Like other young people who aspire to become writers, I followed the sage advice to "write about what you know." But in the summer of 1981, as I dreamt of becoming a writer, I had no idea what being gay actually meant for me. My writing career was launched by reviewing books for the Advocate, where I shared with other gay men what I learned from the books I reviewed for the nation's leading LGBT magazine.
I had no idea back then how my decision finally to accept that I am a gay man, just before I turned twenty-three, would shape my career. No one knew how the first cases of AIDS, reported the very summer I came out, would shape our community, advance our movement for equality, and traumatize us as we saw close friends and tens of thousands of gay men become gravely ill and die, mostly at a young age.
I realized while I was working on a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University in 1985 that I needed to do my part by reporting and documenting the terrible suffering, and stunning heroism, I saw all around me. I chronicled the impact of HIV-AIDS on individuals, the LGBT political movement, the medical research establishment, and popular American culture in my 1999 book Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. I was thrilled when the book won the 2000 Lambda Literary Awards "Editors' Choice" award, and was an American Library Association "honored book" and a finalist for the New York Publishing Triangle's Randy Shilts Award.
The deaths of friends and colleagues became a routine experience in my thirties. Added to the traumas of my growing-up years, the accumulating losses fueled my anger at the injustice my brothers experienced and stoked my budding activist spirit. They also undermined my ability to consistently feel good about myself and make healthy choices about my own sexual behavior.
My HIV-positive test result in October 2005, at 47 years old, was in some ways a predictable outcome of my risk-taking after having remained HIV-negative since the more perilous 1980s.
What wasn't predictable, though, is how I would handle my new, highly stigmatized identity as a "person living with HIV."
I quickly decided my medical diagnosis would not define me or determine how I think of my own value and lovability. The choices I had made in my sexual behavior that led to my diagnosis were not the only choices I had ever made, and in fact far more of my choices were excellent. If the unhealthy choices that harmed me came from my trauma, where did my will not only to survive, but to thrive, come from?
My journey to answer that question eventually led me to write Stonewall Strong. With the seal of legitimacy that a book contract provides, I set out to learn about resilience, to understand where my own came from, and to share with my readers what I learned so they could benefit from it, too. I interviewed behavioral scientists at leading universities, discovering amazing things about gay men's resilience revealed in research. I spoke with doctors, lawyers, activists, comedians, therapists, drag queens, religious leaders, political leaders, corporate diversity trainers, and so many others. Their stories of discovering their own resilience, courage, and heroism have inspired me.
As I see it, my role as a health writer is to support my readers' efforts to live healthy, productive lives. I am very happy to share with you in Stonewall Strong what I have learned from my own life, from lots of reading, and from what others across America have taught me by generously sharing their experience, strength, and hope with me.
I hope you will be interested in reading my other books and articles, too. You can find links to them, and much more, at my personal website jmandriote.com.
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