'Stonewall Strong': John-Manuel Andriote's Take on Resilience in the Face of HIV

Contributing Editor
John-Manuel Andriote
John-Manuel Andriote
Joe Levine

Throughout history, the LGBTQ community, and gay men specifically, have been marginalized and made to feel "less than" by the language used to describe them. From the theatrical "the love that dare not speak its name" to less poetic playground taunts like "faggot" and "cocksucker," gays have been made to feel wimpy and delicate, less powerful than our hetero brothers. These labels not only hurt us as a community but also can make us feel individually weak and ineffectual. Add to that the language that is sometimes used to describe a person living with HIV -- "dirty," "diseased," "infected," "AIDS victim" -- and a person can become downright defeated.

In his book Stonewall Strong: Gay Men's Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community, gay and HIV-positive author John-Manuel Andriote shares a different perspective. By telling inspiring stories of his own experiences and pivotal happenings in LGBTQ history in the past hundred years, he shows how often the gay community has been bold, loving, strong, victorious, and (my favorite new descriptor) resilient.

His own story begins rather humbly. Andriote grew up in Norwich, Connecticut. "My family moved here when I was in seventh grade," he said, "but my father had grown up in Norwich, and his parents grew up in Norwich after their parents. My great-grandparents came here from Greece."

He came of age and out as gay in the '80s when the AIDS crisis was in full swing, affecting many of his close friends and lovers. While working on his master's degree, he realized that he needed to report on the devastating health issue and the remarkable, heroic responses he witnessed.

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"I was in journalism school at Northwestern in 1985," Andriote said, "and that that year was pretty pivotal. You know, with all these headlines about Rock Hudson when he came out publicly that summer. It was a process of my coming to grips with the idea that here I was, a young journalist looking for something to give my life meaning and purpose, at the same time as this health crisis was exploding in my own community. I thought: 'What could I do? How could I contribute?'"

Andriote became a chronicler of HIV/AIDS and its impact on individuals and the LGBT community.

"AIDS was never something that I considered a moral issue." Andriote continued, "and dedicating my time and effort to writing about it sprang naturally from my values."

Across the years, his career grew and he became a sought-after authority, writing for publications ranging from The Advocate to The Washington Post. He was an insider in Washington D.C.'s press circles, an expert on LGBTQ issues. He always thought of himself as an observer, somehow immune to acquiring HIV.

Andriote explained: He had been "writing about AIDS, at that point, for 20 years as an HIV-negative gay man while my friends were getting sick and dying, and I'm going to a hospital and taking care of them and writing about it as an issue, as a journalist. At the same time, there was always that feeling, you know, at the end of the day, like this isn't the thing that's going to get me. You know, that I escaped HIV somehow."

In 2005 at 47 years old, Andriote was surprised to find himself diagnosed as HIV positive. After the initial shock, he tried to think of how he could have contracted it.

"How do I describe discreetly?" Andriote asked. "I was always sexually versatile," he explained, "but I sort of started moving more toward the top role. Then that increased my, I guess, my comfort with, you know, not using condoms. Because I reasoned that, based on what I read, that the receptive partner, whether male or female, is the one most at risk." Andriote continued: "And so, after my diagnosis, I mean, of course I wracked my brain, thinking, 'When was the last time that I bottomed?!' And it was really a long time. And I thought, oh my God, this is like the miraculous infection! You know? How did this happen?!"

After soul searching and scouring his brain for the answer to the "how" question, he finally understood the answer.

"I'm human," Andriote realized. "You know, that really does account for it."

But even as Andriote tried to figure out the "hows" of his diagnosis, he recognized that he was strong enough to get through it.

"I realized, even as I was diagnosed, that somehow, some way, I'm going to get through this," he said. "You know, I will survive. Like Gloria Gaynor said! Somehow, I knew that I would, through my resourcefulness, that I'd find a way to pay for these medications that my insurance wouldn't pay for. I had no idea, but I did what I do, which is one of the reasons I guess I'm a reporter!"

Stonewall Strong book cover

Andriote started to think of people in his community who could help him with his new set of HIV challenges: "Who do I know? Who can I call? Who can help me with this? What resources are available? You know, I started gathering information to support my own survival."

After years of living in Washington D.C., working as a writer and journalist, Andriote moved back to his hometown in Connecticut.

"And so, you know, I'm back in Norwich. I moved here from Washington, D.C., in 2007. And so it's going on 11 years since I uprooted myself from my city life and moved back to the hometown that I basically fled when I went away to college."

As much as he misses some of the hustle and bustle of big cities, Andriote has come to appreciate the beautiful township where he grew up -- and its values.

"This was a big part of a big outcome of my diagnosis: kind of reappraising my life and what I want, and reconnecting with all those things that formed me and that formed my values and my core and my sense of connectedness and rootedness -- and my valued genuineness. After I reconnected with all of this," Andriote said, "I really came to understand better how it was that I believed ... how I became resilient. Basically, why it was that I thought, 'I'll survive,' because I've really survived very difficult things in my life."

"I'm looking at my own story through that lens," Andriote said, "and my own HIV story through that lens, not just of 'oh I'm a victim.' You know, I got this terrible virus, and it up-ended my life and all this. And to me it's all about not buying into the shame that people think I'm supposed to feel for being gay, for having this particular microbe instead of that other one that is more socially acceptable."

Andriote's own encouraging story about his strength and flexibility in the face of his life's challenges led him to reach out to others in the LGBT community to learn their stories of survival. He also researched cultural history to find proof of gay might in the stories of pre-Stonewall subversives, the pro-gay movement, the AIDS crisis, and the struggle for marriage equality.

"What I'm trying to do in Stonewall Strong is to showcase these stories of these men, including my story, who really have flipped the equation on its head and said: 'Look at what I've survived, and I'm still here! And I've done pretty impressive things in my life!'"

All of this research is woven together in a remarkable volume showing that individually and collectively, gay people have proven to be tough, thriving, resilient folk.

"It's really celebrating the courage and bravery and resilience of our community." Andriote said. "We have so much to be proud of."

Stonewall Strong is available on Amazon or directly from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. (Use promotion code RLFANDF30 at checkout for a 30% discount. Valid through 12/31/2018.)

Besides Stonewall Strong, John-Manuel Andriote is also the author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America; Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco/Dance Music; Tough Love: A Washington Reporter Finds Resilience, Ruin, and Zombies in His "Other Connecticut" Hometown; and a "fable for kids ages five to 105" called Wilhelmina Goes Wandering. For more information on Andriote and his books, visit his website at jmandriote.com.