Jenice Armstrong: It's payback time

Brawner founded the Haven Youth Center for HIV-positive teens. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)

ONE THING Will Brawner wants you to take away from his story is that you can't tell who has full-blown AIDS just by looking at them.

He knows this better than almost anyone because he had sex with women without disclosing that he was HIV-positive. It was during his undergraduate days at Howard University.

Brawner was young, good-looking and feeling invincible, despite the fact that he had contracted the HIV virus during a blood transfusion and was diagnosed with AIDS at age 14.

For the most part, no one knew.

Not his roommate.

Not the unsuspecting women with whom he was sexually intimate.

No one.

He guarded his secret so well that for a time, he wouldn't even take his medicine for fear of being discovered.

"The overwhelming majority of women would not have been in a relationship with a HIV-positive guy," explained Brawner, who's now the executive director of the Haven Youth Center in Southwest Philadelphia. "This doesn't justify anything, but this was the thought process of a 19-, 20-year-old man on campus."

Even now there's a stigma associated with the disease, and no one wants to be the AIDS guy on campus.

"I don't think I could have been that strong, to have been the HIV guy on campus," he told me. "People would have been my friend - but from a distance."

He was scared silent.

But he wasn't too frightened to have sex.

Today Brawner is 31, with flecks of gray in the reddish brown hair that earned him the nickname "Reds." Besides devoting his life to helping HIV-positive young people learn how to take care of themselves and their sex partners, Brawner is also the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary called "25 to Life."

Directed by Brawner's former college roommate Mike Brown, "25 to Life" tells Brawner's life story. How he was infected with HIV - human immunodeficiency virus - when he was just 18 months old. A babysitter intentionally placed him in a bathtub of scalding hot water, which left him severely burned on his lower extremities and requiring what proved to be a fateful blood transfusion. A year later, his mother got word that her son had been infected with HIV and probably wouldn't live past the age of 5.

Back then, people still referred to HIV/AIDS as "gay cancer" or "GRID," which stands for gay-related immune deficiency." Researchers were unsure about the cause or even how the virus was transmitted.

Because of the stigma associated with AIDS, his mother decided to keep her son's health challenges a family secret. By the time he was a teenager, though, Brawner's immune system had been weakened to the point that he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, which stands for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

"I am burned on my entire right leg. I have skin grafts on my back. I also had to deal with the damn HIV," Brawner said, looking back at his early life.

In 1998, Brawner graduated from Cheltenham High School and enrolled at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., where he majored in sociology with a minor in business. Personable and good-looking, Brawner was active in student government and served as a student ambassador. And, yes, he had his share of sexual exploits, such as the time he was in his dorm room with one girl and another showed up at the door. Brawner bristles, though, at how he was described as "ladies' man" in an online article that described the incident.

"People automatically assume I had a whole lot of sexual partners, but anyone who really knows me will tell you, 'That boy was always in love.' I'm a sucker for love."

The fact that he claimed to love the women he was involved with sexually but failed to warn them of his HIV status isn't uncommon, according to Gary Bell, executive director of Bebashi, a local agency that does HIV testing and referrals.

"Some people are angry. Some people are in denial. They have gotten that diagnosis but they may not have fully internalized it. There are those that are irresponsible. It's complicated and it's very easy for someone on the outside to say they should be locked up or whatever. It's complicated."

"We can't legislate and we can't incarcerate our way out of this," Bell added. "If we do try to take the punitive approach, it's going to drive more people underground. That approach isn't working. We have to have some meaningful dialogue about this issue and counseling for people who are positive."

Brawner's reluctance to speak up only deepened after his high school sweetheart betrayed his confidence. He was in his third year at Howard when he discovered a letter on the door of his dorm room summoning him to the president's office. His ex had emailed the school. "Her exact words were, 'Bill Brawner is HIV positive and he's infecting everybody at your school,' and that was the only person I had ever told at the time."

The revelation sent him reeling. Brawner went into a fog. He was terrified his ex might show up in Washington, D.C., and tell everyone on campus about him. Brawner vowed never to disclose his HIV status to another soul.

"I became more and more resistant to keeping myself healthy. I began to dissociate myself and hide my pills," he told me.

"I didn't think about it. I put the energy into working out," Brawner said. "I looked good. I felt good. I had the nerve to tell my doctors that I believed that the cure for AIDS was peanut butter and push-ups . . . I was not taking my meds and I was still not sick. I was young and felt invincible. I looked good. I felt good. I had a car.

"I look back at it now and see I was just a scared kid, but I felt good more days than I felt bad."

Brawner continued to have sex without telling his partners of his status.

For the most part, he used condoms but there were slipups. Brawner admits to having had unprotected sex with two coeds who didn't know at the time that he was infected. By age 24, he was back in Philadelphia and not too long afterward he met the woman who would become his wife. (They are now in the process of divorcing.) They met at Sharon Baptist Church when he was passing out brochures about HIV. Six months later they were engaged and in another six months, they married. Today, they have a 2-year-old who was conceived through in-vitro fertilization and is HIV negative.

For the record, Brawner believes that none of the women he had sex with have been infected with HIV.

Six years ago, Brawner began speaking publicly about his health status, addressing small local groups. A producer at 100.3 The Beat invited him to go on the former "Monie, Pooch and Laiya Show." Word got around quickly after that. He also began tracking down former sex partners . . . the ones who would take his calls. Some of these women are interviewed in the documentary.

"They were pissed and rightfully so. It would be the curse out. The guilt. The screaming. Then, [they would say] 'How are you doing? Are you OK?' All but one had that same reaction."

When word began to spread through social networks and the Internet, people called him a sociopath.

Others said he should be locked up.

"My thing is, to the public, if people who I have slept with can forgive me, then why can't you?"

Brawner knows that when "25 to Life" is released - he's hoping it gets picked up for next month's Tribeca Film Festival - the vitriol will get worse.

He would rather focus on the Haven, which he dreamed up "when I was in my room in bed going through HIV side effects by myself at the age of 9.

"That's when I started my vision about having someplace where I could go and talk to someone about what I was going through on a daily basis.

"It's the project I always wanted. I have developed a program I think would have helped me the most when I was younger."

Located in the 6900 block of Woodland Avenue, it's a homey hangout for neighborhood kids infected with HIV/AIDS. He also provides HIV testing to anyone who wants it.

When I stopped by recently, a man sat on a comfy couch parked in front of big TV waiting for the results of his HIV test - and the $5 McDonald's gift certificate that rewards test takers.

An hour earlier, Brawner had informed a pregnant, drug-addicted prostitute that she had tested positive for the virus.

He arranged to accompany her to a doctor and to visit the area where she hangs out so he could administer HIV tests to her clients. Brawner is doing penance.

And he wonders how long he'll be condemned for the sins of his youth.

"I was young. I was under 21 and too scared to tell anybody."