“A society where the police shoot black and latino teenagers daily…A society fueled by racism, homophobia, misogyny and class privilege. A society where killing faggots is viewed as a male past time. Unless, of course, you are a member of the super rich. In such a society we can only salute your audacity and rage.”
On the twentieth anniversary of the suicide of gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan, the infamous assassin of fashion designer Gianni Versace, let’s take a look back at one of poet Ronnie Burk’s most controversial statements as a member of ACT UP San Francisco.
In the summer of 1997, ACT UP SF had traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to protest a meeting of Bill Clinton’s Presidential Commission on AIDS. The group’s demands included funding not only for pharmaceuticals but food and shelter for PWAs as well as a ban on animal research.
It was during that same week that the manhunt for Cunanan was dominating the news media. Updates from the Atlanta based CNN were a fixture on our hotel room’s TV as Ronnie relished the sensational coverage. An avowed Communist who advocated the violent overthrow of the ruling class, Ronnie Burk was in many ways better suited to the time of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg.
“In a world where the wealthy pay for the love they are incapable of giving we offer you our love freely and without reservation.”
Cunanan’s FBI Wanted poster was all around town as it was thought he might have traveled from Miami to Atlanta. Taking a copy from a storefront window, I offered it to Ronnie as a souvenir of the group’s trip. The day after Cunanan’s suicide, he could be overheard on the phone telling friends he was distraught over the death of his son.
While this may seem grossly offensive to many, Ronnie’s morbid humor was decidedly politically incorrect. However the intent to shock wasn’t merely sensational in the vein of today’s Nationalist homosexual provocateurs such as has-been Milo Yiannopulos, John Birch Society wannabe Lucian Wintrich or muscle-pumped fascist Jack Donovan.
Burk’s political prose was a critique of deeper socio-political issues, both informed and impassioned, the hallmarks of his writing as a member of ACT UP San Francisco. Let’s not forget he was a surrealist and knew from the movement’s history that art was political. =
By the time we’d return to the Bay Area, Ronnie had completed a statement regarding Cunanan’s killing spree and what it represented about America. Ascribed to The Thelma & Louise Gang, the flyer was immediately wheat pasted around the Castro neighborhood. Its incendiary prose, like the bulk of Burk’s artwork, remains powerfully prophetic. Here is the complete text:
“Biracial, HIV-positive, out since high school, male homosexual turned prostitute turn assassin. You broke all the rules. Having wined and dined in the company of the haughty rich we know you had special insights into the bankrupt values of this thoroughly corrupt society. A society where the police shoot black and latino teenagers daily. A society so visibly bankrupt on the moral plane we cannot help but point out for the past fifty years has prepared the world for nuclear annihilation all in the name of maintaining the status quo. A society fueled by racism, homophobia, misogyny and class privilege. A society where killing faggots is viewed as a male past time. Unless, of course, you are a member of the super rich. In such a society we can only salute your audacity and rage.”
Click to enlarge
“For a moment you struck terror in a sector of the ruling class we know to be hypocritical to the core. Paying for sex at night, attending mass in the morning, all in time to make a trip to the bank by noon. Clueless as ever, the rich, all dressed up with nowhere to go, are heading for the trashcan of historical obsolescence. As this society condemns millions to poverty, disease, homelessness and despair. As the concentration of the wealth continues to accumulate in smaller and smaller hands. As the delusions of grander of the vainglorious rich have them reenacting the court past times of Versailles and the Medicis. You showed us the solution to the greatest social problem of our era by doing what the rest of us are supposed to be doing, shoot the rich!”
“In a world where the wealthy pay for the love they are incapable of giving we offer you our love freely and without reservation.”
“Rest easy little brother. History will have its revenge! The Thelma & Louise Gang SF July 1997”
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In previous posts (here and here) I’ve highlighted material from the archive of actress and artist Monica Sanchez who was a good friend of Ronnie’s. Recently I came across this supplementary statement about Cunanan:
“People forget Andrew Philip Cunanan was a human being who loved and felt pain and rejection. A little boy who wanted to be loved. We pay the price for every suffering child. I know his rage and I love him for lashing out and I don’t care what even my dearest friends think of my opinion. He was a hero of the gay community to be canonized!”
