Q&A with Sex in an Epidemic Director Jean Carlomusto

Posted by Michael Gibbons on 4.26.2011

As part of our monthly series Independents Night, director Jean Carlomusto will present the New York premiere of her film Sex in an Epidemic on April 28 at the Walter Reade Theater, followed by a discussion and a reception. In the meantime, Carlomusto was kind enough to answer a few questions of our own.

FilmLinc.com: Your film features interviews with several of the key figures in the history of AIDS prevention, as well as extensive archival footage. How did you go about researching this film and gathering all of this material?

Jean Carlomusto: The first time I wanted to do a documentary on the subject of HIV prevention was in 1986 when I became the projectionist of an early GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis] safer sex film, Chance of a Lifetime, at the early safer sex workshops. The film was shown as part of GMHC's all-day safer sex workshop. It was extraordinary to see gay men, a population that had been very stigmatized, come together in a loving and practical forum to learn more about safer sex. From that time on I wanted to pay homage to these early safer sex efforts. Also, Sex in an Epidemic grew out of my work as a New York AIDS activist and filmmaker. Much of the archival footage came out of my archive of AIDS activist videos. Some of the footage from ACT UP actions came from various activist video groups I've worked with such as DIVA TV, (an video affinity group of Act Up).  Also, GMHC's Oral History project interviews make up an important part of the early history of the epidemic. I was the supervisor of the Oral History project when I worked for GMHC. On some level, I've always wanted to preserve and use the rich sources of material relevant to the history of the epidemic New York City. This material, the Oral History in particular, was essential in showing the complex questions faced by the first responders to the "gay cancer" in New York City.

FilmLinc.com: Many interviews and images from the film convey defending sex and preventing AIDS as a real fight - many characters even refer to it as a war - and New York City as the battleground. Besides the fact that awareness of AIDS is obviously much more mainstream now, what are the most fundamental ways this landscape has changed since the '80s? 

Jean Carlomusto: Some things have changed but I don't feel we are out of the woods yet on fights over some issues like abstinence education. My hunch is that it will be hauled out again in the 2012 presidential election.

Also, I made this film as a response to the commonly held current assumption that AIDS isn't really a problem in the US as people have access to treatment. The fact is that over a million people are HIV positive in the US today. 20% of those infected don't even know it yet. Too many think AIDS is only a problem in Africa. Yes, AIDS has devastated Africa, but it is misguided to lose sight that over 56,000 people are still getting infected in the US every year. Instead of acting on the evidence and knowledge we've gained from this epidemic, we seem to be tied to the same ideological arguments we were having in the 1980s around issues such as abstinence only education.  

On the other hand, one of the biggest changes in the HIV prevention landscape is a well needed shift of focus to HIV prevention justice - addressing the root causes of HIV infection, such as, homelessness, poverty, homophobia and sexism. You can't just focus on behavior, as if everyone is has the same resources to make the necessary changes. You need to look at the structures that make it hard to reach populations at risk for HIV infection.

FilmLinc.com: What motivated you to make this film now? What lessons from this history do you think are most relevant today?

Jean Carlomusto: Currently, I am a professor at Long Island University and my conversations with students have led me to the conclusion that many people today, particularly young adults, do not know the early history of the epidemic. They don't remember the ugly homophobia that crippled our national response to the disease. One of the most important lessons of safer sex education was that people need to be open and honest about their sexuality to negotiate safer sex. Today sex is used regularly in the media to sell all kinds of products, yet we still have difficulty talking honestly about HIV prevention and risk. Sex in an Epidemic aims to make it easier.

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