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Living Openly With HIV: 'We Could Be Those Role Models We Wish We Had'


I'm Audie Cornish, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. This week, the American Black Film Festival kicks off with high-profile commercial fare, like "Think Like A Man Too." But a film with an entirely different take on relationships and romance is also getting its first look at the festival, and it's called "25 To Life." And it's a documentary that tells a difficult story about what it's like to live with HIV. William Brawner contracted the virus when he was a toddler through a blood transfusion, something he needed after suffering serious burns. HIV affected almost every aspect of his childhood. And when Brawner headed off to Howard University, he decided to keep his status a secret from his classmates, friends and sexual partners.


WILLIAM BRAWNER: Now, that we're at college, I created a name - Reds. Reds was not Bill. Reds was not William Brawner, Reds was not HIV-positive.

CORNISH: "25 To Life" follows a grown-up William Brawner as he faces the consequences of that choice and later his decision to go public as HIV-positive. He's now the executive director of the Haven Youth Center in Philadelphia. That's a nonprofit that offers counseling and education to HIV-positive young people. And William Brawner also joins us now. Welcome to the program.

W. BRAWNER: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So people obviously have really strong feelings when they see this film, when they hear your story. And just so we're clear, you talk about, in the film, about having unprotected sex with young women, in some cases - or at least in one case - for years without disclosing your HIV status. So why put your life and these particular mistakes in the spotlight?

W. BRAWNER: Being diagnosed, I always wanted to disclose. But I always had that fear of what would happen afterwards because of everything else happening to people around me who decided to disclose. I'm sure you've the heard stories of Ryan White, and, I mean, other stories of people whose houses got burned down, whose families lost jobs, who were kicked out of school, who were asked to leave their neighborhood. As life went on, you know, I made some bad decisions, some difficult decisions. And it was all, unfortunately, a way for me to cope with being HIV-positive. And some of those coping mechanisms cause a lot of problems in other people's lives.

CORNISH: To your knowledge, do know if you infected anyone with HIV during that time?

W. BRAWNER: To my knowledge, I have not. We have, going on, a search, especially since we created this film, to ensure that, you know, no one was positive.

CORNISH: At the same time during this period - and we heard the clip earlier where you kind of refer to this alter ego you develop of Reds - you were not just trying to avoid isolation. You know, you went out to be a ladies man. You really pushed it in terms of getting out there, being social, pulling women. It sounds like, you know, this was a huge part of college for you. Explain that mentality at the time.

W. BRAWNER: Because I was so fearful of being isolated, I became highly social. And, you know, a lot of that had to do with, you know, women. A lot of that had to do with, you know, the player persona. A lot of that had to do with being that ladies man that I thought would attract other people to me. And it was wrong, but it was the way I was coping. Maybe the better thing for me to have done, in those moments, was to seek professional help. But, you know, I'm 19, 20 years old. I'm thinking, you know, I've been positive for this long. And, you know, I'm thinking I'm somewhat - of invincible. And, you know, I'm still 20. And I'm on this beautiful campus and, you know, just a whole lot of thoughts and emotions running through my head. I really can't pinpoint one thing or one reason as to why I did it. But I promise you this, I regret most of it.

CORNISH: Now, the film actually begins three years after you graduated from Howard University. And three months after disclosing - making this public - which you do on a live radio show, actually - you decide to go back to Howard's campus for homecoming. And that was a really hard time for you. Here's a clip of you talking with your, then fiancee, Bridgette.


W. BRAWNER: They going to be seeing me for the first time, people who I slept with and forgot I slept with - you know what I'm saying? - they're going to be able to see me for the first time. People who are now - their boyfriends or their husbands or whatever going to see me for the first time.

BRIDGETTE CARTER: If I was one of those girls that you slept with, and saw you for the first time, I would have something say.

W. BRAWNER: Well, no, you can't. You can't say what you want to say.

CARTER: Well, listen to me...

W. BRAWNER: You can say what you want to say, but you're not going to be at my face like...

CARTER: You would have to humble yourself. Some of the - you did some really bad things. So put yourself in their shoes. You know, I mean, say that was me and you, and you weren't positive...

W. BRAWNER: So what do I say?

CARTER: ...And I'm not positive...

W. BRAWNER: ...So if somebody comes up...

CARTER: That's where humility comes in, Bill.

W. BRAWNER: All I can say is, you're right. My bad.

CORNISH: That day, you only stayed on campus for 30 minutes. I mean, take us back. What was going through your mind?

