May 23, 2024
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He took a chance on Binghamton. Now he’s making his mark on HIV/AIDS archival history

Casey Adrian graduates with a master's in social work, after a collaboration into the history of Gay Men's Health Crisis

Casey Adrian will graduate with his master’s in social work during Commencement 2024. Casey Adrian will graduate with his master’s in social work during Commencement 2024.
Casey Adrian will graduate with his master’s in social work during Commencement 2024. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

Ask a young Casey Adrian why he’d consider leaving his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., and he could list a million reasons. If he had a crystal ball, he might have told you — right up until his first semester on campus — that he’d be moving to New York City to pursue a writing career.

“I chose Binghamton University because I’d gotten in and told myself: ‘I’ll go for one semester, and if I hate it, no harm, no foul,’” he said. “It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Once upon a time, he believed that he wouldn’t pursue a college degree at all. Instead, Adrian will graduate with his Master’s of Social Work from Binghamton. He earned his undergraduate degree in women, gender and sexuality studies with a minor in sociology in 2022.

“When I took LGBTQ History with Sean Massey at the beginning of my sophomore year, it just completely changed my worldview,” Adrian said. “I learned the words and the theories to explain things that I had been observing my whole life, but I finally had a framework to start understanding them. And that was a powerful experience for me.”

As a teenager, Adrian used Tumblr, a social media app for self-curated blogs, where he was first exposed to a world of theory. He felt the use of pop culture and the lack of citations made it seem as if the field was not something he could professionally pursue. With Massey’s class, he realized research and theory provided a way for him to blend his love of writing with his natural curiosity about the social environment.

“When I took my first WGSS class, it was like: ‘Oh, this is something that people have spent their whole lives looking into! This is something that books have been written about!’ It felt like a viable option for the first time in my life.”

‘Preserve their voices’

Soon, this new academic world led him to feel a stronger connection to his home city. He realized he had an obligation to make a change in the lives of people like him and developed a healthy respect for the unsung.

“There are so many brilliant, talented and committed people here that often get overlooked and don’t get as much attention as they should. The golden rule of camping is to leave the place better than you found it, and that’s how I feel about upstate New York.”

Casey Adrian ’22

Adrian completed his undergraduate degree with honors in May 2022. In his senior year, he reached out to Massey, who also served as a co-investigator in the Human Sexualities Research Lab, and asked to join the team.

There, he began working on a project that would define the latter half of his academic career: archiving and collecting materials and oral histories from former members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the first support organizations founded in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Various research has been completed on the organization’s founding, but less so in its middle years, when it started professionalizing and adjusting to an epidemic that became more visible in communities that the founders didn’t always resonate with. Capturing this period was where the story began, though it quickly evolved as Massey and the research assistants realized there were many people still alive who hadn’t been interviewed before.

“A lot of people died and are not here to be interviewed. It’s important, especially as these people approach older adulthood, to preserve their voices,” Adrian said. “They went through some intense things but came out of it with so much resilience and with such community. They weren’t always perfect, and they made mistakes. But at the end of the day, they did what they had to do, while their friends, lovers and family were dying.”

Altogether, the project collected about 90 testimonies and was recently donated to the New York Public Library’s Division of Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books for countless future generations to enjoy.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with many talented and motivated students over my years at Binghamton University. However, Casey has demonstrated a rare combination of exceptionally strong analytic and critical thinking skills, a keen interest in and aptitude for research and is a truly talented and creative writer,” Massey said.

Through much of the project, Adrian served in the role of analytic community manager, providing coordination, communication and supervision with undergraduate lab members. For his work, he was awarded the Binghamton University’s Provost Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research for 2021-22 academic year.

Looking back, Adrian feels that this project will remain one of the most important experiences of his life.

“These stories are a testament to the human spirit and condition,” he said. “There’s a piece of me being a bisexual man — if I was alive during that time, what would I have done? Would I have made it out alive? It’s harrowing to talk to people who can look at me on a computer screen and potentially recognize me as someone who was spared.”

Seeking out opportunities

After the completion of the archival side of the project, Adrian was offered the unique opportunity to author a chapter in a book about the research, co-authored by Massey and Julia B. Haager, an assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University.

“Over our years working together, I’ve watched Casey excel as both a student and scholar. He has shown himself to be a valued and reliable member of the Binghamton Human Sexualities Research Lab,” Massey said. “Casey’s professionalism and the quality of his work led me and my co-author to invite him to join our research team documenting the history of GMHC, to be the lead author on an article about the project and to co-author one of the book chapters.”

Based partially on an exhibit of materials recently collected at the Binghamton University Art Museum titled “Art and Activism: Angry, Irreverent, and Sexy Innovation in Response to the AIDS Crisis,” his chapter investigates the sex-positive language used in HIV-prevention materials during the GMHC era. Before and during this period, most sexual health messaging was abstinence-only and even unrepresentative of queer people.

“GMHC actively pushed back on that by affirming gay identity,” Adrian said. “They chose to eroticize it, to make condom use, conversations about consent and HIV risk with your partner sexy, and they leaned into that. Ultimately it worked, and a lot of those strategies are still used today.”

To continue working on this project, Adrian decided to stay at Binghamton for his master’s degree and chose the social work program as his next step. In addition to learning from its generalist practice, which taught him many of the skills to talk through intimate conversations like the oral histories, he quickly made strong connections with the faculty and enjoyed the classes.

It was in the social work program that he met his next mentor: Stacey Shipe, The department chair and an assistant professor. She led him to a new project researching the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), an HIV prevention drug, in foster homes.

“The PrEP and foster care work came out of marrying our two worlds; she was talking about health disparities in the child welfare system, and I was talking about adolescents’ access to PrEP and how they navigate those policies,” Adrian said. “All adolescents face barriers when trying to access PrEP without parental consent because state laws vary so much, but the ones in foster care have the added burden of being a ward of the state, having additional policies to parse through and potentially not being in the same setting year after year.”

Adrian feels as if all these experiences have taught him more than he can say. In a literal sense, they have inspired him to pursue a lifetime career in academia. In fact, he recently accepted a position as a research assistant at Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and hopes to pursue his doctorate in the coming years.

And none of it, he argues, would have happened without Binghamton.

“Opportunities won’t always fall on your lap. To be able to seek them out and recognize them when they’re coming to you is important. I’ve had the most incredible mentors who have taken me under their wing and helped me, but at the same time, I’ve also had to reach out and grab them,” he said. “Geographic space is what you make it. It’s all about reframing things in your head and making your own opportunities, both professionally and personally.”

Posted in: Campus News, CCPA