Sex Positive Traces Early Days of a Pandemic


First-time filmmaker Daryl Wein wasn’t even born when AIDS was first recognized by the CDC in 1981, but his documentary on Richard Berkowitz, one of the initial advocates of safe sex, does a good job of capturing (though, dizzyingly, not always with a tripod) the internecine struggles among gay activists that played out on Manhattan public-access TV and in the pages of the New York Native during the first years of the pandemic. It helps that Wein’s subject is such a fascinating, garrulous paradox: Berkowitz, co-author with singer Michael Callen of the 1983 pamphlet How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, was an s/m-top hustler who insisted, much to the horror of Larry Kramer and others outraged by what they considered a loaded term, that “promiscuity” contributed to the transmission of AIDS among gay men. For all his passion and commitment, Berkowitz, diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, seems to have a special talent for flaming out, losing several years to crack addiction and now living on disability checks and handouts from former clients. As one of the namesakes of NYC’s Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, Callen, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993, has reached near-saint status; Berkowitz candidly admits to battling a more ignominious legacy: “If you do a Google search on me, I’m tied in with all these lunatics.”