Wednesday, June 12, 2019

ACT UP on 'Pose' - revisiting a pivotal day

As one of the 111 ACT UP members arrested in the Stop the Church action of December 1989, it was wonderful to see the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power included in the Season 2 premiere episode of the FX series Pose. The groundbreaking series focuses on the New York City ball communities of color, and transgender women struggling to make ends meet by building  chosen families.

I particularly loved seeing nurse Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) almost dragging a reluctant Pray Tell (Billy Porter) to his first meeting. Bernhard discusses ACT UP, and many other contemporary topics, in an expansive wonderful new interview for The Daily Beast.

The depiction of the group meeting was a bit simplistic, but served its purpose. It would be impossible to share the months of preparation that went into the Stop the Church protest, and the divisions within our ranks at the time over the action.

Other critiques and comments on the episode are included in a deft account by writer/editor Mathew Rodriguez for
"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."
Anachronisms aside (it took place on December 10, 1989, not in 1990). The episode is set in winter, a few weeks or months later, so that's a small quibble. I saw it as a choreographic version of Pray Tell’s participation and empowerment.

ACT UP meeting in 'Pose'
Laying down in the aisles was just one of many aspects of the protest, and I was among those, in an affinity group called The Order of the Carmelites, who reenacted laying prostrate in the aisle as the historic nuns did. A larger affinity group called The Marys did the same. Unlike the Pose version, it was not an inspired spontaneous action, but a carefully orchestrated series of movements.

Of course the most 'scandalous' moment in the action (not included in the TV show), and covered by media as 'an outrage,' was that of former altar boy Tom Keane breaking a sacrament wafer at the altar.

The other shots in the Pose episode portrayed the screaming and arrests, which were not as lengthy inside as shown, except for the then-irascible Michael Petrelis, who instead of following the silent die-in theme, chose to stand atop a pew seat and repeatedly shout "Stop Killing Us!"

But these critiques are minor when one considers the gift of including this momentous event through an artistic lens in a hit TV show.

My own fictionalized account in my 2007 third novel, Cyclizen, included all that, but most specifically, being carried off on a stretcher by NYPD (in basic caps; the riot gear and helmets were worn by police outside, not as depicted in Pose). Like the show, my own depiction is personalized and literary, not documentary-style.

One overhead shot of Pray Tell being carried out with others on a stretcher echoed my own experience, a sort of epiphany, that what we were doing was not only right, but a Christian thing to do, like Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple.

The episode could have included a few shots of historic news footage of the thousands outside the cathedral, which ended up having a larger impact over time. ACT UP leader Maxine Wolfe says as much in a documentary about the action. But the Pose script took on a more personal version, that of Billy Porter's and others' characters finding a way to fight back.

Other relevant comments are made in a thread at the ACT UP NY Alumni Facebook group, where Editor Rodriguez made his query. Longtime activist and journalist Ann Northrup and author/playwright Sarah Schulman, who were both there, offer objective observations. The Facebook discussion parses the variations, interpretations and historical perspectives, somewhat like one of the many lengthy discussions we had at the time.

ACT UP New York's website offers more background information from the action's 10th anniversary. And, from 1991, the late Robert Hilferty talked with the LA Times about his short documentary, and the subsequent censorship by PBS affiliate stations. See excerpts from it and the longer documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP on Vimeo.

But what also impressed me about the Pose version was Pray Tell’s shaming Elektra at the next ball for failing to show up for the protest. His frustration with those who ignored or dismissed activism, as well as his citing the 111 people arrested like him, stood out.

I wonder if it will later effect Tell's enthusiasm for the drag balls compared to what I hope is his newfound activism.

(photo left: The late Spencer Cox on a stretcher. photo: Brian Palmer, from

Like Pray Tell, I and others in those days expressed disappointment when those who chose not to become AIDS activists scorned and shunned those who were. I thank the writers, creators and actors of Pose for bringing Stop the Church back into our common dialogue.

