Outcasts among AIDS activists

Sun Journal

Group: ACT UP San Francisco uses shock tactics to convey a radical message: Acquired immune deficiency syndrome does not exist.

February 28, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- Used kitty litter, fake blood, real spit -- the projectiles favored by ACT UP San Francisco are purposefully gross for maximum shock value.

Even more incendiary than the group's medium, though, is the message it seeks to convey with such brazen tactics: HIV does not cause AIDS and, in fact, AIDS doesn't exist.

In a city that is gay America's unofficial capital, this is like shouting in a synagogue that the Holocaust never happened. And with much the same expected result -- ACT UP SF is a pariah in the world of AIDS activism.

The founder of ACT UP (for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), playwright Larry Kramer, has denounced the chapter. Other AIDS groups shun it, with some refusing to even legitimize the group by rebutting their claims. Their fliers proclaiming "HIV is a Lie" and "AIDS is Over" are torn down almost as quickly as they're put up.

"They're hurting the community. They're not helping navigate this challenge," said Hank Wilson, an activist with a competing group, ACT UP Golden Gate.

ACT UP SF is not the only group to challenge the accepted view of this disease. But it is the most radical. They want the city's bathhouses, where gay men congregated, reopened. And they say AIDS is an invention of a homophobic society.

Befitting its outsider status, ACT UP SF operates out of a dark, graffiti- and flier-bedecked building on the far edge of the gay-dominated Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. It supports itself by operating a medical marijuana dispensary, where about 1,300 customers with their doctors' authorization to use pot for various medical conditions can buy the drug. The dispensary makes about $5,000 to $7,000 a month, which, with donations and merchandise sales, helps support ACT UP SF's activities.

About half the dispensary customers have acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the disease that ACT UP SF says doesn't exist.

"We see it as serving a community need, whether or not we agree with their diagnosis," said Michael Bellefountaine, one of the leaders of the group.

While Bellefountaine is notorious in town for his flagrant tactics -- he's a particularly enthusiastic spitter -- on this particular day he is rather tame, placidly rolling a joint and discussing his group's controversial ways.

"Our power is our ability to go into an office and [mess] it up," said Bellefountaine, whose group has shouted down opponents at meetings and thrown blueberry pies and fake blood on those considered part of the "AIDS orthodoxy."

Bellefountaine said such tactics are necessary for the group's message to be heard against the overwhelming chorus of those who promote the standard line on AIDS: that it is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, spread through sexual contact or the sharing of needles, must be treated with powerful drugs and is considered fatal.

Several members of the group say they are living proof that HIV does not cause AIDS -- they have tested positive for the virus, but are healthy despite the fact that they are not on drug therapy.

"We're supposed to suspend all logic," said Ronnie Burk, another leader of the group. "I was a sexually active young gay man in the '80s at the onset of AIDS," said Burk, 45. "I've remained healthy even though I'm HIV-positive."

Bellefountaine, 33, said he tested positive for HIV antibodies about five years ago and subsequently was diagnosed with AIDS, but he refuses to take the anti-viral drugs that his doctors have prescribed.

How quickly people, once infected with HIV, develop the disease varies widely, according to the National Institutes of Health. Usually, it takes 10 to 12 years for AIDS-related symptoms to develop, but about 20 percent of people infected will develop the disease earlier, and about 2 percent later. Life expectancy varies greatly, although with the advent of the newer anti-viral drugs in 1995, AIDS deaths have been cut dramatically -- a 44 percent decrease between 1996 and 1997.

But Burk and other members say AIDS is an invention that in part stems from society's homophobia. Under such stress, Burk said, many gay men abuse drugs and alcohol and otherwise lead unhealthy lives -- and that, rather than HIV, is why so many are ill.

"This is a socialized problem -- the hatred of gays, the bar world, drug abuse, the escalating violence against gay men, the self-destructive behavior, the fear of being exposed, the fear of HIV," he said. "Gay men are told they're public health threats. It's affected us psychologically."

To speak to members of ACT UP SF is to enter an alternative universe, one in which conventional wisdom about AIDS is upended. Members say AIDS is an umbrella term describing about 30 diseases or conditions that existed long before HIV was discovered and afflict even those who test negative for it.

AIDS experts say the group's message is simply wrong.

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