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The Man That AIDS Forgot: Safe Sex Architect Richard Berkowitz

The New York City of 1979 shown during the opening minutes of Sex Positive, the documentary now available on DVD, is awash in gay sexual liberation. Male couples strut their stuff arm in arm, sporting biker jackets and cocky mustaches and bulges in their denim that strain credulity (no fashion era has ever screamed “gay porn” like this one). It’s an almost quaint snapshot, in retrospect, taken just before the arrival of a major buzzkill in the form of a murderous pandemic.

SexPositivePosterCruising amid the happy sleaze was gay S/M escort Richard Berkowitz (pictured, right), the man who would quickly and unwittingly become known as the “self hating enemy of gay people.” And all because, the documentary contends, he tried to save their lives.

Today, Berkowitz remains in the apartment where he once entertained masochistic clients (the hardware they once dangled from is still in evidence in the doorways), and during our phone interview his emotions ranged from joyful gratitude to angry resentment, all displayed with an engaging but steely force of will. Here is a man still trying desperately to be heard and understood.

“I’ve been smeared, censored and attacked over the years, as evidenced in the film, by gay men who either don’t like me or don’t like sex workers, or people into S/M, or anyone who questions AIDS orthodoxy,” he said.

And here is why. In the early 1980’s, as AIDS deaths mounted but before the HIV virus had been identified, there was no known cause for the mortality. Was there a single, possibly viral culprit, as gay activist Larry Kramer and others believed, or was there a collection of factors having to do with the promiscuous gay lifestyle, as Berkowitz suspected?

Michael_CallenBerkowitz based his views on talks with his physician, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, and another Sonnabend patient, singer Michael Callen (pictured, left), all of whom were ready to vocalize something heretical: the promiscuous lifestyle of gay men was contributing to the emerging epidemic.

“Everything Michael and I said and did in regard to AIDS came from Sonnabend,” Berkowitz tells me. “Callen and I knew nothing about science or sexually transmitted diseases when AIDS began. Sonnabend taught us how to educate ourselves, and Michael and I tried to teach that to gay men.”

Dr. Sonnabend had a medical practice in the heart of the ultra gay Chelsea neighborhood, and he had made a connection between some of his gay patients’ propensity for the fast lane and their risk for developing AIDS symptoms. This seemingly basic fact wasn’t easy for the trio to disseminate.

NewYorkNativeIn 1982, Berkowitz and Callen wrote an article in the New York Native entitled We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on Promiscuity. In it they claimed the New York gay scene — bars, baths, drugs, poppers and all — had birthed the growing epidemic, and only through behavioral change could it be contained.

This infuriated gay intelligentsia like Larry Kramer, who believed that both freshly minted gay pride and mainstream assimilation were threatened by Berkowitz’s talk of queers as bath house sluts. “He felt promiscuity was too dangerous to talk about in front of straight people,” Berkowitz says today. “But Callen and I said ‘fuck straight people, gay men are dying and AIDS is preventable.'”

The film’s tag line, “What if you knew a deadly epidemic was coming, and no one would believe you?” is a stretch, considering Berkowitz wasn’t the only one worried about the gathering storm. Most every gay bar patron at the time shared his sense of dread, and it was clear to Kramer and others that a public health crisis was at hand. The question was how to address it.

Berkowitz and Callen addressed it by writing, under the supervision of Sonnabend, the 1983 pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” It is widely considered the invention of safe sex as we know it today, and uncanny in its detailed instructions of avoiding transmission through bodily fluids.

HIVexitsCellAnd it turned out that Berkowitz and Kramer were both right: the HIV virus was identified later that year and is now considered the single cause of AIDS, while the guidelines Berkowitz outlined to prevent transmission remain valid. “I was wrong to dismiss there being a new virus that was central to AIDS,” he now says. “There are still people who won’t forgive that.”

Such inescapable sadness hangs over Sex Positive — all those dying men, all that existential confusion — that the arguments between the opposing schools of thought seem secondary. After the film revisits the third or so public television debate between Kramer and Berkowitz/Callen, one wishes they’d just shut up and do something.

And of course, they did. Kramer not only wrote searing, groundbreaking theater such as The Normal Heart, he was also among the founders of ACT UP and The Gay Men’s Health Crisis. His status in gay history is iconic. Callen became the gay face of AIDS, singing at events, writing for The Village Voice and appearing in the film Philadelphia before his death in 1993.

BerkowitzThe intervening years for Berkowitz (right) have been less kind. The film outlines his descent into drug abuse, and even his old ally Sonnabend describes Berkowitz as becoming “useless” for a time. Berkowitz resents the portrayal and has no interest in contrasting his life with that of Callen, who now has a New York City health center bearing his name.

“Do people dismiss the Beatles’ music or Robert Downey’s acting because they were using (drugs)?” he asks. “The only thing I ever wanted was not to die before I had lived a full life and finished what I felt the universe had put me here to do. With Sex Positive, I feel I’ve crossed the finish line. I got my happy ending.”

Perhaps not entirely. The safe sex guidelines he created were co-opted by public health officials and quickly sanitized to make them palatable to a general audience, and Berkowitz regrets his “skewed portrait” in the documentary. “The movie shows me in relation to the safe sex debate and my battle with addiction. But my 54 years add up to much more than that! I just regret being pushed out of safe sex discourse, because I had something to contribute.”

StayingAliveJacketHe hopes to contribute again. His 2003 book, Staying Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex is back in print, and he wants to keep speaking and developing his web site and blog. It may help alleviate the fact Berkowitz struggles financially, living on disability and handouts from former clients.

