Today would have been the 50th birthday of my dear friend and ACT UP San Francisco comrade David Pasquarelli who was taken from us not only too soon but under most distressful circumstances. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve tried a number of times to compose something in remembrance of David but none of it felt right.
Too often the pain and sorrow of his death prevented the abundance of joy, wisdom and compassion that was so much a part of David from coming to the fore. Or I ended up writing more about my own experience of sharing his friendship through the tumultuous years of fighting AIDS.
While neither of those are necessarily bad (and may indeed find their proper place somewhere here on ACT UP Archives), my desire is to honor David in a way that connects not only with those who knew and loved him but also those who never had that chance. Though his activism was often stereotyped as dangerous or violent, the truth is that David Pasquarelli gave all he had because of a deep love for humanity that would not allow him to remain silent in the face of injustice.
There are so many things I miss about David, from the physical (his dazzling smile, his beautiful blue eyes) to the cultural (his impeccable taste in music and clothes), but most of all I miss his voice. Not just the soft sound of his speech but what he articulated––the intelligence and historical import, the power and hope which we all received from his impassioned participation.
To say that the loss of David’s voice robs me, robs all of us, of an essential element is an overwhelming understatement. Not only did he make sense of the chaos during those desperate times and provide moral clarity in a culture of greed, David’s voice help to unite us in response to what was at that time was the threat of extinction for gay men.
If the slogan Silence=Death was a gauntlet thrown down by ACT UP New York, then it was up to each of us to not only speak our truth but challenge injustice, to use our mind, body and voice as an obstacle to destruction.
David’s courage, intelligence, artistry and empathy for the marginalized remains a benchmark for what these days is termed social justice activism. I’m not sure what David would make of today’s dystopian world (other than the fact that he, more than anyone I knew, would have excelled with the myriad technological advances). I know that whatever he would be doing, it would be grounded in helping others and preserving the rich legacy of queer history.
The black button with a pink triangle that hangs above my writing desk reminds me Silence=Death. In the case of David Pasquarelli, and many others who gave their lives in the fight against AIDS, that prophecy was made true for only a force as insurmountable as death could have silenced his shinning, valiant voice. Thanks to the material that remains in the ACT UP Archives, there is ample documentation. I look forward to sharing more of that with you all.
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.
Though technically not from the ACT UP archives, I’m posting this clip as it fits in with ACT UP’s themes of working in coalition and resistance to oppression. Poet Neeli Cherkovski’s “Eviction: One More Beautiful Day” is a powerful evocation of what’s being lost in the rise of greed and evictions in San Francisco. It’s also a testament to the spirit of those citizens who continue to protest the unstoppable corporatization of the city. Inspired by Neeli’s poem, I sought to bring his words to life on the streets of the city, through the voices of friends active in challenging the economic forces responsible for selling out the soul of San Francisco.
Eviction: One More Beautiful Day
one more beautiful day
in the City of San Francisco
with its bridges and the bay
famous cuisine and picturesque
Chinatown, sprawling park
with green lawns…
a new layer of fog
mantled over Twin Peaks
to the trolley tracks on Market
five gulls tackled by a steady breeze
perfect hour for an eviction
a clear, stern decision handed down
on a quiet avenue where the Google Bus purrs cat-like, contented
picking up young crusaders
with matching back packs, newly armed
the gulls hardly notice as the buses
pull out for a green campus to the south
an elder? a family?
single mother? houseful of orderlies? the
clerk who hands out change at the local market?
four gulls circling the intersection
and then a sky of crows,
avian order quite sublime
under a veneer of cumulus,
the city still has skunks and badgers,
feral cats, coyote
thousands and thousands
replaced by monolithic technology
ah, there’s no turning back – architects
feast on air rights
oh San Francisco,
once the city of poets
Presidio swept clean – museums expanded –
old hotels purified of the poor, shadows vaulted
into unknown precincts beyond the gate
picture pristine and proper neighborhoods
enjoy sterile rows of research and development –
learn to live forever and never face decrepitude –
a new breed of chefs
concoct salmon salad on an arugula bedding,
Zinfandel secreted in a rib eye steak –
wine bars where the decision-makers
nod as the wine is poured, sloshed in a glass,
attend the symphony gala
as the vulnerable sink, as many go hungry
in a grid of wealth, in a town of banks
dispossession is a misery the rich do not need to see,
they may root for the Giants – take pride in the signs
of progress – hit the ball out of the park
and hearts swell past a vacated room that once gave shelter
those of you who must go
leave in silence, please make the premises
clean as you walk out of the front door,
don’t steal anything
lost, dizzied by unfeeling hands
you may walk for a moment
in the glorious neighborhoods
soon to be renamed, the Mission now the Quad,
all the cafes shaped like laptops
for the divine children of privilege
you may stay for a moment
but then you must leave, vanish
gulls come out of the fog
with bracelets of air on their claws
and the crows have re-grouped
a civil city no more
The last fifteen years has seen unprecedented legal gains for American queers. While participation in marriage and the military are now options for gays and lesbians who value such institutions, the increasing visibility of queer youth in public schools is proving to be one of the most revolutionary aspects of such anti discrimination legislation. When we protect the rights of youth to express their developing sexuality and gender, we create a more compassionate and just world. Society benefits from the unique gifts these people can contribute to an increasingly monolithic culture.
