"I'm convinced that the nice approach has a place," Petrelis is protesting. At 37, he is stocky and chaotically handsome, and he talks so loudly that people at adjacent tables lean around their lattes to see what's going on. "It's just not my approach."
That's the truth. For more than a decade, Petrelis -- who recently and single-handedly forced the San Francisco Department of Public Health to start distributing the "female condom" to gay men, and then publicly lambasted the department for not adequately testing the device first -- has been hell-raising about AIDS.
And while his cross-country sojourn of tantrums, screaming fits, and fomentation have earned him respect in some circles, his scathing temper and self-appointed activism have produced derision and enmity in others. Now he's shaking a marijuana joint out of his cigarette package and lighting up. Inhaling, he watches the traffic on Market Street, ground zero of gay America, and he shrugs. A lifetime of power snits, and what?
"What else can be said at this point that hasn't already been said?" Petrelis asks. "Except: What about AIDS?"
But in San Francisco -- as in other cities where Petrelis has unfurled his particular paroxysmal pedantry -- people are asking a different question: What about Michael Petrelis?
"Michael is one of the most disruptive individuals I've ever confronted in this epidemic," says one AIDS organization staff member, who, like other people contacted for this story, declined to be named in fear of a Petrelis barrage of caustic home phone calls. "He just really, really attacks everyone all the time over everything."
"I'm sort of curious as to where he's going with all this," says a member of the S.F. Health Department AIDS office staff.
Indeed, San Francisco is becoming curiouser and curiouser about Petrelis, who moved here from Washington, D.C., about a year ago. Up until about two months ago, Petrelis had been taking a break from activism, he says, happy with his boyfriend and a job at the Cannabis Buyers Club. But around the middle of February, Petrelis appeared at the Department of Public Health to agitate about making the Reality Female Condom available to gay men through the city's health clinics. The condom, which fits in the anus or vagina for protection during receptive intercourse, is a $3 polyurethane device that has mainly been tested for heterosexual sex. Reality Female Condom has been found to have a 25 percent failure rate in preventing pregnancy -- as opposed to the 15 to 17 percent of latex condoms. Petrelis says he found out about it during a trip to Good Vibrations, tried it out, and liked it. When he found that the city was only making it available to women, Petrelis took issue.
"He came back here screaming and yelling that he was being discriminated against because he was a gay man," says the AIDS Office staffer.
The Health Department acceded to Petrelis' demands and issued a memorandum instructing that the condom be available to all those who asked. Then Petrelis publicly lambasted the Health Department -- in stories, in early April, about Reality in the Chronicle and Examiner -- for providing the condom to gay men without tests or instructions.
In a letter Petrelis wrote about the memorandum to Mitchell Katz, director of epidemiology for the Health Department's AIDS Office, Petrelis is in full stride:
"Your first sentence claims 'it has come to [y]our attention that male members of the community are using the female condom Reality as a protection against infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.' Whom exactly qualifies as a member of the unspecified 'community' you reference? Do you mean gay men? Straight men? Also, how did your work as Director of Epidemiology lead you to make this discovery and what are you doing to track those 'male members' as they experiment inserting Reality up their anal cavities?"
"The fourth sentence [of the memo authorizing the distribution of the condom to gay men] incorrectly asserts that 'studies on the use of Reality for this purpose have been limited, however, it appears to be effective.' Only a SINGLE phase 1 study of the polyurethane pouch was tested on gay men during anal sex as a barrier against HIV transmission in 1990."
Since Petrelis had lobbied hard to have Reality made available to gay men, his criticism of the department -- especially in the Chron and Ex stories -- for doing exactly that flabbergasted the staff.
"I was floored," says a member of the S.F. Health Department's AIDS Office. "I was speechless for about five minutes. It was a complete 180 back flip. It left us out there looking completely stupid."
"On the surface, yeah, it's been a 180," Petrelis says. "But I have always been demanding that the S.F. Health Department's AIDS Office hold public hearings on their work." Besides, he says, the Health Department shouldn't have listened to him in the first place: "I don't want a single abrasive bad guy setting Health Department policy, but that's what's happened."
If it seems like tortured logic to lobby for something, get it, criticize it, and then say you shouldn't have gotten it in the first place, well, that's Petrelis' style, as his long track record shows. Since 1985, when he says he first tested positive for what would become known as HIV, Petrelis has been agitating about AIDS. In New York, Washington, New Hampshire, and overseas in Japan, Petrelis has been a one-man manic mouthpiece about the epidemic, denouncing friends and foes alike.
In 1987, he spoke before a presidential advisory commission on AIDS; in 1988, he met then-candidate Michael Dukakis at an AIDS hospice in New York City; in 1990, working with ACT UP in Washington, D.C., he organized a national boycott aimed at Jesse Helms; in 1991, again with ACT UP in D.C., he put condoms in vending-box copies of the Washington Post as an AIDS protest; in 1992 he hectored presidential candidates in New Hampshire; and in 1993, with Queer Nation, he became a national spokesman for the cause of murdered Navy sailor Allan Schindler, who was beaten to death in a Japanese bathroom by his shipmates, who took objection to Schindler's gay sexuality.
It's an activist track record that's won him praise.
"I like him a lot," says East Bay AIDS researcher Dr. Howard Urnovitz, who has funded some of Petrelis' activism, including a television commercial on AIDS that aired in New Hampshire in 1995. "I think he's a good man. What he can do just by himself without any public relations firm is phenomenal."
"I originally had an image of him as some radical extremist," says Tom Sowell, who participated in a federal drug study for HIV-positive people with Petrelis. "He's really a very warm, caring person. I think he's great."
But not everyone agrees with those assessments. Petrelis has a reputation even in activist circles for stepping over the line separating productive agitation from agitation for its own sake -- and that's cost him good will around the nation and earned him the reputation of being scattershot, of hopscotching around hot issues but not digging in and really doing the work necessary to effect change.
In Washington, for example, according to a staff member of that city's gay newspaper, the Washington Blade, Petrelis shocked people when he disrupted the funeral of Blade photographer Doug Hinckle, a well-regarded member of the staff who had died of AIDS. Petrelis also outed Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) and threw a beer and a Coke on him, even after the politician had acknowledged being gay, according to the Blade.
Here in San Francisco, Petrelis is famed and feared for his personal attacks on members of the Health Department -- calling staffers at home, including one woman who was on maternity leave, to harangue them about their response to the AIDS epidemic. At 5:15 one Friday night, an AIDS Office staff member says, Petrelis screamed at Health Department staffers who were leaving the building, saying, "The AIDS crisis goes on 24 hours a day, why are you leaving?" His letters on the Reality condom refer to Dr. Sandra Hernandez, head of the San Francisco Health Department, as "Sappho" Hernandez.
"The line gets crossed when you can't distinguish between who's doing good and who needs to be zapped," says a former Queer Nation activist who is involved in an AIDS organization. "He intimidates people, and people are uncomfortable with him and afraid of him."
"He goes beyond activism into personal attacks, and he really goes after women," says the S.F. Health Department AIDS Office staffer.
But Petrelis, for his part, is unfazed by the criticism.
"I put out an insulting message," he says. "But are you equally insulted that AIDS is still infecting gay youth? That's the real insult in my opinion."
"I think we should still be taking to the streets.