Saturday, December 12, 2009

20th Anniversary: ACT UP
Invaded St Patrick's Cathedral

(NYC cops carrying a demonstrator out of St Pat's. Photo credit: Rex Wockner.)

For many Catholics, and a good number of gays too, December 10, 1989, is a date that will live in infamy. That is when members of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and WHAM, Women's Health Action Mobilization, invaded the heart of a political organization with non-profit, tax-exempt status -- St. Patrick's Cathedral.

More than 5,000 members and supporters of ACT UP and WHAM were kept behind police barricades that day, unable to get into the church, while inside, according to published reports, 43 protesters were arrested and hauled out on stretchers, many refusing to comply with NYPD efforts to restore peace inside the cathedral. Overall number arrested inside and outside the cathedral was 111.

Twenty years ago, when velvet revolutions were spreading across Eastern Europe and massive numbers of people were standing up to tyranny and tearing down dictatorships, a rainbow revolution was happening in the American gay community, and it was led by ACT UP.

I was a member of the group at the time, and remember the heated arguments that took place before it was decided to protest at the church. We were upset at the many ways in which the New York archdiocese was abusing its tax-exempt status and a religious bully pulpit to intrude upon good public health policies. There also existed deep anger over Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 's disgusting Vatican decree from 1986, adding to centuries of Catholics wrecking homosexuals' lives, declaring gayness an "intrinsic moral evil."

The money and power of the Catholic church were directly hindering unfettered access, and in some cases, the very existence of life-saving programs in public schools and municipal health clinics, for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, women, low-income people, and people of color.

(ACT UP poster featuring Cardinal O'Connor and a condom.)

The key culprit behind hateful attacks on wise public health matters at the local and state level was Archbishop John J. O'Connor. His long hand of homophobia reached into too many politicians' offices and how they voted on public services for gays and women. Cardinal O'Connor made no bones about imposing his religious doctrine on people of all faiths or atheists in public education and health care institutions, almost inviting a massive protest at his political base of operations.

It is no understatement to say the protest generated worldwide controversy, and condemnation, from many quarters, and also a good deal of positive reactions from individuals and organizations fighting the church's political agenda.

As an ACT UP member who was arrested inside St. Patrick's Cathedral twenty-years ago today, I remain unapologetic about the demonstration and being a participant.

With the US Conference of Catholic Bishops agitating against women's health and choice in health care matters now before Congress, many Catholic churches working against gay rights laws, the Vatican's renewed vigor of stigmatizing gay people everywhere, and more sexual abuse scandals involving priests unfolding in several countries, there are valid reasons why we must continue to just say no to the Catholic heirarchy's dangerous influence over public health and demand more accountability from church leaders.

You can rent the late Robert Hilferty's documentary "Stop the Church" from the Frameline gay film festival org in San Francisco. Click here for more info.

(A crowd of thousands across Fifth Avenue, in front of St Pat's, protesting Cardinal O'Connor's crossing the line separating church and state. Photo credit: Rex Wockner.)


NG said...

What's ironic is that Bash Back created a similar action at a church in Michigan not long ago and were ostracized for it.

David France said...

Bash Back is now being sued by the church, Mount Hope, in federal court.