The Fathers Project, Created by Leo Herrera, Imagines a Queer World Without AIDS
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for AU by Alex Ray
Imagine a world where AIDS never happened and our heroes lived. Who would they be? Who would we be?”
With that simple premise—“What if?…”—Mexican artist and filmmaker Leo Herrera hopes to explore the full extent of what the world lost to the AIDS epidemic, beyond the loss of individual lives, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, the worst of the Plague Years. The losses are, of course, incalculable—how to measure the losses to the worlds of the arts and sciences, politics and literature? Or the loss of the opportunity to pass from one generation to the next our specific queer cultural inheritance? The loss of guidance?
These questions have haunted thirty-something Leo Herrera since the early days of his coming out in San Francisco, California. “I grew up an illegal Mexican immigrant in Phoenix, Arizona,” Leo told A&U. “It was a very difficult upbringing because that state is so repressive and conservative. I have a gay brother who is two years younger than me. We had incredibly supportive and open parents who welcomed us with open arms and sent us to San Francisco so we could live a fuller queer life. We found many role models in San Francisco in the older men we interacted with through all our artistic work.”
Hank Trout: What was the initial impetus for the Fathers Project? When did you first become aware of the whole issue of “what we’ve lost to AIDS”? Was it contact with long-term survivors, or conversations with newly infected folks, or what? What specifically got you to thinking about “what we’ve lost”?
Leo Herrera: I’ve always been interested in queer history, since I was a baby gay in Arizona, which didn’t offer me much as a teen except the two gay bookstores which had a treasure trove of queer biographies. After I moved to San Francisco, I worked at a video store in the Castro and met so many survivors as well and worked with the GLBT Historical Society. All of this taught me that we were on such a trajectory as a culture, and while we did have problems that all young cultures have, AIDS was such a huge loss that really set us back. As I got older and into my thirties, there are so many questions I have about being a queer man, and being in queer relationships, that I realized I had very few people to ask certain questions and the Fathers Project was born out of all of this.
How would you describe the film you plan to release? Is it a documentary? A what if fantasy? A reconstruction of our history and the way it affects the present and future? What final form will it take?
I describe it as a “sci-fi documentary.” It takes real life events, such as Pride gatherings, and turns them into something else, such as a rally for a gay president. It also takes larger themes, like sex, homelessness, the arts, and attempts to show what these would look like [without AIDS]. It has faux news segments, commercials, as well as oral histories. It’s sort of a like a surrealist fever dream. It can only be described as Cruising meets Black Mirror meets Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
It will be released in online episodes of roughly eight minutes each, with the first slated for release in June 2018. It all depends on funding, as this is a community-driven effort in collaboration with the GLBT Historical Society (see donation link below).
We raised nearly $25,000 last year and fundraising is ongoing through the GLBT Historical Society as our fiscal sponsor, so donations are tax-deductible and benefit the museum as well. I’m currently trying to raise more money to release the remaining episodes by the end of this year.
Is this project primarily a solo outing or more of a collaborative effort? If collaborative, can you tell us about some of the other people working on the film? What specifically do they bring to the project?
For now the production is a solo effort, but the community is involved because I’m documenting real-life situations. I also receive letters daily with histories, stories and opinions about the project so there’s always someone adding something to the mix. And I have collaborated with other queer artists, musicians and performers.
As you’ve talked with long-term survivors, those “Fathers” who did indeed survive, what has been the most important or most surprising thing you’ve learned from them? What do you think is the most important or most surprising thing that they can teach us now?
I think the most surprising thing to me, as someone who has revered and sometimes canonized these men, is how human and flawed they could be, how much they also disagreed with one another about what queer society could be and how we could reach our potential. It’s also interesting to hear from survivors the two schools of thought—that AIDS galvanized us into what we are today, or that it set us back and we would have had so much more politically and artistically by now.
You have said elsewhere, “…history has proven that [queer people have] always existed as parade and funeral, of finding joy and sexuality in the darkest of situations.” Can you elaborate on this? Also, you refer to queer people “carving utopias” out of society—elaborate please?
I meant that we are taught early on through the trauma of repression and that it’s up to us to reach out of the oppressive circles of our teens, our small towns, sometimes even our families, and find one another. I found my first queer utopia, for example, at an all-ages gay club in Phoenix, Arizona, where all of these different queer folks were finally finding one another. We always find these little nooks and crannies to spend time with one another in mostly joyful ways.
On a personal level, what have you learned from these “Fathers”? For instance, what are you doing to take care of your health?
I’m negative, on PrEP. [The Fathers Project] was actually born out of the initial reaction to PrEP, when it seemed we were having our own cultural civil war with so many varying opinions. I was dating a positive man at the time and was very confused. I think PrEP liberated us and changed us in a way that we’ll be processing for a very long time.
What is the ultimate goal for the Fathers Project? Film festivals? Online streaming? Whom do you see as the “target audience” for the Project?
The main goal is for the most people to see it in any way shape or form!
For more information on or to make a donation to The Fathers Project, log on to www.iftheylived.org; to donate to the Project and to the GLBT Historical Society, please go to www.glbthistory.org. KQED’s “Behind the Lens” program profiled Leo and The Fathers Project earlier this year: http://bit.ly/2rtOcdY. And finally, for more information on Leo’s other work, check out: www.leoherrera.com.
For more information about photographer Alex Ray, follow him on Instagram @alexray_eyes.
Hank Trout interviewed Will St. Leger and Hazel Coonagh about their “All Together Human” photo exhibit for the May issue.