There's nothing like a little shock to the system to jolt us out of our complacency and back into the real world. That's just what the new HIV prevention PSA by 26 year old filmmaker and blogger Eric Leven does. The PSA, which you can view to the right under You Gotta See This, follows a young man getting tested for HIV after a night of not so safe sex. Eric wrote, produced and directed the clip as a way to spread the message that a careless night of unsafe sex is not worth the risk.
Eric Leven is one of a new generation of gay men using new media to agitate, educate and organize. He is, in the words of Joe Jervis, creator of the massively popular blog Joe. My. God."one of the brightest stars of young gay activism in NYC."
By day he works as a story producer for reality and documentary programs. On nights and weekends he blogs, writes and films with the goal of empowering gay men and creating a greater sense of community unity. He is creator of the blog Knuckle Crack.
I had the chance to ask Eric some questions about his work.
You can contact Eric for more information about his work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MC: In your blog posts and your HIV prevention PSA you show a real commitment to engaging politically and culturally in the LGBT community. What motivated you to get involved and what role do you see yourself playing?
EL: What motivated me to get involved were the first friends I made within the community. Many of my friends were older steroid hulks who were predominantly HIV+. They took me under their wing and became incredible friends and influences exposing me to many different elements of the gay life. By getting to know them and having their perspective bestowed upon me at the ages of 18, 19, 20, I in essence inherited the experiences and passions of their generation.
This inheritance of passions has stuck with me since and I've been running with it the best I can. HIV has been a huge influence over my life and I often find myself being the only one who is outspoken about it. What keeps my motivation is the blatant and apathetic rejection I get from many gay men that I’m beating a dead horse or trying to save a community disinterested in saving itself.
MC: What kind of feedback have you gotten on your HIV prevention psa?
EL: Feedback has been good mostly. Some gay orgs have told me that it's “fear-based,” but I'm ok with that.
Growing up in the nineties with the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in my public school I realized bureaucratic, all encompassing, and non-offense tactics don't work. Now, had they shown me pictures of a homeless junky with needles sticking out of his arm and drooling I believe one would be less likely to try intravenous drugs. Instead, it was “Sally is at a party and a friend offers her a beer. What should she say? Circle yes or no.”
Come on, who are we kidding here? That doesn't work! Neither do ads like, “Are you trapped in Hurricane Tina?” Nobody is going to respond to that, you have to attack people with something striking enough that it hits the person where it counts, where they say, “whoa...that's me.” Something they can't deny.
I asked this same gay org to provide an example of another campaign they would consider “fear based” and they said the “Meth=Death” campaign. I responded by saying “excuse me, but I'm under the reality that meth equals some demise in one way or another.” I just feel like those who are positive or addicted are already affected. We have to set our sights on the negative and sober people, while of course, creating a sense of self worth and respect for members in the positive and recovering communities.
Other feedback I got are lots of thank yous, “this is great!” some HIV denial theorists have dropped a few comments on my youtube videos. Mostly it's been great and supportive feedback. Check my blog for actual quotes.
MC: What are your thoughts on the current state of HIV prevention education and other gay men's health issues?
EL: There seems to be a sense that people just know what to do nowadays, which I completely disagree with. It's as if people just assume that if you're coming out this day and age you “just know what to do.” We also think that by supplying condoms everywhere people will use them. But that's not the issue.
The issue isn't lack of condoms. It's lack of communication. People feel as though by asking status they are offending someone or creating an awkward situation. There aren't many prevention programs tackling this idea.
We need to instill within people that they have the right to ask status, that an individual is important enough not to compromise their body for a one night stand or potential relationship. I know of no program that asks a youth or young man “Okay, things seem like they're going to get hot and heavy between you and another partner. Before engaging in physical relations what are some questions you should ask before going through with it? How do you feel about asking those questions? Okay, you meet someone and ask they're status, they respond they're HIV+. What do you do? How do you react? How do you feel?”
Also it is an absolute atrocity and blatantly sex-phobic for abstinence only programs to be taught within public schools. Teenagers are going to have sex. It is not arguable. Abstinence only programs prevent a teenager from being as informed as possible when it comes to having sex. It's outrageous and stupid and needs to be changed immediately. I'm not just talking about sex classes; I'm talking about sex-communication classes.
MC: As a filmmaker, how do you hope to use your cultural output to impact the lives of gay men?
