Written by Keiko Lane – Originally posted at LGBT POV
The photo of a beatific Pete strapped into an amusement park ride appeared on Friday evening, April 13. The caption from Jeff Schuerholz, Pete’s partner of more than two decades: No Words.
This is how we found out Pete had died.
All night, phone calls and texts, emails and lit candles. None of us who loved him, it seems, slept much. Jansen Matsumura found words first: Queer. Militant. Radical. Liberation. Nonconformist. Diva. Fag. Unapologetic. AIDS. Fabulous. Real. Role Model. Teacher. Friend.
Judy Sisneros spent the night tracking down close friends to share the devastating news, never straying far from her phone and computer. She remembered when she first saw Pete in the circle of folding chairs under the glaring light of Plummer Park’s meeting room, during a large, raucous Saturday night Queer Nation gathering.
Pete and Jeff. I can’t remember a time when their names weren’t one complete phrase. They met more than 20 years ago when Jeff was volunteering with Project Angel Food, delivering meals to homebound people with AIDS. One day, Pete was on his route. After that day, Jeff tried to get the same route to see him again, but Pete was no longer on the delivery list. Then, after Govenor Wilson vetoed AB101, the bill which would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing, Jeff came to a Queer Nation meeting where he saw Pete. They had been together ever since.
This past winter in L.A., a small group of us held an ACT UP reunion dinner. Pete walked into the restaurant leaning on a cane, and though he rolled his eyes when I said it, I told him he took my breath away. He was so gorgeous. “Girl, what did you expect? An AIDS corpse? I’m not dead yet, though sometimes it feels like it.”
That night he talked about what he was working on politically—that the Internet had allowed him to revive his activist life, even though it was often from his bed. His Twitter handle was My1QueerVoice.
Pete was a hub of global queer rights information, the way 20 years ago, he was always a source of hopeful AIDS treatment news tempered by conspiracy theory and a good dose of ACT UP gossip.
I looked at his Twitter on page the night he died: Pete had sent 28,250 tweets and had 2,062 followers. How many of those people did Pete ever actually meet? Does it matter? He touched everyone. He was willing to fight for everyone.
Pete wasn’t just a loud, unapologetic queer. In addition to being an out-and-in-your-face AIDS infected faggot, his activism spanned world health issues. He networked with activists the world over about the global battle against homophobia and state-sanctioned queer bashing; the fight for a truly universal healthcare system; the struggles against militarization; and opposing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. And his commitment to women’s healthcare spanned global and domestic contexts.
Mary Lucey and Nancy MacNeil remember that Pete always encouraged the men in ACT UP to support the Women’s Caucus actions and to show up and fight with us:
He would be pissed at the guys who would say “no, that’s just for the women, it is not for us.” Because Pete knew it was for everyone—when the men fought, women stood a chance to benefit, but mostly as a side effect. But when the women fought, it was for the men as well. Because if the women gained something, we knew for sure that the men would also benefit. He really understood that and got the big picture.
That reunion night last winter, Pete stayed up way past his bedtime and exhaustion limit to be with us in the glow of the love we all still felt for one another – and the 20 years of shared memories. Watching him, I was flooded with images of Pete pushing past his limits in the service of community. This was not something new. When Robert, an ACT UP friend and fellow Radical Faerie was dying, Pete and Jeff hosted his farewell ritual. Late into the evening, a dozen of us sat with Robert. Pete took care of all of us, then spent days in bed, recovering.
Pete’s friend Diviana Ingravallo remembers:
What I’m crying about today is his compassion, empathy, his deep understanding of any sort of pain that his friends or anyone that crossed his path were experiencing.
A couple of years ago, I was in the hospital for a few weeks for a spinal surgery. Pete came to visit. Knowing how hard it was for him to physically leave the house—to do those activities so simple to able-bodied people—I was surprised. He arrived, dressed to the tilt, wearing his activist T-shirt, his cane covered in bright political stickers.
“Of course I’m here. How could I not visit you,” he said. He was present, supportive, and helpful throughout my healing process and beyond. The notion of anything but that complete involvement had never crossed his mind.
He was “a queer’s queer,” his partner Jeff said the morning after Pete died. Jeff reminded me about Pete’s 30th birthday party. They didn’t think he would live to see it. They thought that as they celebrated each of the 18 birthdays that followed.
But Jeff didn’t mean that in that Hollywood romance way of living each year in glorious freedom because it might be your last. That narrative only makes sense if the forces working against you that you must overcome are only the limits and anxieties of your own fear and not the very real bodily experiences of illness and oppression that most of society condones.
Pete refused the narrative of innocent victim. He delighted in both his rage and his desires. And we all believed the story we told one another – that those things might keep him alive. Pete did keep pulling through. Each time he got sick and we feared we would lose him, he’d get better. So we bought into that story, kept thinking he would make it. Pete, our mascot of survival. Our heart center and the icon of our fury. All the contradictions of our experiences contained within one fragile body.
He took on that role, but he also worried about the political implications of an assimilationist model of survival. Pete had been a part of the AIDS Cure Project, as well as several other projects such as Clean Needles Now, the needle-exchange program offshoot of ACT UP, and campaigns trying to assert the rights of People With AIDS (PWAs) to drug access and clinical trials. He also challenged AIDS service organizations when he felt they weren’t serving the best interests of their clients. Pete believed that clients’ best interests were both necessary services and a commitment to push for a cure.
