THE BOYS IN THE BAND
By Katie Szymanski
POZ Oct. 2000
ACT UP/San Francisco says AIDS is
not a killer disease but a vast homophobic conspiracy -- and they'll
do almost anything to make that point. Katie Szymanski hangs with the
activists labeled "psychopaths" to find out if there's a method to their
We received a great reception at the Pride parade,"
announces a beaming Michael Bellefountaine, sandy-stubbled head bobbing
above a boyish grin, at the weekly ACT UP/San Francisco meeting. "And
unlike past years, not one person came up to me to say, 'AIDS drugs
saved my life.' Not one." His comrade-in-arms, David Pasquarelli, nods
from across the room. "Nobody came up to us angry," he says.
The 16 people gathered in the large warehouse
on the edge of the city's Castro district all smile in affirmation:
They like us. They really like us. This is unexpected from a
group widely perceived as doing its best to become the worst nightmare
of the AIDS community. Yet the members dedicate no small portion of
their meeting to sharing such stories: The kids at the Lavender Youth
Recreation and Information Center were "blown away" by the group's antivaccine
posters; a city supervisor candidate endorsed their campaign to reopen
the bathhouses; a guy at the gay pride parade said AIDS was "internalized
homophobia." This is music to their ears.
The members of this group take every compliment
they can get, and need to. ACT UP/SF is, after all, the most notorious
direct-action arm of the controversial AIDS dissidents -- recently dubbed
HIV denialists, a nod to Holocaust rhetoric that suggests the escalating
seriousness with which critics take their heresy. With an agenda based
on their conviction that not only is HIV not the cause of AIDS but "AIDS"
itself is a vast conspiracy, the activists have earned a singularly
sinister reputation. They've teamed with congressional right-wingers
to demand zero-funding of the Ryan White CARE Act (they view AIDS programs
as "parasitic" and the AIDS lobby as a "special interest"), targeted
leading activists for promoting access to anti-HIV drugs (they view
the meds as "poison") and protested against safe-sex education (they
view the condom code as "homophobic"). And ACT UP/SF members have, of
late, been investigated by police for stalking, forgery and vandalism,
and sued for assault and trespassing.
As detailed in tonight's meeting, their tactics
are nowhere near mellowing. A rundown of upcoming activities: urging
participants at a queer youth conference not to be tested for HIV; strategizing
with Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) to slash Ryan White allocations; and penetrating
San Francisco AIDS Foundation's next public forum, from which they've
been banned for prior disruptions. ACT UP/SF is clearly on a mission,
and points to its pariah status as further proof of the truth of its
But if the members see themselves as unheeded,
others see them as unhinged, and increasingly a public health menace.
"To maintain that AIDS is not caused by HIV, to disrupt government and
other official hearings to argue that money should not be voted for
AIDS research and patient aid, to utilize vicious smear campaigns and
to threaten legitimate activists with physical harm is beyond any intelligent
comprehension," said ACT UP founder Larry Kramer in a widely circulated
e-mail in June. "Truly, in the face of our worldwide plague, such actions
can only be construed as crazy."
"They are psychopaths," says Michael Lauro, a
member of the San Francisco treatment advocacy group Survive AIDS that,
until last February, was called ACT UP/Golden Gate. "They do real harm
with their messages and tactics." Despite -- perhaps even because of
-- such communitywide condemnation, ACT UP/SF likes to believe that
most people will eventually sign on to its agenda, and nothing has encouraged
it more than South African President Thabo Mbeki's recent dalliance
with the dissidents leading up to the 13th International AIDS Conference
in July. The legitimacy this lent their cause has alarmed many in the
AIDS community, unleashing a wave of statements from scientists and
organizations that culminated in the dramatically defensive Durban Declaration
issued July 5 by some 5,000 researchers, loudly proclaiming that "HIV
causes AIDS." Buoyed by all the buzz, ACT UP/SF is picking up steam,
and vows not to rest until it dismantles the multimillion-dollar AIDS
prevention and service system that has taken two decades to build.
