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June 26, 2020
Unholier Than Thou
Pride & Protest

In This Episode

Pride month during the pandemic has one thing in common with years past — protest. Phil has a conversation with Ann Northrop, activist and organizer with Act Up, about their 1989 Stop the Church action and the parallels she draws between the AIDS crisis and our battle with Covid-19.

 

 

Transcript

 

Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. Maybe it’s hard to believe since there are no corporate Pride floats or rainbow storefronts, but this month was indeed Pride month

 

[clip of Speaker] To all my friends in the LGBTQ community: happy Pride month.

 

Phillip Picardi: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent a lot of time talking to activists and organizers about the AIDS crisis and the shocking and disturbing parallels between the early days of that epidemic with the early stages of the new coronavirus. And let’s be clear, these are two very different viruses with very different stigmas attached to them. But still, the similarities are a little hard to gloss over. Like COVID-19, the AIDS crisis laid bare the systemic discrimination in the health care industry, disproportionately impacted people of color, left people in need of testing and treatment without options until it was too late, and showed exactly what happens when an incompetent, so-called religious presidential administration turns its back on marginalized people and refutes the science that staring them right in the face. And also, like COVID-19, countless people died during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and many of them didn’t need to. In fact, American history still has yet to effectively grapple with the systemic queer phobia that led to these deaths and just how much of it was motivated or endorsed by the church. Today, we’re going to talk to an organizer from ACT UP, [crowd noises, chanting] the iconic fearless coalition of activists that led to sweeping systemic change for not just HIV./AIDS, but for much of what the FDA and Dr. Fauci are capable of accomplishing with today’s pandemic. If you watch a little show called Pose on FX—and honey, you should—then you may know exactly what’s coming: the day when ACT UP organizers infiltrated St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan to orchestrate a demonstration opposing the Catholic Church’s involvement in New York City politics. Anne Northrup, one of New York’s original badasses who’s currently planning the massive Queer March for Black Lives this weekend, was there that day and she has the arrest record to prove it.

 

Phillip Picardi: For those of us who don’t know, can you tell us what ACT UP stands for and why you felt called to get involved with the organization?

 

Ann Northrup: The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, a diverse group of individuals committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis—that’s an abbreviation because I’ve now forgotten every word. But the point was that there were a lot of agencies helping take care of people, treating people, or helping them in their lives, but there was not the political urgent movement that was needed. And what I found when I went to work at Hetrick-Martin and started doing AIDS education in late ’87, was that even though I had been covering the epidemic since 1981 when it was first written about, in my news work I really didn’t know what the real issues were. And it was mind blowing to me to get involved in AIDS education and with ACT UP and find out that it really was a political issue—which we’re seeing played out in so many ways today again—but it was about people in power who didn’t care about the lives of anyone else and were perfectly willing to let people die. So whether we’re talking about Black people in the South being lynched or sent off to die in Vietnam, or women dying of illegal abortions, or people with AIDS who were not being cared about at all and were dying by the thousands, or George Floyd in Minneapolis with a cop’s knee on his neck and every other instance of that—it is people in power killing people who are not them, in order to retain their power. Why would those police in Minneapolis not let him up? Because they wanted to continue to hold the power. So with ACT UP and with AIDS, what became instantly clear to me was that it was the same power dynamic and then what was needed was that urgent, urgent direct action movement in the streets to demand change. And I had seen millions of people going into the streets during the Vietnam War, stop the war by demanding that it stop. So that feels very much like home to me, to be able to go out and do that work.

 

Phillip Picardi: ACT UP as known for so many things. Maybe its slogans like “Silence Equals Death” but maybe more particularly its actions. What would you say was the point of view in the organization in so pointedly disrupting the so-called peace with these actions?

