In March 1994, a couple of months before the Times’ announcement that Regan Somers Hofmann, the 26-year-old daughter of David Hofmann of Pennington, New Jersey, and Nancy Hofmann of Princeton, New Jersey, was married to a son of a Chase Manhattan vice-president in an Episcopal ceremony, a quite sick 35-year-old with AIDS named Sean Strub announced the launch of a bi-monthly magazine for people with HIV called Poz. He’d been running a faxed newsletter of HIV information—he’d noticed that the people who had the best information were ones who were living longer—and sold his life-insurance policy in order to start Poz. The magazine’s glossy, graphical urgency set out to celebrate the fact that people were still living with it, coping with it in some way, thirteen years into a plague that was killing a generation of gay men.
In the first issue, a writer profiled the HIV-positive grandson of Barry Goldwater and wrote about having sex with him. It was a magazine that could not have been more of a product of ACT UP and Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair. “The magazine is being done as a business,” Strub assured a reporter at the time, “but it’s unlikely that it will break even in my lifetime.” A trade publication noted wryly that Poz might have some problems with renewals given that its entire subscriber base had a fatal illness.
Not that any of this would have had a particular impact on Hofmann—and why should it? She’d grown up in the era of the AIDS ribbon, Pedro on The Real World, and condom-on-the-banana demonstrations to incoming freshmen. Her thoughts were much more on the fact that she’d left her job in advertising to figure out how to write for a living. She and her husband, who’d also worked in advertising, moved to Atlanta because it was pleasant and close to horses—she’d grown up riding Thoroughbreds—and she could work on her novel there. Soon she and some friends started an alternative magazine called Poets, Artists & Madmen. They published poems, fiction, and record reviews and were profiled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (She said she’d “rather have psychic income” than make “bazillions of dollars.”) She and her husband had their problems, though. They lasted only eleven months. She started dating someone new. She burned out on the magazine after two years, and her partners bought her out. That was in 1996. One day, “I had a swollen lymph gland, and I went to the doctor,” she says. She took an HIV test, which came back positive. “They basically gave me a year to live.”
But thanks to the protease inhibitors that happened to be introduced that year, she’s still alive. And this January, she was hired as editor-in-chief of Poz.
It’s not as easy for a magazine to adapt as it is for a virus. HIV isn’t just a gay men’s health crisis anymore: 27 percent of those infected in the U.S. are women; worldwide, it’s closer to 50 percent. It’s increasingly a crisis for poor people, African-Americans. (It’s not that well-educated white gay men aren’t still getting infected, but to the extent that drugs make the virus “manageable,” it tends to be even more manageable for them.) “I would say the magazine always aspired to represent the entire epidemic,” says Walter Armstrong, who had worked there since 1996 and later became editor-in-chief. “But since we had a mostly gay staff, we were maybe more successful at breaking stories that were more relevant to gay men. We tried to do what we could in terms of finding writers and stories outside of our immediate backyard.”
One of those writers was Hofmann, who’d been secretly corresponding with the magazine. After breaking up with the man who’d infected her, believing him when he said he didn’t know he’d had it, she moved back to the fields of New Jersey. “I sort of put my editorial career on hold. I took some time and just worked with horses. I was just trying to gather my wits and gather my health; I didn’t quite know what was going to happen,” she says. “I was on medication from the very beginning, and I’ve tolerated it, and I’ve always been thankfully healthy.” Her doctor put her in touch with a support group. They were all gay men. She’d started subscribing to Poz, which came in a plain purple wrapper. It was, she says, her “lifeline.”
Hofmann picked me up from the Raritan stop on the New Jersey Transit rail line in a growling metallic Mustang. Raritan is something well beyond suburbia. The American Legion has taken over the old pitch-roofed train station, complete with a box “for deposit of used and worn flags.” Next door is a place that refills propane tanks. Hofmann is elegant in a Hamptons-y way in her big sunglasses and skinny, distressed jeans. She looks sporty and vital, and drives too fast along the two-lane country roads that take us to the farm where she lives, her Cobra radar detector chirping occasionally as she makes fun of the nouveau golf-course communities with their sprawling faux châteaux.