The True Believer

DAVID PASQUARELLI SITS QUIETLY, his hands folded in his lap. In his sunny lower Haight apartment, the young activist offers ice tea to his guests. He is soft-spoken and polite. He is on his best behavior.

He does not resemble the image of a man with 52 civil restraining orders, who stormed into meetings full of gay men dying of AIDS, knocking over chairs and pelting speakers with pills while reportedly shouting “Die faggots, die.”

But this is Pasquarelli, the ACT UP San Francisco member who believes that HIV is not the cause of AIDS and who will go to almost any length to prove his opponents wrong.

The 34-year-old man with soft blue eyes and a shaved head finds it unbelievable that anyone would blindly accept what he calls the great HIV lie spewed by AIDS, Inc., that machine of nonprofits in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies that try to shove toxic pills down the throats of gay men and poor Africans.

For what he believes, he will face a jury in May on 11 felonies and seven misdemeanors, including stalking, harassment and criminal threats. He will have to defend the in-your-face tactics that he calls civil disobedience — but District Attorney Terence Hallinan labels terrorism and a slew of local AIDS activists regard as violent, abusive and outright dangerous behavior.

And yet as he sits there in his apartment it is hard to picture the terrorist, the maniac, the loose cannon who called public health officials, journalists and AIDS researchers in the middle of the night and screamed unspeakable obscenities, leaving his victims cowering in fear.

Growing up gay

This so-called menace to society grew up in a leafy, middle-class Pittsburgh suburb, the son of a union labor attorney and a hospital nurse. He was a bright kid who got good grades, carried around a microscope and drew lots of pictures.

Because he was small and skinny, he was an easy target for kids’ cruel humor. During one three-week period in the third grade he was called “faggot” and “pervert” every time he got on the school bus.

No matter. He got over it. He made lots of friends in high school, joined the Botany Club and the school band, stayed away from drugs and came home on time. He liked Boy George, Culture Club and Joan Crawford. That was enough to get you picked on as a teenager in suburban Pittsburgh. But even if Pasquarelli was a geek, he had his circle of friends. Not the popular ones, mind you — his friends were the outsiders.

His younger sister, Andrea Pasquarelli, remembers peering out of her bedroom window one night. Her brother had come home late and was standing in the driveway crying. The windows on her father’s red sports car had been smashed.

She wouldn’t find out what really happened until years later. Some kids who knew he was gay — even though his family didn’t — had taken a baseball bat to the car.

Sick and tired

We have lunch at Queztal on Polk Street a few days after meeting at his apartment. Pasquarelli has a smoothie, a spinach salad — no nuts, he’s allergic — and soup.

He is armed. His ammunition is carefully organized newspaper clippings. There is the recent Rolling Stone article which disputes AIDS statistics in Africa and the Washington Monthly story where the Department of Public Health’s Jeffrey Klausner discusses quarantines for gay men who continually insist on spreading HIV by not wearing condoms.

Klausner later said he was misrepresented, but it was too late for Pasquarelli and independent AIDS activist Michael Petrelis. The article sent them into a phone-calling frenzy that would land them in jail for 72 days on $1.1 million bail.

“Gay men are on the brink of quarantine!” Pasquarelli declares.

But he can’t put all of his energy into that argument today. He has collapsed twice since being released from jail two weeks earlier. He is exhausted and malnourished and a recent blood test shows he’s anemic. He felt fine before all of this.

He says it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he is HIV positive. In fact, his stay in jail bolsters his theory that it’s not AIDS that’s killing people — it’s malnutrition, dehydration, stress, a poor environment and those horrible toxic drugs.

It cannot be disputed that the drugs have horrendous side effects. They can be seen on the faces and worn bodies of men in the Castro. There are the hunchbacks, the hollowed-out faces, the brittle bones and the heart attacks afflicting men far too young. AIDS workers are well aware of this. But they also know that many others might not have lived this long without these drugs.

Pasquarelli doesn’t buy it.

“I feel confident that the dissidents are right and AIDS will just be seen as another tragic chapter in the U.S. health policy,” he says pointedly. “HIV does not cause AIDS, the antibody test is flawed, and drugs like AZT and protease inhibitors kill.”

