Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survivalby Sean Strub
Sean Strub, founder of the groundbreaking POZ magazine, producer of the hit play “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” and the first openly HIV-positive candidate for US Congress, charts his remarkable life—a story of politics and AIDS and a powerful testament to loss, hope, and survival.
Sean Strub, founder of the groundbreaking/b>/i>
Sean Strub, founder of the groundbreaking POZ magazine, producer of the hit play “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” and the first openly HIV-positive candidate for US Congress, charts his remarkable life—a story of politics and AIDS and a powerful testament to loss, hope, and survival.
Sean Strub, founder of the groundbreaking POZ magazine, producer of the hit play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, and the first openly HIV-positive candidate for U.S. Congress, charts his remarkable life—a story of politics and AIDS and a powerful testament to loss, hope, and survival.
As a politics-obsessed Georgetown freshman, Sean Strub arrived in Washington, D.C., from Iowa in 1976, with a plum part-time job running a Senate elevator in the U.S. Capitol. He also harbored a terrifying secret: his attraction to men. As Strub explored the capital’s political and social circles, he discovered a parallel world where powerful men lived double lives shrouded in shame.
When the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1980s, Strub was living in New York and soon found himself attending “more funerals than birthday parties.” Scared and angry, he turned to radical activism to combat discrimination and demand research. Strub takes readers through his own diagnosis and inside ACT UP, the activist organization that transformed a stigmatized cause into one of the defining political movements of our time.
From the New York of Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s Factory to the intersection of politics and burgeoning LGBT and AIDS movements, Strub’s story crackles with history. He recounts his role in shocking AIDS demonstrations at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the home of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. Body Counts is a vivid portrait of a tumultuous era, with an astonishing cast of characters, including Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Keith Haring, Bill Clinton, and Yoko Ono.
By the time a new class of drugs transformed the epidemic in 1996, Strub was emaciated and covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, the scarlet letter of AIDS. He was among the fortunate who returned, Lazaruslike, from the brink of death.
Strub has written a vital, inspiring memoir, unprecedented in scope, about this deeply important period of American history.
Radicalized by the AIDS crisis and plunged into political activism for the LGBT community, Iowa-born Catholic-raised Strub chronicles the crucial years of AIDS awareness since the early 1980s, which parallels his own coming-of-age. As a protégé of Iowa senator Dick Clarke, Strub, then a teenager, worked as an elevator operator at the U.S. Capitol between 1976 and 1978; naïf, a virgin, attending Georgetown University, he gradually frequented “the Block” for gay cruising in Georgetown, resigned to closeted, secretive meetings with other men, yet reveling in the attention and friendship. A move to New York City introduced him to bathhouses, like the New St. Marks, and a growing political awareness, such as in gay marches and parades; dropping out of Columbia, Strub took his first political job in the Kentucky Democratic committee, and by June 1981, recognized he shared some of the same symptoms as the men mysteriously dying of a “gay cancer” first noticed by Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, writing frequently in the New York Native. Strub frankly and openly speaks about these painful and inspiring early years of the gay and lesbian movement, how the AIDS epidemic devastated the newly emergent community and ushered in a terrible backlash against gays. (Jan.)
A prominent activist and publisher ties his personal journey into the epochal events that have shaped the last 35 years of LGBT rights and AIDS education. Even growing up as a closeted Catholic Midwesterner, Strub knew that his gift for initiating progressive political change would someday bring him to Washington, D.C. Although he spent the late 1970s meeting congressional movers and shakers via his job as a Senate elevator operator, he soon realized that New York City provided a more congenial atmosphere for a young gay man beginning to explore and advocate on behalf of his sexuality. Strub paints a striking picture of the grittiness and exuberance of the Big Apple at this time, when the city was reveling in the last hurrahs of freedom that encompassed discos, singles bars and bathhouses. Amid all the revelry, however, disquieting references to a "gay cancer" began appearing, and sexually active gay men began to find suspicious lesions on their bodies. At first, Strub writes, many in the gay community chose to ignore or dismiss these signs; however, in 1982, an article written by two men who had contracted what came to be known as AIDS sparked controversy by linking the disease to the unfettered sexual activity that had characterized the post-Stonewall years. Well aware of the devastating effects of AIDS on so many Americans, the Reagan and Clinton administrations nevertheless neglected to provide the support or fund the research that might have slowed the epidemic. Thus began an intense effort on the parts of Strub and other activists to promote safer sex, demand access to treatment and give hope to those diagnosed with HIV. The author achieved the latter by founding POZ magazine in 1994 and later, after protease inhibitors halted the progression of his own disease, by creating the Sero Project to empower those who have been criminalized for having HIV. A valuable document that gives an insider's view into AIDS activism and declares that compassion can mean just as much as cure.
