In recognition of World AIDS Day, Toronto DJ and Drag Recording Artist, Alphonso King Jr, had the opportunity to meet and chat with AIDS activist and author, Richard Berkowitz.

Alphonso King Jr is probably best known as DJ Relentless or Drag Recording Artist Jade Elektra. For the past seven years, he and his husband John Richard Allan have produced events and fundraisers for various HIV/AIDS organizations and the HIV+ Community in Toronto.

Richard Berkowitz is a gay American author and activist best known as an early advocate of safe sex in response to the AIDS crisis among gay men in the 1980s. The award-winning 2008 documentary Sex Positive is about his life and activities.

Richard and Alphonso

I was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 but didn’t really become an activist until I got engaged to my husband in 2009. I spoke about my status to close friends and with lovers but never publicly. Since 2009 I’ve been very out and vocal about being HIV+. My husband, John Richard Allan, and I have spent the past 6 years creating events and Facebook groups for our community here in Toronto (POZPLANET, POZ-TO, Daddy Issues Fundraiser, The “HIV Is Everyone’s Business Campaign” and The POZ-TO Awards where we honor ten people from the community for their activism). In 2010, I wrote and recorded a track called “H-I-Vogue” with DJ Fierce Tease for my drag persona, Jade Elektra. I conceived it as a public service announcement in Bitch Track format. I also produced a music video with Brian Finch. Posted online in 2011, it features a montage of my husband’s H-I-Vogue Magazine Covers Series.

One day I was looking through the comments and saw one from Richard Berkowitz. Most of you probably have no idea who this man is but you should. In May 1983, Berkowitz, along with his late friend, Michael Callen and their doctor, Joseph Sonnabend wrote and published a 40-page booklet called How to Have Sex in an Epidemic which was the invention of safe sex. I knew, so I happily grabbed Richard’s quote and put it at the beginning of my video. 

As an author and activist, safe sex is Richard’s legacy. He’s the last surviving co-founder of the PWA self-empowerment movement that created the Denver Principles. His 2003 book Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex inspired the 2009 documentary, Sex Positive, which captures sex in the ‘70s and the early years of AIDS in New York. It was an honour to have him lend his voice to my efforts. It felt like he was passing the torch to me.

Last summer I got a message from Richard asking to meet during my visit to New York City. I was thrilled. I wish more people would seek out those who laid the groundwork for the roads we’re on, and the ones ahead. You can learn so much from queer people who were shaped by different eras and places.

Meeting Richard was like seeing an old friend. He was so open and honest about his life. Hearing his perspective on how the LGBT community had changed and grown was fascinating. When I returned home, I decided to ask him a few questions to capture our conversation about being voices of the HIV+ community.

It was so nice to meet you. As one POZ person to another, did you think that you would still be around today? I know I didn’t.

RICHARD: I’ve had an unusual journey with AIDS. I became symptomatic at 26 in 1982. News reports terrified me. When I had a lymph node biopsy — a gland cut out of my neck – I knew I was doomed. My doctor, Joe Sonnabend, intervened. He asked me, “Why do you believe everything you hear?” He said, “AIDS is a new disease and there are no experts, so why give up hope when so little is known?” I didn’t know Joe was a world-class virologist. I thought he was just a doctor. He taught me how exposure doesn’t always lead to infection, why infection doesn’t always lead to sickness, how sickness doesn’t always mean death. As I began to understand his views, I found science-based hope that made the invention of safe sex possible. I knew then I’d lived to see my 40s. When I got KS and began to die in 1995, retroviral drugs came out and saved me in the nick of time. So, out of 36 years with HIV, I only felt doomed twice for a brief time, but I haven’t survived unscathed.

One of the things that I sometimes come across when talking with other positive people is “survivor’s guilt”. Do you or have you ever experienced that?

RICHARD: No. I couldn’t fathom why I should feel guilty about surviving AIDS when I did my best to promote safe sex and save lives. People kept asking me if I felt guilty, but activist-writing can work as an anti-depressant. You’re busy being creative, you’re helping others. When you’re trying to save the world, you don’t realize that no matter how many battles you lose, you can end up saving yourself. I have wondered if survivors’ guilt can take another form – being so grateful you survived a catastrophe that it feels like you’re a tiny speck adrift in an ocean of gratitude that’s so vast it can drown you. I got lost in that, but with therapy and meditation, it got better. 

I just recently turned 51 back in August. I work as a DJ and drag performer. So, often people think I am a little younger than I am. But with that said I watch a lot of ageism. What’s your perspective on aging as a gay man?

RICHARD: Aging is a sign that none of us are here forever, not a happy reminder. The toughest thing I ever witnessed was watching friends I came out with during the 1970s, and realizing that they wouldn’t live to see 40. I guess that’s my perspective on aging, to cherish longevity. My friends would’ve given anything to grow old and wrinkled. Plus, I’ve met thousands of young gay men traveling around the country to do Q&As after screenings of SEX POSITIVE. They were so caring for me and the work I was part of. It took me 25 years to see the impact my efforts had. I felt it in the younger faces telling me what it meant to them, so I’ve been blessed regarding ageism. 

Let’s talk about the Gay Movement from the 70s to the 80s. What is it that you would like the young people to know or understand about “sexual freedom” back then?

