June 27th is National HIV Testing Day, but even though the Center For Disease Control estimates that African-Americans account for an estimated 44% of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (with Black women accounting for 29% of new infections) too many of us will disregard the “know your status” PSAs as yet another health warning we’ve heard too many times before.
Or at least that’s how I felt when I attended a safe sex seminar during my Freshman Week at Howard University; my eyes glazed over at the information I “already knew.” My roommate and I had vowed to attend every event that week no matter how “corny” it seemed, so I sat in a half-empty room filled with mostly girls and rolled my eyes when they erupted into elementary giggles as an upperclassmen instructor showed us how to put a condom on a plastic penis. Many in the audience only seemed to be half-listening to the speech too, but there were plenty who were focused on the speaker and made a point to whisper about how cute he was.
I’m not sure how seriously any of us took the conversation, but it would hit way too close to home years later when that upperclassman speaker, William “Reds” Brawner, would announce to the media that he had been living with the HIV virus his entire life. The news shocked his family, friends, ex-girlfriends/sexual partners and strangers alike. “Reds” was a well known ladies man, and there was a panic in our community as people began to play the realest game of “6 degrees of separation,” ever: “could someone I slept with have slept with him or someone he slept with!?” The fact is, HIV was not just limited to this one instance at our school: the Center For Disease Control estimates some 26% of all cases of HIV in the US are in youth age 13 to 26, and a staggering 60% don’t even know they’re infected. It hadn’t dawned on many of us that the virus could be in our very own backyard (I don’t recall any other person publicly disclosing that they have HIV — or an STD — in my time at HU or since).
Brawner’s college roommate, director Mike Brown, was equally surprised by his disclosure and would go on to explore the story from the beginning in a provocative documentary, “25 To Life.” Produced by Leah Natasha Thomas, Khaliah Neal and executive producer by Ron Simons of SimonSays Entertainment, “25 To Life” premiered June 22 at the American Black Film Festival in New York where it scooped up the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary.
The coming-of-age story that chronicles Brawner’s contraction of the virus and road to redemption after he announced it, left audiences just as stunned as it did our collegiate community. Why the hell would he keep this possibly lethal news a secret, all the while having sex with some women he adamantly “didn’t even remember sleeping with?” Perhaps — the film implies — because he grew up learning how to keep his HIV status under wraps.
In the documentary we meet Will’s mother, Lisa Brawner, who recalls the day in 1981 that she got a call at work that her 18-month-year-old had been rushed to the hospital with burns so severe his clothing was welded into his skin. A babysitter would say that Will pulled a pot of boiling water on himself, though doctors would say the evidence did not support that story. The exact details about the horrific accident are a mystery to his family even to this day, but when it was all said and done a young Will would get a blood transfusion that would introduce the HIV virus into his body.
During the early ’80s the disease was fairly new in the United States and scientists were grappling to understand just what they were dealing with, let alone how to treat it. Teen Ryan White, who had also contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, was making headlines as the poster child for the virus in the worst way. His school expelled him, while his Indiana community all but exiled him out of fear he would spread the virus to the community and sent death threats to his home. After seeing this public reaction play out in the news, Brawner’s mother, a young single mother in Philadelphia, quickly decided she would not subject her son to the same ostracization or stigmatization. She made the decision to only tell a select few family members and would raise her son instructing him not to tell anyone about his HIV status either.
As time went on, Brawner says in the film, “I suppressed my HIV status so much that I minimized it and because I couldn’t express it, it was like it didn’t exist.” As he navigated through high school and then college, he suppressed the reality of his HIV status, stopped taking his medications, and turned to promiscuity and partying. “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,” Brawner said.
There are even more voices that shed light on Brawner’s shocking story in “25 To Life” that will evoke strong emotions from viewers. There’s his high school girlfriend who didn’t initially know that he was HIV positive, but continued to have unprotected sex with him even after he told her (they would later break up when he went to college, and she’d end up sending a letter to the university office of the President outing Brawner’s HIV status and accusing him of spreading the virus throughout campus). There are the college friends who speak to how a “wild” Brawner was routinely involved with different women on campus, and one friend who point-blank calls him an “attempted murderer” for his actions. The film also follows his fiance-turned-wife who knew that he had the virus when they met and decided to marry him and have a child with him anyway.
In real-time it’s been five years since the documentary wrapped. Brawner, who still speaks to youth about HIV awareness and prevention, is now 34-years-old and a walking testament that a full life is still possible with the HIV virus. He now has two children — both HIV negative — and says his whole life’s journey has brought him closer to what he thinks is his divine life purpose. One he’s convinced that this film is helping him realize.
Keep clicking to read our Q&A with William Brawner, but first watch the trailer of “25 To Life” below to get a closer look at his story. For more information about “25 To Life,” visit www.25tolifefilmsite.com.
UP NEXT: What Was He Thinking!? An Interview With William Brawner