W. BRAWNER: My mind was racing with a whole bunch of different thoughts, a whole bunch of different emotions. I was extremely fearful of all the decisions that I had made coming back rushing to me. But I felt that because I disclosed, I could no longer run from it. And, you know, Howard homecoming is, like, the big deal. I mean, all of undergrad goes to Howard homecoming. All of the alumni goes to homecoming. So...

CORNISH: Yeah, they basically shut down that part of the city.

W. BRAWNER: I felt like that would be the perfect place for people to see me and address whatever issue that they had with me. But truth be told, I wasn't ready.

CORNISH: The film does certainly reach out to many of your classmates from that time, and they have a range of reactions. Here's some of that.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: He's attempted murderer, plain and simple. Medicine was running through his system.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: What would you do, you know? Would you go to college? Would you go to Howard and you say, hi, my name is Will. I have AIDS. Want to be friends?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: He would have been the only individual on that campus who would let their status be known.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I think there'd have been a lot of phones pulled out spreading the word, spreading the gossip. The face of AIDS is walking on our campus.

CORNISH: When you saw the film yourself and heard these reactions, did it bring you back to that place of fear? I mean, I'm assuming that some of the reason why you kept your status a secret is fear of isolation and alienation?

W. BRAWNER: Absolutely. I mean, I'm fearful right now of who's going to listen to this right now and just, you know, get their emotions revved back up after years of, you know, this being put away for them. I'm always fearful of their reactions and the responses of people. One of the biggest issues of being HIV-positive is not really the medication, is not really, you know, the fear of your own life. It's the fear of what other people think about you.

I always say when I talk to young people who are positive - I always tell them that, you know, we put more emphasis on what other people think than we do on what we think about our own diagnosis. It's just because HIV is one of those highly stigmatized infections where the rest of the world does not look to HIV-positive people with favor.

So, yeah, it took me right back to that place every time I see it, every time I'm hear it. I'm listening to it right now, and my body's tingling like, oh, my God I don't know - what have I done? Can we not put this movie out? Can we not do this? Can I take it all back? But the truth of the matter is this is what I've been called to do.

CORNISH: And throughout the film, you also try and get in contact with old girlfriends to apologize, and some of them aren't interested. How did you deal with people who were still very angry? And now looking back at the film, do you understand their anger?

W. BRAWNER: I've always understood their anger. In fact, I expected more of them to be angry. I'm just very thankful that all of them weren't extremely angry. As for the ones who, you know, could not forgive me and still cannot forgive me, I completely understand, you know? I took people's decisions away from them - and how not only I affected their lives but how my disclosure affected the lives of people around them.

You know, a lot of these people, you know, heard this information through friends, you know, through them hearing about me being on the radio, and then their friends contacted them. They didn't hear this from me. They didn't get, you know, the phone call or the knock on the door. They didn't get that. And it was my intent in doing that, but it just never happened. And when I went on the radio I just - I don't know what I was thinking. I was just so happy to finally be disclosing and finally, you know, being out that I never just took a step back to think about OK, you have to make sure you get to everybody before you start.

And to be honest, if I tried to get everybody before I started and some of the reactions that I would've gotten back - I probably wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have come out publicly. You know, disclosing and coming out publicly are two different things. I could have disclosed to the people who I've had interactions with, but disclosing to the rest of the world, you know, was something I probably wouldn't have done.

CORNISH: If you just joining us, we're discussing the documentary "25 To Life" with William Brawner. The film chronicles his life after he disclosed his positive HIV status, a secret he kept for most of his life.

And we should mention that one remarkable aspect is that you have had HIV for almost your entire life and that it's never truly progressed to a place where your health has been in bad shape. I mean, that's what I gather from the film.

W. BRAWNER: Yeah, I mean, I've had situations where I have been hospitalized, and I've had some opportunistic infections. But your typical person that you think in your brain when you think of HIV or when you think of even AIDS - I have not - thank God - I have not experienced those things, which is one of the major reasons why I decided it was time for me to publicly disclose because, you know, oftentimes we, you know, have these thoughts in our head of what someone who is HIV-positive is supposed to look like. But when people see me, it's a shock, like, that's impossible.

Not only is it a shock that's impossible, but when I tell them how long I've been positive - I mean, this film it was literally made five years ago. So I'm 34 years old, which means I have been positive for 33 years. And in that, you know, I've been healthy, as you said. You know I've had - I have my good days and my bad days. Like some days, I have major stomach problems. But as far as those hospital stays and as far as, you know, everything else that people may think, I have truly been blessed. And this is why I've taken this platform, not only for people to not become positive, but for those who are positive to understand that you don't have to go that road if you take care of yourself. You don't have to be that person the hospital. You don't have to be that person suffering in silence. We can disclose. We can be everything that we wanted to be before we know of our positive result.

