Celebrating Michael Bellefountaine’s 50th Birthday with the Ebook Release of A Lavender Look at the Temple

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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.

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AIDS activist Michael Bellefountaine marches in Portland, Maine’s gay pride march circa 1990.

LavenderLookPFS copyDuring 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.

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.”

LavenderLookPRS copyMichael’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.

Season-Of-The-Witch-CoverThe 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!

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ACT UP member Michael Bellefountaine participating in Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, circa 2002.

 

Remembering David Pasquarelli – The Boy With The Thorn In His Side

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 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.

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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.

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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 and positively gay David Pasquarelli

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 in the early 1990s.

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

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.”

the-smiths-the-boy-with-the-thorn-in-his-side3 copyAs 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.

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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.

Celebrating Ronnie Burk’s 60th Birthday

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                                   Photo-Mantic
                                   I was Born
                                   bonsai-ed
                                   in a Texas Town
                                   fifty years
                                   before the Great War
                                   burnt holes
                                   in the ceiling of
                                   the World
                                                   – from the poem “1996” by Ronnie Burk

 

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Ronnie Burk, Marin Headlands. Photo © 1999 Tate Swindell

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.

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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.

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Ronnie Burk reading at ACT UP SF’s Open Revolt poetry reading, Aug. 2000. Photo © Victoria Grace.

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

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“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.

 

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Letter to the editor. Bay Area Reporter. May 1, 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michael Bellefountaine’s Impassioned AIDS Activism

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Michael Bellefountaine is carried away by police in an ACT UP Maine protest against AIDS and the Iraq War, Jan. 23, 1991.

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.

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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.

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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.

Portland Press Herald Jan. 24, 1991

Portland Press Herald Jan. 24, 1991

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Portland Press Herald April 25, 1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Medical Marijuana Was No Laughing Matter

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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.

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.

SF Chronicle Oct. 3, 1996. Cartoon by Tom Meyer

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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 pages 1, 11

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full text of Lungren’s criticism of Doonesbury comic strip. Click image to enlarge.

SF Chronicle Oct. 2, 1996

Ronnie Burk’s AZT Death Grove

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The history of AIDS drug development is rife with conflict of interest and greed. While the last ten years has seen improved success with the efficacy and tolerance of AIDS treatments, it’s important to remember the complacency and corruption that preceded it– a fact made clear by the lethal legacy of AZT.

When the AIDS Memorial Grove was established in Golden Gate Park in 1996, ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk saw a chance to call attention to the lives lost to AIDS drug toxicity. AZT, the first federally approved AIDS treatment, was authorized on the basis of 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

Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk reclaims the AIDS Memorial Grove in memory of the lives lost to AZT poisoning. Photo by Mira Ingram.

Chicano Surrealist poet Ronnie Burk reclaims the AIDS Memorial Grove in memory of the lives lost to AZT poisoning. Photo by Mira Ingram © 1996

Having lost a companion to AZT poisoning in the late 1980s, Ronnie felt an urgency to honor the horrible truth behind these deaths. A cancer chemotherapy that was shelved for being too toxic, AZT was dusted off in 1987 and aggressively promoted to a sick and desperate community. Many people with AIDS and HIV were pressured into taking AZT by organizations who received grants from its manufacturer. Anemia and weight loss were among its debilitating side effects. After its use in the gay community waned, AZT was exported to Africa and administered to pregnant women despite being known to cause birth defects.

Flyer by ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk in response to the 1998 Intl. AIDS Conference in Geneva.

Flyer by ACT UP SF member Ronnie Burk in response to the 1998 Intl. AIDS Conference in Geneva. Click to enlarge.

As a Chicano Surrealist poet, Ronnie brought a theatrical element to his informed and impassioned activism. Using the imagery of skulls and black cloth associated with Día de los Muertos, Ronnie visited the grove early on the foggy morning of Nov. 4, 1996 to transform it into a haunting tribute to the many lives needlessly sacrificed for profit and greed. There are those who feel strongly that we should not look back at the brutal legacy of AIDS drug development but instead simply be grateful for the longevity of people with AIDS living today. ACT UP Archives seeks to dispel such divisive viewpoints with an understanding that there is not only room but need for both when it comes to telling the history of AIDS.