EL: I’ve been through the ranks of gay life. I’ve seen it in its most beautiful and darkest arenas. I want to take these experiences and shine light on them. Expose them for what they are and nothing less. I want gay men to start realizing the realities of their own community. I want them to step up to the plate and be a man (whether you’re wearing leather or a dress!) I want them to start taking their lives seriously and thinking before they act. I want them to realize we're all in this together, not one of us is alone and I aim for my media to be the most realistic and hard hitting as possible. I refuse to skirt around issues in order to make it “all inclusive” or non-offensive. Sometimes I even seek to be offensive because I believe the problems in our community extend beyond the idea of politeness or political correctness. There are health and drug emergencies out there and I’m not here to throw a rainbow parade; I’m here to fight HIV and Crystal Meth!
My aim is to encourage gay men to be outspoken about issues facing our community. To believe they have the right to discuss status, protect themselves and to have concerns. I want my media to make gay men look at themselves, their lives and the decisions they make in a stark and utterly realistic light so they can ask themselves, “Have I been here? Has a friend? Is this me? Should I have or have not made those decisions in the past?” “How can I help myself in the future?” “Am I making the best choices for myself?”
I want gay men to have their eye-rolling apathetic attitude shoved back in their face and realize how much that attitude hurts our community. My PSA tells the story of someone who didn’t think before they acted. The character may or may not be HIV+, that’s not the point, the point is, “Don’t let this be your second date.” Think before you act. Take responsibility for yourself. Make the best choices. Don’t throw your health away for the sake of not offending someone, you’re too important!
My next project is a series of interview shorts asking gay men from all walks of life, “where is and what happened to HIV/AIDS” It also might be nice to ask HIV basics like, “What does the acronym HIV/AIDS stand for? What are the methods of transmission? How many people in America are currently infected? How many gay men in major American cities?” I am highly interested in seeing what answers come from these questions.
MC: In a lot of ways men your age are able to live your lives more openly and honestly because of the efforts of previous generations of gay men yet there seems to be a serious gay generation gap in which younger gays feel misunderstood by older gays and older gays feel like they are not being respected by younger gays. What are you thoughts on how we can bridge this gap and create a stronger community of gay men across age groups?
EL: What we’re experiencing right now is a definite back-to-back non-communicating stand off between the older generations and the younger generations. The younger generations scream, “you don’t understand us” and the older generations spit back, “You don’t respect us” and nothing is getting done in between.
A lot of this, I believe stems from the idea that younger gay people aren’t identifying as “gay” they’re taking the identity as “queer” and running with it. And since it’s seemingly “easier” to be gay these days and assimilate into a normal life of, “well I’m gay but just like everyone else” people are feeling as though they don’t need to identify with the gay scene and with this comes the dismantling of pride or community. Because it’s so easy to be out and gay these days younger people take it for granted. It’s such an easy assimilation that they don’t bother to look into their past, they just take it as, how it is.
Also young people seem to disregard older activist groups like ACT UP because they never catered toward lesbianism or trans-inclusiveness. However, young people have to realize that we are the pioneers of trans-inclusiveness and the new gender-queerisim. You can’t fault older generations for not including these aspects, because back then, these identities simply didn’t exist. Another reason for generation gaps is gay media and advertisements. Take a look at any gay community, city, or nightlife publication it is completely segregated by age demographics. Hardly, if ever, do you see advertisements where younger/older people are encouraged to get together in the same venue.
MC: What are some ways of organizing and building community that you currently don't see but would like to see?
EL: If our aim is to get young people involved then we have to go to young people themselves. I believe activism needs to be reinvented. We must keep up with the Myspace, the sidekick cell phones, the ultra-pop in order for us to talk with younger generations and not at them.
I do believe sign holding and yelling is effective and has its place, but I think for activism to have a more lasting effect we need to constantly modernize it. We have to ask ourselves what is working right now in current media and how can we morph that to the community’s current needs/outreach. I’m a fan of out-of-nowhere street performance, maybe something in Union Square like an acted out excerpt from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or outdoor screenings/teach ins of the documentary Before Stonewall and After Stonewall. Activism needs to show itself as cool and not hokey, young people need to feel as though this is something they want to be a part of. Old ACT UP techniques like civil disobedience are great too.
I feel young angsty people are motivated to do things like that. For instance the Truth.com anti-tobacco campaigns feature die-ins or in your face pop activism are stellar. I sense people would like to be a part of that.
MC: What's the best way for people interested in commission psas from to contact you?
EL: It’s my dream to fuse media and public awareness/activism into a career. I’m going to continue making this media regardless of whether or not it’s my job but these concepts, ideas, and outreach will only get better, quicker, if I were able to dedicate my life to it opposed to having them be when-I-can and when-I-can-afford them side projects. Please contact me at EricLeven1@aol.com.