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Community Activist
Phil Bereano

Read about the writer, Ellie David.

Turning Grief into Positive Action

Phil Bereano goes upstairs to the third floor every time he visits Bailey-Boushay House. At the end of the hall, in a peaceful solarium, he reads the dedication plaque honoring his lover, Michael Myers.

  Michael Myers
One of Phil’s favorite photos of Michael Myers, having fun on a European vacation. Michael died of AIDS in 1988.

As a board member of AIDS Housing of Washington, Michael helped create what would become the nation's first facility built from the ground up for AIDS care. He died of AIDS in 1988, three years and eight months before Bailey-Boushay opened.

Phil is a lifelong activist. Now a UW professor emeritus, he was a co-founder of ACT UP Seattle (the local branch of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). He remembers clearly the intense opposition by some neighbors that put the 1992 opening of Bailey-Boushay in jeopardy.

It's a part of Bailey-Boushay history that he doesn't want people to forget.

The story starts with a demonstration that never happened. In 1990 local developer and Madison Valley property owner Cal Knudsen lodged zoning complaints that threatened to delay construction of the facility. Phil suggested ACT UP hold a high-profile demonstration outside an opening night party at the Seattle Art Museum, where Cal Knudsen served on the board of trustees.

The plan was in place. But a few days before the event, Phil says, "the word came officially that Cal Knudsen dropped his opposition before the hearing examiner. And the groundbreaking that was scheduled could go forward."

  Phil, left, embraces Steve Johnson
Phil, right, tearfully embraces fellow AIDS activist Steve Johnson at the BBH groundbreaking celebration in 1990.

ACT UP's activist strategy of "challenging and publicly taunting the powers that be" changed history, Phil says. Most important: "This house would have been stuck in the legal process and delayed at least two years. The lives that were touched and affected in that time were real. I think it’s something that all of us [in ACT UP] feel very good about."

Equally important, he sees the existence of Bailey-Boushay as another example (along with the civil rights, labor, women's, and Occupy movements) of the success of street politics to extend democracy.

"Yes," Phil says, "many neighbors were concerned about property values going down. But if this had been a facility for elderly people, would they have felt so strongly? AIDS was a disease that was scorned and perceived as disreputable." ACT UP worked "to change the dynamic so that people with all illnesses are treated with respect."

The critical thing about ACT UP, he says, is that people transformed overwhelming anger and grief over the personal losses and social injustices of AIDS into something positive.

Note: After his wife's death, Mr. Knudsen built a small public garden, Julia Lee's Park, in her honor in 1993. Located just a block away, it's a favorite oasis for clients, residents, and family members in the Bailey-Boushay community.

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