because of how I look, people think it’s impossible. In fact, people don’t believe me sometimes! Because they don’t want to believe. That would make it too personal. That would make it too real, too close to home. If someone like me can have HIV, it means that their boyfriend, their lover, their crush could have it too, and maybe they wouldn’t know.

When you go to high school and college campuses, what reaction do you get?

Listen, when I go into an auditorium full of high school kids, you know, they’re rowdy, they’re loud. The girls are thinking, man, he’s cute. He looks good. Then I say it–I have AIDS. I am HIV positive. Then you could hear a pin drop. A pin drop in an auditorium full of teenagers! That’s what I live for. I bring it right to their face, and I have their undivided attention. That happens all the time. I’ve seen females come up afterwards and tell me, “Oh, you so cute, you could have had the digits and the drawers, and I never would have known.” That makes it real.

What are some of the negative comments and misperceptions about HIV/AIDS that you still hear?

Things like, “HIV is a repercussion of what you did in a past life.” Or people assume that I was with a “dirty girl,” or that I got it from being gay. People still think that it will never affect them unless they do these things. They think that they don’t know anyone who is [HIV] positive and will never meet “someone like that.”

In addition to your community service, you also do AIDS activism professionally. You work in Philadelphia at the Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Aside from disclosing your HIV status, what other messages do you spread to the children?

I am first here for the people who are already positive, especially for the children. My first role in life is to be the role model I never had when growing up. I was positive before Magic [Johnson, an HIV positive former NBA basketball player]. I want to reach out to these kids and show them what it’s like to lead a responsible, productive life. These kids don’t feel like they will ever get old enough to get a job, healthy enough to use any life skills. I want to show them another way, by example. I want to provide them with a way to get a psychosocial education, to know that they can be themselves too, and not feel pressured like they have to be accepted by other people.

You’ve described a period in your life when you felt what is commonly described as the “Superman Syndrome.” This is when you were feeling and looking healthy and participating in life like anyone else. You had strong markers of immune system health and low viral numbers–that this made you feel untouchable by the virus or anything else. Basically, you had the disease, but you didn’t have any of the sickness associated with it. Could you describe your reasoning then?

I was thinking: “HIV cannot be a part of my life, because hey, I am the man.” I made myself believe I had a super-strand [of HIV], that this strand was somehow different and not as bad as the other ones. It allowed me to detach from the reality of the disease, to take myself out of my life, to take myself away from that constant reminder of what I truly had. I wasn’t taking my meds, because that would have made it too real–you can’t take eight pills every day and ignore that. I was very wild, sleeping with all the girls, drinking, getting high. I was reckless at that time.

Did any of the girls with whom you were sleeping ask you about your HIV status?

No, no one ever asked me. No one ever thought to ask me. And I didn’t tell them at the time, because I myself wasn’t up to dealing with it.

Taking your own “Superman Syndrome” into a broader perspective, do you think that there is a “Super-generation Syndrome” in our generation now? Do you think that, because of the advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, young people don’t see the reality of AIDS anymore–and so feel “untouchable” as a generation?

Yes, this is happening. It may be a problem of being young in general–this feeling of “Oh, I am invincible, it can’t happen to me, I can take it on and not get burned.” That feeling of power is not necessarily a bad thing in other areas of life, it may be a great part of just leading a carefree lifestyle, but you have to be careful. This perspective can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing.

What are the messages that are getting through to adolescents? For instance, how do kids you work with perceive abstinence-only education?

As far as abstinence-only education, I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Actually, the community I work with doesn’t even get that much exposure to [abstinence-only education]. Abstinence is the only effective way. That’s the facts. I do believe in comprehensiveness, but I think you should push abstinence first. At the same time, you have to be realistic and accept that abstinence is not part of some kids’ reality. You still have to deal with this too, and educate for that too.

How about the future of AIDS prevention? What are some of the new messages on the horizon?

Actually, I’m putting together my own nonprofit for this exact reason, to make these a reality. [Haven Youth Center] will start in Philly for five years, and then get a branch in DC–that is where I was infected. This will be a center specifically for kids with HIV to get education and prevention information. We will join the two and gear the AIDS prevention message to specific target populations: for sexually active people, gay and straight, for drug users, for kids, for white people, all the different populations, and make a message specific to them. So many providers are not effective because they don’t have an effective message–they rely on the same old, same old, but expect to get different results. That doesn’t make sense, and I think we need a radical change in the message. We have to make it relevant to people. This is something that can happen to you, and it is happening to people like you.

Giannina L. Garces Ambrossi is a medical student. She interned at the Center for American Progress in fall 2006.