In the Amazon Prime Video documentary My Friend, the Mayor: Small-town Democracy in the Age of Trump, Dutch journalist Max Westerman profiles friend Sean Strub, an openly gay activist, activist, long-term AIDS survivor and POZ magazine founder who, in 2017, became mayor of Milford, Pennsylvaniaa Donald Trump stronghold.
Westerman, who currently lives in Brazil, talked with Windy City Times about making the film, meeting Strub and learning about small-town politics.
Windy City Times: You're currently in Brazil. Is this more business or pleasure?
Max Westerman: It's a combination. I have a long history with Brazil. I was here for a year as a correspondent in the 1980s. As a child, I had a fascination with North and South America, and I wanted to get to know them both, so I did. I just love Brazil and after I quit my job as a U.S. correspondent, I came here to write a book about my American experiences and I sort of lingered around. But I also spend time in Holland, my home country.
WCT: Being in Brazil, have you noticed any change in how LGBTQ people are treated since [Jair] Bolsonaro was elected president a couple years ago?
MW: Yes. There's definitely more discrimination and homophobic sentiment since he was elected, because he is so openly homophobic. After all, he once said he'd [ignore] his own son if he were gay. And there are transphobic favelaswhich are often translated as "slums," which they really aren't, but they are the poorer parts of town. People who live there have to deal with more discrimination than before.
WCT: Regarding your friendship with Sean, when did you two first meet?
MW: I met Sean when we were both 20; we're now 63. We met in NYC through a mutual friend, and we connected because of a mutual interest in politics and the fact that we're both gay. We'd hit the gay bars and even Studio 54. We sort of became best friends.
We both also went to Columbia University; I got my master's in journalism there and Sean was studying politics. Also, Sean once invited me to spend the summer with him at his parent's place in Iowa, and we've been good friends ever since.
At the end of the 1980s, I returned to Dutch media, and became a correspondent for Dutch television in the United Statesand I ended up doing a number of stories about Sean. His diagnosis was in the early 1980s; he and I were supposed to write a book together when he got his first HIV symptom: shingles. So I took him to this doctor I had interviewed, and that's when Sean got his diagnosis and prognosis. The doctor himself ended up dying after two years because he had the virus himself.
Sean later developed Karposi's sarcoma and even his sisterwho's in the documentaryfelt he didn't have long to live. But at that time, the new viral treatments were developed, in the 1990s, and Sean came back to life; his Karposi's sarcoma disappeared. And he moved with his boyfriend, Xavier Morales, to start a new life; he bought a hotel, renovated and [eventually] ran for mayor.
In the town, people got to know him. What I discovered was that in a small town like Milford, people get to know their neighbors and the candidates better. Local people are focused on local interests. Is he the right guy to have the streets repaired or to deal with the police? People don't seem to care too much if someone shares his bed with a man or woman.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you experienced while filming this movie?
MW: As a foreign correspondent, you're focused on national politics. This movie is about the nitty-gritty of local politics. People are able to get over their partisan prejudices to support a candidate who is not like themselves. For example, Sean's campaign manager was a Trump voterand this guy figured that Sean, who described himself as a "lefty gay guy with AIDS," is the best man for the job of the mayor of the town that they both live in. And they talk about Donald Trump in the documentarybut when it's about the race for mayor, they don't have to because it's not about him.
The thing that really surprised me is how much local enthusiasm there is for politics. I was touched by how many citizens spend their free hours mobilizing for political causes. This is very much an American thingworking your butt off for the candidate of your choice. But in Milford, it was really impressive. It was really inspiring. We don't have that to the same extent in the Netherlands, where I'm from; that's what's really impressive about American politics. And that's one good thing that came from the Trump era: It mobilized Democratic voters more than ever because it gave them the shock of their lives when he won.
And one more thing that impressed me was the idealism involved. Sean is a really idealistic person; he always works to improve the lives of people around him. On the international level, you tend to look for ulterior motives; at the local level, people work for the common good.
WCT: Did the result of Sean's election make you think that Donald Trump could lose the 2020 presidential election?
MW: Yes; it made me more confident that he could lose. I saw how people mobilized on the local level, and how people were shocked after Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
WCT: What do you want viewers to take away from the documentary?
MW: That there is hope. The United States is always able to renew itself; it's gone through many dark days, with people saying, "This is the end of democracy." For example, look at the McCarthy era in the 1950s. People can always overcome obstaclesand local politics can be a source of inspiration for change on the national level.
My Friend, the Mayor is on Amazon Prime Video.