Gay, Jewish, HIV-positive: Scott Fried speaks out
Fried, 46, is the author of three acclaimed books for teens and an avid activist for sexual and relationship education.
Brooklyn-born Scott Fried was infected with HIV as a young man more than two decades ago and has devoted the last 18 years of his life to lecturing youngsters, primarily in the United States, about sex and relationship education.
A traditional Jew who attends a gay and lesbian synagogue in Manhattan, Fried had to live with the scourge of coming out as a homosexual and admitting he was HIV-positive at the same time.
The confession was difficult on both fronts, as "parents go into the closet when you come out" and he was forced to hide his HIV status to his extended family for many years.
But Fried has made it his mission to help youngsters, both those who have had to confront contracting HIV as well as those facing various other emotional struggles, who call on Fried's advice on a wide gamut of issues.
Fried, 46, says he prefers to tell the narrative of his life from his Jewish roots, because "when I'm talking to a Jewish audience I don't have to be apologetic when I speak about God."
He is the author of three acclaimed books geared toward teenagers, the latest entitled "A Private Midnight: A Teenager's Scrapbook of Secrets."
He describes the book as a "scrapbook and workbook of secrets for teens," essentially "10 questions I would have asked as a teenager: one is what miracles are we waiting for in order to establish ourselves? I answer it myself - my great uncle and aunt didn't make it to America before the Holocaust, and went through - and survived - Auschwitz."
"I would call it a communal anonymous voice for teens to share their deepest thoughts and feelings," says Fried. "I hope it can help parents and teachers crack the code of what it means to be a teen today."
Fried's own great uncle was on Schindler's list (Fischel Fried - number 624), a historical memory which seems to have served his own optimistic outlook. "When a teenager says 'I hate life', I say 'Look at their miracles'," he says.
When he began speaking to teens at schools, camps, synagogues and churches, Fried found he "related to them and that they opened up around me."
Thousands of teens have subsequently written and emailed him with their innermost thoughts as he "became their trusted adviser and friend." Fried describes himself not as an AIDS activist, but as a sex and relationship activist - "empowering youngsters to make healthy choices."
"I'm healthy and still traveling all over the place in order to take up the challenge of educating youngsters about sexual health," he points out.
Fried says America's Orthodox community allows him "a place" in religion, as "they have a position that they don't want practicing homosexuals, but they know we exist."
"My culture is Friday night and a cup of Kiddush wine; I'm comfortable speaking under Jewish auspices because it gives me permission to talk about God, which I can't do in a university setting. But I can do so in a Jewish setting, in a non-apologetic way," he says.
Fried knows "a number of Orthodox Jews who have been infected [with HIV]" and says he has also been invited to a few Orthodox institutions - including once by NCSY [National Conference of Synagogue Youth] in Baltimore.
"However, most of the time it's Orthodox teenagers who approach me as part of a wider group such as a Jewish community centre or youth group."
Fried experienced a bombshell moment when he learned of his HIV status. "I got sick a few weeks after having unprotected sex in 1987 - an acute onset of symptoms. It was a flu-like thing," he says.
His initial test came back negative. "It takes three months for AIDS antibodies to come through. After six months I went for a test and it was positive: June 1, 1988:12.35, Wednesday afternoon. Sunny.
"I remember those details: 'Positive' ringing through my ears. The word trapped in my brain. I didn't hear a word that was said to me afterwards. I saw the back of my mother's head. My psyche wouldn't reveal a face as I imagined my father's words in my head saying - 'What have you done'."
Fried came out as a homosexual and revealed he was HIV-positive at the same time. "My family were supportive, but clandestine," he says. "Friends were supportive and worried."
At the time an off-Broadway dancer -"I never made it into Rent" - Fried remembers the show's director observing group support sessions and believes accounts used in the aforementioned musical come from what he said in those meetings.
He began his mission with the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, before expanding his remit beyond New York.
Fried treated his condition solely through vitamins until three years ago, when he suddenly lost 14 pounds. He now takes three pharmaceutical drugs a day, as well as his course of 30 vitamins.
"I don't find belligerence, much more compassion and tolerance," says Fried on how people react to his condition. "The issue [of HIV] raises concern in the States. It's shocking the way HIV has been relegated as an issue since the mid-1990s; it's not talked about by people in the mainstream institutions, so people want as much info as they can get. As parents don't give advice on SRE to their kids they want it from me."
Fried spends most of his time lecturing in the U.S., a country he describes as having "a pretty miserable track record for teaching teens about comprehensive sexual heath".
He accepts that much of the debate about how to teach "sex education" concerns semantics.
"In America, we like to use the term 'comprehensive health education,' which would include both matters of sexuality and abstinence. I am not fond of the word compulsory as it has an unforgiving ring to it.
"Sex education should be offered, but not shoved down a teenager's throat," he add. "I do, however, believe that it's not solely the job of a school and teacher to deliver the information. It can be disseminated by a rabbi or priest, in a synagogue or church, extra-curricular after-school program, summer camp or volunteer mission."
"In this way, if and when compulsory sex education is removed from the schools due to political reasons, it won't have the same effect upon the teens as if the entire community was involved."
He is by no means a lone crusader, says Fried. "Others do what I do in America and people know about the epidemic. We had San Francisco in 1985 and Rent in 1988 - that was New York and my friends. "
And it's still the reality in 2010. "In the past seven months I?ve met four people who are newly infected, in their late 30s, all people who attended high school in the 80s, at the height of the epidemic."
Scott Fried is the author of three books: "A Private Midnight: A Teenager's Scrapbook of Secrets," "My Invisible Kingdom: Letters from the Secret Lives of Teens" and "If I Grow Up: Talking with Teens about AIDS, Love and Staying Alive."