Men Behaving Viciously

How ACT UP San Francisco spreads spit, fake blood, used cat litter, and potentially deadly misinformation through the AIDS community

ACT UP Tampa Bay wanted the Hillsborough County School Board to revise its sex education curriculum to include information on AIDS. Pasquarelli took the lead on the project, spending hours reviewing the school board's videos and written materials. The school board seemed receptive, so Pasquarelli and ACT UP Tampa Bay submitted a detailed proposal.

But board members, unaccustomed to discussing condoms, needle exchange, and other AIDS-related topics, hesitated. Pasquarelli got mad.

In May 1992, he, Bellefountaine, and other ACT UP Tampa Bay members dressed up as skeletons, complete with black cloaks and painted faces, and stormed a board meeting. They carried coffins, shouted, "Shame, Shame, Shame!" and pelted board members with (unused) condoms. Police arrived and escorted the skeletons outside.

Until that point, Dave Pasquarelli had a reputation as a thoughtful activist. Nadine Smith, one of the co-founders of ACT UP Tampa Bay, describes the early Pasquarelli as "polite to a fault with people, and very soft-spoken."

"There was no indication that his behavior would change so dramatically. He was a reasonable guy," says Smith, who co-chaired the 1993 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. "But gradually, he would launch these attacks."

From the school board meeting onward, Smith and other Tampa activists say, Pasquarelli's actions became increasingly extreme and destructive. Media attention seemed to be his paramount consideration. He began staging actions and speaking to reporters as a representative of ACT UP Tampa Bay without, former members say, the group's discussion or consent. And even when ACT UP discussed one of Pasquarelli's ideas and rejected it, he often went ahead anyway.

As Pasquarelli's "actions" escalated, several Tampa activists say they began to see a pattern emerging.

"He would seize on something, he would fume about it, and he would raise hell completely," says one of ACT UP Tampa's founders, who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation. "He'd never let the facts get in his way."

Nadine Smith says Pasquarelli criticized her for including ACT UP in her resume when she ran for city council in 1991. Later, she says, he accused her of the opposite sin -- trying to hide her association with the group.

"He just wanted confrontation," says Smith. "It didn't matter what the facts were anymore."

The incident at the school board had essentially deep-sixed ACT UP's sex education proposal. Pasquarelli's subsequent actions began to alienate people within the gay and AIDS communities. Gradually, these groups began to disassociate themselves from ACT UP Tampa Bay.

"Every other gay organization was afraid to get near them," says activist Don Bentz, who now heads Greater Tampa Bay Pride. "Thanks to some of the actions that Dave did, it was like, 'They're radical, they're insane. And lord forbid, if you do something they disagree with, they're going to come after you with a machete.'

"There comes a time when you just have to look at what you're doing and ask how effective you're being. There was no real message. It was just, 'I'm David Pasquarelli, and I'm angry.' "

For many in the Tampa activist community, the final straw fell in November 1992. Pasquarelli and several associates held a rally and painted the doors of City Hall red after Tampa voters decided against reinstating a part of the city's human rights ordinance that protected people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The morning after the election, Pasquarelli and his friends drove at single-digit speeds across the bridge that links Tampa and Hillsborough County with adjoining Pinellas County, blocking two lanes of traffic during the morning commute. Pinellas County residents were furious; they hadn't even voted on the measure.

A gay newspaper, the Suncoast Encounter, ran a commentary that satirized the protests.

And that made Pasquarelli mad, again -- so mad that, according to Suncoast Publisher Mike Sheldon, Pasquarelli and another man collected hundreds of copies of the paper and drove to Sheldon's home at 3 a.m. They placed the papers on a low wall bordering the home's front lawn and doused them with gasoline. Sheldon says he called the police and ran outside just as the two were ready to set the papers on fire.

Two months later, Pasquarelli and Bellefountaine left Florida, bound for San Francisco.

California, Here They Come
Bellefountaine says he and Pasquarelli moved to San Francisco because his friend and cohort was offered a job there. Pasquarelli makes no mention of the job, instead pointing to Tampa's religious right as the reason for the move.

"It came to the point where these organizations were coming to attack me personally. ... They were coming to the place where I worked," says Pasquarelli. "Every aspect of my life was under scrutiny because of these radical right people. In conservative rural America, it was really hard to exist as a queer."

Several people in Tampa remember things differently.
"He was basically ousted," says Bentz. "ACT UP Tampa Bay was really upset that he was shooting his mouth off to the press on issues the group hadn't discussed."

Whatever the reason or reasons for the move, Bellefountaine and Pasquarelli linked with ACT UP S.F. shortly after arriving in the city. It was a group in need of new blood.

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