Before becoming a member of ACT UP San Francisco in 1996, Ronnie Burk lived on the island of Maui at several different periods in the early 1990s. Along with writing poetry and studying Buddhism, he became aware of the Hawaiian people’s struggle against racism and exploitation, something he himself experienced as a gay man of Mexican and Indigenous American descent.
In Monica Sanchez‘s archive there are several letters he wrote to The Maui News on this topic. Here is one of a few examples of Ronnie including collage with presentation of a poem “Listen, whiteman!” which, again, speaks prophetically to the challenges the world faces in this day and age.
“They advertised it all over town that they expected to block traffic and do civil disobedience type of things.”
Michael Chitwood, Portland Police Chief
Michael Bellefountaine is carried away by police in an ACT UP Maine protest against AIDS and the Iraq War, Jan. 23, 1991.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of ACT UP activist Michael Bellefountaine, let’s take a look back to his formative years as a direct action activist. Hailing from rural Maine, Michael was among the first generation of queers who came out in the early shadow of ACT UP’s militant approach to fighting AIDS. The organization just celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first demonstration in April, 1987.
It was a much different time back then to be out, loud and proud; one that required a hefty amount of courage and perseverance. By 1989 Michael was traveling to Boston and New York by bus to participate in meetings and actions where he learned the basics of a new movement in AIDS activism that was as informed as it was confrontational.
In the summer of 1990 he was one of the co-founders of ACT UP Maine along with C.T. Butler. Butler was also one of the founders of Food Not Bombs whose use of consensus for group process and decision making became a core of Bellefountaine’s involvement with ACT UP and other direct action movements such as animal rights.
AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.
Among the dozens of boxes in the ACT UP Archives still to be processed, there is one with Michael’s material of activism which predates his arrival in San Francisco, with David Pasquarelli, at the end of 1993. For several months I’ve been digitizing a small binder of photocopies from ACT UP Maine’s first action in the summer of 1990 until Michael’s move to Florida in 1992.
Now that those photocopies and a couple of darkening news clippings have been scanned, I’ll begin highlighting selections from the news coverage of ACT UP Maine. For many years ACT UP SF’s detractors attempted to delegitimize the radical dissident chapter in the tiresome gay political parlor game of whose right it is to use that five letter acronym.
These documents help illustrate the foundation of Michael Bellefountaine’s fifteen years of ACT UP activism which came from direct participation in the actions and demonstrations of the its original East Coast roots, with a strong emphasis on people with AIDS and HIV living in rural communities.
Casgow Bay Weekly, Jan. 31, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
Though it began in the waining years of the Regean administration, ACT UP came into its own during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush. Among the group’s most celebrated actions was the Day of Desperation on January 23, 1991– coordinated protest against Bush’s Persian Gulf War and the perpetuation of armed conflict in the Middle East.
On that day the rallying cry was “No Blood For Oil”. ACT UP’s charge of “Money For AIDS Not For War” began with early morning protests in downtown Manhattan, culminating with a massive demonstration at Grand Central Station at 5PM to coincide with rush hour traffic. The most audacious action took place the night before when members of ACT UP New York stormed into the live taping of CBS Evening News. While the befuddled anchor Dan Rather began evening’s broadcast, activists jumped on camera chanting “AIDS is News; Fight AIDS, Not Arabs!”
Portland Press Herald, Jan. 24, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
ACT UP Maine also took the streets that morning as the war approached six months of death and environmental destruction in the Persian Gulf. Like many rural chapters, ACT UP Maine harnessed the national protests to call attention to local issues affecting people with AIDS and HIV.
Ultimately 10 members of the group were arrested for blocking traffic in downtown Portland. 6 men and 4 women lay down across Congress Street at Monument Square during a lunch hour march and rally. The choice of location maximized exposure to ACT UP Maine’s message challenging the government’s misdirection of priorities and funding.
Speakers blamed leaders from both the state and the nation for creating a mood of public apathy and indifference. Their demands included AIDS specific clinics and that doctor’s ensure care for patients without insurance.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, Feb. 1, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
The best coverage of the demo came from the Jan. 24, 1991 Portland Press Herald which featured a pair of eye-catching photos including the iconic image of Bellefountaine being dragged off by Portland Police officers. That striking photograph was picked up by wire news services and reprinted across the nation. Here’s a clipping printed the following week in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
The best quote came from Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood, “They advertised it all over town that they expected to block traffic and do civil disobedience type of things.” The “advertisements” were likely flyers wheat pasted around town encouraging citizens to participate while informing them of the reasons for the scheduled protest.