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Read an Excerpt
Elevator number one was “Senators Only,” and my job was to move senators up to the Senate floor in the U.S. Capitol and back to their offices as quickly as possible. From 1976 to 1978, for twenty hours a week, I manually opened and closed a shiny brass accordion-style gate at each floor, always with a friendly greeting. Whenever the gate squeaked or scraped, I would squirt a little oil on its metal joints. The interior of the antique elevator cab was polished walnut and rosewood, with a hand-operated cast-iron gearshift worn smooth by many decades of constant movement forward (“Going up!”) and back (“Going down!”). A small wooden folding seat was hinged against the wall, but I never used it. I preferred to stand and greet passengers eye to eye.
I had arrived in Washington from Iowa in March 1976, with a copy of Michael Harrington’s The Other America in my suitcase, as a seventeen-year-old idealist determined to make my mark in the world. I wasn’t sure what that might be, but I harbored political ambition and secretly thought I might go very far. My parents believed I went to Washington to attend Georgetown University that fall. “A fine Jesuit school,” my dad called it. But for me, the main attraction was the job ferrying members of the U.S. Senate up and down. It was a plum post for an eager young politico, and the pay was good. I also liked that my elevator was on the Senate side of the Capitol, the so-called “upper chamber” of Congress.
I was on a political fast track. When I had hit adolescence, and the attention of my male peers turned to girls, mine turned to politics. That’s how I lucked in to the elevator operator post. As a page in the Iowa State Senate in 1975, I often got rides from the capital in Des Moines to my parents’ house in Iowa City from a journalist, Frank Nye, who lived nearby in Cedar Rapids. Shortly before Christmas in 1975, he and his wife invited me to a dinner party at their house, where I met Iowa’s senator Dick Clark, one of the U.S. Senate’s most liberal members. I didn’t realize Clark was an elected official until the dinner conversation turned to national politics. He seemed particularly well informed, so I asked him, “Do you work in Washington?,” prompting a humiliating burst of laughter from others at the table.
Despite my faux pas, Clark thought I showed promise and handed me his card with his executive assistant’s name scrawled on the back. “Tell Bob I told you to call and see if we might be able to get you an appointment as a page, and maybe you could help out a bit in my office as an intern,” he said. I left Clark’s aide a message the next morning, saying I had already served as a page in the State Senate in Des Moines and was excited about the chance to work in Washington. When he called back, he said I was too old to be a page—the cutoff was sixteen—but he would look into another patronage position for me, which turned out to be the elevator post.
I should already have been in college at the time, but I had taken a gap year to work on the Democratic presidential campaigns leading up to the January 1976 Iowa precinct caucuses. Even though I wasn’t old enough to vote, I was elected as a delegate to the state convention for U.S. Representative Morris Udall. When his campaign fizzled (he commented at the time, “the people have spoken—the bastards!”), I switched my allegiance to California’s governor, Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian who was a late entry into the race. A few weeks after my move to Washington, I took a day off from the elevator job to join Brown’s campaign entourage in Maryland on May 16, 1976—my eighteenth birthday—just two days before that state’s primary.
