After a seven-year run heading the Cascade AIDS Project, Thomas Bruner surprised many with his announcement last week that he would resign from the prominent HIV/AIDS organization.
A diminutive, voluble 44-year-old with a boatload of energy, Bruner, who recently considered-and rejected-a run next year for Multnomah County commissioner, says it's time for the next generation of AIDS activists to take over.
They'll be taking over at a time when Bruner says the same health advances that have stretched life for those with HIV also led to complacency in safe-sex practices.
Bruner spoke with WW about his decades of work against AIDS, his critics, what's next in that battle and how his recent conversion to Buddhism helped lead to his decision to resign.
WW: If things are so good, why are you leaving?
Thomas Bruner: I've had itchy feet for a couple of years now. But when you're running an organization, you can't talk about that. I'm a great example of a generation of gay, middle-aged AIDS activists who have been in the field for a long time.
Are you burned out?
Not at all. I'm 44 years old, and I've been doing this for 20-some years, not just here, but in Texas. This may sound very naive, but I think a lot of guys like me thought we were gonna roll up our sleeves, dive into the deep end of the pool and work like hell until they found the cure. Then we would clean up and go back into life as we knew it before.
So have you and others in your generation failed?
Absolutely not. We have radically changed the face of community-based response to the crisis. We taught other disease groups how to act up, how to speak up, how to leverage more money and how to build coalitions. At the same time, when people used to come through our doors a decade ago, they were dead in six months. Now people are living for decades; that's an extraordinary amount of progress. Do people still get HIV? Yes. But for how many years have we been telling people don't smoke, don't smoke, but still smoked? Did they fail? No.
How has HIV changed your life?
It has robbed me of the chance to be friends, and have ongoing relationships, with some of the finest people I have ever met. It's also taught me how to be a leader, how to bring people together, how to manage, lobby and advocate.
What have you learned from becoming a Buddhist?
To just shut up.
Did becoming a Buddhist help you decide to leave your job?
On some level. It has influenced my thinking about who I am, who I want to be when I grow up, what I am attached to.
So the press release saying you're leaving talks about a career in government relations and organizational consulting.
[Laughs] What am I gonna say, work at the food court? They asked what jazzes me, what do I like the most? And I can tell you, government affairs, lobbying, organizing, I love it. I am inclined toward it, and I am good at it. Marketing, community affairs, advertising, all that stuff-that's the one spot I have the gay gene.
Will you ever run for office?
I would be a great candidate, but thinking about running for 18 months of my life made me feel exhausted. It does not mean I'll never run. It just means I could not find a way through those obstacles at this time.
Critics say CAP has become elitist and gone far from its roots.
That's wrong. If we served 1,700 people last year, the demographic is pretty darn grass-roots. It's not 1,700 white gay guys in the West Hills. People see an A+ advisory board that operates like a business, and people have this perception that all we care about is money. If there's controversy over my tenure, it is loudest in a segment of the gay community that feels like we have so professionalized the organization, pursued mainstream corporate dollars and marketed heavily to women and people of color, that we left them in silence.
But didn't you make common cause with some people of color who believe gays are immoral and even campaigned for Measure 36?
There are people who say that's the perfect example of me being a sellout. In my younger days, I probably would have felt the same way. I was so self-righteous that I had a mental litmus test that you needed to pass. That was stupid.
What scares you about the future of the AIDS fight?
I'm concerned when I look at syphilis rates going up for gay men. That's an extraordinarily sobering fact. Then you look at crystal meth and you look at websites specifically devoted to barebacking and it's a perfect storm brewing.
Bruner and his partner, Kevin Hendrick, moved here from Texas seven years ago. They live in Northeast Portland with their two dogs Tobias, a 7-year-old Australian shepherd mix, and Dionne, a 13-year-old Dachshund.