On the Season Two premiere of “Pose,” the FX drama about a group of L.G.B.T. people of color living on the margins of New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, activists are shown protesting inside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The activists, part of an organization called AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act Up, targeted institutions that they believed hindered progress in fighting the spread of H.I.V. and finding a cure for AIDS. Among them were pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street banks, the Reagan administration and the Catholic Church.
On Dec. 10, 1989, Act Up demonstrated against Cardinal John O’Connor’s political efforts to stymie gay rights legislation and the archdiocese’s opposition to the teaching of safer-sex methods in Catholic and or in public schools during the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. The protest remains one of the largest ever staged against the church: more than 4,500 people participated, and over 100 were arrested by New York police.
“Pose,” which highlights the experiences of African-American and Latino transgender women, is based in part on the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning.” The series is set in New York's “ballroom culture,” an L.G.B.T. underground scene where people “walk,” or compete in balls. These balls famously gave birth to “voguing.” The series, which has already been renewed for a third season, tracks the journey of Blanca, played by Mj Rodriguez, as she forms her family, composed of other members of the L.G.B.T. community and known as the House of Evangelista. The first season focuses on the complex lives of those who competed in the voguing competitions. The second season focuses on the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis of the early 1990s and the political and societal prejudices members of the L.G.B.T. community faced.
The season premiere, “Acting Up,” begins with Blanca and the ballroom M.C. Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter, visiting Hart Island, where hundreds of people who died of AIDS-related complications in the 1980s and 1990s are said to be buried, their bodies isolated from others. Blanca and Pray Tell, upset by the indignity they witness as burial crews lower pine boxes into a mass grave, pledge to step up their efforts to bring attention to the plight of people with H.I.V. and AIDS.
Part of that commitment is participating in the Act Up protest at St. Patrick’s, which the show sets in 1990 (a year late) and which is filmed in a church interior that is not St. Patrick’s. But many other details about the protest scene are true to history.
Act Up called the protest “Stop the Church.” In addition to members of Act Up, members of the Women’s Health Action Mobilization joined in, protesting in favor of access to abortion. This particular protest was just one in a string of rallies aimed at the cardinal in the 1980s. The Catholic L.G.B.T. group Dignity protested the cardinal for months in 1987, upset that he evicted the group from worshipping at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan.
“Pose” recreates an Act Up meeting to plan the protest, with a character arguing, “The Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars putting the false message into the world that condoms don’t work and that abstinence is the only way to fight HIV. That is a lie.” Claiming that Cardinal O’Connor influenced the policies of Pope John Paul II, the activist continues, “We will not allow his racist, sexist, homophobic ideologies to affect the health of every single person on this planet!” The assembly erupts into a chant, “Fight AIDS! Act up! Fight back!”
The Protest in Real Life
Act Up’s decision to protest inside St. Patrick’s was more controversial within the group itself than “Pose” shows. Some members argued that the protest’s target was the cardinal, not the worshipers inside; they suggested the group not disturb the Mass. But others said that attracting attention to their cause was more important than not causing offense. They argued that entering the church would make the media notice and perhaps change some minds about the need to step up the nation’s fight against AIDS. By this point, nearly 20,000 New Yorkers, and close to 60,000 Americans overall, had died from AIDS. No cure was in sight and prejudice from nearly every sector of society was still common.
As something of a compromise, Act Up decided that people who wished to protest inside the church would enter, dressed conservatively to blend into the congregation, and stage a silent “die-in” during the homily, which they considered the most political, and least sacred, part of the service.
During the homily, protesters threw themselves onto the floor of the central aisle, symbolizing those who had died from AIDS.
Church officials were tipped off to the protest, and plainclothes police were seated inside the cathedral for the 10:15 morning Mass. Political leaders, including Mayor Ed Koch, attended as a show of support to the cardinal.
Members of Act Up passed out decoy programs to worshippers, designed to look like the real thing, but instead of hymns and readings, they contained information about H.I.V. and pleas for support in their mission. During the homily, protesters threw themselves onto the floor of the central aisle, symbolizing those who had died from AIDS.
In an effort to wrest control from the protesters, Cardinal O’Connor urged the congregation to pray. Sensing that the protest was losing steam, Act Up member Michael Petrelis stood on a pew, blew a whistle and began shouting, “You’re killing us!” The church organist played loudly, trying to drown out the protesters. Pandemonium broke out. Police moved in, arresting more than 40 people inside the church, carrying some of them out on stretchers.
Years later, Mr. Petrellis said he had “no regrets” about his role in turning the protest from a silent die-in into something more rambunctious.
While the legacy of Cardinal O’Connor, who died in 2000, is controversial, countless Catholic sisters and brothers, priests and laypeople worked on the front lines during the AIDS crisis.
“It was liberating,” he told me. “For me, standing up in the church, blowing the whistle, the screaming, was my reclaiming my spirituality from the hatred of the church.”
Perhaps the most controversial part of “Stop the Church,” which was not dramatized in "Pose" but which dominated headlines following the protest, was when, during Communion, the Act Up protester Thomas Keane took the host from his hand, crumbled it and threw the pieces on the floor. He then lay on the floor so that the Eucharistic minister had to step over him to continue distributing Communion. He was later arrested following his part in the protest.
In a 2015 interview with the Act Up Oral History Project, Keane said that even though he had been raised Catholic, he did not quite understand the importance of the Eucharist to believers. “[I]t wasn’t premeditated, and I think if I had thought through things more I maybe would not have done it, but I don’t feel any regret, really,” he said.
The dramatization of the Act Up protest in “Pose” shows only a tiny bit of the Catholic Church’s role in the history of H.I.V. and AIDS. While the legacy of Cardinal O’Connor, who died in 2000, is controversial, countless Catholic sisters and brothers, priests and laypeople worked on the front lines during the AIDS crisis. Still, the cardinal, perhaps the last of the highly politically influential prelates to lead the church in New York City, campaigned against L.G.B.T. nondiscrimination laws. He prohibited the teaching of safer-sex methods, including the use of condoms, in Catholic schools, and though he called for an end to violence against gay people, he described “homosexual behavior” as “sinful.” His supporters point out, however, that Cardinal O’Connor also oversaw a Catholic health care system that included some of the first centers in New York to treat people with H.I.V. and AIDS, including St. Vincent’s Hospital and St. Clare’s Hospital, where he made regular visits to patients.
“Act Up’s decision to protest inside St. Patrick’s was more controversial within the group itself than “Pose” shows.”
As for the efficacy of the protest, Sarah Schulman, a playwright and novelist who is working on a history of Act Up, told me earlier this year for an article in The Daily Beast that though public opinion initially turned against Act Up, people ultimately came around.
“In the moment, I was horrified that all this had happened,” she said. “But it turned out that it was one of our best actions. It was covered all over the world.”
Now, 30 years after it happened, “Stop the Church,” which was previously the subject of a controversial 1991 documentary that aired on some PBS stations, has been dramatized on one of television’s most critically acclaimed shows.