The Capitol Hill complex—which then included three House and two Senate office buildings, as well as the Capitol—had fifty-eight elevators. Most still required manual operation, which was supplied by politically well-connected teenagers. Members of Congress and staff treated us like mascots, though we were hardly pampered. If the Senate worked late into the night, we did as well. One perk was that we could wander through parts of the Capitol that the public never sees. Another elevator operator, Jay, and I made good use of his knowledge of the meandering labyrinth of passageways, tunnels, and hidden staircases and his cache of master keys. Once, we climbed the steep steps to the dome and smoked a quick joint while enjoying a spectacular 360-degree view of the city. During the day, we slipped past velvet-roped brass stanchions forbidding public passage as though we owned the place, and at night, we wandered through the several levels of underground tunnels, noiseless except for the sounds of our footsteps echoing off overhanging steam pipes. One night when the Senate was working very late, we sneaked into the engineer’s office and cranked up the heat in the Senate chamber until the senators were so miserable that they adjourned, releasing us from our posts.
I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting for an ambitious political junkie than employment literally a few steps away from the Senate chamber. I got a daily contact high as I angled to meet as many powerful political figures as I possibly could, and I let myself imagine that I was nearly as much a part of the political process as they were. I knew several members of Congress had served as pages, worked in the mailroom, or run an elevator in the Capitol when they were young. If being in the right place at the right time mattered, I would make sure I was in the right places at all the right times.
Washington was definitely that place in the spring of 1976, full of promise and drama for a teenager with a political consciousness shaped by Watergate, the Vietnam War, feminism, and social-justice movements. The voting age had dropped from twenty-one to eighteen, the Equal Rights Amendment had passed Congress, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision had energized the women’s rights movement. It had been only two years since Gerald Ford had assumed the presidency in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation, declaring, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Jimmy Carter, the little-known former Georgia governor, campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 with a promise—“I will never lie to you”—that was emblematic of a hopeful new era.
When I saw the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol building for the first time, I felt as if I had reached the center of the universe. The red, white, and blue logos for the upcoming bicentennial celebration were plastered all over town. The freshman class in Congress at the time was full of young reform-minded liberals known as the “Watergate babies,” elected in the Democratic landslide of 1974 and driving a progressive national agenda. Across the country, Americans felt corruption skulking out the window and a fresh breeze of clean politics coming through the door.
My interest in politics was partly a geographic coincidence. In 1967, when I was nine, my family moved from an isolated rural area north of Iowa City, where we kept horses and sheep, to an affluent neighborhood in Iowa City adjacent to the sprawling University of Iowa campus and its huge medical center. The parents of most of the kids in the neighborhood were college professors or doctors at the UI hospital. While my fourth-grade classmates at Lincoln Elementary watched cartoons and read Spider-Man comics, I followed politics and current events in the Des Moines Register, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and the Daily Iowan. Our proximity to a politically progressive campus meant that anti-war protests and the social-justice movement became part of my daily life.
My dad’s family had been in Iowa City since the 1840s, when they opened a small grocery that became a well-known department store—Strub’s Store for Everybody—in subsequent generations. After World War II, my grandfather sold the store but kept the appliance and bottled gas divisions, starting a propane gas company to service the postwar growth in suburban residential developments, which was the business my dad ran.
My mother’s father was a shanty Irish entrepreneur, operating a pool hall and cigar store in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and promoting boxing matches in northwest Iowa and the Dakota territories early in the twentieth century. He died of lung cancer in 1931, right before she was born. Her mother, from a prominent lace-curtain Irish family in Cedar Rapids, died of breast cancer when my mother was two years old, so her childhood was nomadic; she bounced from one boarding school or convent to another, raised mostly by nuns. As a teenager, she came to Iowa City to live with an aunt and uncle and attend high school, where she met my father.
My parents weren’t especially political; their Catholicism was vastly more defining than any political ideology. They never knew quite what to make of my obsession with politics, let alone the increasingly radical views I embraced in later years. I was the third of six children. My older brother was named Carl, after my father and grandfather; when I was born, I was named for my mother’s Irish heritage and given her maiden name, O’Brien, as my middle name. My three sisters all were given Mary as a first name, after my father’s devotion to the Virgin Mother. My younger brother, Thomas Jerome, was named after my father's close friend, who was best man at my parent's wedding.
