A once-controversial, now forgotten hero of the early AIDS era gets his belated due in “Sex Positive.” Hedonism in the New York City gay population’s pre-AIDS 1970s, the disease’s devastating impact and the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis have been amply documented before. But Daryl Wein’s engrossing portrait of Richard Berkowitz is freshly engaging largely due to the subject himself: a still-cranky, likable former hustler ironically scorned by many as “the Jerry Falwell of the gay community” when he began urging men to practice safer sex with fewer partners. Gay-friendly fest and tube gigs are signaled.
Raised by politically progressive Jewish parents — mom Dottie is a delightful interviewee –Berkowitz was an avid, “out” campus radical at Rutgers U., where he studied journalism and organized protests against a homophobic frat.
Moving to the Big Apple, he found an outlet for his anger as a dominant S&M “daddy” for hire. When the epidemic hit, Berkowitz’s profession gave gay leaders and the media a way to discredit his print/TV urgings against “promiscuity” as old-school homosexual self-loathing. At the time, “accumulation of risk” behaviors were thought possibly as important as any single exposure to a virus.
Berkowitz co-wrote with activist singer-songwriter Michael Callen the first-ever safe sex guide, “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.” Callen, who died in 1993, was enshrined as a pioneering activist AIDS martyr.
But by the mid-’80s, when medical research and community consensus had come around to Callen and Berkowitz’s ideas, Berkowitz had retreated to Miami. He returned to his S&M trade, now as safe sex.” But the emotional pain of dealing with dying clients drove him to crack cocaine (“numbing the pain of what was happening”), while his journalistic screeds now seemed blacklisted by gay or otherwise alternative press.
Today HIV-positive Berkowitz scrapes along on disability benefits — albeit barely past 50, seemingly robust, full of opinions about current health policies, AIDS treatment, and related activism (“dead”). Wein captures his latter-day fighting spirit, intellect and grousing in bemused but admiring terms.
Archival vid, largely from TV newscasts, is variably rough; new interview footage and general assembly are workmanlike. Among surviving peers in early AIDS activism, Larry Kramer is mealy-mouthed as usual about anyone else’s contribution. Overall assembly is adequate.