He is sick, he says, but he’ll get better. And to help him get better, he is starting to take DNCB, a controversial photographic chemical that ACT UP S.F. endorsed to boost the cellular immune system as a way to fight off AIDS way back when they believed HIV was the cause of AIDS. The chemical is seen as quackery by the mainstream AIDS establishment, but Pasquarelli thinks it works.

He’s not using it for HIV, however. He doesn’t believe in the virus, remember? He’s taking it for its immune-boosting capabilities, and he wants me to know he also is taking vitamin supplements and eating healthy foods.

Acting up

The activism bug bit at Penn State University, where he was a resident adviser in the school dorms and studied graphic design. He got involved with the gay rights group on campus, but it wasn’t until he made it to Florida that activism really took hold.

It was the time of the Gulf War and AIDS, and activism was flaring up on campuses across the country. Pasquarelli got a job as resident director at a small conservative Catholic school just outside of Tampa, Fla.

It was there he learned about ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the in-your-face activist group started by Larry Kramer that was rabble-rousing across the country, and he helped to start a local chapter.

While he was interested in furthering the AIDS cause, it was the propaganda and the demonstrations that Pasquarelli found the most exciting.

“After the first couple of actions, I was hooked,” he says.

Don Bentz, president of Pride Tampa Bay, remembers Pasquarelli from the Florida days.

Bentz was impressed when Pasquarelli turned in a proposal to update the local school board curriculum to include instruction on sexually transmitted diseases. It was so detailed, so organized. This was a bright guy headed places. But when the school board was resistant to his plans, Bentz says, Pasquarelli snapped.

A group of ACT UP members dressed as skeletons, carried a fake coffin into the next school board meeting and went wild. Then they began pelting the school board members with unwrapped condoms. The event made headlines, and Pasquarelli got a taste of big-time activism and having his face in the papers.

“Instead of it being about HIV and AIDS and prevention, everything became about protests and how many times David could get on camera,” Bentz says. “The message was: I’m David Pasquarelli, I’m ACT UP, and I’m pissed.”

In early 1993, Pasquarelli met Michael Bellefountaine, a long-time ACT UP member, at a function in Florida where a Libertarian was trying to garner support by touting the fact that his party believed that homosexuality was a victimless crime.

Did he just say homosexuality was a crime?

Pasquarelli was on the guy, shouting him down. Bellefountaine joined in the chorus of fury, and they became best friends. Six months later, they packed up and headed for the gay mecca.

Back in Africa

David Pasquarelli doesn’t want you to see him angry. He doesn’t want you to see it in his eyes.

When you ask him about the stories in South Africa about men raping virgins because traditional healers say that is one way to cure AIDS, he averts his eyes.

He is mad at me. He is simmering, somehow managing to cork his fury. How could I buy into the lies? Am I that ignorant? Could I be so racist? Could I be that stupid to believe that these people actually go to sangomas, more commonly known in the West as witch doctors?

“That is one of the most egregious rumors that is being promoted by the pharmaceutical industry and others to force Africans to feel ashamed and push these drugs,” he tells me, his voice shaking. “I think it’s totally unacceptable and it pains me to no end to hear these stories repeated — these notions that these black Africans are sexually unrestrained nd are spreading HIV, going to kooky witch doctors. The West has done a number on Africa. I will never believe it.”

He just doesn’t buy any of it. Pasquarelli is a true believer.

S.F. here they come

Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine had heard about the great feats of ACT UP San Francisco, but by the time they got to The City, the group was small and dysfunctional. It was an easy takeover.

Rebecca Hensler, a member of the old ACT UP S.F., remembers when the boys from Florida arrived. She recalls Pasquarelli’s explosive temper.

“When he got frustrated in political debate, he would suddenly start yelling and cursing,” Hensler said. “It didn’t look like it was under his control.”

The men attended meetings of ACT UP S.F. and ACT UP Golden Gate, involving themselves in both groups, trying to push through what they thought were good policies. But they couldn’t make headway, either within ACT UP or the larger AIDS community. They were alienated from the get-go.