The thrill of being away from home and near the nexus of power and politics in Washington was dampened by a humiliating secret. While many teenage boys at the time had a poster of television star Farrah Fawcett, with her long legs and blond hair, I was obsessed with Mark Spitz, the muscular and handsome 1972 Olympic swimmer. Even though I hadn’t acted on my desire for men, I lived in constant fear that exposure would demolish my life as I knew it.
Homosexuals had no chance of finding love or affection, according to the Catholic Church, my family, and Dr. David Reuben’s 1972 best seller, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), which my parents hid under their mattress. We were condemned to a life of misery and empty sexual encounters. I thought my same-sex attraction was inherently evil; all I could do was hope it was a phase that might pass, like my youthful infatuation with magic. To the world, I looked like a young person with bright prospects, but I was damaged on the inside, shame smothering any vision of my future. That sense of alienation gave me empathy for others similarly marginalized or maligned and I think helped spark my interest in politics.
At thirteen, I briefly thought I had a calling for the priesthood, a period I now recognize as a desperate attempt to escape others’ oppressive expectation that I become interested in girls. When I didn’t pursue a religious vocation, I thought marriage might extinguish my attraction to men. However, my concept of marriage had nothing to do with love or creating a family. It was something to acquire or achieve.
I had it all wrong, of course. Not just about myself and the suppression of hormonal desire but also about the country’s direction at the time. What I thought was a national renewal was, in fact, a curtain closing on liberalism. The building blocks of the New Right, the right-wing conservative movement exemplified by Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, were firmly in place. The stage was set for the rise of the Reagan revolution, radicalization of the Republican Party, and destruction of the expanding social contract that had defined American politics since World War II.
I arrived in Washington as a virgin. I had never admitted my attraction to men to anyone, except in a confessional at fifteen, to a creepy priest who then interrogated me, wanting highly specific details of my sinful thoughts. Though I knew there was a gay rights movement on the political fringe, I had met only a handful of openly gay men or lesbians in Iowa City. San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood and New York’s Christopher Street were then already known around the world as coming-out meccas, but Washington was fiercely closeted, more like Iowa City, with a gay scene that was mostly underground. Washington was full of gay men who had devised an elaborate system of secrecy—with its own language, codes, and customs—and attended hidden bars and parties.
During those first few months, I tried to dress like preppy congressional staffers on the Hill and even bought my first pair of denim jeans to blend in after-hours with my peers. It was an opportunity to reinvent myself for new acquaintances who didn’t know I couldn’t throw a ball, wasn’t interested in girls, and had been taunted for years as a faggot. Since the onset of puberty, I had been repressing sexual thoughts, so by the time I got to Washington, I was pretty good at it.
I was also pretty good at a key requirement for the elevator job: the ability to recognize senators. Every elevator operator was given a face book (long before that term’s contemporary meaning); I had already pored over the encyclopedic Almanac of American Politics, studying the pictures and collecting arcane minutiae about candidates and campaigns the way sports fanatics study athletes and game statistics. I knew that the voting records of Iowa’s two senators at the time—Dick Clark, who sponsored me for the elevator position, and John Culver—gave them the highest average rating from Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group, of any state in the country. I knew which senators won in landslides and which narrowly slid through their last election; I read brief biographies on all the senators, which revealed where they went to school, their careers prior to election to the Senate, and information about their wives and children.
I started out as an operator on a bank of eight Senate-side public elevators. As soon as I saw a senator getting off the underground tram that ran between the Capitol and the Dirksen and Russell Senate office buildings, I made sure an empty elevator was held, ready for his private use. This adolescent precocity soon got me promoted to elevator number one, hidden around the corner from the main bank of public elevators. The Capitol had many such private senatorial sanctums—washrooms, barbershops, dining rooms, and hideaway offices—behind unmarked doors. The promotion meant I no longer had tourists or staff on my elevator, only members of Congress, cabinet officials, and the occasional Supreme Court justice, with any staff or guests who might accompany them.
