Ronnie Burk’s Radical Activism in “Post-AIDS” San Francisco

ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk being taken into SFPD custody at the Womens’ Building on Oct. 16, 1997. Photo © Terry Kennedy.

“Notorious yet neglected, reviled but revered, Ronnie Burk redefined what it meant to be an HIV/AIDS activist in twenty-first century America.”

Over two decades have passed since Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk walked into a collectively run punk rock record store in San Francisco’s Mission District to learn more about ACT UP San Francisco. Despite having tested HIV positive in the early 1990s, Ronnie remained asymptomatic while he watched friends and lovers decompose from AZT. The recycled cancer chemotherapy received FDA approval in a fraudulent clinical trial as documented in John Lauritsen’s essential book Poison by Prescription: The AZT Story (which can be read at the following link: http://tinyurl.com/PoisonByPrescription.) There was little reason to believe the currently hyped protease inhibitors would be much different. Resisting the hard sell by Dr. Toby Dyner at Health Center #1 in the Castro, Ronnie searched for information that was not directly influenced by pharmaceutical funding.

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When news that members of ACT UP San Francisco had disrupted a panel of physicians with ties to the pharmaceutical industry at the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver by throwing beet juice on AIDS doctors, Ronnie was intent on learning more about the renegade group demanding the deadly AIDS drug AZT be pulled from the market while challenging researchers to pull their financial ties with the drug companies and focus on boosting the cell-mediated immune system.

After just three months of regular attendance at Monday night general body meetings, Ronnie was ready to take action. He had moved to SF in the early 1990s after friends had told him it was the model city for HIV services. In a time of great need he went to the SF AIDS Foundation to obtain emergency housing. Given a voucher to a Mission District hotel room filled with roaches, Ronnie was mugged in the hallway at knife point. When he learned that the SFAF’s executive director, a heterosexual white woman named Pat Christen, made more than the President of the United States, his response was certain to create controversy.

“Burk’s beliefs did not develop in a vacuum, however. The rise of the AIDS dissident movement in San Francisco not only gestures to the fractured political and medical landscape of the city at the start of the new millennium but to the homogeneity of HIV/AIDS discourse in North America.”

At a public event where Christen (dubbed Fat Cat Pat) was moderating a panel, Ronnie took the stage and dumped a bag of cat feces upon “her detestable person.” It ignited a shitstorm that lasted for years in the local gay paper Bay Area Reporter‘s letters to the editor about the discrepancy of services versus salaries– a tenet of ACT UP SF’s call for AIDS accountability.

The ensuing controversy is at the heart of an essay recently published online at the European Journal of American Studies. “Profit, Porn, and Protease Inhibitors: Ronnie Burk’s Radical Activism in “Post-AIDS” San Francisco” is written by Victoria Carroll, a Research Fellow at King’s College London. 

Dr. Carroll’s essay (which can be read in full at this link) is an extensive piece that examines the intersections of Ronnie Burk’s politics and poetry through his experience as a gay man of Mexican and Indigenous American descent surviving oppression and resisting homogenization. Her work breaks new ground as the first academic article to delve into the still taboo history of the dissident voice in San Francisco’s militant queer response to AIDS. Such a well researched and written essay could only have come from someone living outside America, where radical dissent of HIV positive gay men remains submerged under the weight of neoliberal AIDS nostalgia.

“Burk refocused the HIV/AIDS debate in San Francisco, in gay communities, in the demands of grassroots activists at a time when the establishment were looking away from America and towards Africa, when HIV/AIDS was symbolically transforming from a death sentence placed upon the heads of “deviants” to a chronic but manageable (and vastly lucrative) illness affecting those unable to procure expensive, life-extending drugs.”

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I strongly encourage readers of the ACT UP Archives blog to bookmark the essay and invest time in reading the lengthy piece. Be forewarned that some of the political protest imagery contains graphic content. But then we are looking at Ronnie Burk, ACT UP San Francisco and the devastating and influential legacy of queer insurrection to AIDS complacency. It’s my fervent hope that this truly ground breaking piece heralds a new field of AIDS activist scholarship.

