Pillar of Support
Philadelphian Robert Breining Provides Hope & Inspiration to People Living with HIV/AIDS All Over the World
by Chip Alfred
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Tara Lessard
There are a lot of places on-line you can go for support if you’re affected by HIV. But there’s one destination that stands apart. It’s called POZIAM, a social network and radio show created by Robert Breining, a guy who once described himself as selfish and painfully shy. Now, the young man whose peers refer to as “vibrant,” “passionate,” and “engaging” is a perfect example of what a positive difference a positive diagnosis can make.
Breining, thirty-three, hails from a working-class neighborhood in northeast Philly. He was a star athlete at a Catholic high school, where he learned all about keeping secrets. At seventeen, he told his family he was gay. His mom went into denial. She reassured him he just hadn’t met the right girl yet and discouraged him from coming out publicly. Breining’s next revelation—that he was addicted to drugs—was easier for his loved ones to accept.
With their support and Narcotics Anonymous, he turned his life around and remains clean to this day. But what he didn’t share with his family members at the time was the risky behavior that came along with his cocaine and crystal meth addiction—random hookups, one-night stands, and anonymous sexual encounters. Even after a close friend became infected with HIV, Breining didn’t get the wake-up call.
“I still thought I was Superman and it wouldn’t affect me,” he reflects. “That happens to other people.” In 2001, when Breining learned he was HIV-positive, it was no big surprise. After sharing the news with his mother, she urged him to “keep it under the rug. Let’s not tell anybody.” Today, he’s telling everybody, and his mom supports him 100 percent.
Breining looks at his status as somewhat of a gift because it opened his eyes to so many things. “It really put everything into perspective. It finally made me realize what was important in life, which were my family and my friends, because they will always be there for me.” A few years later, Breining became acquainted with Bob Bowers (www.HIVictorious.org) [A&U, May 2009], a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, activist, and educator. Bowers, an atypical role model—straight, muscular, tattooed from head to toe—motivated Breining to create a Facebook-like site for people affected by HIV.
POZIAM (PIA), which launched in 2007, turned out to be much more than that. “From my site they get the personal touch of HIV,” he explains. It’s “all about sharing stories that are not clinical.” Breining aims to answer the questions he had when he was first diagnosed. “I wanted to find out how these medications work for you, how you dealt with your medications and side effects, how you found love again, how you found self-acceptance.”
PIA features groups (one for each state), forums, chat rooms, archived radio shows, and opportunities for each member to post blog entries, videos and photos. It’s a free private site and you must be approved for membership. When you join, you’re asked to acknowledge that you understand PIA is not a dating site. Breining is adamant about keeping the focus of PIA on support, awareness, and friendship—not dating or hookups. Once your membership is approved, you receive several welcoming messages from Breining’s army of volunteer “greeters.”
While growing PIA’s membership, Breining realized he needed something to bring members back week after week. That’s when the POZIAM radio show began. Every Sunday night, Breining joins co-host Jeromy Dunn (www.pozitivelyspeaking.com) and frequent guest host, HIV activist Jack Mackenroth [A&U, November 2010], to chat with experts on virtually every topic impacting people affected by the virus. Listeners call in with questions and comments; if you can’t tune in live, all the programs are archived on-line. Reggie Dunbar, founder and CEO of POZ VETS USA-INTL, never misses a show. He says the radio program and the PIA site connect positive veterans to others all over the world and provides them with valuable access to discussions and information. HIV-positive escape artist Daniel Bauer, a self-described successor to Harry Houdini, comments, “The POZIAM radio and social network is where I go to find hope by the minute. It is truly the safest on-line social hub for anyone living with or affected by HIV/AIDS to get the hope, love, and peer-supported answers needed to live with dignity.” These testimonials are just a few of many Breining receives from the site’s nearly 3,000 members in forty-two countries. PIA member Jeff Allen credits Breining with inspiring him to establish the Positive Champions Speakers Bureau in central Florida. “Robert is the new face of HIV,” says Allen, adding that PIA “lets all people know that whether you are HIV-positive or have been affected by HIV in some way, it is not a journey that you have to take alone.”
Breining and his mother took that journey together. “When you’re dealt a hand—whether you’re gay or HIV-positive—it’s your responsibility to stand up for yourself and teach the people around you,” he declares. His mom, no longer in denial about her son, is now a member of his Web site. “She saw me change from a crazy addict to somebody who puts other people [first].” Breining says PIA has given his life new meaning and strengthened his family bond. “POZIAM has given me the support and the love that I always wanted,” says the Web site’s founder, who admits he didn’t have a lot of friends growing up.
Unfortunately, all the work Breining puts into the Web site and the radio show doesn’t make any money. Officially unemployed, he lives with his mother and works on PIA from the basement of her home. A nationally-recognized advocate for people living with the virus, Breining was named by AIDS Project Los Angeles one of the top LGBT leaders in the battle against AIDS. He blogs for TheBody.com and is a member of the ADAP Advocacy Association. He says a major challenge for the HIV community in the U.S. is the price of medications and our government’s failure to pay for those who can’t. “In the richest country in the world there should be nobody on the [ADAP] waiting list.”
Breining’s mantra on the radio is, “Our dreams are not infected. You can still do what you want to do.” It’s apparent he practices what he preaches, with aspirations to make a living doing what he’s doing. After appearances on Logo in a Web series and a television show about HIV, he would like to branch out into television while expanding his radio show. An avid soccer player and member of the Philadelphia Falcons, a predominantly gay and lesbian soccer team, Breining hopes to enhance the organization’s annual “Kick HIV” awareness event and tournament. He also envisions himself starting an HIV-positive soccer team. Ultimately, Breining wants to curb complacency, end stigma and “put HIV back on the map. We need to have more compassion for other human beings.” That’s what Breining offers his POZIAM members every day. “The response that I get…makes me know that I’m doing something important.”
For more information about Tara Lessard’s photography, log on to www.freedomgphotography.com.
Editor at Large Chip Alfred interviewed R&B singer Keri Hilson for the August 2012 cover story.