“We were a problem from the day we walked into this town,” Bellefountaine says. “We were Johnny-come-latelies, we are obviously organized, we are on the move, so, we were a problem. We needed to be neutralized, when we could have just as easily been absorbed.”

They became a thorn in the side of the AIDS community. In the end, they stuck with ACT UP S.F. and built up a group in their own image. They began to get interested in alternative therapies and started to question the toxicity levels of AIDS drugs such as AZT.

They stirred up trouble everywhere they went, disrupting AIDS meetings all over town, shouting at AIDS workers on the streets, dumping used cat litter on the head of Pat Christen, executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and fake blood on researchers at a Vancouver AIDS conference.

April 1, 1995

On April Fool’s Day in 1995, everything changed. That was the day that Pasquarelli found out he was HIV positive.

Pasquarelli walked around The City for three days, crying hysterically.

“I was not promiscuous, I did not inject drugs,” he says. “There was no indication that I would test positive. I didn’t understand the test.”

So he went to work to figure it out, taking time off from ACT UP S.F. He started reading dissident literature, including that of Peter Duesberg, the Berkeley retrovirologist known for his theory that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

Equipped with his research, Pasquarelli was ready to act up again, this time as a dissenter.
But is he violent?

“David Pasquarelli is misguided, erratic, irrational and ultimately dangerous,” says Michael Lauro, a longtime AIDS activist.

Lauro is one of the founding members of Aids Activists Against Violence and Lies, a local group that was formed after ACT UP S.F. upset a Project Inform discussion in April 2000 that landed several ACT UP members in court and left Pasquarelli with three misdemeanors on his record. Those counts are currently on appeal.

While Sam Pasquarelli doesn’t think much of his son’s tactics — it’s not really his style of communication — or his son’s stance on AIDS, David Pasquarelli’s father is certain about one thing. His son wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“I can believe that he could get into a heated conversation,” Sam Pasquarelli said. “But hurt somebody? Blow up a building? Not on your life.”

Only one activist formally accused Pasquarelli of assault — he was found innocent of the charges in court — but others say they endured years of verbal abuse that left them living in fear. Pasquarelli maintains he would never be violent.

“I avoid violence like the plague,” he said. “I don’t like to fight, I’m not an aggressive person.”

Bentz of Tampa Bay Pride, however, thinks Pasquarelli needs to be stopped.

“I’m surprised that he hasn’t done something more violent,” Bentz said. “If somebody doesn’t do something to stop him, he is going to hurt somebody.”

Back at the space

Bellefountaine has just made himself some potato latkes and is settling into a busy day.

It is Client Appreciation Day at “the space,” the ACT UP S.F. office and medical marijuana dispensary on the edge of the Castro, where pot is sold to people with HIV. Their 1,400-client base will get 20 percent off today. The green bud business generates upwards of $1.2 million a year, helping to fund ACT UP S.F. activities.

He takes some time out. I ask if he is worried about his best friend’s health.

He’ll get better soon, says Bellefountaine. He just needs some rest and good food to recuperate from being in jail. It’s not what you think.

“People get sick and die, and they don’t have HIV,” says the 37-year-old, who has lymphoma. “If David were to die tomorrow, I would want an autopsy.”

Along with his friend, he will never, ever believe the lie.

But Pasquarelli is rethinking some things. He wants to settle down with this boyfriend, Steve Huggins, maybe apply to law school.

“Maybe it is time for a tactical change,” he muses. “It was not my intention to frighten anybody.”

That is difficult to believe. Especially if you hear some of the tapes of his voice left on answering machines of AIDS workers. They reveal a Pasquarelli sharp and clear and full of vehemence.

“Listen you syphilitic scumbag, you’re not going to put homosexuals in cages in this town,” one message screeches, “so you and your little dog better wake up and better make sure the quarantine by Jeffrey Klausner does not become the political reality of San Francisco if you want to walk the streets.”

Pasquarelli says he’s just a man who is passionate about what he believes and wants the world to understand his truth.

“I can’t bite my tongue, and I can’t keep my mouth shut,” he says. “That’s my number one problem — or blessing.”

A jury will have to decide.

– March 4, 2002, San Francisco Examiner