Appreciation is given to ACT UP SF member Mira Ingram who filmed the action and generously provided the footage to the ACT UP Archives.

Photo by Mira Ingram.

Photo by Mira Ingram © 1996

Collage by Ronnie Burk for Día des los Muertos 1995.

Collage by Ronnie Burk for Día de los Muertos © 1995

For more information about the AZT scandal, this 1993 exposé for UK’s Meditel program Dispatches remains an excellent resource:

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — November 4, 1996

ACT UP San Francisco Protestors Transform National AIDS Monument Into “AZT Death Grove”
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AIDS activists’ somber Day of the Dead action at AIDS Memorial Grove mourns those lost to AZT poisoning; protests aggressive marketing of experimental treatments.

San Francisco – Shrouded by dense fog in the early morning hours, members of ACT UP SF made their way to the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, draped the monument with black cloth and renamed the site “The AZT Grove” in observance of Day Of the Dead. AIDS activists from the militant, direct action organization staked paper skulls looking like Aztec glyphs and death certificates condemning San Francisco Health Director Sandra Hernandez’s promotion of toxic, experimental agents around the nationally recognized monument.

“AZT and other toxic AIDS drugs have killed off a whole generation of my friends and lovers. We will not stand in silence and watch the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry murder another generation of young men all for profit,” said HIV-positive activist and artist Ronnie Burk who conceptualized the action.

ACT UP members are upset that the San Francisco Department of Public Health is railroading an eight million dollar package this coming week for pharmaceutical and administrative services for the promotion and dispensing of the experimental protease inhibitors.

“Sanctioned murder is still murder,” commented ACT UP demonstrator Mira Ingram. “It is insidious that the DPH is rushing ahead to squander millions on drugs that not only don’t cure but kill.” ACT UP SF has demanded that City Supervisors and DPH officials participate in an immediate public debate on the merits and dangers of antiviral therapy. Recent comments from Donald Abrams, Head of the FDA Antiviral Committee and Director of the AIDS Program at SF General Hospital, revealed that his patients “have watched friends go on the antiviral bandwagon and die so they’ve chosen not to take any antiretrovirals.” Despite such grim reports, Dr. Sandra Hernandez has stated publicly that she is ready to instruct her department to set system wide standards for provision of viral load testing and protease inhibitor drugs “by whatever means necessary” ACT UP members say this mixed message from city AIDS leaders signals a new wave of deadly toxic immunosuppressive therapies within the SF health care system.

“Dr. Hernandez has given us all ever more reasons for commemorating Day of the Dead. A year from now SF will return to the killing fields of the mid-80s. I remember it all too clearly. ACT UP SF will resist this force-feeding of poisons to the HIV positive, as in Dr. Hernandez’s words “by whatever means necessary,” stated 41 year old Burk as he placed paper skulls around the monument.

Press photos of the “AZT Death Grove” are available.

Queers Bash Back: Nuns Pie Homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps

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“We must confront religious hypocrites and let them know we will no longer be their victims. The gay community must unite to protect our safety and well being,” Sister Thelma of ACT UP SF’s Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN).

Thankfully this year has seen the death of homophobic preacher, the Reverend Fred Phelps. This maniacal leader of a mutant clan of so-called Christians from Topeka, Kansas made a name for himself by traveling with his family, many of whom are lawyers, across the nation preaching against “sodomite sin” with their neon colored signs proclaiming God Hates Fags. Several years ago, members of the family (Phelps had 13 children) who had left the church gave gruesome reports of the abuse they suffered.

When Phelps and his brood arrived at San Francisco’s City Hall in March,1999 to protest Mayor Willie Brown’s officiating of a mass domestic partner ceremony, ACT UP San Francisco decided to serve some just desserts in solidarity with the Biotic Baking Brigade. At the time three members of the BBB, including ACT UP SF member Gerry Livernois, were in jail for pieing Mayor Brown in protest of his discriminatory homeless policies.

