Not-So-Civil War: The Controversy Stirred Up by Renegade AIDS Activists in San Francisco Is Just One of Many Distractions from an Increasingly Crucial Question: Can AIDS Prevention Programs Be Fixed? (Aids)

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It was a scene that once would have made advocates for people with AIDS explode into the streets. On November 28 two well-known San Francisco AIDS activists, David Pasquarelli and Michael Petrelis, were arrested, handcuffed, and thrown into jail. Their crimes? Violating a restraining order and stalking the targets of their protests. The men were each locked up in lieu of $500,000 bail--an unusually large bond, generally reserved for those charged with violent crimes.

But the nation's most prominent AIDS lobbyists--some of whom had risked arrest themselves in the past--did not rally to the side of the imprisoned firebrands. In fact, many cheered the crackdown. "Throw away the keys," says Jeff Getty, a well-known San Francisco AIDS activist who has crossed swords with the two men. "Pasquarelli and Petrelis are the Al Qaeda of AIDS."

"I don't even want to be in a story that calls these guys `AIDS activists,'" adds Jeff Sheehy, a spokesman for the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. "It is an abuse of language to call these terrorists `activists.'"

Pasquarelli could not be reached for comment, but speaking from the San Francisco jail, Petrelis tells The Advocate that he has been targeted "because I have raised serious questions about the work of AIDS prevention groups and health officials who want to crack down on private sex lives of gay men. Never in my wildest dreams could I have believed they would go this far to shut us up."

Coming during the 20th-anniversary year of the AIDS epidemic, the arrests have highlighted a growing nationwide debate about the future of AIDS prevention. After years of steady decline, the rate of new HIV infections is spiking upward, alarming epidemiologists and gay leaders alike. And there is little, if any, consensus about how to reinvigorate prevention campaigns, which have begun to fail on deaf ears among many gay men.

At the same time, AIDS service groups are facing troubling questions about their funding. In November, acting in part on tips from Petrelis, federal officials deemed "obscene" two forums put on by Stop AIDS Project of San Francisco that sought to eroticize safer sex, and Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson announced that HHS would scrutinize federal funding for all AIDS prevention campaigns. Jumping on the bandwagon, three Republican congressmen wrote to Thompson charging that some moneys now being spent for AIDS education programs "could be better used for our War on Terrorism."

In the emotionally charged environment of San Francisco AIDS politics, Petrelis and Pasquarelli themselves have drawn allegations of terrorism. Pasquarelli, 34, does not believe that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Petrelis, 42, accepts the nexus between HIV and AIDS but contends that the threat of transmission among gay men has been wildly exaggerated. He also believes that the AIDS prevention efforts aimed at gay men are thinly veiled attempts to quash sexual liberation. Both men describe a vast conspiracy they have dubbed "AIDS Inc." among federal health officials, the San Francisco Department of Health, and nonprofit AIDS service groups to repress the sex lives of gay men.

"Petrelis and Pasquarelli are the loudest proponents of denialism about the reality of AIDS, and they tap into a deep Suspicion among some gay men of what the scientific and medical establishment is telling them about unsafe sex," says longtime AIDS activist Gabriel Rotello, author of Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men. "They have succeeded in muddying the waters enough about the dangers HIV continues to pose that some men feel relatively comfortable ignoring the dire news about new infections."

Citing litigation against Pasquarelli and Petrelis, Tom Coates, director of UCSF's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and a frequent target of their ire, declined to comment for this article. But in an interview with Gay. …


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