November 24, 2011

“Sex in an Epidemic’ explores troubling history of AIDS”

Date published: 11/22/2011
Publication: Albany Times Union

By Elizabeth Floyd Mair

At first it was a “rare cancer” reported in 1981 in The New York Times to have infected “41 homosexuals” in New York and California. By 1992, just over a decade later, AIDS had killed 200,000 Americans. According to the CDC, more than 1.1 million people in the U.S. today are HIV-positive.

The documentary film “Sex in an Epidemic” by lesbian filmmaker Jean Carlomusto uses archival and new footage to trace the history of the rise of HIV/AIDS and the difficulty of obtaining, in the early years, any accurate information about how the disease was transmitted.

The documentary shows grass-roots AIDS activists struggling to inform people about what is or isn’t safe at a time when, as medical doctor Larry Mass notes, no one was sure if the most basic gestures of human affection might be fatal (“Can you hold hands? Can you kiss?”).

Later it goes on to document the shifts in the populations most at-risk — including African-American men, both gay and straight — and to argue that the need for realistic, nonjudgmental education continues.

Writer and AIDS activist Edmund White recounts a conversation he had over dinner in France in the early ’80s with French philosopher Michel Foucault and translator Gilles Barbedette. He told them about GRID, or “gay-related immune deficiency,” as the disease was called then. The Frenchmen “laughed and laughed,” he recalls. Foucault said, “It’s so typical of you Americans to invent a Puritanical disease that would only kill gays, and kill them because they’re having sex.” Both men, White notes, would die not long afterward of AIDS.

In the 1980s, an organization called Gay Men’s Health Crisis came out with the first Safer Sex Comix, printed and distributed at their own cost, which tried to eroticize the use of condoms. GMHC also made short films (“that showed people negotiating talking about safe sex, while keeping it hot”) that they screened at all-day safer sex workshops.

Carlomusto, who was already a filmmaker, started volunteering with Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1986, working as the projectionist at these workshops. She worked with the group for many years, while also being very active in Act Up New York, a nonpartisan group that ran “direct actions.”

“Getting arrested” with men from GMHC also helped “forge bonds and trust,” Carlomusto recalled in a recent telephone conversation from her home in Manhattan. Some of the archival footage was shot by Carlomusto herself, and the film includes 15 completely new interviews.

Thirty years after the disease first appeared, programs that offer honest and comprehensive information about sex, including information about HIV/AIDS, are still in danger, Carlomusto says. Not only from our country’s continued ambivalence about talking frankly about sex, but from deep budget cuts to education. Carlomusto will be in the area Tuesday — two days before World Aids Day — for a screening of “Sex in an Epidemic,” to be followed by a Q&A.

Q: I was surprised to see that a woman — a lesbian — made this film. I have friends who are gay men, and friends who are lesbians, and from what I’ve seen, those can often be two very separate social worlds.

A: You bring up a good point. When I started volunteering at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, there were very few lesbians there. We would get asked all the time by our peers, “If the shoe was on the other foot and it was lesbians getting sick in droves, would gay men be there for us?”

I was there because I saw the intense homophobia that was being directed at gay men. And this was ratcheted up by the fear around AIDS.

I was really impressed with the way that the men were very open and honest in talking about sex. They turned it from being this terrifying thing into being something that could be playful, that could be imaginative, and that could be collaborative. The idea was that safer sex wasn’t something that only individuals undertake — although it’s important to have that commitment — but it’s something that a community needs to be mindful of. And I saw that being forged firsthand. And after seeing that, I always wanted to pay homage to what happened.

Q: You teach Media Arts at Long Island University. How knowledgeable do you find that students are today about HIV and AIDS?

A: Well, some of them have a basic idea of safer sex, but in terms of knowing the history of AIDS, especially in this country, they don’t. They know that AIDS is certainly a very big problem in Africa, but in terms of knowing the history here, of how it came down and the kind of stigma that existed, and the continued relevance in their own lives today of what HIV prevention means, my experience is they don’t really get the picture.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered?

A: First of all, there’s a lot of grief. Many of the people interviewed are dead, and I knew them quite well. So to go back and go through all of this footage has a sad element for me. And they’re just a fraction of the people I knew who died of AIDS.

On another level, HIV prevention isn’t considered all that important any more. A lot of people don’t have a clue that more than 50,000 people a year are getting newly infected. People have this sense that, “Oh, there are drugs now. People aren’t dying of AIDS.” They don’t know what these drugs are really like. They have hefty side effects, and over time they cause premature aging. The men that have been on these medicines, on the cocktail, for years are showing all kinds of serious medical side effects.

Q: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

A: I’m optimistic when I look at the kind of attention Occupy Wall Street movements have gotten across the country. Those movements are drawing attention to the growing inequality in our country.

And that message has relevance in terms of AIDS activism too, since one of our concerns today is “preventive justice,” or efforts to look at all the social issues that impact certain people’s ability to keep themselves from becoming HIV-positive.

For example, if prison inmates aren’t allowed access to condoms, that’s a structural issue. It has a broader effect, too, of opening up a whole new route of transmission into the community after prisoners — who may be infected and not even know it — are released.

Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer living in Guilderland.

At a glance

“Sex in an Epidemic”

What: Screening of documentary “Sex in an Epidemic,” followed by Q&A with filmmaker Jean Carlomusto

Where: Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Avenue, Troy

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Admission: By donation ($10 suggested, $5 student/low-income)

Info: 272-2390;;


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