Richard Berkowitz in "Sex Positive"

Originally published on March 12, 2008.

When Richard Berkowitz’s mother is asked why she thought her son’s book wasn’t successful, she replies, “sex sells” and frankly, his book wasn’t very sexy — even though it was titled “Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.” Berkowitz had heard that before, even if his past as a gay hustler in New York during the 1980s would lead one to believe otherwise. Berkowitz spent his nights as a sex worker and his days as a journalist and AIDS activist at the height of the frenzy that surrounded the disease, attempting to dispel myths about how the disease was transmitted and pioneering the idea of having sex with condoms within the gay community.

Yet his efforts mostly fell on deaf ears, and he retreated to write a book in 2003 that quickly went out of print. He also maintained an impressive archive that chronicled not only his own involvement in the early years of AIDS, but created a veritable oral history of the disease and potential prevention through saved television interviews, recorded phone calls and articles from the gay press. Although he may not have realized it, all he needed was 24-year-old filmmaker Daryl Wein to turn the treasure trove of material into something much more. I spoke to Berkowitz and Wein a day after their film, “Sex Positive”, made its world premiere at SXSW, only 11 months after the two first met at a Passover Seder.

Considering the subject matter, how did you meet at a Passover Seder of all places?

Richard Berkowitz: When I first came to the city in the late ’70s, I was a gay activist, and I made two feminist friends — one turned out to be Ardele [Lister, who appears in the film] and she almost became Daryl’s mother-in-law. Every couple of years, Ardele makes a Passover Seder for the outcasts, for the transgendered or for the gay guys that would bring their lovers. It’s a Seder for progressive people. So I show up by myself with my AIDS, and two guys who are lovers from Israel can show up, and Daryl was there because he was the boyfriend of her daughter.

When I heard that he was fishing around for a topic for a documentary, I didn’t know it was suggested to him to look into my book, but the minute he came and got it, at first, I wasn’t sure of his sexuality. I’m like, “Well, he’s thin, he’s cute, he takes care of himself…” [both laugh] And then as I got to know him and I realized he really was heterosexual, I said to myself, here we were, the women’s and the gay movement in the ’70s saying straight men aren’t emotional, they’re too worried…everything we want this generation to be — more sensitive, more empathetic, not homophobic, not afraid of gay men — now that’s the way they’re becoming, you step back and say, well, he’d make a great movie. So I felt really guilty about ever thinking he was gay because it’s actually the more idealistic straight heterosexual guy that [could make this movie.] Also, the fact that he had been so close to a woman that had been my political and even spiritual rabbi and sister for like 30 years.

Daryl Wein: [laughs] I’ve also got beautiful blue eyes and when Richard and I locked eyes, we just…

RB: I trusted him. I think the problem with gay men when they do something like a documentary or do anything public media-wise is in the back of their mind, they’re always thinking “How will this read to straight people?” It may not be true within a generation, but that’s been my sense with gay men. They’re more worried about how things will read to the straight community and we’re just saying the truth as it is.

Daryl, coming from a generation where safe sex is generally accepted, were you surprised by the resistance that Richard faced by promoting safe sex?

DW: Absolutely. It was shocking to see what went on. I couldn’t believe that there was an entire generation of gay men that had suffered to such a great degree for our safety — that’s not something you learn about in school. I’d always thought that safe sex was a government-initiated program. I just did not know that it was a handful of fervent activists who really stood up and told people they needed to protect themselves, and that nobody wanted to listen to that in the beginning.

RB:In the midst of all this frenzy [over AIDS] and fear over contagion, there were actually some gay people fanning the flames of fear to create this horrible reaction of people not wanting to treat people with AIDS. There was actually some gay people fanning those fears because they thought it would finally wake people up and get the government to release funds. It caused people to die, and people didn’t want to walk into their hospital rooms. People committed suicide. People were thrown out of their apartments. It was a terrible time.

There are a few moments in the film where the person on camera actually says “I don’t want this on camera.” How did those moments ultimately make it into the film?

RB: I think in the gay community there’s a tendency when you disagree with someone to use personal details about their private life to attack or silence them. There’s a shot in the film from 1983 with this guy standing there saying, “Who is this person telling us what to do with our sex life? Well, I’ll tell you who he is. He is a hustler who…” that traumatized me for years. I’ll never forget sitting in my apartment seeing details about my sex life being used to silence and shame me by a man who’s supposed to be my gay brother, because that’s the tactic the straight world was using to silence the gay community. I think the same thing was true with [Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Berkowitz’s doctor and writing partner on a guide for safe sex]. But I think we’d both been burnt so many times about details of our sex life, which are details that actually made us better experts in advancing safe sex and being there at the forefront, that 25 years later, we’re still afraid to say things that could be used to hurt us.

DW: I think those moments are the most amazing, because they’re so truthful, and I think in Sonnabend’s case, the doctor didn’t want to offend Richard because they have a very personal relationship and I think for Richard, it’s difficult to dig back into his sexual past because I think a lot of that’s behind you now…

RB: It is. I feel old. When I was young, in my twenties, I didn’t want to listen to some 60-year-old talk about sex. I just didn’t. It’s like listening to your parents talk about sex.

Isn’t it strange that it took a young straight guy to have some perspective on this?

RB: I would never have dreamt that it would be a straight guy that would come along and make use of the archive. No one else came along. The book came out in 2003, was reviewed very well in the gay press, no one had any interest in interviewing me, no one had any interest in doing a documentary, no one had any interest in doing an article.

DW: I think I was coming in at a time when you had pretty much given up.

RB: Yeah.

DW: So it was kind of a lucky coincidence.

“Sex Positive” is now available on DVD.