The other elevator operators were the first people I met in Washington, and we often hung out in our break room, which was like a secret clubhouse in the bowels of the Capitol. It was behind an inconspicuous door at the end of a long, poorly lit basement hallway painted battleship gray, with exposed pipes overhead. The hallway led to offices serving the more mundane needs of the Senate, including one we called Jack the Wrapper, because they wrapped bulky packages for shipping, and a room marked SERVICE CLOSET, which housed a small snack shop for staffers.
In the break room, we entertained ourselves by playing cards and games or snapping rubber bands at rats scurrying along the baseboard. The Capitol was full of rats—a shocking revelation, I know—but they were a concern only on the rare occasions when they ventured into brightly lit public areas, startling tourists.
The oldest elevator operator, a middle-aged man, spent many hours in the break room reading. When I met him on my first day on the job, he was introduced to me as “the Senator.” He never spoke to me, so I asked Jon, another elevator operator, if he knew what was wrong. “It’s just that he used to be a member of the Senate,” Jon said. “When he was defeated, he didn’t want to leave, so he took a job running the elevator. But he’s really proud and usually won’t talk to someone new until they ask about his service in the Senate. Do that and it’ll be fine.”
I was intimidated, but a little while later, I was in the break room with several other operators and tried to strike up a conversation. “Senator, how long did you serve upstairs?” I asked tentatively. He let out a long, weary sigh and said, “Three terms, until that bastard Domenici beat me.” Pete Domenici was a senator from New Mexico, so I said, “Oh, you’re from New Mexico?” During our conversation, Gisele Gravel, an elevator operator and niece of Alaska senator Mike Gravel, came into the break room. Overhearing our exchange, she said to me, “They’re pulling your leg. He’s not a senator, he’s an asshole.”
Every elevator operator heard and retold a story about Texas Republican senator John Tower, known to be sensitive about his short stature. He dressed meticulously—shiny cowboy boots with an extra-high heel, carefully tailored suits, and sometimes a cowboy hat. He was arrogant and rude, especially to service staff, and known for his explosive temper.
One day a new operator was in his cab on the first floor of the Russell Senate Office Building when a short man wearing a cowboy hat and shiny boots walked onto the elevator and commanded, “Third floor!” The elevator operator closed the door and put the elevator in gear. As he passed the second floor, the call buzzer sounded three times, the code that it was a senator making the request. A call from a senator always took priority, so the new operator stopped the car with a hard lurch and reversed it. His passenger, furious, berated the operator. The elevator operator, initially nonplussed, looked at his passenger sternly and said, “Hold on, cowboy, we got us a U.S. senator coming aboard!” Tower exploded in rage and later got the elevator operator reassigned.
On my elevator, I saw senators on days they were happy and days they were upset. I saw them in the middle of temper tantrums with colleagues. I got to know most of them well enough to understand how best to greet them and when to stay entirely silent. Several senators, including James Eastland, Russell Long, Herman Talmadge, John Culver, and Lowell Weicker, frequented a hideaway office on the third floor that was mostly a private drinking club. Some were undoubtedly heavy drinkers, but just as many used the hideaway to drink strategically, loosening up colleagues whose votes they sought. Alcohol has always been an effective lubricant of democracy. After the first time a senator asked if I had a breath mint, I made sure to keep a supply on hand.
I took my job seriously, believing I played a small but important role in the legislative process. Crossing the crucial threshold from witness to participant made me feel less like an outsider, less like the bullied kid at the playground. Like with my earlier stint as an altar boy at St. Mary’s parish in Iowa City, or later as a frequenter of Studio 54 in New York, the elevator operator position bestowed insider status. The costumes—whether the suits and ties of politics, the Catholic liturgical garments, or the glittering disco garb of New York nightlife—and the corresponding rituals were all part of the fun. Each milieu required a respect for the sanctity of its inner workings, and in exchange, participants gained membership, even if only a junior one, in the insiders’ club.
