Brian Rosenberg did it backwards: first he came out about being HIV-positive, then he came to terms with being gay. But whatever the route, Rosenberg made up for lost time. He went to work for the Fenway Community Health Center and soon became coordinator of the Living Well series.
He's a beneficiary of the drug cocktails
Rosenberg, who says he is "thirty-one-derful," has experienced what scientists call "viral eradication": a multi-drug cocktail of protease inhibitors has suppressed HIV to such an extent that it is no longer detectable in his blood. Besides getting his health under control, he has moved on from AIDS service work into helping his family's car dealership reach out to the gay community.
One in Ten: What is your earliest memory of AIDS?
Brian Rosenberg: In college, a guy who was living with AIDS came to campus to talk to us. My friends and I were like, "We're not gay. Why would we need to go to that?" That was probably 1984.
OIT: You thought at the time there was no reason to go. What about in the back of your mind? Was anything else going on?
BR: Not at the time. In '87 and '88, that's when I really started dealing with my attraction to men. At that point, I still just thought that you get AIDS if you're gay or a drug user. I was not doing drugs, and I was not gay. It didn't matter to me that when I first had sex with a guy, I had continuous unprotected sex for like six months. At one point, I thought, "Gee, we could get some kind of STD." But the guy said, "Look at me. Do I look like I would have an STD? And you look really great." I bought that. Back then, no one said, "If you engage in unprotected sex, if you fuck without a condom." It was just, "If you're gay, you can get AIDS."
OIT: The message was pretty simplistic, and since you didn't buy the basic label --
BR: -- it didn't apply to me. So now when I go out for speaking engagements, I talk about the harm in pushing people into accepting labels. I say that this has nothing to do with how you identify yourself, it's what you do.
OIT: When did you start dealing with your sexual orientation?
BR: In 1991. I had a girlfriend at the time. I had told everyone that I was HIV-positive, but no one knew I was gay. She wanted to get married. Her family accepted me, my family loved her. And my mother was like, "Brian, I don't understand why you don't just get married. We don't know how much time you have, and we want you to be happy." I would come up with all kinds of bullshit excuses, but she said, "I really think you need to see a therapist." When I first met the therapist, all we talked about for six months was coming-out issues.
OIT: What do you think have been the most significant developments in the epidemic?
BR: That's a real easy one: hope. A year or two ago was the first time we had doctors preaching hope and encouragement. I remember in February 1995, we did one of our monthly medical updates, and the doctors told me I could call it "Good News in HIV Treatment." And it was true. It was good news.
OIT: These were the first reports of the protease inhibitors?
BR: Right. And it was really important to hear the medical community expressing that kind of hope. My first doctor in 1991 said, "Well, based on your lab results and according to statistics, you should be all right for a couple of years. Three years, you'll get sick and die. Come see me when you need help, and meanwhile, take this AZT." According to him, I should be dead already.
OIT: What do you think have been some of the biggest stumbling blocks in the fight against the disease?
BR: Ignorance. I was supposed to do a speaking engagement about 10 minutes outside of Boston, and a couple of parents found out that this gay guy with HIV was going to come to their school, and they said, "Oh, no. We don't need him to come." The teachers who really wanted me there said, "Why don't we invite him to a church on a Sunday night? We'll hear him, we'll ask him questions, and then you can make an informed decision." So I went, and none of those parents came. Those are probably the people who are still telling their kids, "You're not gay. Don't worry about it." And they could get infected tomorrow.
OIT: What drug therapies had you tried before the protease?
BR: I took AZT right away, because of that first doctor. AZT, ddC, 3TC, the inhaler thing, cyclovir. Now I take 23 pills a day. I know so many people who say, "I'm a noncompliant patient." But taking so many pills is just not a problem for me. Don't get me wrong -- I would love to throw them all out the window if I could, but it doesn't bum me out all day.
OIT: Do you think Boston has distinguished itself in the way it's responded to the disease?
BR: I think Boston's one of the best places in the world for this. Not only do you have the best medical facilities, but you name any holistic treatment, and there's a means to get it. It's amazing. I have a friend who used to live up here, and now she's moved to North Carolina. She's HIV-positive and she's pregnant. She went to this place to get neo-natal, and while they were pretty savvy about what to do for the baby and the mother, they didn't know anything about the protease inhibitors. They didn't know anything about viral load tests. She asked about acupuncture, and nobody knew what she was talking about.
OIT: I'm curious to hear more about how you think AIDS has affected you on a personal level.
BR: For one thing, it made me deal with my sexuality. If I wasn't HIV-positive, I might have gone ahead and gotten married. You know, going to work, tricking on the side, coming home afterwards and being totally closeted and miserable. Now, I've been in an amazing relationship for almost three and a half years. I've come out to all my family, all my friends. I've had tremendous emotional highs. I've made amazing contacts. I loved working at the Fenway. I love the fact that I've been able to make this marriage between different parts of my life. I took my family to brunch at Appetito, and you know, it's all gay, and there's all this kissing, and it's like, "This is my father, and this is my mother." I love being able to do that.
OIT: With some people, there's emotional fallout from getting this new lease on life. People who had planned to die and now find themselves getting healthy are having a hard time adjusting. Has that happened to you?
BR: I never really thought, "Gee, I'm going to be dead in a couple of years." On the other hand, let's face it, I wonder whether I'm going to see my nieces and nephews get married. Do I make long-term plans? Sure. We just moved into a brand-new condo that we designed ourselves. I'm planning this expo that's going to happen a year from now. However, I'm really living for today. I'm not putting things off. Because who knows?
P R O F I L E S, Boston-area AIDS activists: Larry Kessler | Max Essex | Denise McWilliams |
Matt Florence | Ray Schmidt | Ken Mayer | Barbara Gomes-Beach | Brian Rosenberg
T I M E L I N E, 1981 - 1985 | 1986 - 1989 | 1990 - 1996 | The N A M E S | AIDS L I N K S