HELLOBEAUTIFUL: What was going through your mind as you taught your college peers about safe sex, knowing you were putting lives at risk by sleeping around and not disclosing your HIV status to your sexual partners?
WILLIAM BRAWNER: That’s a great question; that’s part of a great struggle I went through my entire life.
I’ve actually been a peer educator since I was 14 and full disclosure, as you see in the documentary, I’d actually go on the radio under different names and tell a bit of my story. It was always something that I really wanted to do but really just didn’t have the courage to do. In those moments where I was doing the STD and HIV prevention education and being involved in programs and speaking to people throughout the country, I guess it was my way of being who I really wanted to be without the struggle of exposing that I have HIV.
HB: After news of your status hit the HU community, I always wondered if you were involved in safe sex talks on campus as a way to ease guilt or a round about attempt of protecting people from you.
WB: Wheew. That’s an interesting way to put it, I honestly never thought of it that way, but that would definitely make sense.
I did my best to protect other people from me. Speaking about safe sex was just, in my kind of way, somewhat of an outcry. Wanting people to be safe, wanting people to understand the difficulties of HIV and HIV prevention was there. And to be perfectly honest with you, I so wish I had the courage to come out and say ‘guess what, I’m HIV positive’ like I do when I’m speaking now. It’s just that being on Howard University’s campus and being in the place I was at that time on Howard’s campus, I guess I didn’t feel strong enough. I definitely don’t want people to think this is just a Howard thing, it happens all over the country just at Howard. We’re not the ‘party school,’ we’re not ‘the AIDS school,’ we’re not the ‘STD school.’ I went to Howard, this is me and this is my story, that’s it.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: According to the Center For Disease Control’s latest stats, youth aged 13 to 24 accounted for an estimated 26% of all new HIV infections in the United States in 2010. Almost 60% of youth with HIV in the United States do not know they are infected.]
HB: What made you decide to finally disclose your HIV status in such a public way?
WB: Well I want people to understand I came out publicly to help people regardless of what I’ve done. Now to be completely honest with you, after coming out and disclosing publicly, do I sometimes regret it when I have to hear about the sighs and cries or when I get thrown to the wolves for whatever reason — either fair or unfair? Do I sometimes wish I hadn’t disclosed? Of course I do. But it was a decision I made, it wasn’t a decision that was made for me. I could’ve simply went along with my life and disclosed people who needed to know, ie my girlfriend, sexual partners, family and friends and kept it there. I did this publicly because I wanted to help. That’s it.
We have to keep in mind that when people are putting me under such scrutiny or anyone who’s disclosing their status under such scrutiny that just solidifies why people don’t do it.
HB: You could’ve disclosed to your girlfriends and sexual partners in private, but adamantly didn’t for years. Did you ever consider the safety of those women, especially while you were having unprotected sex?
WB: I have engaged in unprotected sex but not often. I mean, one time is too much especially being HIV positive, but It wasn’t a common practice of mine at all. In fact, especially during my time at Howard University, there was only one time [I had unprotected sex] and that one time was actually a condom breaking. At that moment I should’ve said something without a doubt. I didn’t, but it wasn’t my intention to be going around having unprotected sex. That’s not actually what happened. Now having protected sex and not telling is not good either. I want to be very clear about that and that’s something I probably shouldn’t have done either, but it definitely wasn’t unprotected sex.
HB: But your high school girlfriend says in the film that you two only had protected sex once, even after she found out about your status. How do you reconcile with the fact that there very well women out there who you’ve infected?
WB: That’s part of the guilt that I carry every day. I haven’t reconciled with it. I struggle with it. I dont’ want any body to have to go through what I’m going through. I’m not talking about the public disclosure, I’m talking about the medications and impending death. I struggle with it. It’s part of the guilt I carry with me every. Single. Day.
HB: The film does makes a point to include that no women have contacted you to say they’ve tested positive for HIV, is that still the case?
WB: That has not changed. Primarily because I was not engaging in much unprotected sex, like I said before.
HB: In some states men have gone to jail for knowingly having sex without disclosing HIV/AIDS status. What do you say to people who consider you an ‘attempted murderer,’ like one of your own friends calls you in the film?