Establishing the affinity group Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN), Sisters Thelma (Todd Swindell) and Louise (Victoria Grace) took to the streets of San Francisco armed with vegan pies in costumed resistance to the violent rhetoric of fundamentalist religious bigots. The following exclusive footage was generously provided to the ACT UP Archives by Agent Apple of the BBB:

Sisters Thelma and Louise of ACT UP San Francisco's Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN)

Sisters Thelma and Louise of ACT UP San Francisco’s Holy Order of Pieing Nuns (HOPN). Photo by David Pasquarelli © 1999

As radical queer activists, there is a proud tradition of pie throwing as non-violent political protest. Pieing seeks to deflate the position of power from which these destructive forces of bigorty operate by making them objects of ridicule. It empowers the LGBTQ community as a form of spiritual activism by transferring guilt and shame back to the true perpetrators of evil.

On Oct. 14,1977 in Des Moines, Iowa, gay pagan Thom Higgins threw a pie in the face of right-wing spokesperson Anita Bryant who was on a homophobic crusade to “save the children” from “dangerous queers” by eliminating our civil rights thereby condoning violent attacks against the LGBTQ community.

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Homophobic bigot Anita Bryant after being pied by gay activist Thom Higgins in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 14, 1977. Photo by Flint Born.

San Francisco Sentinel Nov. 3, 1977 — Page 8

Bay Area Reporter article from April 1, 1999 — Pages 1,19. Click images to enlarge.

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1. Click image to enlarge.

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1 & 19

Bay Area Reporter — April 1, 1999 Page 1 & 19. Click image to enlarge.

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — March 26, 1999

Pieing Nuns Cream Homophobic Reverend—————————————————————————     Fred Phelps targeted for ongoing campaign that incites violence against Queers

SAN FRANCISCO — An offshoot of the controversial direct action organization ACT UP San Francisco pied supporters of homophobic Reverend Fred Phelps this evening. Dessert was served by a duo known as the Holy Order of Pieing Nuns to protest the recent violent murders of gay men across the nation. Phelps and his clan held a rally tonight, carrying neon signs emblazoned with hate messages like “AIDS Cures Fags” and “GAY: Got AIDS Yet?” to protest Mayor Willie Brown’s officiating of a mass domestic partners ceremony at City Hall.

In defiance of the recent six month jail sentence handed down to Biotic Baking Brigade members who pied Mayor Brown, two activists dressed in nun’s habits tossed four organic vegan banana tofu pies into the Phelps’ entourage twisted faces of hate as part of “Operation: Second Phelping.” Citing heinous attacks on queers nationwide and the repression of political pie-protest in San Francisco, Sister Agents Thelma and Louise demanded that community members respond with anger and power to the very real and immediate threat of the religious right-wing.

No stranger to San Francisco, in 1994 Phelps attempted to picket the funeral of Randy Shilts, but was met by hundreds of angry and vocal demonstrators who, within seconds of his arrival, forced Phelps and his family to flee back to Topeka, Kansas. Recently Phelps, who travels to these “demonstrations” with his children and grandchildren, picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tied to a fence post, beaten, and left to die in Wyoming last year. Last summer, having picketed Metropolitan Community Church in the Castro, Phelps was met with paint balls from a concerned citizen.

“Queers have been tossing pies since Anita Bryant’s homophobic attacks on gays and lesbians in the late 1970’s. The venom spewed forth by Phelps and his ilk is no different,” stated pieing nun Sister Thelma. “From the vicious stabbing of Robert Hillsborough in the Mission district twenty years ago to last week’s slaying of Henry Northington, whose decapitated head was found impaled on a Virginia bridge, the hatred and violence remains. We must confront religious hypocrites and let them know we will no longer be their victims. The gay community must unite to protect our safety and well being.”

Eviction- Video Poem about San Francisco Gentrification

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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

eviction –
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,
yes excellent

attend the symphony gala
as the vulnerable sink, as many go hungry
in a grid of wealth, in a town of banks
and commerce

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

Neeli Cherkovski
© April 2014

Protesting Ban of Gay & Lesbian Biographies in Orange County Schools – 2001

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.

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Protestors and students gather outside Orangeview Jr. High on Feb. 1, 2001 to protest the banning of lesbian and gay biographies from the school’s library. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

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.

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Orangeview Jr High student’s sign questions the administrations banning of lesbian and gay biographies. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

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
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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.