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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.