After speeches, ACT UP Maine activists ignited flares atop placards as 10 participants darted into the street and laid on their backs until they were forcibly removed by law enforcement. Charged with misdemeanor citations for obstructing a public way, the activists were transported to the Cumberland County Jail.
“At the jail, the protestors refused to identify themselves. Instead, they gave the names of public figures that ACT UP regards as adversaries, among them U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, state Human Services Commissioner Rollin Ives and Jasper Wyman of the Maine Christian Civic League.”
During the demonstration, participants carried tombstone shaped signs and pushed homemade black wooden coffins. In messages to the media, activists took aim at the nation’s misplaced sense of urgency, highlighting the discrepancy of resources between the Persian Gulf War and AIDS War. As speaker Patrick Dunn stated, “Because of the war in the Persian Gulf, it’s been easy to put this war aside…This was hasn’t ended. We’ve been fighting this war 11 years.”
Portland Evening Express, Jan. 24, 1991. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
As our country continues its destructive journey on the bloody path of endless war, it’s the legacy of direct action activists like Michael Bellefountaine whose 15 year commitment to ACT UP’s struggle for justice and dignity for people with AIDS and the still unfulfilled promise of queer liberation that provides perspective and inspiration to continue the persistence of resistance.
I came across this letter from Ronnie to his dear friend, the actress and author Monica Sanchez, while digitizing her archive of material from Ronnie. The last four pages struck me as prophetic.
I’ve chosen the title “THE FULL SPECTRUM” and share these scans and my own transcription with Monica’s permission.
THE FULL SPECTRUM by Ronnie Burk.
It goes beyond conceptions of art or literature or even greatness.
The illusions (all of them) are wearing thin.
We need theater, art, literature that answers our desires. That manifests the world we desire. Not in reaction or in response to a given historical condition i.e. the oppression of (fill in the blank) people:
We need to rebuild the garden of Eden. Hand Adam back his rib and tell god the father to go fuck himself. All myths are coming to an end. It is the Zen of time & there is no way out except up.
For the (fill in the blank) people this situation is hell i.e. a bottom line situation, and we don’t need another gang war to remind us the zoot suit, the Chulo look, the Nike baseball cap ghetto blaster children know & will tell you
“Get a life”
because this is not a life. This is a place for dead people and wannabes. What we want in the end is simply to live & that is the very source of our art which can be, in another form, defined as light. THE FULL SPECTRUM.
Once we come to the full understanding as a (fill in the blank) people, the world will explode & none of us will be able to continue we have. This is the role of the artist as Artaud said “Signal through the Flames” as the world is burning.
The world is burning & it is our collective delusion– “mass hallucination” propped up by TV, Hollywood, religion, history (as we are told), academia, i.e. media– that keeps us locked into this given format i.e. the white man’s reality. Which is to notsee the world is burning and we don’t need “The Nutty Professor” to tell us there’s a hole in the ozone. I believe we will make it. But it’s going to take a lot of waking up. Are you ready to set the alarm clock?
“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.
Click image to enlarge
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.
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.”
Click to enlarge flyer
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.
It’s a happy coincidence the occasion of what would have been the 50th birthday of ACT UP San Francisco activist Michael Bellefountaine coincides with the ebook release of his book A Lavender Look at the Temple: A Gay Perspective of the Peoples Temple. Last year’s birthday post recalled Michael’s formative days as an AIDS activist by looking at his participation in ACT UP Maine during the Bush presidency of the early 1990s.
AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.
During the last years of his life, Michael was enrolled in the history department at San Francisco State University. There he involved himself in a number of projects that included documenting the stories of those buried at Mission Dolores. For many years he had become interested in the Peoples Temple.
Known mostly for the 1978 mass suicide of its members who had exiled themselves to the jungles of Guyana, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple had been an undeniable influence on the progressive agenda that defined San Francisco politics of the 1970s from George Moscone to Willie Brown.
As Michael began to research the Peoples Temple story beyond the horrific and histrionic headlines that dominated media representation, he was surprised to learn of an ongoing connection to Harvey Milk.