You can read my fictionalized account in this excerpt, and in my novel, Cyclizen.

1 Ave. & East 55th St. – the epiphany school
On December 10, 1989, we –we being dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of gay men, lesbians, concerned straights with a radical edge, mostly from New York, but some from New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Francisco, from ACT UP chapters around the country, some even from Europe– were going to surround and enter the largest Catholic church in the largest –okay, most important, at least– city in America.

But before all that transpired, it was just a wild idea in a small room in a then-worn community center in the heart of the West Village.

People might be bodily searched, so props were discouraged. We had to plan seating arrangements, time our entry so that any groups would have a force, not be spread out all over the pews.
Pummeled into adulthood after moving to New York City, I found myself backed into a corner with a few thousand others, forced into a state of viral war with the government and its conspirator, the Church.

The day before my last epiphany, so many years after those first two upriver and in a different world, I had ironed a white button-down shirt and selected a tie. I would dress as if I were going to mass for another reason altogether.

The day before my last epiphany, thousands of people like me had armed themselves with nothing more than their bodies and voices as weapons.

The day before my last epiphany, I purchased a Jesus Christ T-shirt with his face inked in fluorescent green, which I had decided to hide under my white shirt. When I mentioned, at point of purchase to the Chelsea gift store clerk, that I planned to wear it at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the next day, he gasped, grabbed a pair of plastic rosary beads with a glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary dangling at the end. “Accessories make the martyr!”

That cold December morning, we were ushered into the cathedral following the bomb check (such was the trust and love of the New York Archdiocese), about five thousand others congregated outside under less pleasant circumstances.
ACT UP's stop the Church. photo: Ellen Neipris
Across the street, while they smashed themselves against barricades on that freezing December morning, the statue of Atlas holding the world behind them, I dutifully entered, avoiding knowing glances from my co-conspirators. I found an aisle seat among the crowd, settling in for what, to the uninformed, could have been merely a popular holiday mass.

From a row near the back, I sat, stood, kneeled, sat, etc., sang a few hymns in a crowded pew. I listened and watched the wall of priests in white, guarding the sacristy like a football team in raiment, finally face to face with the Varsity God Squad.

I felt, for perhaps the first time since that New England back seat AM radio singing "Jesus Christ Superstar," the full love of Jesus pulse through my veins as I awaited the cue –two minutes into Cardinal O’Connor’s homily– stood, ripped open my suit and shirt to reveal the Jesus T-shirt and dangling Virgin rosary. It did sort of glow in the dim light.

Stop the Church die-in
A rumble echoed through the cathedral, the sound of coats and bodies tumbling into the marble aisle, the quiet gasps of others, expecting violence, or blasphemy, live sex acts, who knew? It was as if dozens had been shot with silencers. We lay still.

I fell on cue, pondering the cool marble as the brothers and sisters of my affinity group, the Order of the Carmelites, lay sprawled down the length of the aisle. I felt secure in knowing that I could answer to this action at the very gates of heaven, especially when I saw the venom in the eyes of the altar boy tossing trespass advisories as he tromped his skirted frame down the body-strewn aisle, a fairy Death swathing a re-enacted Mi Lai pit.

Policemen emerged swiftly, carting off those behind me. We were read our rights, tossed one-page prepared documents from the church threats, accusations, and pre-written summonses? I forget. But I’ll never forget the sour pursed lips and smug stare of the altar boy –a man in his early 20s– who tossed it upon my prone body.

The chorus ended a hallelujah at the rear arch of the cathedral. The fact that I was also being led out on a stretcher was beside the point. The final “Amen” echoed through the church as the arch passed over my head. I had disrupted the altar of decadent hypocrisy. I had made my point and knew someone was listening, including CBS, ABC and the New York Times.

Beyond furtive lust, beyond the longing for love, my secret love of sacred art and architecture, music and pageantry had been fulfilled.

