By Chris Bull

The Advocate 22 Jan. 2002

The controversy stirred up by renegade AIDS activists in San Francisco is just one of many distractions from an increasingly crucial question: Can AIDS prevention programs be fixed?

It was a scene that once would have made advocates for people with AIDS explode into the streets. On November 28 two well-known San Francisco AIDS activists, David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis, were arrested, handcuffed, and thrown into jail. Their crimes? Violating a restraining order and stalking the targets of their protests. The men were each locked up in lieu of $500,000 bail - an unusually large bond, generally reserved for those charged with violent crimes.

But the nation's most prominent AIDS lobbyists, some of whom had risked arrest themselves in the past - did not rally to the side of the imprisoned firebrands. In fact, many cheered the crackdown. "Throw away the keys," says Jeff Getty, a well-known San Francisco AIDS activist who has crossed swords with the two men. "Pasquarelli and Petrelis are the Al Qaeda of AIDS."

"I don't even want to be in a story that calls these guys 'AIDS activists'" adds Jeff Sheehy, a spokesman for the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. "It is an abuse of language to call these terrorists 'activists.'"

Pasquarelli could not be reached for comment, but speaking from the San Francisco jail, Petrelis tells The Advocate that he has been targeted "because I have raised serious questions about the work of AIDS prevention groups and health officials who want to crack down on private sex lives of gay men. Never in my wildest dreams could I have believed they would go this far to shut us up."

Coming during the 20th-anniversary year of the AIDS epidemic, the arrests have highlighted a growing nationwide debate about the future of AIDS prevention. After years of steady decline, the rate of new HIV infections is spiking upward, alarming epidemiologists and gay leaders alike. And there is little, if any, consensus about how to reinvigorate prevention campaigns, which have begun to fall on deaf ears among many gay men.

At the same time, AIDS service organizations are facing troubling questions about their funding. In November, acting in part on tips from Petrelis, federal officials deemed "obscene" two forums put on by Stop AIDS Project of San Francisco that sought to eroticize safer sex, and Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson announced that HHS would scrutinize federal funding for all AIDS prevention campaigns. Jumping on the bandwagon, three Republican congressmen wrote to Thompson charging that some moneys now being spent for AIDS education programs "could be better spent for our War on Terrorism."

In the emotionally charged environment of San Francisco AIDS politics, Petrelis and Pasquarelli themselves have drawn allegations of terrorism. Pasquarelli, 34, does not believe that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Petrelis, 42, accepts the nexus between HIV and AIDS but contends that the threat of transmission among gay men has been wildly exaggerated. He also believes that the AIDS prevention efforts aimed at gay men are thinly veiled attempts to quash sexual liberation. Both men describe a vast conspiracy they have dubbed "AIDS Inc." among federal health officials, the San Francisco Department of Health, and nonprofit AIDS service groups to repress the sex lives of gay men.

"Petrelis and Pasquarelli are the loudest proponents of denialism about the reality of AIDS, and they tap into a deep suspicion among some gay men of what the scientific and medical establishment is telling them about unsafe sex," says longtime AIDS activist Gabriel Rotello, author of Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men. "They have succeeded in muddying the waters enough about the dangers HIV continues to pose that some men feel relatively comfortable ignoring the dire news about new infections."

Citing litigation against Pasquarelli and Petrelis, Tom Coates, director of UCSF's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and a frequent target of their ire, declined to comment for this article. But in an interview with before the arrests, Coates openly flirted with the notion that AIDS prevention work had simply run its course. "AIDS just is not the dreaded disease it once was in the gay community, he said, and, perhaps, people are taking risks because they have other priorities, such as feeling loved, feeling desired, and getting laid."

Coates is hardly alone in his frustration. AIDS has thinned the ranks of educators, leaders, and activists, leaving only a small corps to warn young gay men about the ongoing dangers of HIV infection. "I feel like I'm one of the last standing AIDS activists on the entire West Coast," Getty says in an interview from Palm Springs, Calif., where he had gone to recuperate from AIDS-related health problems. "The problem is that we have no grassroots infrastructure because everyone either has returned to their ordinary lives or is working for AIDS service groups, which do not engage in street activism."

That has left a political vacuum that, in San Francisco, Petrelis and Pasquarelli have been only too happy to try to fill - and perpetuate, according to critics. "I can't even tell you how many people these guys have driven out of AIDS activism," says Getty, adding that the men have threatened him personally. "How many people have they depressed and demoralized?"

The emptying arena that the two sought to fill also shows that AIDS activism has been a victim of its own success - and the success of the antiviral drug cocktails. By keeping AIDS's debilitating complications at bay, new treatments have made the messengers of prevention look and feel healthier, so their alarms may ring hollow.

"Basically, we achieved a lot of what we set out to do," Getty says. "We got the government and the drug companies to provide more and better drugs, and the health care industry has revolutionized the treatment of AIDS. There are a whole set of new challenges, including problems with HIV prevention and the fact that a lot of people are losing their health [insurance] coverage. But now we have fewer people to work on these very real concerns."

Pasquarelli and Petrelis ratcheted up the volume of their protests in October when the San Francisco Chronicle ran articles about an increase in unprotected sex and resulting syphilis cases among gay men. Chronicle reporters and editors allege that they received threatening and harassing phone calls, some at home, berating them for the coverage. In addition, the men lashed out against a high-level official at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Jeffrey Klausner, after November's Washington Monthly quoted him speculating about the possibility of quarantining HIV-positive men who refuse to practice protected sex. (Klausner says the remarks were taken out of context, and the city's top health officials have ruled out such draconian measures.) Pasquarelli's group, ACT UP San Francisco, superimposed swastikas on posters bearing the likeness of Klausner, demanding his immediate ouster. In dozens of E-mails, Petrelis labeled Klausner "Dr. Josef Mengele K-K-Klausner," an apparent reference to the notorious Nazi doctor.

The San Francisco superior court ordered the men to stop communicating with their opponents and to stay at least 300 yards from Chronicle offices and employees. Now Petrelis and Pasquarelli face a combined 27 counts of conspiracy, stalking, terrorist threats, and misdemeanor harassment.

Having already made his name for taking on the Catholic Church in the 1980's and closeted conservative politicians in the '90's, Petrelis is unlikely to back down anytime soon. "The only thing I'm guilty of is wanting gay men to be treated with respect," he says. "The AIDS prevention campaigns treat us like children by trying to scare us. One recent ad featured the line 'Do you give a fuck?' about AIDS. Well, yes, I do, and I believe gay men do. But you are not going to appeal to gay men by using that kind of disrespectful language."

Asked how he would stem the spread of HIV among gay men, Petrelis comes up with an unorthodox answer. "Reopen the city's bathhouses," he suggests. "The bathhouses have been closed since 1984. Maybe we just need cleaner, safer places to gather for sex."

John-Manuel Androite, author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, insists that sexual liberation and HIV prevention are not necessarily mutually exclusive. "Public health officials marveled at the massive changes in behavior of gay men in the early days of the epidemic," he says. "People didn't stop having sex, but there was a real passion that went into saving lives and in bringing down the rate of infection. It seems that AIDS was on its way to being eliminated, at least in the American gay community. Now we have to find new ways of making prevention relevant to gay men who have not lost so many of their friends. We have to find ways of honoring those who died to save others."

And even while criticizing the size of the bail as 'excessive', Rotello hopes that the arrests will be a turning point in the annals of AIDS. "Maybe people will stop being intimidated by these guys and get back to doing the hard work preventing the spread of HIV. There is still so much to be done."