Harvey Milk in front of his Castro Street Camera Store, circa 1977, photo by Dan Nicoletta.
Frustrated with the dismissive treatment of the subject by Randy Shilts in his biography The Mayor of Castro Street, which had Harvey describing Temple members as “weird” and “dangerous”, Michael decided to dig deeper into the story especially after he discovered an extensive involvement of gays and lesbians within the Peoples Temple.
He interviewed associates of Harvey Milk, such as photographer Daniel Nicoletta, and connected with The Jonestown Project whose website states “its primary purpose is to present information about Peoples Temple as accurately and objectively as possible. In an effort to be impartial, we offer many diverse views and opinions about the Temple and the events in Jonestown.”
Michael’s intended to write a full length work but was unable to complete the book before his untimely death in 2007. Thanks to the tireless effort of his mother Dora, his book was self-published in 2011 in both paper and hardback editions. A Lavender Look at the Temple can now be purchased as an ebook at this link.
A quote from an online review of Michael’s book:
The book also examines how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Peoples Temple members faired in their community during a hostile time in history.
In the last years of his short life, the author, Michael Bellefontaine, was a staunch gay rights and AIDS activist in San Francisco, California but he was also part of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown history.
While other writers have long dismissed Milk’s relationship with the Peoples Temple, Bellefontaine not only addresses it but attacks and analyzes the information from reliable sources regarding their association.
First, you have to understand the lure of the Peoples Temple. It was welcoming of people from all walks of life including races, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientation, and religions. Rev. Jim Jones was charismatic and fooled people into believing that he had special powers to read minds and cure people. But it wasn’t just Jim Jones that lured it’s members.
The People Temple offered services such as drug and alcohol rehablitation; a food pantry and soup kitchen; counseling; a school; elder care and day centers; and other facilities widely staffed and run by it’s members. The Peoples Temple welcomed people of all walks of life including the ostracized, the outcasts, criminals, etc. into their world.
Michael’s talent as a writer comes not only from his thorough and thoughtful research but also his skill at relaying the personal experience of gay and lesbian Temple members through a gripping narrative. In fact, Michael’s research was included by San Francisco journalist David Talbot in Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love, Talbot’s book about the city during the 1970s and 1980s.
While it’s unfortunate Michael wasn’t able to further develop his research on the Peoples Temple (not to mention the other areas he would have explored as a historian and researcher) we can remain grateful his mother Dora made sure that this brief but potent document is preserved and available. Happy 50th Birthday Michael Bellefountaine!
ACT UP member Michael Bellefountaine participating in Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, circa 2002.
A personal tribute to my dear friend and ACT UP comrade David Pasquarelli on what would have been his 48th birthday.
I was the last of a generation of gay men who came out in ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. My arrival at ACT UP San Francisco, in late January 1994, was a good year after the group’s peak which had quickly dwindled following the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton. It was the decade and a half of oppressive Republican policies that fueled the furnace which fired ACT UP’s anger and rage.
By the time I walked into the Women’s Building in the Mission District, there remained only a few members of the old guard that existed as an ersatz support group, a shell of the former political activism that had sharpened the city’s progressive political agenda into a queer militant force. Though they still believed in ACT UP’s mission, the handful of queers that maintained Thursday night General Body meetings were beleaguered from years of care giving for dying loved ones and the entrenched activism against a system that would not yield to its pressure. The meetings had a sparse, ghostly feeling that was distrustful of new energy, as if it were too sharp a reminder of the power of bodies in the street, out, loud and proud, were now ash, murdered by church and state.
At the time, I was oblivious to all that battle history. I had moved to San Francisco the previous summer with my older brother to attend San Francisco State. We lived in a cozy apartment near the end of the city at Park Merced, adjoining Lake Merced and the Pacific Ocean; yet I yearned to be part of the gay community – in the action. I was not among the underage fags who ventured out to parks for sexcapades or danced the night away in drug-fueled clubs. Growing up in conservative, repressed Orange County of the 1980s, I was too fragile, my recklessness more intellectual than physical. If I were to drive the many freeways that lead to Los Angeles, my time was spent at art house cinemas or bookstores.
David Pasquarelli protesting at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, Texas.
