Friday, September 28, 2012

Interview with Sean Strub, founder of Poz magazine

In the new book Amy Ferris and I co-edited, Dancing at the Shame Prom, twenty seven brave women share deeply personal stories of a shame that held them back, and how they became empowered by letting it go. This book is only the beginning of an ongoing movement. We plan to continue this conversation in workshops around the world (Woodstock NY this October, San Miguel, Mexico Feb 2013, Costa Rica, June, 2013) Amy and I plan to drag shame out of the closet and eradicate it from the planet. In order to do that, we need to bring men into the conversation.  In the next few months, we'll be featuring a series of interviews with some very interesting men.

Below is my interview with Sean Strub, filmmaker, author, activist, founder of POZ magazine ( for the HIV positive community) and Mamm magazine (for women impacted by breast and gynecological cancers). Sean's accomplishments are too many to list here,  so I included his bio at the bottom. Here are his thoughts.

Can you tell us a little bit about your life path, and what led you to it?

I grew up Catholic in Iowa, influenced by the social justice tradition in the church, as well as civic-minded feminists on my paper route, and became an activist at early age, protesting the Vietnam War, advocating feminism and progressive causes and, eventually, LGBT rights.  Most of my adult life I've been engaged in the HIV/AIDS epidemic; I acquired HIV around 1980, when I was 22.

How do you, personally, define the word shame?
Shame is a secret we carry that hurts oneself more than it hurts others.  Shame doesn't exist on its own; it is a symptom of the mind's management of trauma.

Women seem to carry shame, and let it make them small in the world. Do you think men process or carry shame differently than women?
I'm not very good about generalizing differences between men and women, but I think there are many different ways people carry shame, or how it gets expressed in their life.  How shame is managed is important, so I suspect there are lessons to be learned from all genders.
In your experience, how does shame affect the men in our society?

Traditional constructs of masculinity, whether expressed by a men, women, trans or intersexed persons, carry expectations about what constitutes shame.  It seems that at times the most acceptable masculine emotion is around anger, dominance or violence; these are outward expressions of a deeper inner pain that has often (and destructively) been repressed by expected masculine norms.

The women who wrote for Dancing at the Shame Prom are role models and leaders in society. Many of them became successful either in spite of, or because of, the shame they carried. In other words, they were able to turn poison into medicine. Has Shame played a role in your own life, and in setting you on your life path?

Enormously so.  My entire life has been a struggle over my physical corpus, my body, and how it was violated as a child. The traumas I experienced (namely, but not entirely, physical and sexual abuse) were more defining to my character, life and accomplishments than anything else.  Whether it is about sexual freedoms, reproductive choice, combating a virus, shaking off Catholicism, they all ultimately boil down to who is in charge here, who is making the decisions that so profoundly affect my body.   My lifelong commitment to social justice activism was shaped to a large degree by traumas, and this sense of a lack of control over my body, that I experienced as a child.  Trauma, whether it is from physical, psychological or sexual abuse at the hands of another, or whether it is from an incident or life transition, like the loss of a loved one, divorce, serious accident or even loss of a job or relationship, is shame's evil twin. Where there is one, if you dig deep enough, you'll usually find the other.

Can shame ever be a good thing?

Per my previous answer, I would turn it around and ask can trauma ever be a good thing?  One of the most wonderful aspects of being is our remarkable ability to learn from every kind of experience in life and, if we're looking for it, we can usually make sure some of the things we learn are good things.  So shame isn't something I would recommend, nor would I recommend trauma, but they are both parts of every life.  I don't think anyone exits this mortal coil without having experienced them to some degree.  How we react to and handle them is what is important.

We can also impose shame on ourselves, in reaction to specific acts or attitudes, but even those are typically underlain by traumas that make our minds work the way they work, which makes us do the things we do.

What is on your personal “dream-agenda” for the future?

Recognizing greed as a disease that should be treated as a mental health condition.  Requiring all students to be continuously enrolled from K through 12 in ethics, civics, art, music, nutrition and sustainable gardening classes.

Amy Ferris and I thank you so much for participating, Sean, for your thoughtful answers, and mostly for the work you do in the world.

Take a few minutes to watch Sean's short film, HIV Is Not a Crime.

See for more info on Sean's work.

Sean's BIO:
Sean Strub is well known as an activist, writer and entrepreneur. Sean has founded many successful fundraising, publishing and marketing organizations, virtually all in support of progressive social change efforts. He founded POZ in 1994. Strub's companies have also launched POZ en EspaƱol, Mamm (for women impacted by breast and gynecological cancers) and Milford Magazine (a regional title distributed in the Delaware River Highlands area of northeast Pennsylvania).