CORNISH: Now that you're a counselor yourself, what advice do you give young people about when and how to disclose their HIV status? And have their fears changed any, even though, you know, we're many decades in now with people living with HIV?

W. BRAWNER: So as a counselor, I take each relationship by a case-by-case basis because, you know, there's not one cookie-cutter description of how to disclose or when to disclose or when the right time is and so forth and so on. So when people bring this information to me, you know, we completely dissect the relationship.

And of course, we always strongly, strongly suggest that, you know, we disclose as early as possible and definitely before sexual activity even occurs. But oftentimes with our young people, you know, they put the cart before the horse, and they don't do that. And then we work on plans as to how to get this information to the people they've interacted with, and, you know, what's the best methods to make sure things like this don't occur again.

CORNISH: The secrecy around your status did not begin with you. Your mother had a huge role in this. And at the time of your diagnosis, in the film, she talks about watching the coverage of how another HIV-positive child was being treated publicly. Here's a clip.


LINDA BRAWNER: Ryan White is one of the main reasons why I knew I was not going to tell anyone about my son because what that child went through was just so horrible. Being a young, black child with burns was bad enough. He had enough to overcome.

CORNISH: And for those that are probably familiar with Ryan White, a boy from Indiana, who also contracted the virus through a blood transfusion in the mid-'80s. And he became a poster child for HIV after he was expelled from school for having it. Now, as an adult and father yourself, what do you make of the decision that your mom made?

W. BRAWNER: Well, as a father myself, I completely understand it. I mean, times now are a lot different. I mean, people aren't being kicked out of schools, and people aren't being, you know, thrown to the wayside as bad as they were back then. But in that time, you know, my mother had made the best decision to protect her child.

If I had publicly disclosed then, my life would not be the life that I've lived - not just with the promiscuity, but I would have been completely ostracized. And growing up where I grew up, I don't think my community would have accepted it either. So, you know, I would probably, you know, been like a lot of people who are positive and use that isolation and not taken my pills and not, you know, made sure I was - I stayed as healthy as I possibly could be. I mean, a lot of these things happen psychologically, as we can see. And I don't think my family nor I was ready to handle that psychological breakdown of people knowing and, you know, stigmatizing us.

CORNISH: But some people will view this and see your mom not just keeping the secret, but at key points of your life, being part of - being part of the denial and being a part of a culture of denial that you family kind of builds up around you. Was it hard for her to see this film? What kind of conversations have you had since?

W. BRAWNER: It is extremely hard for all of us to not only see the film, but, you know, to go through everything that we've gone through. You know, we made the best decisions that we felt would best for the family and us. And at the time, we had no idea that it was going to blow up into what it blew up into. You know, hindsight is 20-20. Would we have all made some different decisions if we could have? Possibly. But at the time, when we made these decisions, it was what we thought was best for our family and the people around us. But it is very hard to take this platform. It is very hard, you know, to make this film.

But one thing I remind people of all the time is, you know, as I've said earlier, you know, we could have simply just disclosed to the people who, you know, needed to know, you know - my ex-girlfriends or my current girlfriend or whatever. But we decided - I decided, and my family supports me 100 percent, that this is a story that needs to be told for other people. There is no longer about me. This is no longer about us. We have to tell the story for the people. So we can be those role models that we wish we had because we did not have them.

It's about every piece to this story. If you talk to other HIV-positive people, especially people who have been positive for a significantly long time, we struggle with so much. And I feel like there has not been many people - I mean, we have Magic Johnson, and he's a great guy. But Magic Johnson was an NBA MVP before he was, you know, HIV-positive. So it's not - he's not someone that I feel like we could have a reach. Like, I've always wanted to converse with Magic, and I have. But at a young age it wasn't someone I could aspire to be because Magic Johnson was an MVP in the NBA.

So I just wanted to put a face with it, to be some type of role model, to be some time of, you know, support that they can look to and say, if he can do it, I can do it. And, yes, I made mistakes, and I encourage people not to make the same mistakes I had. But I think, you know, all of that plays into why it's important that we have people that we can talk to about these things.

CORNISH: William Brawner, he's the executive director of the Haven Youth Center. He's also the subject of the new documentary "25 To Life." The film premieres this weekend at the American Black Film Festival. He joined us from Philadelphia. William Brawner, thanks so much for talking with us.

W. BRAWNER: Thank you.

CORNISH: And that's our program for today. I'm Audie Cornish. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.