Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival by Sean Strub

Sean Strub’s earnest, evocative memoir of political activism, coming out and the AIDS epidemic will appeal to diverse readers.


Seventeen-year-old Sean Strub left Iowa City in 1976 to attend Georgetown University and–more importantly for his future–to become an elevator operator at the Capitol Building. He worked to meet as many powerful figures as possible, with his own political career in mind, yet he was haunted by a secret he feared would make him unelectable: he was attracted to men.

Three years later, the colorful, growing gay community of New York City encouraged the aspiring politico to begin to explore his own sexuality and acknowledge it as a permanent feature in his life. As an increasingly “out” gay man, he shifted his focus away from the idea of running for office and became a committed activist in the pursuit of gay rights. Strub’s second passion and skill was for entrepreneurship, and he eventually started up an impressive number of companies, including direct-mail ventures and publications that supported his causes.

In the early 1980s, “gay cancer,” eventually known as AIDS, was suddenly everywhere. Strub couldn’t attend every funeral and memorial service, he writes, but he always made sickbed visits; sometimes he walked the halls of a hospital without a specific friend in mind, reading names on rooms, sure he’d find people who needed him.

Strub had known he was HIV-positive since 1985, when he was given a prognosis of “maybe” two years, but his partner Michael died with no warning, not even getting sick first. The need for AIDS activism to push for quicker access to new drugs and fight discrimination naturally dominated Strub’s attention in the years following his diagnosis and Michael’s death.

In Body Counts, Strub relates the joys and struggles of learning self-love, political aspirations and disillusions, activism and relationships with countless men and women he loves, with cameo appearances by Tennessee Williams, Bobby Kennedy, Gore Vidal and Bill Clinton (among others). Body Counts is a powerfully moving personal memoir with the added value of a fine and feeling primer on the history of gay culture and AIDS in the United States. Strub’s subject matter could have been morbidly tragic, but he retains a sense of humor and celebration, honoring the dead with love and hope. Now an AIDS survivor for nearly 30 years, Strub notes that he is on his way to matching, in same-sex weddings, the number of funerals he attended in the 1980s and ’90s.

This review originally ran in the December 13, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 mailings.

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