ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

More than five thousand activists held a massive protest called Stop the Church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, rallying against the Roman Catholic Church interfering in public policy on abortion, same-gender sexuality, and HIV-AIDS. The action did not lead to reform within the Church but it helped place ACT UP on the cultural map and likely influenced subsequent public policy.

Summary of Event

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed in New York City in March of 1987. In less than three years, the group had issued studies, testified at government hearings, and conducted loud, attention-grabbing protests that changed the face of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the United States. The action known as Stop the Church, however, even before it began, was considered the group’s most controversial protest yet. [kw]ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Dec. 10, 1989)
[kw]St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ACT UP Protests at (Dec. 10, 1989)
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[c]HIV-AIDS;Dec. 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[1960]
[c]Religion;Dec. 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[1960]
[c]Civil rights;Dec. 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[1960]
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Mendolia, Victor
Gagliostro, Vincent
O’Connor, John Cardinal

ACT UP was taking on the powerful and influential Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York City. There were myriad reasons why the Church was being targeted. Even before the HIV-AIDS epidemic emerged, Scripture had been used by the Church to justify generations of hatred and violence against gays and lesbians. Since the early 1970’s, the New York Archdiocese had been consistently vocal in its public opposition to lesbian and gay rights, often sending representatives to city hall to oppose a city GLBT rights bill.

When the HIV-AIDS epidemic began to affect the residents of New York City, the Church offered two faces to the public. One welcomed HIV-positive people and those with AIDS into its Church-sponsored hospitals and hospices. Much had been made of Cardinal John Joseph O’Connor, emptying the bedpans of people with AIDS. At the same time, however, the Church devised several roadblocks in the fight against the epidemic. First, Church factions insisted that AIDS was God’s retribution against homosexuality (despite the medical fact that millions of heterosexual Africans were also infected at this time in the epidemic’s history). Second, Church officials lobbied against frank sex education Education;on HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS] about HIV-AIDS in public schools, insisting that abstinence be the only focus. Third, Church officials lobbied against condom distribution in schools and against clean needle exchange for intravenous-drug users. The Church continued to condemn homosexuality, even as the sheer reality of the large number of deaths from the epidemic turned public opinion in favor of gays. For example, a Vatican encyclical (1986) written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Benedict XVI concerning the pastoral care of gay people, called homosexuality, “an intrinsic moral evil.”

Stop the Church organizers Victor Mendolia and Vincent Gagliostro knew that a demonstration against so formidable a foe would need reinforcements. ACT UP partnered with the New York-based WHAM! WHAM! protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral[WHAM protest] (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), a group that opposed the Roman Catholic Church for its ongoing opposition to public contraception, sex education in schools, and legal access to an abortion. Cardinal O’Connor had stated his support of Operation Rescue, a Radical Right, Christian group that, among other actions, blocked the entrances to reproductive health clinics, where abortions were performed. Members of several other AIDS, GLBT, and pro-choice groups pledged support and promised to participate.

Stop the Church was months in the planning. ACT UP held several orientation sessions to explain the many issues that motivated this protest, since there was dissent even among the ranks about taking on the Church. ACT UP’s media committee sent out several press releases and other communications to journalists in the weeks leading up the protest, explaining its complex issues and providing facts and figures to support the protester’s arguments.

The demonstration began on December 10 at 9:30 a.m., so that it would coincide with St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s Sunday morning Mass. A protest fact sheet distributed to passersby read, “Stop Church Interference in Our Lives/Cardinal O’Connor has eagerly stepped into the political arena breaking the barrier separating Church and State! December 10th we bring our anger to his doorstep!” More than five thousand activists were present, many holding protest signs, as scores of police officers controlled the area with barricades.

One group of ACT UP protesters, acting under their own volition as “an affinity group,” entered St. Patrick’s and interrupted the mass by loudly voicing ACT UP’s objections. Some chained themselves to the pews, while others lay down in the aisles. Television cameras inside the cathedral that morning documented the chaos and beamed to the world the image of Cardinal O’Connor sitting in his chair, one hand covering his head. One ACT UP member, a former altar boy named Tom Keane, accepted a wafer during Communion but crumbled it, saying, “Withholding safe sex education is murder.” The demonstration lasted more than three hours, and 111 people were arrested, 43 of whom were inside the cathedral.


The disruption inside the cathedral commanded even more media attention following the protest, but the media swept aside ACT UP’s messages about why they were protesting the Roman Catholic Church and why they had rallied at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Using religious jargon, media reported that the cathedral had been “desecrated” by activists. In the days that followed, numerous GLBT and AIDS groups, seeking to distance themselves from ACT UP, issued critical statements about the demonstration.

In the meantime, media interest did not wane; ACT UP was contacted by journalists from around the world. In the face of mounting censure from local politicians and religious leaders, ACT UP and WHAM! held an emergency press conference two days later in Manhattan. Before cameras and a standing-room-only crowd of reporters, activists reiterated why they demonstrated and made no apology for the controversial action inside the cathedral. Protest coorganizer Gagliostro said, “I don’t care if people are offended. People [with AIDS] are dying.”

However, the protest caused rancor among ACT UP members: Some were proud of the actions, and others felt the group had gone too far with the “secret” protest inside. However members felt about it, the protest put ACT UP on the international map. Talk-show host Phil Donahue subsequently asked ACT UP members to appear on his show. Even The New York Times, long criticized by ACT UP for its uneven HIV-AIDS reportage, ran a feature story on January 3, 1990, by Jason DeParle, “Rash, Rude, and Effective, Act-Up Helps Change AIDS Policy.” The feature was a powerful public vindication of the beleaguered organization.

If numbers are any indication, the landmark protest at St. Patrick’s made ACT UP the most visible activist organization in the city. Weekly meetings, which typically drew between two hundred and three hundred people, soon swelled to nearly one thousand and had to move from New York’s GLBT community center to Cooper Union, across town. For months afterward, police officers would patrol St. Patrick’s during Sunday Mass. Years later, however, one would be hard-pressed to find any Catholic Church policy reform stemming directly from the controversial demonstration, but Stop the Church made ACT UP a force to be reckoned with in the fight against AIDS, government indifference, and religious condemnation. ACT UP;St. Patrick’s Cathedral protest[Saint Patricks]
Roman Catholic Church;and ACT UP[ACT UP]
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Protests and marches;ACT UP
AIDS activism

Further Reading

  • Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
  • Crimp, Douglas, with Adam Rolston. AIDS Demo Graphics. Seattle, Wash.: Bay Press, 1990.
  • Edwards, Jeffrey. “AIDS, Race, and the Rise and Decline of a Militant Oppositional Lesbian and Gay Politics in the U.S.” New Political Science 22 (2000): 485-506.
  • Kramer, Larry. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • Shepard, Benjamin, and Ronald Hayduk. From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization. New York: Verso, 2002.
  • Smith, Raymond A., ed. Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
  • Stockdill, Brett. Activism Against AIDS: At the Intersections of Sexuality, Race, Gender, and Class. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

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