Here's the Story Behind the St. Patrick's Cathedral Action Depicted in 'Pose'
In the Season 2 premiere of Pose, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) attends his first ACT UP New York meeting and, incensed by the unending litany of loved ones' funerals he's been forced to attend because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, asks that the members of the House of Evangelista attend an action at St. Patrick's Cathedral to protest the church's stance against condoms, the main tool used to stop the spread of HIV in 1990.
The action causes a rupture in the House of Evangelista. When Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) doesn't attend, Pray Tell calls her out on the ballroom floor for not caring about her community. The real-life action, called "Stop the Church," was held on December 10, 1989 (a year before Pose's timeline) during St. Patrick's 10:15 a.m. mass and was also quite contentious. The action made worldwide headlines and was many people's introduction to ACT UP's enormous power -- and its anger.
According to ACT UP New York member Ann Northrop, who participated in the protest inside St. Patrick's Cathedral that day, the protest was meant to highlight the inappropriate power the church had in the public school curriculum when it came to sex education. In fact, New York City mayor Ed Koch and the New York City chief of police were in the room that day. Prior to the protest, the city sent bomb-sniffing dogs into the church to sweep the space.
"The mayor established what side he was on very early on," Northrop told TheBody. "This only reinforced the reality of the marrying of church and state in this town and the power of the church in civic affairs, which was exactly why we were holding this demonstration."
Northrop did have some slight criticisms of the short depiction of the action in Pose -- mainly that it didn't capture just how big the demonstration really was. While there were hundreds of protesters inside, there were thousands outside protesting quite loudly. The protest included some of ACT UP's most well-known iconography, including artist and ACT UP member Ray Navarro dressed as Jesus and the poster of John Cardinal O'Connor next to an unrolled condom that said, "Know Your Scumbags."
Originally meant to be a relatively quiet protest, the best-laid plans went awry when ACT UP member Michael Petrelis began shouting, "O'Connor, you are killing us!" Petrelis explained in an interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project that he almost didn't attend the event because no one would let him join their affinity group -- members of ACT UP would often split into "affinity groups" who would pull off smaller actions within an action. ACT UP members felt Petrelis was "too angry," he said.
But Petrelis' disruptions were not what ended up being the most headline-grabbing moment of the day. As the chaos ensued, 111 protesters, Northrop included, were carried out from the church on stretchers. After the protesters had been carried out, one ACT UP member and longtime churchgoer, Tom Keane, went up to receive communion and ended up crumbling a communion wafer. According to his interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project, Keane had the wafer in his hands, said to Cardinal O'Connor, "Opposing safe-sex education is murder," and crushed it, dropping it on the ground. Though some rumors did say that he spit it out, Keane says that is untrue.
The crumpled wafer became a lightning rod of controversy for the group and was the centerpiece of much of the coverage of the protest. Political figures, and even other queer activist groups, spoke out against ACT UP. According to the New York Times, both New York City mayor David Dinkins (who became mayor a few weeks after the demonstration) and Governor Mario Cuomo "deplored" the protest and Andy Humm, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Rights, called the "Stop the Church" demonstration ''stupid and wrong-headed.''
According to Sarah Schulman, author, ACT UP alum, and curator of the ACT UP Oral History Project, the action "changed how the world saw us, and it changed how we saw ourselves." Schulman said that Keane defended himself during an evaluation of the protest held at a later meeting and that several people understood his position on it and eventually even respected what he did, an account Northrop corroborated.
"By the end of it, people who thought the action was this terrible thing eventually came to realize it was the best thing we'd ever done," said Northrop. "We were on the front page of every newspaper in the world, and it really put ACT UP on the map."
Northrop said for years, people confronted her about the action, calling it "counterproductive," but, she says, not only did the action put ACT UP on the map, it also changed the public's perceptions of queer people. She said she spoke to one person whose mother, a housewife, called him to say, "I used to think that gay men were weak and wimpy, and after this demonstration, what I realized was that gay people are strong and angry."
"To me that signalled success for this action, no matter what the controversy was," Northrop said. "Because it showed the world that we were angry and that we wanted them to pay attention to what was really going on."