What If AIDS Never Happened? Filmmaker Leo Herrera Wants to Tell Us

Contributing Editor
Leo Herrera
Leo Herrera
Harold Julian

What if AIDS never happened? What if the entire global viral avalanche that devastated the world and took away so many had never existed? What if all those amazing artists and musicians and revolutionaries who were victims of the epidemic hadn't died? Would Sylvester have made his debut at Carnegie Hall? Would Mapplethorpe have gotten into a Twitter war with a Kardashian? Would we have even had a ... (gasp!) gay president?

It's those questions and more that young activist and filmmaker Leo Herrera seeks to answer in his new work, FATHERS: Sex and Politics if AIDS Never Happened. He's currently raising funds to produce the provocative film through an Indiegogo campaign, with a hoped-for release on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2017. Herrera calls FATHERS "a sci-fi doc where HIV never existed. Cruising meets Black Mirror meets Beyoncé's Lemonade."

Using computer-generated imagery, historical and live-action footage and staged news reports, FATHERS will imagine the influence of our lost generation. The "documentary" will tell a story that touches on our culture of celebrity, global LGBT injustices and HIV stigma.

It's a fantastic concept, and I was lucky to engage Leo in a conversation about HIV, its effects on him and his art, and this intriguing project.

Keith Haring
Leo Herrera

What was the first inspiration, the first impetus for FATHERS?

Well it starts with how HIV has impacted my life. For the gay community, HIV has been a constant presence since most of us can remember. I was born the same year as the epidemic was discovered; it's been a fear in the back of my mind since I was a little boy, and it's been something I've had to reckon with in all of the sexual and relationship choices I've made as an adult. It's been the boogey man of every gay man I've ever known. Today, because of tools such as PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and our knowledge of undetectability and how the virus works, we're on the verge of a sexual revolution, so my views on HIV and AIDS have needed to adapt to these realities. HIV still impacts my life but not like it used to. Now the fight against HIV is actually becoming a source of hope for my community, but with great hope also comes responsibility.

The main inspiration came from my deep love for these men that were lost to HIV and the work they created. It's focused mainly on men (for now) because these are the people who shaped the way I've grown as a gay man. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Mapplethorpe, not a month goes by that I don't listen to Sylvester. Each election cycle I think of what some of our most powerful activists would have done in our political climate. It also came from the longing that exists in our gay community, a deep need for this older generation that we lost. All the experiences and teachings they took with them that would be invaluable to us today, especially for issues that mainly affect gay men and our relationships.

Leo Herrera

You're calling FATHERS a sci-fi doc. That's a genre I've never heard of. Are there aliens?

Hah! There are no aliens! There is so much of our culture, especially when it comes to HIV, that is directly affected by science and medicine, from the pharmaceuticals that we use to keep the disease at bay to just the fundamental question of what makes us gay. FATHERS will deal with this idea that AIDS either never happened or the crisis was averted by an early cure, so it's definitely science fiction. At the heart of it, though, are very real historical elements and people, so using the term "sci-fi doc" to describe it made sense to me.

Is this your first film project?

I've been a filmmaker since I was a teenager. I specialize in short films, always with themes of gay history and activism. My last piece was about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ban on gay blood, which I worked on with artist Jordan Eagles as he created his Blood Mirror masterpiece. I've also done work against HIV criminalization and the Pride Viral Fortune Teller, which fit 50 years of gay male culture in five minutes.

Who is involved in FATHERS? Who's on the creative and production team?

Right now we are putting together a skeleton crew for filming, but this is very much a community project. The GLBT Historical Society and Museum is involved, providing access to its archives for historical footage and images. My gay brother Allan Herrera will be designing the costumes. Many folks who have worked with me on previous productions will be part of the team and, more importantly, there will be many living queer artists, performers, historians and doctors that will be providing consultation and interviews as I write this story and film.

Filmmaking ain't cheap. Tell me about your fundraising campaign. So far, you've raised almost $15,000 through Indiegogo, which is amazing. How long does the campaign go on for?

We're looking to raise $60K. Donations are tax deductible and also benefit the GLBT Historical Society and Museum. Right now, we are in the first phase of fundraising for the pre-production and some production costs. The campaign will be ongoing, although we are about to finish this first fundraising phase on January 27th.

You have some really amazing (and naughty!) perks on Indiegogo. Tell me about the inspiration for those and how you decided on them.

Since the history of sex and the leather community will be integral to the film, the campaign rewards reflect this. We have PrEP pill holders and fisting-, popper- and erotic-themed works by local artists, some of who are working on the film. We even have a chandelier made out of condoms that our costume designer (and my gay brother) Allan designed, inspired by the late Leigh Bowery.

Condom Chandelier

What are your hopes for the film?

Now more than ever, it's crucial that we fight to keep our history alive. We need to pay our respects to it and pass it down to the next generation. Gay people have had incredibly difficult lives, and we've also had dazzling and rich experiences that are foreign to most heterosexuals. There are very, very important lessons in both of these, and those lessons will get us through much of what is coming in our current political situation.

My hope is that as many people as possible view this film. I want the viewers to feel a combination of nostalgia, hope and a deep, deep sense of pride! The things our culture has accomplished, and the amazing things that we created (many of which we still don't get credit for) should be celebrated.

My generation is the last "first generation," meaning this generation will not die off because of AIDS or the closet like the generations that came before me. We will have the ability to pass down lessons from our lives to folks much, much younger; they will be able to learn from us and us from them. I also want people to view the film and realize that there is an entire generation of gay artists, alive and well, that are going to create groundbreaking artwork and protest in the future. We're going to be all right.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Indiegogo campaign for FATHERS will end on January 27, but the project will continue to accept tax-deductible donations on its website.