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Remembering the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Protest, 29 Years Later

A December Sunday when ACT UP, WHAM! shook the religious world

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Monday marks 29 years since thousands of activists stormed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan in opposition to the Catholic Church’s policies on homosexuality, HIV/ AIDS, and abortion.

On December 10, 1989, at least 4,500 members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the Women’s Health Action Mobilization (WHAM!) demonstrated outside the church to highlight the dire consequences faced by those living with HIV and AIDS at a time when government, religious, and public health leaders remained lethargic in their response to the epidemic.

Some activists cuffed themselves to pews and others opted to lie on the ground or shout to disrupt Mass. In what was literally a matter of life and death for so many activists, they took aim at the church where it really mattered — in the midst of its rituals. One person crumbled a Communion wafer, an act that led Mayor-elect David Dinkins and Governor Mario Cuomo to call the demonstration “deplorable,” according to a 1990 New York Times report.

Activists were fed up with the church — particularly Cardinal John O’Connor — for continuing to preach abstinence instead of the safe-sex use of condoms while the epidemic ran rampant, and O’Connor further drew the ire of the LGBTQ community for his insistence that homosexuality was a sin. WHAM! and ACT UP also took a united stance against the church for its opposition to abortion rights, an issue that was — and still is — directly related to its teachings on contraception.

A total of 111 activists were arrested on that day, which marked one of ACT UP’s most notable events in the fight for change on the HIV/ AIDS front.

Among many other events, the group also protested at New York City General Post Office at the height of last-minute tax return filings in 1987 and successfully shut down the federal Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, for an entire day in 1988. In 1989, the group carried out a demonstration similar to the St. Patrick’s protest when its members chained themselves to a balcony at the New York Stock Exchange to highlight the unconscionably high cost of AZT, the lone treatment for HIV at the time.

The government’s inaction on HIV/ AIDS at the time was recalled last week in the wake of the death of former President George H.W. Bush, who presided over the nation while more than 100,000 people died of AIDS-related causes.

While thousands of people were dying, Bush did not discuss the epidemic until he was more than a year into his presidency. ACT UP frequently targeted Bush in protests, including one when the president was fundraising for the GOP in 1990 at the Waldorf Astoria, with activists stood outside holding coffins that read “Bush=Killer.”

ACT UP, which was founded in 1987 after a speech by Larry Kramer prompted activists to join a more-aggressive effort to fight HIV/AIDS, remains active today and meets on Mondays from 7-9 p.m. at the LGBT Center at 208 West 13 Street in Manhattan.

Posted 5:57 pm, December 10, 2018
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