I had turned 21 determined not to celebrate the occasion with my first visit to a gay bar. AIDS hijacked my adolescence when I was 11 with media broadcasts of plague terror and the moral retribution of the church’s wrath. God was righting man’s wrong. Alone and afraid, I tried my best to make sense of the senseless with a child’s mind that, as Patti Smith sang, “saw everything just a little bit too clearly.” By my late teens, I was reading books by Larry Kramer and Randy Shilts, subscribing to The Advocate and The Village Voice. Fighting AIDS was about staying informed; knowledge was power. The promise of Harvey Milk still seemed possible despite the deepening horror of Republican, Christian domination.
ACT UP was the fulfillment of that promise to end AIDS and bring about gay liberation. This was time when the Berlin Wall fell and apartheid ended in South Africa, when the future was malleable. I wanted to be part of the movement to end AIDS. This was our time in history and ACT UP was the vehicle, continuing the lineage of coalition-based movements from civil rights to the protest against Vietnam. There was such a depth of anger and rage that I had somehow kept from consuming me. ACT UP was the repository for that fire, my contribution to the cause.
When I walked into my first ACT UP meeting, I had naively expected to sit in the back of a room of filled with dedicated, vibrant activists, maybe chatted up by some welcoming drag queen. Instead there were eight people whose look ranged from punk to goth to hippie to elder lesbian. Reactively, I felt I had make a mistake coming and considered returning to the familiarity of my bedroom with its records and poetry books.
A typical Saturday morning at Harvey Milk Plaza in the mid 1990s.
Then Michael Bellefountaine walked over, shaking my hand as he introduced himself. “I’m Mike Bellefountaine and I want to give you some information about something we’ll be talking about tonight- the AIDS Cure Act.” I was so relieved someone had broken the ice that my insides began to unwind as I relaxed more into the evening. I had read about the AIDS Cure Act in Larry Kramer’s column in The Advocate. Frustrated by the inaction of researchers and the government’s response to AIDS, ACT UP had taken on Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to create an all encompassing research program, like the Manhattan Project, to cure AIDS.
The AIDS Cure Act, among other things, sought to consolidate research, connect scientists with patients, and challenge pharmaceutical greed. Whatever treatment it developed would be available to people regardless of their ability to pay. Later in the meeting, Michael’s friend, David Pasquarelli, spoke about what they were doing to enact this piece of federal legislation. At one point he held up a mock newspaper headline that exclaimed “AIDS Cure Found.” Rather than hokey, it felt tangible. This was something where I could offer my energy, my spirit, a way to participate that had meaning.
A criminally young & positively gay David Pasquarelli
At the end of the meeting David piled me up with packets of information (something that would continue over their next decade of activism) as Michael spoke the words I had longed to hear, “We need your help.” On the long bus ride back to Park Merced, I poured over the handouts, flyers and copies of news articles. I supplemented my regular attendance at General Body meetings with added Wednesday evenings at the AIDS Cure Act working group, which met at Mission Grounds coffee shop on 16th Street at Albion.
It was there I got to know Michael who was in his late 20s yet retained a baby faced chubbiness he never outgrew. Wearing tan hiking boots, jeans that seemed to always sag at the ankles, and a too big sweater, his curly headed hair was perpetually crowned with a backwards baseball cap from the café St. Louis, in Sarasota, Florida, where he waited tables. Though originally from rural Maine, with the accent to prove it, Michael had met David while living near the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast.
It had only been two months since his friend David Pasquarelli had shown up one night at Michael’s apartment in his convertible Jeep with a tiny trailer attached to the back containing all of David’s possessions. Two years of rural activism in Florida had proven to David that the gay political leaders, wedded to Democratic Party control, would only continue to drain their sense of urgency to fight AIDS. If you wanted to be serious about fighting AIDS (to “be real” as they say these days) you went to San Francisco.
Within the time it took Michael to pace around his apartment smoking a joint, all his possessions, including his cats Mickey and Iko, were crammed into the trailer. David was a huge fan of the Pet Shop Boys, whose cover of the Village People’s gay anthem “Go West” had topped the U.S. dance charts that summer. They played it continually as their theme song as they set out across America.
David Pasquarelli confronting Christian ladies during his time with ACT UP Tampa Bay in the early 1990s.