"It's frightening," says Katie Krauss of ACT
UP/Philadelphia. "The original objective of ACT UP has been skewed,
and the health of thousands of people is at risk." But their tactics
strike even more fear than their goals. ACT UP/SF is the band, after
all, that overturned Larry Kramer's table at a Project Inform benefit
in 1995 when he appeared with NIAID head Anthony Fauci, MD; drenched
researchers Paul Volberding, MD, and Margaret Fischl, MD, with fake
blood at the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver; and dumped
cat litter and feces on San Francisco AIDS Foundation executive director
Pat Christen during a forum on protease inhibitors later that year.
This is the group that publishes Magnus, a sporadically issued newsletter
containing digitally altered photos of AIDS executives, violent threats
and gay porn. "All it takes is for someone crazier than they are to
act on their magazine's statements that I'm a murderer," says Martin
Delaney, founder of Project Inform, whose modified photo has most recently
appeared with images of hypodermic needles aimed at his head like drawn
guns (see page 54). ACT UP/SF members deny that Magnus advocates violence,
but add that if people wind up hating Delaney, they're not about to
lose any sleep.
But this is also a group that, at a time when
AIDS militancy has largely vanished, has rallied like-minded allies
in a number of cities to start new chapters. In the past year, dissident
ACT UPs have sprung up in Toronto, Atlanta and Hollywood. (In addition
to Survive AIDS and Philadelphia, the most prominent "traditional" or
"true" ACT UP chapters are Los Angeles, Boston, East Bay [California],
New York, Washington, DC, and Paris.) In June, the four dissident ACT
UPs took out a full page in Roll Call, the daily paper of Capitol
Hill, calling upon legislators to end federal AIDS funding.
ACT UP/SF wasn't always this way. Krauss, a former
member, recalls its early days as a "huge, important group" from the time
it was founded as AIDS Action Pledge in 1987, through its growth to several
hundred members following the Sixth International AIDS Conference, held
in San Francisco in 1990. But explosive growth led to explosive conflict.
Some members believed that racism, classism, sexism and homophobia, as
root causes of the epidemic, warranted top billing on the ACT UP agenda;
others were adamant that saving lives through treatment advocacy was paramount.
"The Split," as it is known, took place in September 1990, when the group
reached an impasse. The treatment-focused activists broke off to form
ACT UP/ Golden Gate, while the ism-oriented remained in ACT UP/SF.
At first, the City by the Bay's two chapters worked well together. Then
Bellefountaine and Pasquarelli came to town.
Friends since 1991, Michael Bellefountaine, now
34, and Dave Pasquarelli, 32, spent their young-adult years in Florida,
where they quickly earned a reputation for frightening the locals by
painting city-hall doors and shutting down bridges in ACT UP/Tampa Bay
protests of antigay policies. It was in Tampa in late 1992 that Pasquarelli
allegedly protested a gay newspaper's stance on his tactics by dumping
stacks of papers on the editor's front lawn at 3 a.m. and dousing the
pile with gasoline -- and was apprehended apparently just before lighting
a match. (Pasquarelli denies these charges.) In December 1993, he and
Bellefountaine headed for California, both to escape Florida's right-wing
presence and because Pasquarelli had the opportunity to transfer jobs
within the Kinko's copy chain. (An added perk: He was later able to
make copies of ACT UP/SF leaflets for free.) They left behind an irate
group of activists who were not sorry to bid farewell to this "insane"
pair. To this day, the two remain fiercely loyal to one another (they
deny that they are or were lovers).
On a January night in 1994, two guys who were
new to San Francisco wanted to go to an ACT UP/Golden Gate meeting,
but the chapter was closed for Christmas. "They left nasty messages
on our machine," Krauss recalls. "We found out later that they had joined
ACT UP/SF." Longtime San Francisco AIDS activists say that, little by
little, the Florida transplants championed divisive issues and intimidated
members to the point of leaving the group. Krauss, active in both ACT
UPs, found working with ACT UP/SF to be "impossible": "They would scream
at me when we weren't even arguing. At one meeting they were screaming
at some PWAs who were dying, saying they weren't doing enough. At another,
they convinced members that AIDS was a gay men's issue, and women should
not be included in the platform." At a time when the ranks of ACT UP/SF
had already been thinned by death and burnout, Krauss says, Pasquarelli
and Bellefountaine "polished it off."
