By Michael Petrelis
The Man’s Country bathhouse is where I met Mel Bronfman and his lover Ed Armstrong when I was 17-years-old and discovering New York’s flourishing gay businesses, as a New Jersey teenager taking the bus into the city in the spring of 1976. They were in their early thirties and lived in a postage stamp-sized studio apartment on Perry Street, where we enjoyed good times together.
I moved to San Francisco in 1977, where in 1979 a housemate died of a host of unexplained infections LATER THOUGHT TO BE AIDS, returning to Manhattan in the late summer of 1980, and made a coffee-chat date with Mel. When he showed up at the cafe on Bleecker Street, his thin figure and lethargy were a shock. He was failing a regimen of flagyl for amoebiasis and soon was admitted to St. Vincent’s hospital where his parents barred me from visiting him.
After Mel died, they were monsters towards Ed and contested the will, trying to deny him personal heirlooms and money left to him by Mel.
A year later, the New York Times in July 1981 wrote about a rare cancer in dozens of homosexuals and friends asked if I was afraid of developing it. No, my youth would protect me, I foolishly reasoned.
In April of 1984, then-secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler held a news conference to declare, “The probable cause of AIDS has been found: a variant of a known human cancer virus.”
My roommate at the time, the late Martin Sumner, and I watched the evening news stories convinced that a test for the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome was within reach, and believed our federal government was looking out for us.
August 1985 is when I was diagnosed at NYU Hospital with full-blown AIDS. Martin urged me to do anything to become a patient of Dr. Joe Sonnabend, the leading doctor for people with AIDS in the city. Joe became my primary care physician and encouraged my nascent activism.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis lacked a publicly identified person with AIDS on their board of directors. They were in discussions with Michael Callen and others at the People With AIDS Coalition, about eventually appointing one of them a seat.
This didn’t sit well with me and I called Michael, saying he simply must show up at the next board meeting and force the directors to give him a seat, literally, for that meeting. He rejected my idea. Not his style and his PWAC board would not approve of it, but he saw the value of me attending the GMHC meeting.
The month of October 1985 was warm but the two NYPD officers who showed up at the GMHC offices wore winter gloves to arrest me for trespassing during the monthly board meeting. I did not go quietly and was denounced by GMHC executives as disruptive, hot-headed and radical, but PWAC leaders used the arrest to gain a seat at the table.
Recounting the arrest to Larry Kramer in February 1987, who was proud of my direct action at his enemies, when he sought my advice while developing his speech that launched ACT UP, he wanted more such challenges of AIDS groups. At his speech, most in the audience at the end were too drained or shocked to speak, but I was ready to propose a sit-in the following week at the Food and Drug Administration office in Brooklyn.
Fury and self-righteousness have carried me on my life-path, keeping me alive, exploded in an act of such monumental proportions executed with hundreds of protestors that the Vatican, the mayor and media elites condemned it.
Standing on a pew up in St. Patrick’s cathedral on December 10, 1989, bellowing above the din of the archbishop on the microphone and fellow ACT UP members chanting pro-gay, anti-clerical slogans, I hollered in a booming voice heard throughout the church, “Stop killing us!”
Over several minutes, when I wasn’t screaming, my whistle was between my lips emitting a shriek before two glove-wearing cops handcuffed me, then was pushed to the back of the cathedral. A reporter from the New York Times came over, asked questions, taking my name and age, and that is how I entered the history books at the end of my AIDS decade.
The author co-founded ACT UP, is a longtime HIV and queer community organizer, living in San Francisco with his husband Mike Merrigan.