Family Portraits: Robert Breining

Robert Breining, host of POZIAM radio, describes himself as a “Positive Person with a Purpose.” This week, PGN spoke with the 31-year-old activist.

PGN: Tell me about the Breinings. RB: We were a family of five. I was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia and was the middle child with an older and younger sister. My mother had a screen-printing business and my father was disabled. He had polio, so he wasn’t able to work. He passed away when I was in my early 20s.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? RB: I was a momma’s boy; I still am.

PGN: What did you do for fun? RB: I played soccer; I still do.

PGN: Did you play any other sports? RB: I ran track in high school. I was a hurdler and a sprinter.

PGN: Yikes, just watching hurdling scares me! RB: It scared me too. But after the first few times trying it, you get used to it.

PGN: What was your best and worst soccer moment? RB: Worst moment was probably when I used to get beat up by my own soccer team and left by myself on the field, I guess because I wasn’t one of the cool guys or maybe because, even back then, I was obviously gay. It made me feel sad about being me. I quit soccer for a while because of it and that’s when I started running track. The best moment was discovering a gay soccer team, the Philadelphia Falcons. I got to go to Copenhagen, Denmark, to compete in an International Gay and Lesbian Futbol Association Tournament with them. I’d been playing soccer since I was about 6 and always thought I was the only gay soccer player in the world. To find out there was a whole world of gay men who played was incredible. It’s been an amazing ride.

PGN: Were you close to your sisters? RB: Yeah, mostly my younger sister. I would play Barbies with her. I remember cutting their hair.

PGN: Your sister’s hair or the dolls’? RB: The dolls’! I used to give them cute little bobs.

PGN: What was a favorite childhood memory? RB: We used to go to my grandparents every Sunday. I have good memories of the whole family having dinner together. My grandmother was Lebanese, so she would cook up a lot of traditional food.

PGN: What does that consist of? RB: Well, Lebanon is right on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, so a lot of Mediterranean foods: humus, baklava, kibbee, which is prepared with raw meat and eaten with pita bread; yakhnehs, which is ground beef in tomato sauce with string beans and white rice … I could go on.

PGN: You’re making me hungry! What was your first job out of high school? RB: I worked at a Gloria Jean’s coffee shop.

PGN: Gloria Jean’s? Like Gloria Vanderbilt jeans? RB: Spelled like a pair of jeans, but it was/is a coffee shop, like Starbucks. There used to be a few in the Franklin Mills Mall and I think there’s still one at the airport.

PGN: What was the worst job? RB: Working retail, folding clothes at The Gap and having to help people who want to fit into clothes they can’t wear. Working with people in retail is bad for me because you can never please people. Waiting tables is easier; at least people are out to have a good time for the most part.

PGN: What do you do now? RB: I was diagnosed with AIDS in June 2001. In 2007, six years after both the passing of my father and my HIV diagnosis, I had what I call my “ah ha moment.” I started POZIAM, a social networking website for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and, in July 2008, I debuted POZIAM Radio, a weekly Internet radio show/podcast. I don’t make money off of either, but it’s what I feel I have to do right now. With the medication I take and the side effects, I can’t work as much as I’d like to.

PGN: I read that half of all new infections are people 25 years old and younger, which is one of the reasons you wanted to get involved in the community. Do you find young people have become complacent because they think all you have to do if you get AIDS is take a pill and everything will be fine? RB: A lot of people have that attitude and there are some people who actually think there’s a cure. There is no cure for AIDS. There are two mindsets: there are some people who feel, “I don’t have to be careful, people live long lives on meds, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll just get a prescription.” And there’s the other camp that thinks a diagnosis is an automatic death sentence and fear that you can get it from a toilet.