David Pasquarelli was an undeniably beautiful gay man. Razor thin with a shaved head, piercing blue eyes and a smile so bright it lit up everyone around, David was gorgeous. Even his detractors admitted as much. He wore the look of the time: Black combat boots, extra large camouflage pants sheared above the knees held up with a studded leather belt, over his skinny chest was a concert t-shirt (Erasure or Skinny Puppy) worn on top of a white thermal shirt whose long sleeves were pushed above the elbows, all of it topped off with the de rigueur black leather jacket that was just bit too large in the style of Grace Jones.
It was after a few weeks of meeting, sometime in late February when the boys invited me back to their apartment after a working group meeting to continue strategizing, organizing. Though I had begun to feel a previously unknown ascendancy to my recent participation in ACT UP, a clarity of purpose that swept away hesitation, it remained purely intellectual, lacking the ability to connect on a cultural, fraternal level. It was the crucial difference between saying you’re an out gay man and living as an out gay man.
David Pasquarelli, co-founder of ACT UP Tampa Bay
Heading out from the Mission District to their place on Waller Street, an entrenched self-doubt that is the pernicious core of homophobia persisted. The fear of failure is so interminable that you’re convinced it is safer not to try, to remain hidden. But I was so sick of the old ways that I knew the only answer to be found was out on the streets, with other queers as pissed off as me.
As we walked the nighttime streets to the Lower Haight, my mind echoed with a familiar refrain from the song “How Soon Is Now?” by the Manchester group The Smiths. It’s one of the truly classic songs of any era, a perfect melding of guitarist Johnny Marr’s voodoo laden backing track with lyricist Morrissey’s plaintive lament to “a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” His voice is archly mournful, veering on the edge of camp, yet never losing a sense of compassion. Veering off Church Street towards Fillmore, I kept thinking, “If only there were some sort of confirmation, a sign to let me know I was on the right path.”
As I climbed the stairs leading up to Michael and David’s second story flat, my inner voice continued its broadcast of discouragement that the doubt would always linger. Their apartment was really a one-bedroom set up to house the pair of them. From the stairs, I entered into the living room, just off the kitchen, which was David’s bedroom. The walls were plastered with large posters from British music groups like Dead Can Dance and Everything But The Girl but it was a poster for The Smiths single “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” that I first saw. It was impossible to miss due to its gigantic size, designed for flyposting on billboards.
Cecil Beaton & Truman Capote in pose
The record cover, designed by Morrissey, featured exhibitionist author Truman Capote leaping through the air as he was photographed in Tangier by British photographer Cecil Beaton in 1949, the entire image washed with pale yellow. Truman’s shirt is tied exotically at the waist, his mouth spread wide with irrepressible glee. It remains one of the gayest images ever, perfect for Morrissey’s autobiographical lyrics about a boy, behind whose “hatred there lies/a plundering desire for love.”
On this song, perhaps The Smiths most definitive, Johnny Marr’s accompaniment is brightly playful with the sound of a marimba adding a light Caribbean touch. Morrissey’s lyrics were the lyrical prophecy that I had been seeking,
And when you want to live
How do you start?
Where do you go?
Who do you need to know?
The stars aligned and any remaining confusion was finally extinguished by larger than life Truman as he looked down from the wall. His eyes seemed to say all would be right if only I took the leap, like Nijinsky, spreading my arms and legs out into the air in celebration of all that is fabulous, outrageous and so queer it’s gay. It was that moment when I knew, no matter how challenging and adversarial the fight might become, that I was indeed on the right track.
Is it any wonder that a number of ACT UP activists were astrological fire signs? Continuing our salute to the impulsive, impassioned, battling horns of the ram that is Aries, this ACT UP Archives post is in honor of the 60th birthday of Ronnie Burk- April Fool, Surrealist, Chicano, Poet, Bad Ass Motherfucker.
Since his death a dozen years ago, there has recently begun a renaissance of Ronnie’s legacy as a prophetic artist and fearless activist as academic scholars who have discovered his voice and vision are bringing new insights into the power of Ronnie Burk’s work.
Untitled Collage by Ronnie Burk
In spite of the hardship of his troubled adolescence in racist and homophobic South Texas, Ronnie’s alchemical artistry and belief in the magical allowed him to transcend society’s prohibitions in order to create a body of work that pushed the forms of Surrealist imagination and radical political activism. Ronnie was among the first students at Naropa University in the mid-1970s where he studied the teachings of Tibetan Rinpoche Chögyam Trungpa, met Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso as well as Diane Di Prima, who became one of his mentors.