Power is the drug to which all of Washington is addicted, and simply being in the presence of the powerful was intoxicating. It was only an elevator, but proximity to senators was the first step to access and influence. In Washington, fresh anecdotes and gossip about members of the Senate formed a currency that guaranteed an attentive audience; stories from my elevator provided a never-ending supply.
That first summer in Washington, I rented a spare bedroom in my friend Bill Flannery’s compact ivy-covered basement apartment on Capitol Hill. While in high school, I had taken a journalism course at the University of Iowa and helped out as a gofer at the student paper, The Daily Iowan, when Flannery was its editor. He subsequently moved to Washington to work for the Center for Defense Information, a left-leaning think tank that studied U.S. military and foreign policy. Flannery was almost a caricature of a flaming radical. He was all of twenty-five and had adopted the tweedy academic look of an Oxford don. He had a small bust of Lenin on his desk, and he sometimes called me “comrade” as he lectured me on the blood-soaked history of the leftist movement. He gave me a political education, explaining what was “really” happening according to his own radical analysis.
Living as his tenant and semi-ward, I was a captive and sympathetic audience. A year earlier, I published the first and only issue of Radical Rites Press, a project in the journalism course, but I had only a peripheral sense of leftist politics. It was a mimeographed zine containing three manifestos (all written by me) in support of abortion rights, the legalization of both marijuana and gay marriage—all positions I know would have shocked my parents, if I had told them—and an endorsement of Mo Udall’s presidential candidacy. It felt daring to put those opinions in print, even though its circulation extended only as far as my teacher’s desk and to a few friends in the Daily Iowan newsroom. I was proud when Flannery read it and said, “You’ve got talent, kid!”
Flannery and I had long talks, and I came close to telling him about my attraction to men. But when I managed to steer our conversation toward gay rights or homosexuality, he was either dismissive or pejorative. He wasn’t a bigot, just uninformed. He grew to respect LGBT activism and, in time, treasured his openly LGBT friends. But in 1976, his insensitivity felt to me like a hammer sealing tight the already closed door to my suffocating closet.
I had to be home by ten P.M. every night or face a grilling from Flannery, who acted like a surrogate parent. He admonished me to walk only to the right, toward East Capitol Street, as I left our Fifth Street NE apartment. To the left, toward Maryland Avenue and Stanton Park, was too dangerous, he said. I felt on edge on the streets, especially at night, but the streets were where I eventually went in search of other gay men. I was self-conscious about my virginity, and it was becoming more difficult to believe my same-sex attraction was just a phase. I needed to experience actual sex with another man to know for sure. Gay men recognized me as one of them—and as an object of desire—and I started to understand that there were homosexuals in the world beyond the flamboyant stereotypes I could identify easily. Working in the Senate, both running the elevator and as an intern in Senator Clark’s office, brought me into contact with many closeted gay men. I grew attuned to the subtle clues they used to signal each other—the lingering glance, a style of dress, or conversational innuendo. I developed gaydar and took notice of those men who were groomed more carefully than others, whose ties were tied perfectly symmetrically with a dimple in the knot, and who exuded awareness or heightened sensitivity that I associated with being gay. I learned to distinguish among cordiality, friendliness, and flirtation.
Flannery’s curfew and babysitting style kept my desires in check temporarily, but they didn’t stop me from spending countless hours privately speculating about whether this or that man was gay. My awareness of bigoted comments also became more acute. Jokes or slurs that wouldn’t have caused me a second thought a year or two earlier now felt unkind, ignorant, or hateful. When I thought all gay men were flamboyant and obvious, those comments didn’t apply to me because I wasn’t like that. But the more I privately identified as a gay person, the uglier those comments sounded, and the closer they hit to home.
During those first few months in Washington, I started to accept my sexual desire as a permanent part of who I was. I began to see the injustices that gay men endured and to recognize the consequences. Surprisingly, I didn’t view lesbians the same way; I saw their struggle as part of the broader feminist movement. I didn’t understand what gay men and lesbians had in common, but I already had a feminist consciousness and was quickly developing a gay one as well. To the extent that I recognized a binary movement, I thought of it in terms of gay men and feminists.
