Life

By the Grace of Gayngels

How do you imagine a queer utopia where AIDS never happened when you’re living in a world broken by the fact that it does?

In this still from The Fathers Project, a person in a billowing full-body outfit walks in a park.
The Fathers Project
Leo Herrera

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

What would our world be like if AIDS had never happened?

Five years ago, I began The Fathers Project, a sci-fi docuseries that set out to answer that heartbreaking, thrilling, impossible question. Over five episodes (filmed entirely with a crowdfunded microbudget of $30,000), this faux-documentary tours us through an alternate 2020 America. Three generations of queer people untouched by plague have created a technicolor socialist utopia named Stonewall Nation, electing a gay president and inventing poppers that cure STDs. Our LGBTQ seniors are thriving, our leather bars and bathhouses never closed. The Supreme Court has ruled queerness itself a religion.

Fathers weaves footage of real events with historical facts and survivor interviews, exploring the ramifications of AIDS on sex, nightlife, health care, politics, and spirituality by temporarily imagining away those ramifications. The finale was released in December, and as of this writing, a half-million people have watched, read about, or donated to the series; a PBS Behind-The-Lens documentary won an Emmy; and when the most explicit episode ran into social media censorship, an adult site stepped up to release it. Making Fathers has been a journey with so many acts—I’d like this final one to be a moment of reflection, for our audience and myself.

I wish I could say I always had some clear operatic vision in mind. That with no funding, and only a point-and-shoot camera, I dove into a project of this magnitude without fear. But I didn’t. Had I known what I do now—that it would be an all-consuming, emotionally draining, expensive endeavor—I might have passed. But sometimes our most defining works of art start off deceptively small or in times of crisis.

In the summer of 2015, after years as a struggling artist, I had managed to build a sweet life in New York City: I made art in a rent-controlled apartment and had a great creative job at the successful gay site Rentboy (the oldest and largest escort site in the world). I was the go-to video artist for gay party promoters across the U.S., making the visuals you might see at an event thrown by Folsom Street Fair or Ladyfag. After some of my art films went viral, I was reveling in a tiny bit of internet fame, and as an early public advocate for the HIV-prevention method PrEP, I had earned the respect of other activists. Gayness was my bread and butter, and I was shittin’ rainbows.

By the end of that summer, Rentboy was raided in a homophobic government sting. Overnight, I had no job, and it quickly became clear to me that freelancing in New York was a road to financial ruin. I would lose the first of many friends to meth and suicide, and at 33, I was learning the brutal lesson that queer success in America has a glass ceiling. The country will sneer “Not so fast, faggot,” when we get too comfortable, and in any case, many of us are too busy self-destructing to notice. I slid into debt and depression, only keeping hold of the things I really knew: my art and my queer faith.

With little to lose, I started work on a piece of queer futurism I had toyed with for years. As a student of gay history, in times of need I’ve always prayed to my “Gayngels”—to Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Sylvester, Halston, Vito Russo. “Fathers who art in heaven.” And so, Fathers was born, named after a prayer. I dove into researching these lives to see if there were any lessons for me. And as it turns out, when we go knocking on the doors of ancestors, sometimes they open and give us the answers.

March 9, 2017, was one of our first shoots, an exterior for the X-rated leather episode in which Robert Mapplethorpe shows us his Instagram. It was a hot New Orleans day, and I had gathered a leather-clad “family” to film with no real idea what they were supposed to do (most of Fathers is improvised or filmed at live events). I woke up nauseated from nerves, and I was futzing with my phone when The AIDS Memorial Instagram feed informed me it was actually Mapplethorpe’s death anniversary. Upon arriving at the location, which I’d never seen, I walked into the gothic living room to find a huge self-portrait of Robert as a young man, looking down at us as we laid down our equipment—we had his blessing. There would be countless charmed moments like this throughout the entire process.

Now, five years after it began, Fathers is done. A 45-minute series told in sprawling yet short episodes, a project that began as little more than a prayer for guidance, is being taught in college courses and shared at afterparties in living rooms.

Does the project live up to its ambitions? That I can’t tell you.

What I can tell you is that I poured every dollar, cashed in every favor, and fundraised until I was embarrassed (and am still doing so since the film festival circuit is costly). Because I wrote, shot, and edited everything myself, 80-hour workweeks were common. I have been welcomed into the most surreal, beautiful, and private queer gatherings and spaces. I could try to describe the adrenaline of filming war zones of joy at queer Mardi Gras, Burning Man, Radical Faerie rituals, and S&M orgies in the Bronx, or the soul-crushing editing sessions spent fighting impostor syndrome. How can you whine about your work when you’re creating art in honor of those who died at your age, who struggled to make it until their last breaths? This was a project as polarized as the community I was documenting, a Pride parade and a funeral procession sharing the same street.

I can tell you that asking survivors “What if AIDS never happened?” reveals trauma in their faces that is private and devastating, that secondary trauma from AIDS is radioactive to those who came of age in height of that fear, that there is a direct link from the epidemic to the systemic homophobia and racism that fuels our housing crisis and addiction. I can tell you that Donald Trump’s Evita style of gaudy fascism and the brown babies in cages at the border made it nearly impossible to even want to imagine a utopia. That when you think about death all the time, it takes a toll on your body and your relationships. That I was not always proud of how I self-medicated, but I also relish getting fall-off-your-stool drunk with the gay heroes I met through filming. That nothing has ever come close to the high after finishing an episode. That social media censorship of necessarily explicit aspects of the series couldn’t dampen the supportive messages from AIDS warriors I had read about in history books. That the $5 donations from folks on HIV disability were a cure for my nihilism.

I could tell you that Fathers was foolishly made backward—filmed, edited, and written in that order—but this structure allowed me to make queer art like making jazz, improvising over the most gorgeous tunes and harmonies our people can produce when they feel calm and accepted. I could tell you countless stories about eerie coincidences during filming, where the dead seemed to prank us from above. Documents and photographs in the archives of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society would somehow make themselves known among thousands of boxes. Crucial visual elements would come together miraculously, like the young boy in the first scene who was never meant to be there and his two lesbian mothers who signed the model release on the spot.

In the end, all of these personal experiences will amount to a tiny part of Fathers Project because it’s no longer mine. The question “What if AIDS never happened?” is one some have thought about every day of their lives and one that has never occurred to a generation navigating lust and love in the age of the blue pill. It was a question I answered as best I could. But now it’s the turn of other filmmakers, other artists—trans, black and brown, old and young—to explore their own trauma and envision their own queer futures. Fathers will never be completed. It turns out somewhere in the depths of unfathomable loss, if you look deep enough, there lies an eternity of stories.

You can watch and support the Fathers Project at iftheylived.org