WB: It hurts and that’s one of the reason’s why I held from disclosing a little longer. I don’t want people to look at it that way. The law is the law, I don’t make any excuses for what I’ve done. It just hurts that people would see me that way because in my heart that’s not who I am even if that’s what I’ve shown. I knew going into this that there would be some judgement — I just didn’t know how much. Does it make me hurt to the point I get on my knees and cry sometimes? Of course it does, but I have to keep going. I hope that once people see the film and hear from me personally, maybe they’ll get a bigger understanding. But this is not about them, it’s not even about me. This is for the people who have been infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
HB: What do you tell the youth that you speak to today about disclosing their status to community and sexual partners?
WB: I still struggle with that. Every person is different, every circumstance is different and every relationship is different. I’m often asked this question and I don’t have a straight answer. The reason being is there is no cookie cutter explanation on how to disclose. There are some key factors to keep in mind though that I tell them:
One factor is you definitely want to disclose before you get into any kind of sexual relationship or engage in any sexual activities with a partner. The same way people scrutinize my life and decisions — with fairness — I allow my youth to be an example for them and say, ‘Do you want people who you’ve had sex with and not told to be scrutinizing you the way that’s happening to me right now? The best way to avoid this is to be upfront early. If you can’t be upfront early then you need to get out of the situation.
Another one of my key factors is: you can not disclose until you are comfortable with this person and comfortable with the fact that they may not accept you after you disclose.
HB: We often hear PSAs about HIV/AIDS but what do you want people to walk away from this film knowing about the virus today?
WB: Everybody could be infected! HIV is not ‘for’ homosexual white men, it’s not ‘for’ African-American women. If you can look at yourself in the mirror, you can contract HIV. The main reason why I started disclosing is that no one expected ‘Reds,’ Will, Will Brawner to be HIV positive. The reason this epidemic is at such a rapid rate is not because of people who do know, but because of people who don’t know. People don’t go get tested because of fear or stigma of even taking the test. That’s why this epidemic is where it’s at, especially in the African-American community. That’s why the CDC is making a push to normalize testing.
HIV is taking a back seat, when it should really be taking a front seat. It’s still silent because people aren’t talking about it enough. Hopefully this film will help.
HB: What has changed in your life since the cameras stopped rolling on this film five years ago?
WB: Unfortunately me and [my wife at the time of the film] are no longer an item. Marriage has its ups and down and being HIV positive definitely played a big part in the relationship. The stress that was involved in disclosing and even the public scrutiny, I don’t think outwardly that caused a decline in our marriage but in hindsight I realize we were under a lot of stress. I’m sure that all played some role but outside of that we had many other issues that played a part. We still co-parent and as it appears our son [who will be 5 on December] is not affected by any of it.
I have a one-year-old daughter now too. She’s beautiful. Me and her mother are in a wonderful relationship, we’ve been together for more than a year now and both she and my daughter are HIV negative. I definitely want more kids. You’re talking to someone who thought they’d never have children. Now I want to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and have as many as the Lord will allow me to have.
HB: If you happen to have a child that does contract the virus, would you also keep it a family secret?
WB: No. This is 2014. There would be no reason to do that at this point. They didn’t even have computers when we were keeping this a secret. No cellphones. The times are different so I would handle it differently.
HB: How are you different today?
WB: I’m a very spiritual person, I love the Lord. In the film I make a comment: I’ve seen people contract AIDS and die all in my lifetime. I’ve seen a number of people do this. You’re talking to me and I’m now 34 years old. I don’t have many medications left. Every time I pop one of these pills I think about death, but right now I feel great, I’m doing great. I’ve been HIV positive pretty much my entire life and I have the ability to give the message that I’m living; I feel like the message is succeeding.
The reason why God has given me this grace is so that I can do what I’m doing and educate people about [HIV/AIDS], especially since I wasn’t as diligent with my medication as I should’ve been through out the years. There’s no other explanation. There’s no medical reason. There’s only a spiritual reason.
I started this journey by wanting to let other people with HIV know my story and know that if I could survive and overcome certain things, so could they. As I’ve grown older and developed more with God I feel like the story’s bigger than me. I’ve been living with this for 33 years now. I feel like I’m on borrowed time, but I feel like I’m only able to do that because of what I’m doing right now to promote awareness. This is a divine purpose that’s way bigger than me.
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