In 2001, when I heard that a series of biographies about notable gays and lesbians in history were not being allowed on the library shelf at Orangeview Junior High School, the issue couldn’t have hit closer to home. Not only was I a graduate of the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) but also my Mother was a high school English teacher in the district. Orangeview was located directly across the street from the Methodist church where I was an acolyte as a youth. Though the ACLU had become involved, I knew that the issue needed to be taken to the street.
Thanks to my dear queer comrade Mira Ingram, also an OC native, a demonstration was planned outside the school. It was imperative that students and administrators know this issue resonated with folks outside the Republican confines of Orange County. The controversy at Orangeview spoke to the issue of representation. Both the head and assistant librarians for the school were lesbian and gay respectively. It was becoming clear that the assumption by heterosexual educators that positive queer role models could be bleached from the school system was waning. No longer could they hold control of the cultural representation of queer people.
Here is an audio clip from an interview I did to promote the demonstration. I’ve left in a number of the pro-censorship callers in the second half of the piece, as they illustrate the true agenda of such bigotry. The argument that twelve-year-old students are too young to be “exposed” to such material shows the callers’ entrenched homophobia. In their darkened minds the material is a direct route to gay recruitment to such a vulnerable age group. How is it possible to understand the life of James Baldwin or Martina Navratilova without mentioning their homosexuality? Better to just remove it is their viewpoint.
The books stayed on the shelf but at the high school level. The demonstration gathered local press coverage and gave at least this one queer a chance to channel an attack on free speech and queer history into an open dialogue about what best serves the needs of queer youth navigating their way through a treacherous education system.
ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — February 1, 2001
OC Activists Say School’s Out for Homophobia
Heated discussion turns to spirited dialogue as students join in protesting homophobic book ban at Orangeview Junior High
ANAHEIM – A group of fifty people protested against the homophobic book banning at Orangeview Junior High with Ban the Ban on Thursday, February 1. Protesters included people from such organizations as Liberate Orange County, ACT UP San Francisco, Queer Nation, PFLAG, Libertarian Party, OC Youth Drop-In Center, Loyola Marymount University Gay/Straight Alliance, teachers from several Orange County school districts and students from several Orange County schools.
As Orangeview students left school, protesters cheerfully greeted them with balloons, fake tattoos, stickers, rainbow-colored pencils that read “Don’t Censor Me!,” and flyers that explained the book ban at their school, with a list of 100 famous lesbians and gay men on the back. Flyers and pencils were so popular with students, all were handed out within the first ten minutes. Demonstrators held signs that read, “Ban Bigotry, Not Biographies,” “End Censorship,” and “Open Books, Not Closed Minds.” What had been planned as a brief 30-minute action turned in to a 90 minute dialogue and discussion between students and protesters.
Chelsea House, who publishes the series of banned books, donated biographies of poet Sappho, actress Marlene Dietrich, and economist John Maynard Keynes to Ban the Ban to distribute at the protest. The books are part of the series “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians” that was banned from the school library by the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). The AUHSD claims the books were banned because they are too complex for junior high students. Additionally they claim students who check them out could be bullied, despite a recent California law prohibiting harassment of students on the basis of sexual orientation. Protesters demanded the books be returned to the library, and that the school enforce anti-gay harassment law.
Activists were shocked to learn the school administration had announced on the school PA system that students were to immediately go home after school. Administrators also warned students not to talk protesters or the media, despite the fact that the protest took place after school and off school property.
“If it’s not on school time or property, the school has no right to tell students who they can or can’t talk to,” said Mira Ingram of Liberate Orange County. “I was pleasantly surprised at the response of students who said they wanted the series of books on their library shelves. Many of the students were fully aware that their school is trying to violate their civil rights.”
School officials were punishing some students with Saturday School, four hour Saturday detention, for talking to protesters and the media. Despite these threats, 150 students joined the protest and made their own signs. One student-made sign read, “Gay is Cool,” and another asked “What Next, Ban the Bible?” While protesters answered questions from some students, other students spontaneously started their own chants. Dancing students chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Censorship Has Got to Go,” and “Teach, Don’t Preach.”
One student told protesters she was there because her uncle was fired from his job for being gay. Many others expressed similar sentiments. Students lined up to sign a petition for the AUHSD school board demanding they return the banned books to the school library.
“What surprised me most was how eager students were to know more about what’s going on,” said Queer Nation’s Todd Swindell, an Orange County native who came down from San Francisco to attend the protest. “In fact, some of the most vocal supporters were straight students. They appreciated being listened to rather than being lectured. Let the students make up their own minds.”
Energized activists vowed to remain vocal on the issue until the books are returned to the Orangeview library. In addition, they are donating the biographies from Chelsea House to the Orange County Youth Drop-In Center, where youth will be free to read them without the threat of them being banned.