Cardinal O'Connor's phalanx of priests
One of 111 lambs in the great gesture of ACT UP’s epoch, the resounding action would rattle the burbling comments of blathering politicians the world over. Every attempt in my life aimed at nay-saying the corruption among the robed ranks had led up to this simple act, laying down in a cold marble cathedral, finding an unruly consensus.

We were led out through a side door. The throng of outside protestors hosanna-ed us from behind the barricades. I would have offered a papal wave, had I not been handcuffed. As I was walked to the paddy wagon, Jesus smiled on me. The money-changers had not been swept out, but they had been given a good rinse.

I was one of the 111. A prime number. If I hadn’t gone in, perhaps someone else would have, but if not, 110 just wouldn’t have been so … prime. A small trio of numeric spikes, dwarfed by the literal spikes of that looming stone cathedral. That little last 1, me.

The days following the outraged editorials, shrieking news coverage, and disparaging commentary, even in gay media, I manned, er, personed the phones at the harried ACT UP offices with Peter Staley and a few others. We answered calls from dozens of newspapers around the country, some journalists barely veiling their contempt as they asked “objective” questions about our motives.

We had prepared statements printed out, explaining the big questions; Why? in bullet points; the Catholic Church has actively prevented safe sex teaching at the height of an epidemic, the Catholic Church refuses to acknowledge a woman’s right to choose, interferes with public school sex education, continues to push forth an antiquated and homophobic attitude toward homosexuality, yada yada.

But my personal reason for participating went back further, centuries even.

It was during one of those late night subcommittee meetings where the chips and sodas had long been depleted, but the conversation continued. One of our members talked about how many of the Catholic churches in Europe were built directly on top of land that was once sacred space for pagan shrines. Some of the cathedrals had even retained parts of the shrines in their lower levels, successfully appropriating and demolishing the centuries of pre-Christian religion as they cut a swath through Europe.

As an unofficial pagan, I felt my small contribution on that cold December morning was a bit of payback.

Years later, even some of the most conservative among gay faithful, who had vilified our “sacrilege,” would re-enact the same ritual of protest as the widely known sexual scandals of the Catholic hierarchy came to light.

We had soiled that font of religiosity, heterosexual mating rituals, and all its trappings. We had defiled the wedding, the prayer, and the ritual, with one of our own.

It was at some photo shoot afterward, a sort of reunion of a few Stop the Church survivors, that I found the cap. That’s me, in between my courtroom peanut gallery of pals; David B. Feinberg, with whom I shared jokes and stories, and a few nights together, carefully, back when he still had those smooth pale muscles, and Diamanda Galas, with whom I shared Greek family jokes. In the photo, I’m wearing the Epiphany School cap.

What saddens me is that I could never share my most religious experience with my devout aunt and uncle. Mom said, “It would kill them. You know, they went to New York City once. St. Patrick’s was like a shrine to them.” She merrily videotaped the TV news stories about it and saved the newspaper clippings, but never mentioned to my aunt and uncle that I had been involved.

A year later, my Uncle Nido died on January 6, the date of the Epiphany, when the Magi allegedly visited the Christ child in his manger. At the funeral –yet another upstate train trip– I tried to mourn him, but by then too many of my friends half his age had been taken ahead of him.

Gone are the rapturous unfolding of bedding to peek at sleepover friends’ bodies. Instead, we peek into coffins to survey the make-up job.  Gone are the furtive first dates, the giggling group sex in hotel rooms at out-of-town demos.

Instead, I scan the TV as a friend I was once in love with critiques his latest drug trial long distance over the phone. I crayon a halo around his blond head in a photo I have of him, shirtless, still muscular, still healthy-looking.

I don’t want another epiphany, the one in which I hold his frail body, transferring it to a gurney, an IV Pieta.  I don’t need another of that kind of epiphany, thank you. I’ve already got the hat.

Buy Cyclizen and my other books at or request them at your local independent bookstore.

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