PGN: Your site looks like a place where people can go to speak to people who have been through or are dealing with being positive. RB: A lot of people start out by thinking the worst once they are actually diagnosed. They think that it’s all over and that they’re going to die. They don’t know what comes next and they don’t know where to go for support, especially if they don’t live in a big city. I live in Levittown and I went online to try to find help. Looking for sites to find other HIV positive people, all I found were dating or sex sites. I’m in a relationship, so I wasn’t looking to meet anyone, I just wanted support and to hear stories from people who’d been through it. The only other sites I found were medical sites that bombarded you with numbers and statistics and medical information, which isn’t what I was looking for either. All those numbers can make you go crazy. That’s why I created POZIAM.

PGN: I was listening to someone speak about the medical side, and it was like a whole other language with viral and retro viral, loads and T-cell counts, etc. I can see how that can be overwhelming. RB: Yes, that was a big issue.

PGN: Why did you start the radio program? RB: I wanted to have something to bring people back to the site. There are some people who would join and then not return, so I wanted to have something fresh each week to offer them. Someone suggested a podcast and I liked the idea. I wasn’t able to find anything like it out there, where people with HIV/AIDS were sharing their stories and communicating with people, so I went for it. It was a way to give people their voice back. Especially since you don’t have to be in a big city to participate. You can be in a farm town and log on to hear us. You can call in or there’s also a chat room for listeners to ask questions, chat with the hosts and each other. It lets people know that they’re not alone in this world. I want people to remind people that our dreams are not infected. PGN: You’ve had some great guests. Tell me about a few of them. RB: I had one of the ladies who was on “Oprah” that supposedly got infected by a guy in Texas. She was dating him for years and he didn’t tell her that he was HIV-positive until five years after his diagnosis. The whole time, he kept having unprotected sex with her and several other women. He was jailed for knowingly infecting the women. After “Oprah,” I contacted her on Facebook and she agreed to do an interview. Facebook does wonders!

PGN: It’s nice that you have a variety of guests who speak to people other than just white gay males. Looking at your archives, you have young people and older guests, straight people and people of color … RB: It’s important, and I try not to forget the people who are affected by AIDS as well — the caregivers, the families of people with AIDS, the partners and lovers. We try to bring in all perspectives. It’s not just a disease that affects gay men — it affects everyone.

PGN: Which guest moved or inspired you the most? RB: Ongina, who was a contestant on RuPaul’s “Drag Race.” She came out with her status on national television and it was something special. It was such a real, unplanned moment. She went from telling nobody, not even her parents, to telling the world. You could feel her nervousness through the screen. I admire people who have the courage to do that. I had a lady from Philadelphia who’s a grandmother with HIV. Her family was told she was going to die and they got her things in order when she contracted, I think it was pneumonia, but she survived and now she does the AIDS Walk with me every year. And she talks openly with her grandchildren about having AIDS. I think that’s amazing because a lot of people don’t know how to talk to their kids about it and here’s this grandmother talking to kids about sex and HIV. We also recently had Mondo Guerra from “Project Runway.”

PGN: And you’ve had Toby Grace from “Out in Jersey.” RB: Yes, he had a journal of poems that he had written to his partner. It was nice to hear the perspective of a caregiver because we don’t hear that too often. His story about the process of losing a partner was very moving. We also had [activist] Sherri Lewis, who was a pop star in the band Get Wet. She’s come through so much, from drug abuse and recovery to AIDS, and she uses her comedic side to talk about it. She’s really funny and has great stories to tell. It lets people know that it’s not just gay men who contract AIDS. She also gives credit to the gay community for being the ones to change things for people with HIV/AIDS. She had a podcast called, “Straight Girl in a Queer World” and she did the same kind of thing that we do here. I love her to death.

PGN: I didn’t even think about that fact that most straight people, especially at the beginning of the epidemic, had to turn to the gay community for information and support. We were the only ones actively engaged in the fight. RB: Yes, and it’s a shame that there’s still such stigma around it. It’s hard, it’s really hard to do what we do and put ourselves out there. There are too many people who don’t have sympathy or empathy for people who are HIV-positive because they think it doesn’t affect them directly.