He has written extensively on corporate social responsibility, smart growth and land development issues, direct marketing and AIDS, among other topics. Sean co-authored, with Dan Baker and Bill Henning, Cracking The Corporate Closet, (Harper Business, 1995) and co- authored, with Steve Lydenberg and Alice Tepper Marlin, the seminal guide to corporate social responsibility, Rating America's Corporate Conscience, (Addison-Wesley, 1987).

Sean's involvement in the social responsibility and ethical investment movements dates to the early 1980's, when he worked with Alumni Against Apartheid and the Harvard Endowment for Divestiture through his direct marketing firm which specialized in social change and mass marketed fundraising techniques. Direct mail campaigns created by Sean have been labeled "slick" by The Wall Street Journal, "highly sophisticated" by The New York Times, and "inventive and unusual" by Business Week.

Strub has also produced theatre and large-scale fundraising events. In 1992, at the Perry Street Theatre in New York, he debuted his production of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, written by and starring David Drake. The Obie Award-winning hit became one of the longest running one-person Off-Broadway shows ever.

In 1990, Strub was a Democratic candidate for the US Congress from New York's 22nd congressional district, running as an openly (but incidentally) gay/HIV+ man. He was defeated by a former member of Congress by fewer than 600 votes.

He has received numerous awards and honors from AIDS organizations, community and professional groups, including the 1995 AIDS Action Foundation's National Leadership Award, the 1996 Cielo Latino Companero award from the Latino Commission on AIDS and Los Angeles-based Being Alive's Spirit of Hope award in 1997.

A native Iowan, Sean attended Georgetown and Columbia Universities. He lives in Milford, Pennsylvania and New York City.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Love Finds a Way

Sometimes…when you hold a prayer in your heart, and never lose faith, and repeat it every morning for almost a year…
Sometimes, when you refuse to give in to fear, or anger, or faithlessness…
Sometimes when you choose love, and hold on to it in the face of challenges…

- a tiny miracle descends upon you like a feather falling from the sky.

This was our tiny miracle.

Ever since our grandson was taken from our lives last November, we held on to hope.
Even as our daughter-in-law didn’t return from Japan, even as her facebook account and email accounts disappeared, we kept hope.

Every single morning we prayed for our grandson Ayumu, and refused to give in to the worst of our fears - the fact that Japan is the number one country for parental child abduction, that they do not acknowledge the custody laws of other countries.

All through this ordeal with our daughter-in-law, our friend Mary advised us to "love her through it" - that no matter how hurt we were, to return every hurt with love.  "Just keep throwing love at it," she said, and I got chills, because I knew that was the right thing to do.

Last Thursday, on Evan’s birthday, as Troy was getting on a plane for Ohio, he got an email on his phone. It turns out that when he goes on tour to the Phillipines in October, the promoter booked him a three day layover in Japan, at no cost. In a matter of weeks, Troy will be holding our grandson Ayumu in his arms again. Aya has agreed to let Troy stay with her family for those three days so he can spend as much time as possible with Ayumu.

The most beautiful part of this miracle: as he got the email, the song “Love Will Find a Way” was playing on the radio. 


The other day, driving Evan home from school, he blurted out a random question, as he always does. “What is true about the world?” he asked.

I thought about it for a moment, then answered, “The only thing I know to be absolutely true is that love always wins.”

Click above to see my grandson laughing.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Questions of a Child

The Thinker

Driving home from school each day, these are the questions I get from Evan, almost seven years old. They come out of nowhere, and I'm never quite ready for them...

When is the future?

Who is the first person that caused the traffic?

Why can’t we go fast and slow at the same time?

What is war?

When was Santa Claus born?

If Santa is old, does that mean he’ll die soon?

Can children die?

Did Hitler kill children? Even babies?

What is disease?

Can children get a disease?

Will you die before me, Mommy?

Is magic real?

Who is the world's youngest person?

Who is God?

Why did someone kill Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Will someone kill Santa?

This is just last week's worth of questions. It has always been my policy to answer my children's questions in a simplistic, age-appropriate and honest way. But tell me...what is the simple answer to any of these?

Oh how I wish he could stay in the magic bubble of belief where Santa and toothfairies are real and children never die and good guys always win. But as I watch him ingesting my "simple" answers, I can see him changing. No longer is he the five-year-old boy that didn't know what the word "death" meant, nor the six-year-old boy who believed that all people lived to be 100 years old. 