RICHARD: The gay movement was lots of things, but I’ll tell you what it meant to me. It felt like part of a great awakening that began in the 1960s with civil rights and the antiwar movement. Everything queers had been taught to believe — to hate ourselves and each other — was such bullshit, that it led some of us to question everything we’d been taught. That meant getting informed, reading, listening to each other. Back then, the LGBT press was radical and informative; it said, “gay lib” and feminism were inextricably linked — or what we now call gender. I had to learn what wasn’t taught in public school. We’d been schooled in conformity, to mind our own business, follow the rules and go along. Once all that flies out the window, which is what made coming out in the ‘70s revolutionary, we then had to figure out, what did it mean to be queer?  Sexual freedom was just one life-affirming part of that, and for some men, that was all they cared about. But knowing what’s wrong doesn’t give you the right answers, so it was a time of exhilarating creativity, experimentation, and courage. We made progress and mistakes, but we lost so many radicals early in the AIDS crisis who never got a chance to say what those times meant to them and why we did what we did.

I’ve noticed that there is a trend that sort of looks like that time period happening all over again…plenty of 70s porn clones who look like Tom of Finland drawings come to life. It must be weird to see that come back, or did it never leave from your perspective?

RICHARD: I never get enough of the 1970s. I’d hoped that when we came out with How to Have Sex in an Epidemic that we could keep the party going. For some it did, but times change and history never stands still, even when it’s busy repeating itself. I loved how the working-class fashions of the gay ‘70s, mostly from Army/Navy stores, reflected our time: Pocket T-shirts with sleeves cut off in summer, tight lived-in jeans, gym socks inside boots or sneakers, leather or denim jackets and loose sloppy hairstyles or Afros. It was sexy, cheap, unpretentious and affordable to everyone. It said, we’re all in this together and what else do you need to wear to go cruising for sex?

I started going out to gay bars in 1985 during my last year of high school. A lot has changed and come and gone. I have always been a people watcher…how they interact and approach each other was always a fascination for me. I’m a very social person and love communicating. I find that with the advent of the internet and smartphones communication has changed drastically. How do you feel about today’s scene?

RICHARD: There’s a short film, The Date, on YouTube about two gay men hooking up online. They meet at a restaurant, sit down, look approvingly at each other and then pick up their phones and continue texting instead of talking. It leads to miscommunication that texting is famous for, and it abruptly ends their date. I like the old way of going out, meeting and talking to people. It wasn’t always easy, but the challenge was exciting. It socialized us. We weren’t slaves to electronic pings and interruptions. On the other hand, outside of a few gay ghettos, my generation had to search on foot or drive around endlessly to explore where to meet other gay men, especially when traveling. It was lonely and frustrating to be somewhere where you knew there were others but had no way to find them. We would have loved an app like Grindr. We couldn’t have imagined it. It means you can live almost anywhere. That’s freedom.

Of course, we have to talk about the elephant in the room….PrEP. Between the U=U Campaign and this drug, the landscape of sex has really changed in the past couple of years. What do you think about these movements?

RICHARD: Time will tell. As I said, I’ve had an unusual journey. The invention of safe sex was about more than HIV. When Michael Callen or I had the chance to speak, we always stressed that certain other sexually transmitted viruses and infections (STIs) were bad for your health. People seemed to get it, but then they go back to a world where everything they hear is only about HIV, and so nuance gets lost in the establishment discourse. For a message to stick, it has to be repeated over and over and come from sources that people see as authoritative. If not, it vanishes. But I learned from traveling with SEX POSITIVE to never lose faith in the common sense of ordinary gay men. The elephant in the room is that PrEP is flawed. You can’t just brush off every risk that isn’t HIV. People have evolved in a way that they tend to limit the number of different partners they have. But since Stonewall, there’s been a tendency, especially among queer theorists to say that gay men are unique human beings and that we are somehow meant to have large numbers of partners as part of our identity. I lived that life. But gay men come with different needs, which is why, post-AIDS, we now have gay marriage, however creatively gay men re-define it for themselves. It has NOTHING to do with morality, it’s just the nature of the multi-partner activity – gonorrhea, hepatitis, staph infections, chancroids, and the list goes on. No one can say that after HIV something else won’t come along that could be worse than the recent fatal outbreaks of meningitis.

It’s a fact of life that’s probably always been true, that when there is a lot of activity between many partners, STIs increase and affects everybody involved. The first evidence that gay men were adopting safe sex was that gonorrhea and syphilis rates plummeted in the early 80s, but if you read current reports, they’re going up again. There’s nothing morally wrong with having large numbers of partners, but it depends on where you are and the prevalence of STIs in your location. Many urban gay men in the late 1970s took antibiotics before going to the baths because we knew we were likely to get something, but in the 1960s, no one needed to do that. PrEP isn’t a new idea. But as we learned, some protections don’t turn out to be enough. In the digital age, Grindr is the new bathhouse but if you’re in Alaska, STIs may not be a problem. In large urban centers, it can be. Is PrEP the new safe sex? It depends on who you’re talking about. We know that STIs increase infectivity and infectability with HIV, so for those using PrEP as an alternative to condoms, rising STI rates are a concern. And among the poor, evidence suggests that HIV infection can be *higher* among those on PrEP I’d say google “Prep STIs” and decide for yourself. You can always go off
it with medical supervision.

I know that you travel sometimes to speak about “Sex Positive”. I love that you share your experiences with others so that they can learn how to live with HIV+. So many become depressed and preoccupied with death. My husband and I try to show our community in Toronto that we can live every day to the fullest. Is there any advice you would give to someone who has been newly diagnosed? 

RICHARD: Your work is so important. I’d say don’t waste time feeling guilty. Be grateful you live in an era when HIV is treatable. Good people died trying to make it happen and good people won’t make you feel bad over something that happens because you’re human. 

I thank you so much for all your time. I hope that you continue to be a voice for the HIV+ Community. Perhaps we can work on something together to continue your important work and message.

RICHARD: I’d love to.




About the Author

Alphonso King Jr is probably best known as DJ Relentless or Drag Recording Artist Jade Elektra. For the past seven years, he and his husband John Richard Allan have produced events and fundraisers for various HIV/AIDS organizations and the HIV+ Community in Toronto.