Far from being devastated by HIV, Bryan Levinson grew with it. A welcome by-product of his experience is Strength in Numbers (SIN), the fast-growing social network of HIV-positive men and friends Levinson founded.
By Mark Breindel
An Advocate.com exclusive posted October 19, 2006
Different people react to HIV-positive diagnoses in different ways. Some become depressed, some try to escape. Bryan Levinson responded by starting his own HIV-positive social network.
“Maybe my way of denial was to be in total openness about it,” he muses, a few busy years later. “I’ve been totally open from day one.”
Far from being devastated by HIV, Levinson grew with it. After “coasting along” in his late 20s, Levinson said the experience of getting HIV at 30 made him start taking better care of himself, and more fully appreciate life.
“I find that happens with positive guys,” Levinson said. “They tend to become more settled, because they’ve had the shit knocked out of them. I tell people God bitch-slapped me: ‘Wake up, bitch!'”
A welcome by-product of Levinson’s “bitch-slapping” is Strength in Numbers (SIN), the fast-growing social network of HIV-positive men and friends Levinson founded.
Levinson started SIN with a potluck dinner at a private home in the Hollywood hills in 2003. He initially conceived of the group as a dating vehicle for HIV-positive men. It was three years since the entertainment executive had become positive himself, and he felt he’d be more comfortable going out with other HIV-positive men.
“I think that there’s more acceptance,” Levinson said. “We’re not going to have that big issue weighting between us.”
Dinner led to weekly breakfasts in West Hollywood. Soon the group had grown from dozens to hundreds. A Web site was created. Meanwhile, the original dating club had morphed into a social organization.
“Here I was trying to put something together because I knew guys really needed a venue for dating, because being positive brings so much [emotional] risk with it, but when I saw how the guys were interacting, it became more social very quickly,” Levinson said.
SIN provided an ideal environment for HIV-positive gay men to share their experiences with one another. Men who’d been infected for 20 years offered guidance to younger men like Levinson, who’d only recently started dealing with HIV — and vice versa.
“Newer guys have a whole new take on living with HIV,” Levinson said. “I think they don’t come with that same emotional baggage. If you’ve been living with HIV for 20 years, you’ve probably lost the vast majority of your friends, and that takes a huge emotional toll. Guys like myself don’t have that same emotional baggage. I think we’re more optimistic about what the future can bring.”
At the same time, HIV “veterans” know the ins and outs of long-term treatment, and they’ve navigated some of the illness’s trickier emotional curves. “When [newly positive guys] post these questions — ‘I have KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma)! I’m freaking out!’ — Then the guys who have had it since the ’80s can walk them through it: ‘I’ve had it. You’re gonna be OK,'” Levinson says.
Since going online, SIN has expanded across the U.S., Canada and the U.K. SIN groups in larger cities hold dinner parties like the ones Levinson continues to host in Los Angeles. “I really want guys to be able to meet each other in person,” Levinson says. “When you actually get to see people in the flesh, that’s really where you’re going to make a bond.”
Levinson doesn’t see an inherent conflict between the Internet and the offline world. Over time, he predicts, the Web will serve more and more as a means of bringing people together physically.
One major benefit the Internet already provides is that it connects isolated men in smaller towns. “First they’re gay in a rural area, and now they’re positive,” Levinson empathizes. “Here’s this great vehicle for them to be able to reach out.”
An important part of Levinson’s mission is to reach out to such men, who lack social outlets. He sees that group growing, unfortunately, as public resources contract. “A lot of times the first thing they cut in AIDS services is any kind of social event; now they have to put all their resources into pure therapy,” Levinson says. “In a lot of areas, they’re seeing all of their HIV services cut.”
SIN doesn’t require much funding. Levinson is not actively seeking grants — and especially not the strings that are typically attached to them. Mostly, he’s focusing on private and online fundraising to keep the Web site running.
SIN also helps more urban men find one another, especially when they travel. AIDS is still stigmatized; HIV-positive men risk rejection whenever they meet new people in new cities. With SIN, they can hook up with people they or their network buddies have pre-screened.
“I think that’s a huge relief,” Levinson says. “Because when you go to a new city, and you’re positive, you put up these walls — ‘I’ve gotta start watching myself.’ It comes in subtle but profound ways. You have to monitor yourself like you’re back in the closet, and it gets exhausting after a while.”
Local SIN chapters enjoy substantial autonomy, by design. “We try to let each group be as independent as they can be, because I really think local ownership is the key,” Levinson says.
SIN’s popularity in the U.S. suggests the group could become a hit worldwide. Levinson says he’s brushing up on his college French and Spanish: “Once we really establish ourselves in the U.S. and Canada, I think more people will start hearing about us around the world, and we can start helping people around the world.”
Wisdom of SIN
Levinson has learned a lot about HIV life through SIN. For one thing, he’s found that many HIV-negative men value the community HIV-positive men share. Whether they’re the partners of HIV-positive men or just friends, HIV-negative men are drawn to SIN, and to the social bonds they find there.
At the same time, Levinson has discovered that some HIV-negative gay men are more skittish about AIDS than even straight folks. “I think gay men tend to be a little more uptight about the issue, because they’re afraid of catching it,” Levinson says. “I think there’s also this sense of fear and denial. So when you come to them and you’re really open about being positive, that puts the issue right in their face. If they push away anybody in their life who’s positive, they don’t have to deal with the issue.”
HIV-negative men would do well to overcome their fear and recognize the allies they have in HIV-positive men, Levinson suggests. SIN members tend to be very protective of their HIV-negative friends and lovers, committed to preventing any more infections, Levinson says. In fact, many HIV-positive men prefer not to date HIV-negative men, Levinson has found — sometimes to their suitors’ consternation: “I’m supposed to be rejecting you, not the other way around!” Levinson hears them protest.
Given the complexities of HIV life, Levinson’s greatest surprise may be just how many HIV-negative men have fallen for him since he was diagnosed. After all, he started SIN with the expectation he’d be dating HIV-positive men, yet it seems the tables are turning. “Now I have to face dealing with that,” Levinson says. Such are the wages of SIN.