Over seven years and 72 issues, we have always found a way to keep publishing POZ, despite great financial obstacles. In recent months, this has become even more difficult. Our page count has shrunk. Much of our staff was laid off. News stories and the community grapevine have implied our impending demise. Well, AIDS isn’t over, and neither is POZ.
We all fear our mortality. With HIV, that is magnified, and in my case -- and that of many POZ readers -- death has come close. So the present moment, and not knowing what will come next, is just business as usual. When I founded the magazine, I did not expect to live long enough to worry about its future. I sold my life insurance to get us up and running, and then raised more money, mostly from generous friends who believed in it. Since then, we’ve kept afloat with profits from the POZ Life Forums, special supplements, educational pamphlets and other pharma-sponsored projects.
At the start, I made several fundamental decisions that have turned out to be at once very costly and quite priceless. The first was to value our editorial independence above all other priorities. POZ has taken its share of activist hits for the drug advertising in our pages. In April, Jeff Getty of Survive AIDS even called for a boycott of POZ in the Bay Area Reporter. The precipitous drop in drug ads over the past 18 months is due, of course, to the economy and to the fact that there are few new drugs. But it is also due to accumulated grievances certain drug companies have with POZ’s critical coverage of their products. Every POZ staffer has heard me say many times that each day we come to work, we must be prepared to shut down the magazine rather than jeopardize our integrity. This is as true today as it was in 1994.
The second decision was to make the magazine available for free to anyone with HIV, regardless of ability to pay. We sell a small number of newsstand copies and have a few thousand much-appreciated paid subscribers, but the lion’s share of POZ’s 150,000 monthly copies are given away. Last week we mailed letters asking those who can afford to pay for a subscription to do so, but we will never change our free policy to HIVers who cannot afford it.
So where does that leave us? We need new funding. We are looking into the advantages of becoming a nonprofit -- officially, instead of by default, that is. We would like AIDS service organizations to buy subscriptions in bulk, if possible. We are asking drug companies to increase their advertising spending in POZ or to sponsor bulk distribution of free copies. The response has varied: Some pharma decision-makers genuinely believe POZ to be a lifesaving community resource. Others, while they won’t say so to our faces, can hardly wait for us to fold. POZ’s management team, Brad Peebles, Walter Armstrong, Tom Doyle and my sister, Megan, intend for that wait to be very long indeed. Their dedication to POZ’s mission is immeasurable, and their commitment to secure POZ’s future is, frankly, greater than my own. I need to do other things with my life right now.
My heart won’t allow me to describe this as a farewell column. In practice, though, I have stepped aside from any management or editorial responsibilities. You will still hear from me in the occasional column. I have wrestled with this decision for two years. AIDS has consumed my life since the mid-’80s, and I have felt the itch to get back to some life goals put aside for AIDS. But I worried that readers and friends (especially my fellow investors) would feel that I let them down. The death last summer of Stephen Gendin, my much-beloved and much-missed friend and business partner, eventually brought clarity. I felt adrift running POZ Publishing without him beside me. My enthusiasm and, sometimes, my hope, were gone. Then, last winter, I dealt with my most serious episode of depression ever -- induced, I suspect, by Stephen’s death. Many friends find it easy to empathize with you when you are wasting or sprouting KS. Fewer understand the debilitating effects of depression, which can make it the loneliest and most frightening disease.
In this month’s cover story about the growing controversy over an activist campaign to ban AIDS drug ads, Henry Scott, the former president of Out Publishing, gets a bead on a disturbing polarization in the AIDS community -- the “undetectables” vs. the “treatment failures,” the healthy vs. the sick (see “Splitting Image,”). He also mentions that he went rock climbing last summer. I, too, recently went rock climbing for the first time in my life. While I don’t exactly credit the Crixivan ads, I do thank all the media messages -- including advertising -- that gave me back the possibility of survival when I needed it.
It was only yesterday, it seems, that the “face of AIDS” was solely the dying and the dead. Yet we have found that it is impossible to inspire hope without also generating what some believe to be false hope. That is what always has driven so much of the criticism about POZ. And it is part of what drives the current divisiveness over images of PWAs as vibrant, sexual and powerful, wherever they appear.
No matter what brickbats are thrown our way, nothing can diminish the pride I take on behalf of everyone living or dead who has helped POZ accomplish so much. For a bunch of diseased queers, junkies and ex-cons, I think we’ve done a pretty good job. I must also express my gratitude and love for the entire POZ family. We searched for the truth and campaigned for justice. We learned that it all starts in our own hearts, in how we live our lives and treat others. No amount of activism will change the world until enough of us change ourselves.