To quote from the conclusion of Dr. Carroll’s article, “And while the mainstream press and prominent members of San Francisco’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS communities denounced Burk as an irresponsible and misguided threat, he emerged in early twenty-first century Latino/a cultural production as a witty, passionate street activist, loyal friend and electric poet, thumbing his nose at the pallid conformity and exploitative agendas of heteronormative Anglo-America.

I asked Dr. Carroll to share some thoughts about her ongoing interest in Ronnie:

Memories of a Stranger

I cannot for the life of me remember how I first discovered Ronnie Burk. But he has been my daily companion for the past 3 years.

In 2010 I began a PhD charting the cultural responses of gay Latino men to the early HIV/AIDS crisis in America. Over the course of my studies I had the terrible privilege of accessing and consuming an achingly evocative and incomparable archive of novels, poetry, drama, art, and performance created by an underrepresented array of unapologetically queer Latino men with HIV and AIDS, battling and creating in the face of flagrant racism, homophobia, erasure and death. Perhaps it was inevitable that Ronnie should inch his way into my field of (tunnel) vision. That he has put down roots and contoured my current scholarship is testament to his compelling, complex, controversial art and activism, to his message and his persona, and the incredible images and words that he has left behind.

I may never be able to adequately articulate my response to Ronnie and the things that he has done. He remains a character that I cannot pin down (which I suspect he would like). I access him in pieces, through the vitriol of commentators and the loving memories of friends. Running the gamut of identity difference, inhabiting numerous planes of social, political, and economic inequality, forever antithetical, Ronnie is endlessly reconfigured by my intellect and my emotions. I accrue an image of a person I have never met and can never meet, a shifting mosaic of fallible impressions: scrappy, determined, pugnacious (has to be), a man-boy with a wicked grin and scholarly frown, a lick of flame, a thin blade at the knife’s edge. Hopeful. Beaten down. Gentle. Apoplectic. Instigator. Agitator. Ally. Question mark.

It is only fitting that, like the man, the life has been difficult to assemble. Beginning on that shadowy, far-off day when I must have first read Ronnie’s name, I have been sifting through diverse and dispersed sources, deciphering clues. I have been gathering the scraps of Ronnie’s life that are strewn haphazardly across the web, embalmed in archives, and preserved in books. Ronnie has yet to find his way into academic scholarship so my endeavour has felt, at times, like a shot in the dark. I have been galvanised by my discoveries and undone by my newfound knowledge. I have been tickled by surreal coincidences, like the day a friend showed me one of Ronnie’s collages (a jostling parade of Arthur Rimbauds), sent to her by an amused colleague in Texas…an image offered up to me before my friend even knew I had begun to research Ronnie. I smile at the thought of his art dredged up from a solemn archive, zipping electronically across the Atlantic and impishly finding its way to me.

Contacting Todd in the summer of 2014 was the breakthrough moment. From our first email Todd has furnished Ronnie with an anatomy, a pumping heart. He has helped me to excavate a rationale, an agenda, a life, a man from the pages of biographical inserts, heartfelt dedications, and irascible editorials. In turn I think, I hope, I have helped him to approach Ronnie’s art and legacy in new ways. Todd has given of himself and his resources unreservedly and unstintingly. He has given his memories to temper my ignorance. He was read with a nuanced critical eye and listened with a sympathetic ear. He was been a fountain of seemingly inexhaustible knowledge. To be privy to such a compassionate, candid correspondence has been a lifeline and a gift.

The article that has emerged is necessarily partial. It aims to give a snapshot of the strained political and medical landscape of San Francisco at the turn of the twenty-first century, to shed a light on the competing narratives that have cleaved to and constructed the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. It aims to be provocative, to engender a response, a new conversation. There is, inevitably, more work to be done and more facets of Ronnie’s life, art, and activism to be revived and preserved, commemorated, reconfigured. Then reconfigured again. For me, Ronnie will always be the contradiction that refuses to be reconciled.

 

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