Even when he was in the hospital, Pete would track the treatment of PWAs by the medical staff. If he felt that he or any other patient wasn’t being treated with the proper respect – or the proper medical protocol – he would rally his energy to educate patients and staff and help patients advocate for themselves.
After Pete died, his doctor wanted an autopsy to determine the specific cause of death. But we know why he died. He died of AIDS. Maybe, today, for the grieving and outraged, it doesn’t matter if it was neurotoxicity or organ failure or stroke from the years of AIDS drugs, or if his system simply could no longer withstand the impact of more than 25 years of fighting the virus. He died of government neglect. He died of fear and ignorance.
Pete died because the community has thrown its weight behind the idea that AIDS is a chronic manageable illness and is focusing less and less on demanding a cure. AIDS is not a manageable illness. We are only now beginning to see the psychological and physiological impact of many years of drug treatments – and even then only for the people who have economic access to treatment.
“I’m tired of everyone calling it a cocktail,” Pete would say. “It’s nothing like a cocktail. There’s nothing fun about it.”
After he died, in our insomniac grief, we started telling stories. “What do you remember?” began our teary conversations.
Mary Lucey was both fond and envious of Pete’s boot collection, in particular his knee-high black lace-up combat boots. Nancy MacNeil, Mary’s partner and former Being Alive staff member said, “Oh and his ink—we think he was the first to have a ‘toxic waste’ tattoo—and of course “Silence = Death” down his forearm. Most of Pete’s tattoos were political.”
I was so used to Pete’s tattoos, I had almost forgotten about them. According to Jeff, Pete had Silence = Death running down his forearm so that it was at the needle insertion site for his constant IVs and blood draws.
Pete’s tattoos were also visual evidence of his sweetness – and his sometimes hidden romanticism. Jeff remembered the day Pete turned around to show Jeff that his name was now inked into the back of Pete’s neck, with a heart.
Through his tears, Jeff remembered moments of great joy and Pete’s insistence on positioning himself as a mentor to the next generation. Pete mentored young HIV+ people and also nurtured the creativity and intellect of young friends and family members. After Pete died, his 10-year-old friend Quinten, nephew of Mary Lucey, wrote:
Pete was my mentor and my friend. I met him because God wanted me to meet him. He was a lot like me. When I heard he died it put me in shock. I felt like breaking my mommy’s phone. It made me realize how special and fragile life is. He had HIV and it just made me think of aunty Mary because sadly she has it too. Pete was a humorous, lovable, and special guy. He should have lived longer. Although I only got to see him twice and talk to him four times at least I got to do those things. He was a WONDERFUL GUY! We’re always going to be together in my heart. I know I’ll see him again. I just have to wait a little. He knows that people love him and that’s uniqe like him. Rest in peace Pete. I love you.
Quinten wasn’t the only young person Pete loved and spent time with. When Pete met Angela Davis at an event organized by Jeff at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, all Pete could talk about was his young cousin and how he wanted to help her grow into a strong intellectual woman. He had Angela Davis sign a book for her.
It’s tempting to stop the story here – to fall into the ubiquitous liberal and leftist discourse that would have us ascribe only a narrative of kindness, gentleness, and sweetness. A man who would use his bulk and strength, both body and spirit, in the defense of someone else. But not in his own defense. These are all the ways we are supposed to present men of color so that their ferocity does not offend, so that they are not read as a threat to the dominant paradigm of cultural hierarchies that work to keep them oppressed.
But Pete was also that man: the strong, radical queer man of color who would dare use his voice and body in the service of liberation. In the service of self-defense.
Kirk Wilson remembers “that smile of his. I don’t think I ever saw him without it. Even during extreme ACT UP demos with certain threats of arrest and cops ready and wishing to whoop on him, he always had that huge smile, which, of course, would piss the cops off even more. Love that.”
Someone else remembered:
There was this action in Sacramento—demanding humane treatment for prisoners with AIDS. Pete and a few others were behind the hotel and they had a three-person slingshot balloon launcher. It took four of us to make it work. A person on each end, one person to hold the sling, the other person held on to that person’s waist and pulled the launcher back. After a couple of tries and lowering the angle of the sling, we cleared that two-story hotel building in Sacramento, launching balloons filled with fake “blood.” And we hit our target—well, any government building that happened to be on the other side was the target—and there were plenty of them. And Pete set “dummies” on fire and hoisted them up the flagpole.
The burning mannequin representations of prison guards was quite a sight to behold.
Pete was one of the last survivors of a particular group of radical queer AIDS activists who refused acceptability and assimilation as a political strategy. When I spoke with Jeff, we conjured an image of Pete in the spirit world reuniting with Cory, Wayne, Robert, Sister X, and the other Radical Faeries lost to the plague, hugging and kissing hello, saying “Girl, you look fabulous! I missed you! Now let’s go fuck shit up!” We laughed at the image. We wished we believed it.
When the others in our circle died, almost 15 years ago now, we took to the streets, burning cardboard coffins and shutting down intersections. ACT UP was 10 years old then. Now it’s 25. I don’t know what we will do to honor Pete. Or how many of us there are to take the streets. But I do know this:
Pete was gorgeous. Outrageous. Righteously rageful.
We are outraged. We are not finished. As he would act in our names, so will we in his.
We will not be acceptable in our grief or our rage. We owe him that. We owe each other that.