My earliest political mentors were Iowa state senator Minnette Doderer, one of Iowa’s most important feminists in the 1970s, and Jean Lloyd-Jones, president of the Iowa chapter of the League of Women Voters and later a state legislator. Minnette often gave me rides back and forth to Des Moines from Iowa City, and I worked on Jean’s first campaign. I spent hundreds of hours with them talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and other feminist priorities, but I don’t think homosexuality ever came up.
My sexuality throughout my teen years existed in a conflict zone boundaried by my church, my body, and my conscience. Coming out wasn’t an option I even considered. Keeping my desire private—and fighting to suppress it—was a survival strategy. Once I began to accept my desire, I realized the closet was only a temporary refuge, one I could not inhabit forever.
One night Bill Flannery took me to meet colleagues of his at the Tune Inn, a popular burger and beer joint on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks southeast of the Capitol. One of the guys who worked with Flannery started telling fag jokes. Everyone at the table was laughing boisterously, and I did, too. While I drank my beer and ate my cheeseburger, I felt disgusted with myself. I wanted to say something to get him to stop, but I was a coward, afraid that if I objected, it would cast suspicion on my own sexuality. Was this the way it was always going to be? Sitting in silent misery while others made jokes at my expense? I knew I couldn’t live my life that way and privately started to question how others could.
Part of my self-acceptance came from recognizing others—especially well-known and well-respected people in public life or from history—who were gay or lesbian. I also heard rumors about politicians and others in positions of great power and privilege who were gay but denied it, even some who spoke disparagingly of gay people or exploited anti-gay prejudice to further their own political ambitions. I was shocked by their hypocrisy. Years later it was confirmed that several of the leading architects of the late-1970s evangelical and conservative movement—men who publicly promoted intolerance of gay people—were at the same time cruising gay bars and having sex with men in private.
As my identity as a gay man took root, I also had the chance to observe, close up, some of the most politically powerful men in the world. My brief conversations with senators, forgotten by them the moment they got off my elevator, have remained with me. I once heard MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who worked for House Speaker Tip O’Neill earlier in his career, refer to feeling a “thrill up the leg” when in the presence of inspirational elected officials. I know exactly what he means.
When not ferrying passengers, I rested my elevator on the Capitol’s second floor, outside the majority leader’s office and just a few steps from the Senate chamber’s main entrance. The majority leader—red-vested, fiddle-playing Democratic senator Robert C. Byrd—was a West Virginian who, when he died in 2010, had served fifty-seven years in Congress, longer than anyone in U.S. history.
Byrd was often in his office late into the evening, and one night he and several other senators could be heard from the hallway. As they argued loudly over a procedural matter, I saw a reporter—one known to be hostile to the Democratic leadership—lingering nearby to eavesdrop outside the office door. I daringly left my elevator, which was forbidden while on duty, brushed by the reporter, and knocked on the door. When no one answered, I timidly opened it to the small reception area where his private secretary usually sat. She had left for the day, so I walked over to the open interior door into Byrd’s private office. When I poked my head in, the senators, surprised by my interruption, stopped talking; Byrd gave me an irritated questioning look.
I knew this was risking my job and could result in dismissal. My voice cracked as I informed them of the reporter outside the office. Senator Byrd’s face softened, and he graciously thanked me. Within minutes, a Capitol police officer shooed away the unwanted reporter.
After that incident, I was a favorite of the courtly Senator Byrd. Once he gave me a message—“Tell him ‘It’s all worked out’ ”—to deliver to my patron, Senator Clark. I never found out what it meant, but I conveyed that single sentence as if it were a national security secret.
I loved meeting every member of the Senate, especially three of the Democratic liberal “lions”—George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and Ted Kennedy—whose careers I had followed closely. When I told Senator McGovern that I was his campus coordinator at my boarding school in Wisconsin during his 1972 presidential campaign, he asked, “How’d I do?” and I was proud to tell him, “You won, sir!”
