Some of the AIDS activists who shook the city’s political and religious landscape with their massive demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral three decades ago returned to the same place on December 8 and delivered the same kind of message to the Catholic Church: Stay out of public health affairs.
“Thirty years ago, I was here with ACT UP New York to stop the Church,” said Michael Petrelis, who was one of the 111 activists arrested on December 10, 1989 when the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Women’s Health Action Mobilization (WHAM!) organized against the Catholic Church’s policies toward LGBTQ people, abortion, and HIV/ AIDS.
That 1989 demonstration included a whopping 4,500 protestors, many of whom chained themselves to pews or fell to the ground during Mass in an effort to highlight the dire sense of urgency facing the community at a time when the Catholic Church — led by Cardinal John O’Connor — ignored reality and public health officials dragged their feet in their response to the epidemic.
Little has changed since then in the Catholic Church.
“We’re back here 30 years later because the Church still hates gays, the Church is still against abortion, and we’re here to tell the Church to stay out of public health matters,” Petrelis added.
The 30th anniversary demonstration, featuring roughly a dozen activists holding signs that read “CONDOMS SAVE LIVES” and “STOP THE CHURCH,” protested outside of the cathedral as the building’s grand, towering doors opened. Many churchgoers departing Sunday morning Mass stared as they exited, and one man walking past the protestors decided to interrupt them.
“Everybody gets an opinion, and that’s yours,” the man yelled, waving his hands in anger. “They have theirs, too. Now why don’t you move on to a different location? Move out! Move out to another spot. Respect their rights, and I’ll respect yours. Move on.”
That didn’t faze anyone. Jamie Bauer, a local activist, immediately responded.
“All we are asking is that Cardinal Dolan back up and respect the rights of LGBTQ New Yorkers,” Bauer explained before further condemning Dolan for contributing to the Church’s disregard for condoms and PrEP, an HIV prevention medication. “We say, ‘keep your rosaries off our ovaries!’”
ACT UP members who were not yet alive at the time of the 1989 demonstration were also on hand. Jason Rosenberg, 27, echoed Petrelis and Bauer’s remarks and stressed that folks of all genders need access to abortions — a point that is often missed in the mainstream discussion about reproductive rights.
“We’re saying ‘no more’ to religious institutions that are affecting our bodies and affecting our public health,” he said. “They are against PrEP, they are against encouraging healthy sex lives, and they’re against our bodies. We’re here to remind everyone that we exist and that every person, whether they are non-binary women or trans men who need to get an abortion, that they have every right to.”
Once the cathedral doors fully opened, some activists turned around and held their signs toward the inside of the building to deliver their messages to churchgoers as they departed. NYPD police officers hovering around the demonstration stepped in at that point and confronted the activists, demanding that they leave the property. Bauer then gathered protestors to lead a new chant in unison.
“The NYPD is putting religious beliefs above the First Amendment and protecting the Church over our civil rights,” they said together. “And this is how it goes forever. ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”
Police officers grew increasingly impatient before activists stepped off church property moments later. Churchgoers were expectedly not impressed.
“The Church’s positions are correct,” said a man who only would provide his first name, Peter, who was there to attend services with a family member. “I’m a cradle Catholic and that’s been my position. I’m not in a position to condemn my own Church.”
A woman who stood alone appeared shocked as she observed the protests. She also voiced her displeasure with the scene she watched unfold before her eyes.
“People have their own religious views,” she uttered. “I respect other people, so they should just respect ours. It’s inappropriate.”
The 1989 demonstration drew widespread outcry in the city because activists dared to disrupt a church service considered by many to be sacred. Mayor-elect David Dinkins and Governor Mario Cuomo went so far as to describe the demonstration as “deplorable,” according to a New York Times story from 1990. But AIDS activists had no time for cordial exchanges when people were dying, and they felt that the public health concerns were far more pressing than respecting religious institutions that were rejecting them.
The commemoration of the 1989 event comes during a year of increased focus on historical events pertaining to the LGBTQ community. The summertime spotlight was focused squarely on Stonewall 50, but at that time Petrelis was simultaneously thinking about organizing an anniversary event at the cathedral.
“I knew getting a handful of people together to come to the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a doable thing,” said Petrelis, who now lives in San Francisco.
Although the turnout fell far short of the huge 1989 event, the activists made their presence known — and Rosenberg told Gay City News after the protest that they would continue protesting 30 years from now if the Catholic Church and other faith-based institutions keep it up.
“We’re here to say they need to do more to step up if they actually care about people and the well-being of people,” he said.