After his summertime stints in Boulder, Ronnie returned to San Antonio to participate in the cultural and political activities in the Chicano community. In 1977 his first poems were published in Caracol: La Revista de la Raza, which was founded and edited by Cecilio García-Camarillo and Mia Kirsi Sategberg. Together they traveled to the fourth Floricanto Festival (a national festival of Chicano literature) where he met poet and editor Lorna Dee Cervantes. She later published Ronnie’s first chapbook En el Jardín de los Noplaes (In the Garden of Prickly Pear Trees, 1979) as a Mango Publication. This activity brought him into contact with Chicana poet and novelist Ana Castillo.
In the early 1980s, Ronnie lived in New York City where he became friends with the Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford and the photographer, filmmaker and poet Ira Cohen. He was also involved with many of the then young filmmakers of the Lower East Side including Richard Kern, David Wojnarowicz and Ronnie’s close friend Tommy Turner. Ronnie also participated in the Nuyorican Poets Café with Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero and attended performances by the Living Theater.
Though he was adept at creating collage in the spirit of Max Ernst and assemblages that recalled that playful wonder of Joseph Cornell, Ronnie’s true calling was that of the poet. Like his great inspiration, André Breton, Ronnie sought liberation through the transformative disruption of Surrealism through which he created a magical connection with traditions that came from being north of the border and Indigenous Mexican descent- that is Nahuatl poetics.
I first Ronnie met in 1996 as a member of ACT UP San Francisco- the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Having lost friends in the late-’80s to AZT poisoning and been exploited by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation when seeking emergency housing, he was turned on by the group’s aggressive, theatrical demonstrations that challenged complacency, conflict of interest and greed within the AIDS industry. During the ten years he lived in San Francisco, Ronnie transited between poetic and political circles. Among his friends were surrealist poets Phillip Lamantia and Will Alexander.
In 2012 Kolourmeim Press published Sky*Boat, a collection of his poems and collages. Ronnie left behind an extensive amount of writing and critical analysis as a member of ACT UP San Francisco. Crafting incisive political broadsides and letters to the editor, impassioned public comment at the Board of Supervisors, to taking the bullhorn at animal liberation demonstrations, Ronnie’s fervent advocacy on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed continues to reverberate. Through a combination of theater and ritual, he remained an omnipresent thorn in the side of the gay political elite, challenging their absurd petit-bourgeois conformist values.
In a previous post, ACT UP Archives examined how Ronnie combined theater, ritual and civil disobedience as part of his political protest. There remains an abundance of material from Ronnie’s bold and controversial activism as an HIV-positive gay man of Indigenous Mexican descent, a court jester to the AIDS industry, that will be highlighted in future posts. For now, we suggest a few ways to remember Ronnie on the anniversary of his birth.
Listen- Sun Ra, Nina Hagen, MC5 and Billie Holiday
Watch- Grey Gardens, Modern Times, Brain Candy and
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Read- Mina Loy, Harry Crosby, Ana Castillo and Federico Garcia Lorca
Remember- Sitting Bull, Assata Shakur, Alex Nieto and Marilyn Buck
“Pat Christen Goes on Record” featuring the cartoon “Jerome’s on the rampage!” Miss Thang Productions. A comic strip by Ronnie Burk SF Aug. 1997.
Letter to the editor. Bay Area Reporter. May 1, 1997.
Michael Bellefountaine is carried away by police in an ACT UP Maine protest against AIDS and the Iraq War, Jan. 23, 1991.
In honor of the outspoken, radical AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine, who would have turned 49 today, ACT UP Archives is taking a look at some of his formative actions as a member of ACT UP Maine. Growing up gay in the small town of Gorham, in southern Maine, was difficult for Michael yet his rural background informed his activism. While many believed that the sun rose and set on ACT UP New York, Michael consistently strived to ensure that his message resonated with queer communities outside big cities.
Michael joined ACT UP in 1989 and cut his teeth on direct action activism traveling by bus to demonstrations in Boston and New York before helping to found a Maine chapter based in Portland. Among ACT UP Maine’s founding members was C.T. Butler who also co-founded Food Not Bombs. It was through his participation with Butler and Tess Ouellette that Michael became well versed in the use of consensus as a process of decision making for activist collectives.
AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.
In the summer of 1991, thousands of ACT UP activists descended on the resort town of Kennebunkport where the family of then President George H. W. Bush had a summer home. Bush’s lack of attention to AIDS followed the same bigoted, murderous agenda of his predecessor Ronald Reagan. Michael was involved in the planning of what became one of the most well publicized actions in the history of ACT UP.
The articles and photographs featured in this post are from Michael’s personal archive which contains a wealth of documentation from his decade and a half of impassioned activism whose dynamic and inspirational history will be explored further in future ACT UP Archive posts.
As it looks likely that next year California voters will legalize recreational use of marijuana, ACT UP Archives will start looking back to the historic changes brought about by Proposition 215- the first statewide initiative to permit the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for medical use. The medical marijuana movement developed as part of San Francisco’s queer community response to the AIDS crisis, particularly the work of alternative treatment activists. Over the next year, we’ll examine how patients and caregivers started a grassroots movement that is transforming our social and political landscape.
ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.
In 1996 California’s Attorney General was the right-wing Republican Dan Lungren- a former Congressman and prominent proponent of the war on drugs. Lungren’s public opposition to needle-exchange programs had made already made him a protest target for ACT UP San Francisco. By the summer of 1996, Prop. 215 was gaining strong support among voters. Lungren, in collusion with the DEA and SF Police Department (SFPD), hatched a plan to shut down the city’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club (CBC) which had been serving AIDS and cancer patients for several years. For over two years, these repressive forces operated a surveillance campaign which included sending in undercover agents, including a gay cop from the SFPD, to pose as ailing patients in need of medical relief.
Early on Sunday morning, August 4th, armed agents stormed the club seizing not only marijuana products but also confiscating client’s confidential medical records. For weeks afterwards, patient concerns that they could face prosecution added to the stress and worry for which they were trying to seek relief by patronizing the CBC. As public outcry rose, city officials scrambled to find ways to address the needs of medical marijuana patients.
As the November election neared, the battle of Dan Lungren against San Francisco’s pot smoking ill and disabled took a turn that could have only been conjured by the consumption of some potent strain of sensimillia bud. That October legendary cartoon strip Doonesbury added the controversy to its daily panels which for decades had been a featured nationally in newspapers.
Lungren cried fowl in a three-page letter to the SF Chronicle requesting that the comic strip either be dropped from circulation or add a disclaimer that the cartoon is based upon “inaccurate information.” Illustrating that he was void of a sense of humor, Lungren alleged that Doonesbury did not contribute to a “serious debate” and worried Prop. 215 would contribute to increased drug use among children. The text of Lungren’s statement can be viewed at the end of this post.
By late October Doonesbury set its satirical sights firmly on the cancer and AIDS patients who were affected by Lungren’s raid of the CBC. Elderly socialite Millie is sitting down with gal pal Lacey to talk about how she’s is dealing with her cancer chemotherapy. Millie’s joined another exclusive club, the San Francisco CBC, where “some of the nicest people are forced to break the law.”
What makes Gary Trudeau’s comic strip so effective is that the humor is based upon reality. One of the reasons the CBC broke the law was to help patients avoid taking to the city’s streets and parks to obtain their medicine where they were forced to pay inflated prices to purchase marijuana that could contain mold or chemicals, particularly dangerous to patients with compromised immune systems. Even the privileged socialite Millie was forced to travel from Pacific Heights to the Mission’s Dolores Park where she has to pay “street prices.”
In the final panel, Trudeau zeros his attack directly towards the Attorney General. Seems that Lacey has know Lungren’s family for years, not surprising given that Lungren’s daddy was the personal physician to Nixon. Millie replies, “Then you should know he has a heart like a peach pit!” Always a true friend, Lacey offers to talk to “Danny’s” mother.
Throughout the coming year, ACT UP Archives will continue highlighting the historic development of marijuana legalization and the courageous work made of a coalition of patients and activists that was at its heart. Among the topics we will explore include the surveillance that was conducted on the CBC and its patients, how a gay police officer was involved in the Club’s closure and how the city tried to respond to the crisis created by the club’s closure.
SF Chronicle article “State Raids Marijuana Buyers’ Club” Aug. 8, 1996.
SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11
SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11
The full text of Lungren’s criticism of Doonesbury comic strip. Click image to enlarge.