When Senator Kennedy saw a copy of Leon Uris’s novel Trinity wedged between the collapsible elevator seat and the wall, he told me that his mother had given him a copy when he was hospitalized. Over the next several weeks, he would ask me where I was in the story, about specific characters and turns in the plot. When Senator Humphrey, a failed presidential candidate but enduring statesman, found out I was a native Iowan, he said, “We midwesterners need to stick together!” He had brought me a signed copy of his newly published book, The Education of a Public Man, which Senator Walter Mondale, Humphrey’s Minnesota colleague, saw in my elevator; I told him that Senator Humphrey had given it to me. The next day Mondale brought me a signed copy of his book, The Accountability of Power.
Senators weren’t my only prominent passengers. Celebrities visited frequently, and the 1976 bicentennial summer attracted more stars than usual. Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Graham, sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and others were passengers. When Senator Jacob Javits squired Taylor around the Capitol, he looked like the nerdy high school kid who had lucked into a date with the prom queen. Another famous Elizabeth, the Queen of England, visited the Capitol in July for a lunch in her honor in the National Statuary Hall. There wasn’t much room in my elevator, but I loved how large the world became for me within its walls.
In the 1970s, seniority meant everything in the Senate. It dictated chairmanships of the most powerful committees and the assignment of office space and parking spots; it earned the prize of the last available space on an elevator. It wasn’t ideology but perks (especially office assignments and parking spaces) that caused the greatest friction among members.
Though the seniority system had serious flaws, it enabled more nuanced and complicated cross-party alliances than the lockstep party discipline typical today. A spirit of collegiality could transcend party politics, and senators were more independent in their political views. For example, Washington’s senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson was so hawkish that he was called the “Senator from Boeing,” after the major military contractor then headquartered in his state, but he was also a leading environmentalist. Mississippian John Stennis, an ultraconservative Dixiecrat who staunchly opposed every piece of civil rights legislation, was one of the first members to publicly criticize Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic red baiting in the 1950s. In the 1980s, he opposed Reagan’s nomination of ultra-conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, an icon of the far right, was prominently pro-choice.
Stennis was not the only famous segregationist in the Senate in the late 1970s; others included South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948, and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, labeled the “master obstructionist” for his ability to delay legislation that he opposed. Helms was famously racist; in 1983 he filibustered for sixteen days, trying to prevent the Senate from approving a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. In the AIDS-defined years to come, he relished every opportunity to show his homophobia, railing against “the homosexual agenda” and ranting to all who would listen about the immorality of the “homosexual lifestyle.” When President Bill Clinton nominated Roberta Achtenberg, the accomplished former head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, to a post requiring Senate confirmation, Helms condemned her from the Senate floor as “that damn lesbian.”
In my elevator, Helms was always distracted and slightly formal, courtly but not warm. At the time, I could not have fathomed that my future would intersect with Helms and that our encounter would one day involve the use of an extra-large condom.
I was spending my days in constant motion—going up and down—yet always arriving back where I started. My future was in a holding pattern as well, with an illusion of movement masking the fact that I was on standby, waiting to see if I might shake the secret that stood in the way. On some days, I had a growing sense that would never happen.
I desperately wanted someone—or something—to ring a bell three times and whisk me to where I wanted or needed to be. My real desire was to run for office, but I was certain that was impossible as long as I was attracted to men. That fear caused me to withdraw from my parents and family back in Iowa. As I took Washington’s elite from one floor to the next, I feared being permanently grounded by my sexual orientation.
Meet the Author
Sean Strub is an activist, writer, and executive director of the Sero Project, which combats the criminalization of people with HIV. He founded POZ magazine, the leading publication providing information about HIV, and is a frequent speaker about HIV/AIDS, self-empowerment, and the intersections of sex, public health, and the law. A native of Iowa City, Strub attended Georgetown and Columbia universities. He and his partner, Xavier Morales, live in New York and Milford, Pennsylvania.
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