“It would be nice to have money, but I’ll take being alive over cash,” he says. “Riches come from having a purpose in life.” Moments later, he betrays his complicated thoughts on the topic. “I’m dismayed by comments in ‘Sex Positive’ that I didn’t do enough. I did a lot, and it’s not like anyone ever paid me!

Thanks. Credit. Payment. After days of being haunted with sadness by viewing Sex Positive, the reason for its melancholy spell struck me. There could never be enough thanks, for Berkowitz or unknowable others. No one can quantify the payment due. How could the efforts of so many ever be calculated? How might proper credit be dispensed?

Whether it was Berkowitz outlining safer sex guidelines or countless men and women caring for dying lovers, valor was impossible to measure during what felt like the end of the world. Few may ever know the bravery of Berkowitz, or Callen, or Kramer.

Or me. Or you.

And with HIV rates rising among gay men again, Sex Positive underscores how much work, how terribly, frighteningly much, there is left to do.





  1. Sherri Lewis July 3, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I am so happy you have discovered Richard Berkowitz. I adore, respect and admire him and his place in history with HIV/AIDS. I was fortunate to have met him when I began as a consultant for the documentary on his life and we became good friends. He came to support me at the POZ Broadway CARES Equity Fights AIDS and also was a recipient of the Being Alive Spirit of Hope Awards in Los Angeles last year.
    God bless Richard. A lovely man. Good, kind and smart. Thank you Mark for featuring Richard on your blog.
    Love, health and happiness,
    PS: I have also interviewed Richard and along with his director for Sex Positive on Straight Girl In A Queer World which can still be downloaded if anyone wants to hear it.
    Sherri Lewis aka Sherri Beachfront

  2. Perry Brass July 5, 2010 at 11:23 am

    I was conscious of “How to Have Sex During An Epidemic,” and also of Kramer’s edicts about promiscuity, etc. What I learned very early on during the AIDS Crisis was that sexual promiscuity alone did not transmit or cause AIDS, only certain sex acts did—and when and how they were performed was important. I co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic with two of my friends back in 1973. We advocated for the use of condoms back then, and most gay men thought we were crazy. Why use condoms, used for birth control, to have queer sex? One of the few places that did provide condoms was the Club Baths in New York—the manager of them understood immediately how useful they could be against all STDs. We also publicized the dangers of STDs, that they were not to be trifled with—again 10 years, at least, before HIV got into the community, via Africa and Cuba. There are many concepts here are that very deep, and they can’t be flattened out into little ego blurbs, something that Larry Kramer was good at doing. People are now starting to understand them: that the “liberated” Christopher Street clones who became muscle-bound Chelsea boys fucking their brains out were in no more danger of HIV infection than a married man in White Plains who came into the city once a month and got fucked by a guy from Harlem on the “down low” who was also married with kids and who had spent his whole life in such denial than even learning about HIV was impossible for him. Ergo: it’s not how much sex you had, but where, when, how, and how open you might be to information.

    Perry Brass, http://www.perrybrass.com

  3. Keith July 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I knew Michael Callen, not that well, but enough to know he loved casual, anonymous sex. He would not appreciate those who attempt to present him as opposed to promiscuity. Just because Michael saw the need for some restraint back in the days before we knew what HIV was and how it was spread, should not lead one to conclude he would approve of the anti-sex contingent that seeks to call him one of their own today. If Michael were alive today, I suspect he’d be cruising the toilets, or walking the halls of the baths, reveling in the joys of anonymous male sexual bonding!

    (One of the ironies of the activist battle in the film was that Michael and Richard wanted to show gay men how to continue their sexuality safely, not end it, yet it was they who were accused of being “sex negative.” — Mark)

  4. Sue July 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

    If only we would have listened, maybe some of those we loved would still be with us.

  5. Scott Mitchell April 11, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I first encountered Richard when I saw the documentary “Sex in an Epidemic” and I was quite taken with what he had to say and what he had done in conjunction with Michael Callen and Dr. Sonnabend and the courage it had taken to express such views at the time. I was living in San Francisco in June, 1981 when that scary article appeared “Rare Cancer Found In 41 Gay Men” and I remember the fear and confusion that swept the community. I also remember how so many of us retreated into denial for far too long about what was going on and what we would have to change if we were going to have any chance of saving ourselves because certainly the Reagan Administration wasn’t going to do anything to help us. I remember people being called mysogynists because they dared to suggest that we had to “stop fucking around” in the way we had been during the wild late 1970’s. I remember how the whole topic of condom use was ridiculed and all the while the death toll climbed. I believe that what saved me was that very early on, certainly long before it was known as fact, I believed that there was a deadly new virus out there and I acted on that belief while many of my friends preferred to believe that it was a batch of bad drugs, or a C.I.A. or F.B.I. plot or that all those poppers were somehow to blame. They and so many more all died and if only more of us had listened to voices like Richard’s who knows how many would still be alive. I know I’m late to be commenting here but I’ve been trying to find a way to express my thanks to Richard for a some time and here was my chance. Thank you Richard. I hope you are doing well. I know what it is like to struggle to live on disability, to pay rent and doctors and the ever increasing cost of medications. You know I got tested for HIV when the tests were finally available and I was sure I would test positive, there had just been too many men, and I was shocked when the results came back negative. It somehow made me feel as if I had cheated or had somehow escaped my own mortality; but of course all the old diseases were still out there and in 2004 I was diagnosed with cancer. But I’m still here and very grateful.

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