Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Activist Michael Bellefountaine dies


Michael Bellefountaine in a 2001 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Activist and amateur historian Michael Bellefountaine, best known locally as a member of the controversial ACT UP/San Francisco, died Thursday, May 10 at St. Mary's Medical Center. He was 41.

According to Andrea Lindsay, a friend and fellow activist, Mr. Bellefountaine died of a sudden systemic infection, though the exact cause has not been determined.

Mr. Bellefountaine grew up in small town in southern Maine, where he attended Gorham High School and the University of Maine. In 1989, he got involved with ACT UP, traveling by bus to meetings and actions in Boston and New York before co-founding a Maine chapter. In 1991, he helped organize a demonstration at the home of then-President George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, to protest Bush's lack of action on AIDS.

In 1990, Mr. Bellefountaine moved to Florida, where he worked with ACT UP groups in Sarasota and Tampa. There, he met fellow activist David Pasquarelli, and the two men moved to San Francisco together in 1993. They soon joined ACT UP/SF – which had dwindled in size after a new chapter, ACT UP/Golden Gate, split off in 1990 to focus on HIV treatment issues – and began promoting the use of dinitrochlorobenzene (DNCB), a photographic chemical, as an immune-boosting therapy for people with AIDS. Pasquarelli died in March 2004.

Over time, Mr. Bellefountaine – who himself tested positive for the virus in 1995 and was later diagnosed with lymphoma – began to question the medical consensus that HIV causes AIDS, arguing instead that AIDS symptoms were due to recreational drug use and the side effects of antiretroviral medications such as AZT. He also criticized AIDS service organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, and was active in a campaign to reopen San Francisco bathhouses. At an AIDS dissident forum in 1999, he asserted that the "AIDS industry" had subverted the institutions set up by the gay community, and stated that, "People with HIV who are living healthy, vibrant lives should not be forced onto toxic therapies."

In the latter half of the 1990s, members of ACT UP/SF – who also sometimes used the name Queer Nation, long after the demise of the original SF QN chapter – adopted increasingly aggressive tactics, such as trashing the local Republican Party headquarters, overturning tables at a Project Inform fundraising dinner (during which Mr. Bellefountaine and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer came to blows), throwing fake blood on researchers at the 1996 International AIDS Conference in Vancouver, dumping used kitty litter (supplied by Mr. Bellefountaine's cats) on former San Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen, and disrupting numerous health department meetings and public hearings. Over the years Mr. Bellefountaine was subject to restraining orders and faced various criminal charges related to his activism.

Mr. Bellefountaine also became involved in the animal rights movement, getting arrested several times at protests around the country and enraging many AIDS activists with his opposition to the use of animals for medical research. At the 1996 March for Animals in Washington, D.C., he befriended Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who later provided financial support to ACT UP/SF.

Mr. Bellefountaine worked full-time at the ACT UP/SF medical marijuana dispensary on Market Street from its opening in 1998 until 2004, when he decided to pursue his interest in history and enrolled at San Francisco State University.

He took a particular interest in the history of local social movement groups, including the Black Panther Party and Jim Jones's People's Temple. At the time of his death, he was working on final revisions to A Lavender Look at the People's Temple, a book about queer members of that organization.

Mr. Bellefountaine – who grew up Catholic but later embraced his Jewish heritage – also became interested in the history of Mission Dolores Church, where he volunteered as an archivist, conducted research about individuals buried in the church cemetery, and worked as a teaching assistant for a church history class.

"Michael was an activist, a scholar, a rabble rouser, a proud member of the city's queer community and, sometimes, a pain the ass," said Lindsay. "Love or hate his politics, he dedicated his life to fighting for what he believed was right. San Francisco has lost a strong voice and the activist community has lost an unwavering friend."

Mr. Bellefountaine is survived by his mother and father, Dora and Ronald Bellefountaine, a brother, two sisters, and extended family and friends.

A memorial service will be held at Mission Dolores at noon on Saturday, May 26, followed by a gathering at 6 p.m. the ACT UP/SF space at 1884 Market Street.


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