PGN: Tell a little of what you went through. RB: I was diagnosed in June 2001. It was six months after my father passed away of lung cancer and nine months after I got clean from drugs. So it was a really trying time: I was the only male left in the family so I felt I had to be the man of the house and take care of my mom and my sisters. I thought I had to be strong for them, so I never got to let out the emotions of everything that was happening. I was in denial for about five years after my diagnosis. My doctor told me I didn’t have to take medication, so it didn’t seem like I was sick and I pushed it under the rug. In 2005, I felt I needed to find a purpose in life and I gave it to myself by sharing my story with others. I figured that’s something I can’t screw up, my own story! So I volunteered to be an ambassador for Hope’s Voice and participated in their “Does HIV Look Like Me?” campaign.

PGN: Who’s been a great influence on you? RB: Of course my parents. They’ve been so supportive and I’ve learned a lot from them. In my work, a gentleman by the name of Bob Bowers, who is also known as One Tough Pirate. He really puts himself out there and talks to kids in schools, etc., and was one of the first people I contacted when I was looking for help — and he’s a straight guy! He runs an organization called HIVictorious and has a great website [www.onetoughpirate.com]. He’s a big muscle guy covered in tattoos and the sweetest, most compassionate person you could meet.

PGN: Arbitrary question: What’s your best karaoke song? RB: “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.

PGN: Phrase you overuse? RB: Our dreams are not infected. I say that in every interview I do!

PGN: Last time you went skating? RB: I went with some friends about 15 years ago. I don’t remember much except I couldn’t stop — I ran into walls, I fell — but it was fun.

PGN: What’s your most treasured possession? RB: My dad had a pair of gold dice that were his lucky charms. When he passed away, I got them and a necklace of his. [Laughs.] I don’t know why he had dice: He didn’t gamble.

PGN: Do you talk in your sleep? RB: Yes, I do. Apparently I do a lot of mumbling.

PGN: What was coming out like? RB: Oh, that. I came out when I was 17. I sat the family down at the table and told them. I was such a momma’s boy that, the first time I had sex with a woman, I talked to my mom about it instead of my dad. They were very supportive from the start.

PGN: Who was your first kiss with? RB: It was with a girl in high school. It was at a Halloween party, I can’t remember what I was, but she was a red devil. She’s now a lesbian.

PGN: You had a bout with drug use? RB: Yeah, once I came out, I started coming into the city and got hooked up with the wrong crowd. When you first come in to the community, you’re viewed as fresh meat and I found it hard to fit in. I started doing unsafe things like using coke and meth. There were times when I even visited the bathhouses. It got really bad.

PGN: How did you pull yourself out of it? RB: I got caught by an ex-partner and was forced to confront it. I told my mother that I’d been abusing drugs and that I needed help and she and my uncle, Paul, saved my life by getting me in Narcotics Anonymous.

PGN: Tell me a little about your partner. I understand he does unusual work. RB: It’s pretty cool — freaky, but cool. His name is Joe Tittel and he’s a medium. He has his own radio program, “Messages From The Other Side,” and had a short series called “Real Psychics” on Paranormal TV. He was also on Lifetime Channel’s “America’s Psychic Challenge,” which was like “Survivor” for psychics. He helped police solve cold cases and found a missing boy in the desert. We spent two nights in the Eastern [State] Penitentiary for the Travel Channel filming a show called “Mysterious Journeys.” But he’s mostly known for his predictions. He was on MTV in Canada in February 2009 and they asked him about Michael Jackson. On live TV, he told them that he felt we were going to lose him that year and, a few months later, he died.

PGN: Does he like or hate the TV show “Medium”? RB: He loves it. That and “The Ghost Whisperer” when it was on.

PGN: If you were to die and come back as an animal, what would it be? RB: A falcon. I could fly and they’re very, very fast.

PGN: What’s the name of your soccer team? RB: The Falcons. Coincidence … or not? n

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].