“Bill, you have HIV and you have to take medications. But I need you not to tell anybody, because if people find out that you have this…they may want to hurt us.’”
This is what William Brawner’s mother said to him when he was just 5 years old. William (or Will), now 35-years old, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion that he received after being severely burned as a very young child. In the early years of the HIV epidemic, blood transfusions were at increased risk for transmitting HIV infection. And for him, from that day on, through multiple relationships, sexual partners and close friendships, Will didn’t tell anybody for over twenty five years.
A few weeks back, I attended the Philadelphia screening of Mike L. Brown’s film 25 to Life which followed Will on his journey as he dealt with the repercussions of keeping his virus a secret for over two decades and then unveiling the truth to all of the people that he may have infected. The film takes the audience through a heart clutching, inspiring, sad and even at times humorous endeavor of a young man who is plagued with the guilt of living life in the fast lane with a deep, dark, lethal secret and at the same time trying to come to terms with who he truly was at that time.
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“When I first watched the film, I had to watch it like three times back to back to back,” Will told me on a phone call earlier this week, “The first time I watched it I was like, “WHOA, this is a film, and I can’t believe it’s actually done because it took 13 years to do. And then it was more like, as I was watching it, every emotion that I had throughout the film came right back to me”.
In particular, Will is addressing a scene in the film where he calls his old college flame who had cut off all communication with him upon finding out about his secret. In this scene, Will tries giving her a call but his attempt to reconnect does not go as planned and the result creates one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the film.
“I remember those feelings, that anxiety – I can even feel some of that anxiety right now while I’m talking to you . After the phone call when I said something to the camera about “putting a face back on”, I was talking about how I have all of these different faces that I use to hide how I’m really feeling. I remembered saying how it was so hard to do the right thing but it was so easy to do the wrong thing. As I was watching it it was just like, I remember how low I felt. That was my lowest point right there.”
The documentary is speckled with intimate moments like these. And at times, Will admits, he completely forgot that these vulnerable moments were being filmed.
“[The camera crew] was so good at being there but not really being seen. I can’t even really describe it. I forgot they were there. And it took us a long time to make the film so when I finally saw it in June of 2014, I was like, ‘Wow, I forgot that you guys were there for that part’. It was more-so just them being there so much that they were almost like a piece of furniture, that’s how often they were around me. And, I was just able to be myself.”
Throughout the film, we were introduced to longtime college friends of Will’s. Some have forgiven him for keeping his secret, while others have not and even go as far as to call him an “attempted murderer”. Upon further research I learned that Pennsylvania does not consider him one, as the state does not have a specific law criminalizing HIV transmission. In the early years of the HIV epidemic many states implemented HIV-specific criminal exposure laws which imposed criminal penalties on those who knowingly lived with HIV and potentially exposed others to HIV. Today, criminalization of potential HIV exposure is largely a matter of state law depending on where you are.
From what I’ve gathered, it took years and years for Will to truly understand what HIV really was. It wasn’t until he saw the lives of one of his kids (Will was a camp counselor to younger kids with HIV/AIDS) wither away.
“Honestly, it wasn’t until I saw my first kid die and that was when I was 24. Now don’t get me wrong, I knew what it was, how it was contracted, blah blah blah. But the full impact – like, yo, I have the same thing she has and she’s 19 years old, and this other guy got needles and tubes everywhere and is in ICU and no one wants to come in his room and he’s younger than me and he’s withering away and his mom is trying to have prayer visuals and she’s calling all types of pastors to come lay hands on her child – that’s when it hit me the hardest. That’s when I realized like, yo, I got to do something now. That’s when I realized the full magnitude of what this virus could do to me.”
While I don’t condone the fact that Brawner kept this secret from his sexual partners, I understand it. Remember Ryan White? A young, high school student who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and was “outted” and ostracized by his entire community? White was banned from going to public school, and when he was finally granted access, families physically removed their children and sent them to other schools. Even Magic Johnson endured endless rumors about his sexuality and wellbeing after he came out to the public about being infected with HIV. This is why the world is so silent about the AIDS epidemic; because we don’t see people with AIDS as just people.
This is also why Will came up with his alter-ego, Reds, while attending Howard University. To Will, Reds was the side of him that wasn’t infected; he was just a young guy enjoying college life as a normal person, which means having fun, messing around and, of course, having sex. And to his peers, Reds was the man.