Initially, Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine remained
committed to fighting for the usual AIDS goals -- a cure, safe sex.
But all that changed in 1995, not long after both men tested HIV positive.
Bellefountaine began to have neuropathy and night sweats. "It was a
horrible time," recalls fellow ACT UP/SF member, Todd Swindell, 27.
"I thought they were both going to die."
A few months later, Peter Duesberg, PhD, professor
of molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley, released
Inventing the AIDS Virus, which mentioned favorably ACT UP/SF's
anti-AZT demos. By this time, the group's members had already embraced
alternative treatments (including the photographic chemical DNCB, which
they maintain treats Kaposi's sarcoma). "A friend who had turned us
on to alternative treatments told us to get Duesberg's book to see our
name," Pasquarelli says, "but she told us not to read the rest of it."
Of course, they read the rest. "It was the only thing that gave me hope,"
Pasquarelli says. Duesberg's theory, which attributes AIDS-defining
illnesses to recreational drug use and anti-HIV meds, convinced Bellefountaine
that his symptoms were the result of years of alcohol abuse. In one
quick read, the two found an easy answer to all the existential doubts
newly raised by their health crisis.
Not long afterward, Christine Maggiore, founder
of the LA branch of the dissident support group Health Education AIDS
Liaison (HEAL), wrote to Pasquarelli. "She said, 'Good job protesting
AIDS drugs, but why not take it a step further and consider that HIV
does not cause AIDS?'" he says. "She included a copy of her book [What
if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?], which
has saved a lot of lives." Between the two positive test results and
the two books, "ACT UP/SF got really active again," Swindell says.
David Pasquarelli is on his best behavior. His eyes shine in his round,
feshly shaved head. He is wearing a jacket and tie. This is one forum
in which he won't be raising his voice. "We are a group of individuals
committed to ending AIDS," he tells a packed courtroom in San Francisco's
Civic Center in July. "We sometimes use performance art to get our message
across." Project Inform's Judy Leahy has just testified that Pasquarelli
pushed her on April 17 when, flinging pills and shoving participants,
ACT UP/SF stormed a forum on strategic treatment interruptions (STIs),
sponsored by Project Inform and Survive AIDS. The push resulted in an
injury to Leahy's knee, revealed by hospital X-rays, and, she says,
has left her afraid to bring her kids out in public. This is the fourth
session of a weeks-long case that will determine whether there is just
cause for Project Inform's temporary restraining orders against ACT
UP/SF members to be made permanent.
"Can you describe your message as related to
HIV and AIDS?" Pasquarelli's attorney asks for the record. It is the
defense's turn, and now the entire dissident philosophy is, literally,
on trial. "The side effects of AIDS drugs mirror the symptoms of AIDS,"
says Pasquarelli, explaining his view that the anti-HIV drugs are the
true cause of immune deficiency.
By basing their arguments on undeniable facts
-- the AIDS drugs do have terrible side effects, for example, and some
people with HIV live long lives without treatment -- outside the courtroom
it's easy for ACT UP/SF members to get a hearing among naive and jaded
HIVers (and others). Factor in the unlikely charm of the two leaders,
who are charismatic and even inspiring when you meet them on their turf,
and you begin to understand how they have been able to persuade a growing
number of people that what the AIDS establishment dismisses as paranoid
propaganda is actually a plot to kill them.
"They look at science's unanswered questions,
and they see a conspiracy," Survive AIDS' Lauro says. "Are there corrupt
people in the AIDS mammoth? Yes. Are AIDS drugs toxic? Of course. But
aspirin can also be toxic if you take too much. My dad has lung cancer,
but if we waited until we had every answer to every treatment question,
he'd be dead by now." (ACT UP/SF also opposes cancer chemotherapy and
treatments such as Bactrim for pneumonia.)
Project Inform's Delaney finds it ironic that
ACT UP/SF chose to besiege his group's forum on STIs, which are, after
all, a rationale for going off anti-HIV meds. "Instead of seeing that
as something that relates to their concept, they attack us," Delaney
says. "I agree with them on the corruption of certain AIDS activists
by pharmaceuticals and the side effects of AIDS drugs. Unfortunately,
when they target people truly committed to ending AIDS, they miss the
real corruption. I have a problem with the people they don't go after."