I can only hope to keep improving my own outlook on the "real world", to expose Evan to beauty and art and culture and philanthropy, and hope that he inherits faith and hope from us as he makes his way into this crazy-beautiful, messy, chaotic world of wonder. 

In the meantime, I'd better steel myself for next week's questions...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Do You Believe in Angels?

Last week, I was upstairs writing, and Troy was in the recording studio doing a session with a French horn player. At the end of the session, Troy came upstairs and said, “The French horn player really wants to say hello to you before she leaves. She said she remembers you from the last time she did a session here, eight years ago, and something about a rainbow?”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I went downstairs to say hi to Stephanie, the French horn player. We had a friendly hello and a handshake, and then she said she had a crazy story to tell me.

“Do you remember eight years ago, I was doing a session here?” I smiled politely but honesty I didn’t really remember. She continued, “I had never worked with any of you before, so you didn’t know me, and you didn’t know my husband had recently passed away.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I touched her arm.
She nodded, “ It was a rough time for me. A lot of crying and calling girlfriends at three am. Anyway, at the end of the session as all of us musicians were packing up to leave, Mike (the client whose album it was) ran outside after me and asked if I’d come back to play on one more song.”

Mike said, “It’s a song I wrote for my daughter, who shares your name, Stephanie. We don’t have any charts or anything written out…I wasn’t planning on any horns on this song, but maybe you can just listen to the song and see if you can come up with a part?”

Stephanie agreed, came inside and put on the headphones, and that’s when she heard our friend Tollak’s beautiful voice singing, “Stephanie, I will never let you go, Stephanie I love you I love you I love you….Remember I'm here, right by your side, reach out your hand and touch the sky...”
Suddenly she was covered in chills. She felt sure husband had sent her a message through this song,but didn’t know if she was just imagining it. She was hoping for a sign.
“Just then,” she said to me, “You burst through the studio door and said, 'I’m sorry to interrupt you guys, but there’s a double rainbow in the sky. You have to come and see it!'”
Stephanie was blown away. She stumbled outside, stunned, and what she saw was like a scene from a movie. There I stood with my neighbors at the edge of a meadow, little kids and golden retrievers running around, everyone gathered together to witness the rainbow.

Stephanie said that day changed her, for she knew at that moment her husband’s love for her lived on.

I had barely remembered that day and the double rainbow. I had no idea when I burst into the studio interrupting the session (which I never, ever do, by the way) that I had delivered a message to a woman from her deceased husband.

It made me wonder, how many of us have delivered life-altering messages to strangers and never had any idea? The world is a huge and mysterious place, full of wonder, and mystery, and, I believe, angels walking amongst us.

The story gets even deeper -- Mike, who wrote the entire album,  was a Wall Street guy who had just left the Twin Towers minutes before the first plane hit on 9/11. He knew then that life is short, that he wouldn't die with his music still  in him. 

Often we think that life is just chaos. We sometimes doubt the existence of God when the world seems to be spinning out of control. But if we slow down enough to notice, to listen, there are signs everywhere. A white feather on your pillow. A favorite song that comes on the radio right when you’re thinking of your loved one, a butterfly that dances persistently in front of you, or how about this:

The message of this story - Keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware when a butterfly lands in front of you, or a hawk soars in circles overhead and always, always stop to notice a rainbow.

If you have an angel story, will you please share it here?

Here are a few more of my miracle stories about God and angels:

Saturday, September 8, 2012

No one can break your heart like a woman...

None of us have gotten this far in life without enduring some heartache. I’ve had my heart broken more than I’d thought possible, but that’s the price I pay for loving- and not just romantically, but loving friends as well. Nine times out of ten, the rewards far outweigh the risk. I have great love in my life, and am blessed with deep and meaningful friendships. But I’ve had some really bad experiences, the kind that make you never want to reach out again. Yes, men have hurt me, mostly by being thick-headed. But women…women are another story. There have been women in my life who have been vindictive and conniving and intentionally cruel. Women who have smiled to my face while stabbing me in the back. In my experience, no one can break your heart like a woman.

So why is this?

Could this be why the ERA has never been eradicated, and why women are still making 77 cents to every dollar a man earns? I think it is. We've put too much focus on men for our inequality, when we need to get out of the victim role and start looking at ourselves. 

It is my personal belief that as women we aren’t yet standing in full equality because we don’t stand united. We want to rise in the ranks, but we fear there isn’t room for all of us, so what do we do?  We turn on each other. Not believing in our own full power, we knock others down by gossiping and judging and berating- all projections of self-loathing, (and in my opinion, this stems from shame). According to author Iyanla Vanzant, women cut each other down to feel powerful, but this is false power. She says, “It’s easy to be queen among paupers, harder to be a queen amongst queens”.