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Now that Will has accepted his truth, I ask him if Reds still exists to him and I hear him take a deep breath.
“Nah. [laughs] Nah, he doesn’t. Not at all. I mean, at certain moments I do things that I would do [as Reds]. If I’m at parties with all of my friends or something, I like dancing I like to have a good time, but that wasn’t Reds because Reds was just lost. Reds was someone I created so I didn’t have to deal with myself. We’re all on a constant journey to try to become better people, so no matter where I am or who I am I will always be working to become better. But as far as Reds and being lost….I’m not that lost. So no, Reds doesn’t exist anymore. Reds is dead.”
And although you’d never know it from speaking with him or watching him interact with others, Will still has days where he is fearful for his life.
“I wish I could tell you “noooo, no way”, but I’m not going to lie. Yes. Absolutely. Of course, I have good days and I have bad days. The good thing about today is that medication has come very, very far. They’re actually very close to a cure. So that’s my hope. I have much more hope than I’ve had in the past. But, often times do I think that I’m not going to make it for the cure? Absolutely. Every time I cough, I go into an internal panic.”
And it’s not just a mental thing, Will admits that he is, in fact, more tired than not, but it’s his family and the youth center that he founded a few years ago that keep him going.
“I just can’t afford to be tired. The hardest part about that for me is the fact that because of Haven Youth Center and because I have people who are watching me, it’s hard for me not to have a face on. I have to act like it doesn’t bother me sometimes. It’s hard for me to have vulnerable moments because everybody is watching and I don’t want to let them down. It’s very hard. There are days where I will straight up tell people that I don’t feel good today, and they just won’t believe me. They don’t expect me to have issues because I look so healthy but I absolutely do. It’s a blessing and a hardship because it motivates me to get up and do what I need to do everyday.”
While Haven Youth Center only came to life within the last decade, Will has been dreaming about it since he was a young kid lying awake at night facing the torturous physical side-effects from his medication.
“When I was younger there was a medication that came in a pack of powder. And I would go through the side-effects alone. I would get these intense, burning hot, unbearable fevers, and then I would get these uncontrollable chills and night sweats. I would go through all of that alone, in my room, wrapped up in blankets shivering and lonely as hell. A vision of Haven came to my mind then, because I was so alone and I wanted there to be a place where people like me, who were also shivering on that same night could come and talk about it. That’s when I knew. There were times when I almost lost my calling. I was very young. But I knew at a very young age that this was my calling.”
I can attest to that. On the evening of the 25 to Life film screening after the film wrapped up and the applauding quieted down, Will took the floor for a Q+A. At the end of his interview Will turned to the audience and asked everyone with HIV or AIDS to stand up and almost immediately, a handful of people in the audience jetted out of their seats without hesitation. It was both a jarring and incredible moment.
“Let me tell you something, those people who stood up were not standing up before they came to Haven. That is the power of our program. And it ain’t just me, I can’t take the credit for the program. It’s the program itself. It’s the people who enrolled themselves and entered themselves into the program. I put it in place but it’s the people who have committed themselves to the program and who have grown with the program, who have made it way more than I ever thought it could be. Is it uncomfortable for them? Sometimes, sure. But for the most part, the people who walk through our doors are nurtured, supported, and they go out and do great things, as you could see [at the film screening].”
It’s true. Will has opened up a dialogue for those that are unspoken for or misrepresented. If we keep ignoring the world’s leading infectious killer and disregarding the 35 million people around the globe who are currently living with HIV/AIDS, and the 3.2 million children who are living with HIV, and the 1 out of 7 people around the world who are unaware that they even have HIV, then the spreading of this disease is never going to stop. The staggering number of 39 million people who have already died since the first cases were reported back in 1981 is only going to grow.
When our conversation drifts to the impact that rap and hip hop have on our youth, Will begins to sound irritated, “The rap community perceives HIV and AIDS as an issue that might not affect them. I think the rap community is less educated about it which is dangerous. In the rap community I can’t name one person who has any relationship or connection to AIDS.”
We can’t keep allowing an environment that fosters uneducated stereotypes and breeds fear.
“If right now I were able to go back and give one piece of advice to the “college me”, I’d tell him to disclose now and take your chances. Let’s not wait. Disclose now. It ain’t gonna be easy, but let’s do it now. Let’s stop this.”
So let’s keep the conversation going and let’s stop this.