But for starters, Delaney says, ACT UP/SF should
get its own house in order -- literally. "Name me another AIDS organization
where the building is purchased in the name of individuals," he says.
Delaney is referring to "the space," the immense $800,000 building on
Market Street, bought by ACT UP/SF members. The hefty mortgage was financed
by Robert Leppo, a major contributor to Duesberg, several Republican
causes and the International Coalition for Medical Justice, a dissident
legal group that, ironically, advocates for, among other causes, HIV
Also at issue is the group's lucrative medical-marijuana
dispensary, acquired from another pot club in 1998. ACT UP/SF sells
the herb to some 1,300 regular customers, making $1.5 million. Eleven
members (each paid $15 an hour) sell grass during business hours to
people with a doctor's note confirming HIV status and other serious
medical conditions. Neither profits nor salaries have ever been reported
to the IRS, largely because there is no way to do so legally. "They're
not a nonprofit, and they are not a business," Delaney says. "And with
nobody providing oversight, it just invites irresponsible behavior."
Bellefountaine maintains that the group keeps careful records. "It is
not up to us rewrite the tax laws," he says. "Create the bracket for
us and send us the bill."
To activist Will Carter, an African American
who once served on San Francisco's HIV Health Services Planning Council,
this rationale smacks of racism and ACT UP/SF's white privilege. "Every
black and Latino parent in this city and every young person who has
served a day in jail on minor drug offenses should rise up in outrage,"
he wrote in a May 18 letter to the Bay Area Reporter when ACT
UP/SF's finances were made public. And given the growing rate of HIV
among women and people of color, it's no surprise that minority groups
are especially outspoken about ACT UP/ SF's attempts to dismantle HIV
prevention. The group never includes heterosexual men or any woman at
all in its messages about AIDS -- although it does sell them marijuana
-- and acting up and fighting back, for its membership, is an entirely
gay male-oriented movement.
ACT UP/SFers counter that the tactics their detractors
label "irresponsible" are nothing compared with the murder committed
daily by AIDS-drug pushers. By condemning the militancy that they, too,
once embraced in the fight to end AIDS, critics of ACT UP/SF may be
shooting themselves in the foot. Inflammatory rhetoric, disruptions
of business as usual, even property damage were the bread and butter
of AIDS activism (although to be fair, both traditional ACT UPs and
ACT UP/SF define themselves as nonviolent). Still, it was Larry Kramer
who punched Bellefountaine at the now-infamous benefit in 1995. The
means are the same, Bellefountaine claims. Only the message has changed.
"What we've done is totally in tow with ACT UP history and agenda,"
he says, "but because it's us, it gets reclassified."
To its credit, ACT UP/SF is one of the few groups
that takes to the streets against homophobia -- something it is particularly
proud of. When ex-gays sponsored a "Coming Out of Homosexuality Day" on
National Coming Out Day last year in October, the group had the most visible
and vocal protest presence. The day ended with an ACT UP/SF member throwing
a pie in the face of ex-gay Michael Johnston, as the news cameras rolled.
And when on June 30 the San Francisco Department of Public Health made
headlines for announcing a doubling of HIV infection rates -- and holding
gay men responsible for falling down on the safe-sex job -- they again
got out the bullhorns. Under pressure, the city later backpedaled and
released "revised" lower numbers. Some of ACT UP/SF's critics, though,
argue that their tactics invite homophobia. A recent example: In July,
the group called for the resignation of two self-proclaimed barebackers
from the San Francisco's HIV Prevention Planning Council after publicly
denouncing them as hypocrites and distributing copies of erotic photographs
of themselves that they had posted on websites.
So whatever happened to ACT UP/Golden Gate? On
February 29, the treatment-advocacy group formally changed its name
to Survive AIDS. "ACT UP/SF thrives off of confusion, and this way we
can simply say, 'They're crazy, we're not,'" explains Lauro of Survive
AIDS. But ACT UP/SF went straight to work, immediately registering two
Internet domain names -- http://www.surviveaids.com/
-- directing web surfers to its site instead of the official Survive
AIDS site (http://www.surviveaids.org/).
