By Charles Ornstein

Los Angeles Times 28 Dec. 2001

Two aggressive AIDS activists jailed in San Francisco are finding support from an improbable source: those who call their theories "crackpot" and consider their tactics indecent and abhorrent.

Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli are jailed in lieu of a combined $1.1-million bail on charges of harassing, stalking and making criminal threats against newspaper reporters, public health officials and AIDS researchers.

Many mainstream activists disagree with the men's methods and their beliefs that AIDS-prevention messages stigmatize gay sex. But in the past two weeks, about 200 people--including gay activists and cultural icons--have signed an "open letter" on the Internet opposing the protesters' bail and the felony charges against them. Signers include Tony Award-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein; Peter Cashman, a founding member of ACT UP Los Angeles; Poz magazine founder Sean Strub; Patricia Nell Warren, who wrote the gay-themed bestseller "The Front Runner"; and Andy Humm, a cable TV host and former member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

"Seems to me there is a shortage of sanity and perspective in this matter," wrote Fierstein, author and star of the hit play "Torch Song Trilogy," in an e-mail to The Times.

"I, like everyone I know, abhor most of the messages and tactics" of Petrelis and Pasquarelli, he wrote. "However . . . I fear the bullying of protesters."

The Nov. 28 arrest of Petrelis and Pasquarelli has, in fact, caused a rift among more mainstream AIDS activists.

Some believe the two men belong just where they are--in jail.

Kate Sorensen, a Philadelphia activist who was held in lieu of $1-million bond for protesting at the 2000 Republican National Convention, is among this group.

"I will fight for our right to demonstrate," Sorensen wrote to the two men on the Internet after refusing to sign the open letter. "I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."

Sorensen further derided the men for "damaging the good work that real AIDS activists have done for years" by criticizing prevention efforts and disrupting meetings and workshops.

Others say the officials' response to the two men's tactics has been too harsh.

"It has caused a lot more people to ponder whether the bail is too high and whether the charges are overblown," said William Dobbs, a New York AIDS activist who drafted the open letter.

The pair are charged with a total of nearly three dozen felonies and misdemeanors. Dobbs said the bail--$500,000 for Petrelis, $600,000 for Pasquarelli--is higher than for some suspected rapists and murderers.

Reginald Smith, a manager in the San Francisco district attorney's office, said the bail is consistent with standard judicial practice and is justified because the alleged offenses continued despite warnings to stop.

"They have been jailed before. They've been released. They've been admonished not to do anything. And they've done it again," Smith said.

'This Is Really AIDS Anarchism'

One top San Francisco health official said he can understand why some outsiders may not understand the gravity of the charges or the need for hefty bail. But they haven't experienced the fear that the duo instills in their targets, said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who oversees control of sexually transmitted diseases in the city.

"I think they would probably feel quite differently if these threats were affecting themselves or their family members," he said.

In court papers, Klausner claims that both men called his home, and one asked his wife whether Klausner had syphilis. Klausner notes that the decision on bail rests with impartial courts, and "three judges [separately] have either sustained or increased the bail."

"This is not about AIDS activism," he said. "This is really AIDS anarchism and trying to destabilize the public health movement."

Petrelis and Pasquarelli acknowledge making--or encouraging others to make--late-night phone calls using sexually explicit language to newspaper reporters, public health officials and AIDS researchers. They deny threatening those people.

Before their arrests, the men told The Times that they were upset by reports from Klausner's office, printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, showing syphilis rates on the rise among men who have sex with men. They said they believed those statistics were concocted to collect more federal money for the city.

In addition, the two men said they were angry about a magazine article in which Klausner discussed the possibility of quarantining AIDS patients who persistently engage in unsafe sex and pass the infection along to others. The author later wrote a clarification saying that neither Klausner nor his agency advocates such an approach.

Pasquarelli is a spokesman for ACT UP San Francisco, a breakaway group not affiliated with the national or Los Angeles ACT UP. The Bay Area group contends that AIDS is caused by the side effects of HIV treatment rather than the human immunodeficiency virus itself.

Petrelis, who is not a member of ACT UP San Francisco, disagrees with those views but shares the group's belief that federal AIDS funds are being misspent on unnecessarily frightening and sexually graphic prevention messages.

Signers Concerned About Free Speech

Many AIDS activists who signed the open letter stressed that their decision had more to do with protecting free speech than endorsing the jailed activists.

"You'll be very hard pressed to find anyone who supports their tactics," said Steve Ault, a longtime activist who helped organize the 1979 gay march on Washington. "My concern is very simply and directly a matter of civil liberties. I'm concerned that their civil liberties are being denied at this point."

Another concern among activists is that the men's actions have been likened by authorities to terrorism.

"If you want to know what terrorism is about, one just needs to go about 2 1/2 miles from my apartment, and there's a huge, gaping hole of carnage," said Ault, who lives in Brooklyn. "When the word terrorism is used to describe what they have done, I think it's way out of place."

Bay Area prisoner rights activist Judy Greenspan said she has been on the receiving end of angry phone calls from ACT UP San Francisco over her support for prisoner access to HIV medications. Although calling the tactics "totally misguided," she nonetheless signed the letter calling for lower bail and reduced charges.

"We need to expose them and we need to do what we can to disarm them as disrupters," she said. "But I don't think we need to depend upon the D.A.'s office to do that. This is a very convenient case that will be used against all of us that protest the actions of government."