“Sex Positive”

Pub date June 30, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

REVIEW Richard Berkowitz ought to be lionized as an early crusader in the fight against AIDS. Instead he is not only largely forgotten now, his efforts earned him hostility and a kind of blacklisting within the gay community during the U.S. epidemic’s destructive apex in the 1980s. Blessed with a still-living, charismatic subject, Daryl Wein’s documentary puzzles out that injustice. A campus radical turned S&M daddy-for-hire, he found a new outlet for highly vocal activism when the disease first began taking a significant toll in the hitherto carefree, wide-open New York City gay scene. He and the late Michael Callen cowrote a first-ever "safer sex" guide. But with HIV transmission routes/risks still a matter of conjecture, Berkowitz’s own community excoriated that concept — not to mention his pleas to rein in multiple-partner promiscuity until more medical facts were known — as reactionary. He was decried as a lowly hustler perversely bent on shaming gays back into the chastity closet, a bizarre charge reflecting the besieged community’s off-chart levels of terror and denial at the time. Most of his ideas later proved wise, but by then Berkowitz had retreated into obscurity and substance abuse, his budding journalism career nipped by still-skittish gay media outlets. Still young-ish, devoid of self-pity, he’s an interviewee with considerable flinty charm, while the movie efficiently assembles archival materials to illustrate his rocky backstory. Hopefully his pioneering crusade will be better appreciated as a result of Sex Positive — though don’t expect any such belated kudos from fellow first-wave AIDS activist survivor Larry Kramer, who in predictable fashion here sour-grapes the contributions of anyone who is not dead or Larry Kramer.

SEX POSITIVE opens Fri/3 at the Roxie.