To ACT UP/SF, Golden Gate's surrender of the ACT UP label was a sweet
victory, recognition that in the classic "place at the table vs. outsider"
divide, these direct-action dissidents continue to carry the movement's
torch. But given Mbeki's interest in their point of view -- and all
the attention it recently received -- the dissidents may soon be sitting
at a "table" of their own. When organizers of the 13th International
AIDS Conference denied ACT UP/SF booth space in Durban, for instance,
prominent dissident researchers -- Duesberg among them -- did not protest.
"The dissidents at Durban still believe in the system. They just want
to re-evaluate AIDS," Pasquarelli explains. "We want to get over this
AIDS thing, and get back to queer liberation."
And those two words, as Pasquarelli & Co.'s
newest incarnation as "Queer Nation" suggests, is the meat of their
mission: to (re)conjure a culture where barebacking is not condemned,
bathhouses are opened, and homosexuals are not scapegoated for societal
ills. "Nobody's having fun anymore," Swindell says. To him and his fellow
believers, AIDS is not a virus that kills but merely a word that signals
conformity. "What happened to a group of men in the early '80s, for
whatever reason, cannot dictate policies today." To member Ronnie Burk,
AIDS is institutionalized self-hatred. "Gay men have come to worship
death and identify as victims," he says.
The group's dissident views are something that
other members have come to embrace out of convenience, necessity or
both. "My cause is animal rights," a woman at the Monday meeting admits.
Tate Swindell, brother of Todd, tells POZ that he joined the group to
sell marijuana. "Todd called me when I was living in Orange County and
said I should come up to work," says the 25-year-old. "The members never
pressured me into joining, but when I saw how healthy they were without
taking meds, I thought, 'Wow!'"
"Animal rights, medical marijuana and HIV dissident
activists," Pasquarelli says, "all come together under the distrust
of the medical establishment." But rather than the dawn of a brave,
new movement, the ACT UP/SF sound and fury likely signifies nothing
more than another nail in the coffin of AIDS activism -- and the most
recent example of what some people have referred to as the gay community's
eating its own.
With his voice mounting, Pasquarelli recalls
the April 17 forum: "I marched into the room and approached Mr. Delaney
and said, 'Martin Delaney, you lied to the community.' I told him, 'You
said people should stay on their medicines no matter what, and now you
say the opposite.'" At that moment, according to nearly every prosecution
witness called, chaos ensued. Pills flew, people screamed, arms flailed,
and panelists ran for exits. In the corner, Pasquarelli hovered over
a shaking doctor, preventing him from leaving the building and striking
him repeatedly with a cardboard sign.
READ THEIR LIPS
Phone message from ACT UP/SF to POZ, 7.20.00:
"Dave Pasquarelli calling from ACT UP/San
Francisco, my number is 415.637.4666. I just got the press release
about Stephen Gendin dying, and I'm reading here that his death
was caused by cardiac arrest while undergoing chemotherapy for
"What's going on here? Thirty-four-year-old
men do not die of cardiac arrest. I looked at him in the pages
of POZ month after month, subscribing to the treatments that you
people promote. Now, I don't know anything about this man, but
what I do know is young, gay men dying at the age of 34 from cardiac
arrest is not normal, and you people have a hand in his death.
"And it's very upsetting to me to work
at ACT UP/San Francisco, where I see 1,300 clients, many of whom
are like Stephen Gendin -- young, gay men being cut down in the
prime of their life not from HIV but from the drugs that your
magazine promotes. Not only protease inhibitors but chemotherapy
for AIDS-related lymphoma. You know, we have members who have
lymphoma, and we know that the majority of lymphoma does not need
to be treated with systemic chemotherapy.
"You people are destroying gay men, and
I attribute his death to you. To you and to the rest of the people
at POZ who are promoting these deadly therapies. It has
got to stop, and ACT UP/San Francisco is going to make sure that
it stops. I just want to place the blame squarely on your shoulders."