When we honor ourselves for who we are, the need to minimize others falls away. Happy, successful women don’t feel the need to criticize others. They can be glad for others’ success without feeling threatened.

I love what my friend Amy Ferris says about this- women should complete each other, not compete with each other. Amy and I achieved this while working together on our book over the past year and a half.  We completed, never competed, and because of this, we were able to make a dream come true - and do something positive in the world, to boot. Because of this, we are both stronger women. To me, this is feminism.

Personally, I’d rather be a queen amongst queens. The women in my life are strong and feisty and confident and powerful, and that’s just the way I like it. They inspire me to strive for excellence every day. I would never, ever say or do anything to detract from their bright shining spirits. One flower choking out all the others is not a garden. A garden is only is beautiful when it's brimming with blooms of every variety.  There is room in this garden of humanity for every woman to blossom, to shine in her own unique color and shape. There is room for every one of us to be exactly who we are.

I believe we’ll only find our happiness, strength and equality when we help other women find theirs. But first, we've got to stop breaking each other's hearts, for no woman truly succeeds until all of us succeed. 

Amy Ferris wrote a companion piece to this blog- read it here:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Book in my Hands...

After over a year of hard work, phone conferences with authors, long editing hours, many, many meetings, downloads that didn’t work and frustration and emails…I am finally holding Dancing at the Shame Prom, our book, in my hands.

My husband bought a great bottle of wine and we toasted.
“How do you feel right now?” he asked, “You must be so excited!”

I had always envisioned that I’d be running around the house hooting and hollering when I finally received the book. But what I felt was much quieter. I held it, felt the weight of it, turned it over in my hands. I closed my eyes and exhaled.

The next morning I woke at 5am, and sat in the quiet of my living room reading it from  cover to cover. What I felt was… humbled. Blessed. Honored. Transformed. A little bit afraid. Grateful.

I felt blessed to have been given the responsibility of helping to usher these stories into the world alongside my friend and partner Amy Ferris. What a magic carpet ride it’s been! And an intense lesson in how to collaborate with love and respect. During this year we’ve learned to allow each other good days and bad, not to overreact to miscommunications, to always have each others’ backs, and to put friendship above business. We learned what each of our strengths and weaknesses were. I let Amy shine where Amy shines best, and she does the same for me. We’ve learned the art of harmonious collaboration.

I felt deeply honored to have been a part of each of these women’s journeys. For many of them (and I might venture to say for all of them) writing the essay was a life-changing experience. We had some emotional phone calls. We pushed the writers to go deeper, to go to that uncomfortable place where the heart of truth resides. The results were that we irritated and pissed off a few of them, but it paid off in the essays, and the book shines with truth and courage.

I felt transformed. Releasing shame changes you. You can almost feel the proverbial shackles falling away. Even reading about it changes you. If you haven’t read the book yet, I implore you to, because I truly believe this book has a little bit of magic in it. Because each writer put so much of her soul and truth into it, I believe, as Gloria Feldt said, that this book just might change your life.

I felt a little bit afraid. It’s scary for all of us to open ourselves to judgment from the public. I’ve had a few phone calls from writers who said they were kind of a wreck when they saw the book had been released. Some hadn’t even told their families yet. We are all taking a huge risk, exposing our underbelly, being vulnerable in front of the world. (So if any of you out there have read the book and want to offer a few words of encouragement to the authors, don’t be shy! You can post here, or on our facebook page.)

Above all I felt grateful for Amy Ferris, and all the gorgeous writers in this book: Lyena Strelkoff, Amy Friedman, Teresa Stack, Nina Burleigh, Victoria Zackheim, Monica Holloway, Liza Lentini, Tracy J. Thomas, Julie Silver, Marcia G. Yerman, Rachel Kramer Bussell, Sharon Doubiago, Kristine Van Raden, Kate Van Raden, Jenny Rough, Kedren Werner, Colleen Haggerty, Laurenne Sala, Amy Wise, Robyn Hatcher, Meredith Resnick, Brooke Elise Axtell, Marianne Schnall, Elizabeth Geitz, and Samantha Dunn. This is “our” book. I share the honor with each of them. Their courage and beauty made it what it is.

Thank you to all of you who have bought it- ( just pre-orders alone have already put it on the top 100 in "Emotions" on Amazon!) and thanks to those who will, and thanks to all of you who have encouraged us on this journey every step of the way.