Monday, March 18th, 2024

Queerguru’s Ris Fatah raves about JOIN THE CLUB an excellent doc on DENNIS PERON the greatest queer activist we’ve never heard off

Dennis Peron is the greatest queer activist you’ve never heard of. A fantastic new documentary, Join The Club, however, seeks to address that. It tells the story of how the one-time queer hippy improved millions of American lives through his 1980s and 1990s activism in launching the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, and the subsequent legalisation of marijuana for medical use across the USA.

Peron was born in 1945 into a large Italian family in New York’s Bronx. The handsome youth was reluctantly drafted into the US Army and sent to Vietnam where he discovered smoking marijuana eased the horrors of war. On his return to the US in the early 1970’s he moved to the hippy, queer utopia of San Francisco and dealt in weed to fund his life. He set up a queer commune on Castro, The Big Top, where everyone was welcome, and lived an ideal life. He also set up The Big Top Pot Supermarket, selling marijuana to up to 600 people daily, as well as a queer hippy café, The Island. All his income was redistributed to the local community. During a cop raid, he got shot by a homophobic cop, and was galvanised into political activism, becoming a key friend and donor to Harvey Milk’s ultimately successful political campaign.

The onslaught of the AIDS virus in 1981 devastated the queer community in San Francisco, and one of the early victims was Peron’s boyfriend, Jonathan. The few drugs available to treat AIDS sufferers had terrible side effects but smoking marijuana helped alleviate symptoms and also increased the appetites of its user. This made the difference between life and death for many. Peron started distributing marijuana to AIDS sufferers and other very sick people. He also let anyone in need move into his house. 26 of his housemates died of AIDS during this time. At one point the SFPD raided Peron’s house and arrested his boyfriend for possession of 4oz of weed. Jonathan went to court and the charges were dropped after his medical usage explanation for possession was accepted. He died three weeks later. Jonathan’s arrest and death galvanised Peron to campaign for the legalisation of marijuana for medical reasons and the battle began.

His campaign grew rapidly and attracted many characters, including Brownie Mary, a cuddly looking granny who was arrested for supplying free marijuana brownies to AIDS sufferers in hospital. Her lovely demeanour and good intentions changed a lot of people’s opinions in America once they saw her campaigning on TV. Peron also ignored the law and continued supplying pot to anyone who could show a letter from their doctor approving its usage for them. He created The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club which very quickly became so popular that by 1994 it occupied a 5 storey, 30,000 square feet building on Market Street, and had over 8000 members. The club was a hive of smoking and other activity all day long and, alongside the marijuana, provided free medical care, advice, food and drag shows to its members, all funded by the pot sales.

The police, of course, hated the club, including one cop in particular, a handsome muscular local gay cop called Joe Bannon, who took it upon himself to try and close the club down. The local SFPD weren’t too interested in that, presumably thinking having all those people contained on one site was better than hundreds of people trying to score in San Fran’s parks and streets. Bannon, though, went above the SFPD and all the way to the Attorney General of California, and personally made things as difficult as possible for Peron.

Peron, meanwhile, had the bigger picture on his mind – Proposition 215. If voted in, this would exempt certain patients and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under state law for the possession and cultivation of marijuana for medicinal use. Peron’s campaign got off to a slow start. He needed hundreds of thousands of public signatures to get a vote held and only had about 10,000. Then George Soros and other wealthy individuals stepped in and provided funds to raise awareness, and thus the signatures. The bill was passed in 1996. The police still didn’t like The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club and hounded them for a couple more years until they managed to close it in 1998. Peron gave up the fight at that point but he had been the catalyst for changing the law and thus improving the lives of millions of people in the US suffering from pain. His Buyer’s Club was subsequently replaced by so many more that the police eventually lost interest in pursuing them.

Directors Kip Andersen and Chris O’Connell have recorded a brilliant piece of social history in their documentary. They use a combination of fantastic archive footage from 1970s – 1990’s San Francisco, archive interviews with Peron himself (he sadly passed in 2018), animation and interviews with many of the key activists and players in the story. These include heartless cop Joe Bannon and Dan Lungren the former CA State Attorney who relentlessly pursued Peron. The archive footage is so good. Everyone from Brownie Mary, Antony Fauci, Harvey Milk, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and a young Joe Biden to trans activist Donna Personna feature. There’s also lots of footage of the utopia that was San Francisco in the 1970s and the hotbed of activism it became in the 1980s and 1990s. An important study of community and perseverance. A must-see film.

JOIN THE CLUB was reviewed at BFI Flare London's Queer Film Festival 


Queerguru’s Contributing Editor Ris Fatah is a successful fashion/luxury business consultant  (when he can be bothered) who divides and wastes his time between London and Ibiza. He is a lover of all things queer, feminist, and human rights in general. @ris.fatah

Posted by queerguru  at  20:48


Genres:  documentary, drama

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