"Let me get this gay stuff out of my system." Richard Berkowitz (pictured above in both images) did not set to be an AIDS activist, or even to live openly as a gay man. He fully intended to meet and marry a woman, settle down, and raise a family, which would have pleased his liberal New Jersey Jewish Democratic family. Enrolling at Rutgers University in the early 1970s, however, changed his life.
Berkowitz's journey from college student to S&M hustler to safe sex advocate to gay community outcast is carefully chronicled in Sex Positive, a documentary by Daryl Wein that opens today in New York after a successful series of festival screenings. (Regent Releasing will open it in Los Angeles and Denver next week and in San Francisco on July 3.) Berkowitz is nearly forgotten today, despite co-writing two key texts that introduced the concept of "safe sex" and generated considerable controversy upon their publication.
Wein's film succeeds in reasserting credit to Berkowitz, virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, and the late musician / activist Michael Callen for vigorously proclaiming that a promiscuous lifestyle increased the likelihood that gay men would contract AIDS. That message, initially delivered in 1982 and 1983 when the gay community was devastated by scores of deaths and little or nothing was being done by the government to research and try to cure or at least slow the spread of the "gay disease," got them branded as "anti-sex." Yet the three men asserted that a "sex positive" lifestyle could be enjoyed as long as certain safeguards were employed.