 

Ann Northrup: To me, direct action is about urgency. You can, I think all types of approaches are necessary to attack a problem like this. We need people who will negotiate with the government. We need people who will write letters. We need people who will donate money. But if you want to escalate an issue to a level of urgency, a demand that it be paid attention to, you need that kind of urgent action. You need to raise these issues publicly and shame people. ACT UP did not just, you know, without thought, go running into the streets. What we did was a very systematic approach to an issue. So we had different committees that would research issues and bring it to the regular Monday night meeting where hundreds of people showed up every week to discuss all of this and organize. And the meeting would discuss for a long time these issues until we had developed a clear position and had investigated all the angles of it. And then we would try to meet with the people in power. But if we hit a roadblock, either in a meeting refused or a change refused, then we would talk about going into the streets or doing some kind of action. There was always a progression of approaches. We tried to negotiate and talk to people, but if they wouldn’t talk to us and we thought they were wrong, then we would take the issue public in an attempt to force them to deal with it by publicly shaming them or just raising the issue publicly. And that was very effective.

 

Phillip Picardi: I want to get into one of the most famous actions that ACT UP orchestrated, which is why we’re talking today: the Stop the Church action. However, before we get there, I want to first acknowledge that we have recently honored the passing of Larry Kramer and The New York Times in his obituary called his approach abusive. The New York Times also had a consistent track record of ignoring ACT UP’s actions and even misspelling the name ACT UP, deliberately it seemed. And I think a part of that has led people to believe, especially people who lived during the AIDS crisis, that ACT UP was a lot of rabble-raising without a lot of change. But we know that to be untrue. Right? We know act up to be extremely effective.

 

Ann Northrup: Well, certainly most prominently and most importantly, forcing a change in the way drugs were evaluated and approved and made available to people. Until I started working on this, it took an average of seven years for a drug to be, to go through the process with the Food and Drug Administration to be approved. We, in our beautiful demonstration at the FDA, called Seize the FDA [laughs] forced them to pay attention, yelled at them for a long time, and they ended up agreeing that they could streamline the process and could allow patients who were otherwise dying access to experimental drugs to give them a chance. I hate to even say this, but I had to laugh recently when Trump said at some press briefing about the coronavirus: they’re dying, give them the drugs! I thought, oh, my God, Trump has become an ACT UP member.

 

Phillip Picardi: [laughs] That is perverse.

 

Ann Northrup: We did get the CDC to change the definition of AIDS so that women’s illnesses, opportunistic infections, were included in the definition so they would become eligible for drugs or benefits or whatever. We did work on housing issues effectively. We did do all these things across the board that changed what was happening.

 

Phillip Picardi: One of the most famous actions that active orchestrated was called Stop the Church. In fact, it was recently replayed or reenacted on the show Pose that Ryan Murphy executive produces. And my understanding is that this was a demonstration organized to disrupt a mass being held by Cardinal John O’Connor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. And it’s been reported that 111 protesters were arrested that day, 53 of whom were arrested inside of the church. And Ann, you were there. You were part of that action, is that correct?

 

Ann Northrup: Well, not only was I one of the 53 arrested inside the church, I was one of the six who went to trial over it. But I’ll, I will start by amending one thing you said. We did not go there with the intention of disrupting the mass and causing the chaos that, in fact, happened. Call us naive because we thought we could control it. The problem with the Catholic Church in New York City was specifically that representatives of the Church of the Archdiocese were sitting on a city board of Education panel that was discussing sex education and HIV education in the schools. Now, they were against condoms, they were against homosexuality, and yet there they were helping make decisions about what education was done in the PUBLIC schools, not the Catholic schools, the public schools. Now, the power of the church in New York City is a long story and an ugly one, but we were specifically furious at this at the time. And so we started talking about doing something like this. And it was the hardest discussion we ever had at ACT UP. Usually we went through that progression of identifying a problem, discussing it, deciding on an action in a relatively short period of time. It could have been a week. It could have been a couple of weeks. But this one took about six months to decide on. We talked and talked and talked. People were, first of all, there were certainly a lot of either faithful or lapsed Catholics in the room who were offended by this idea. And then there were people who were terrified of the consequences of our doing anything against the church. And we talked about our desire not to cause chaos in the church, but to do it in a way that was reasonable. [laughs] Silly us. So we thought about nuns who in the past in the Catholic Church had done actions where they would lie silently in the middle of a church to protest the lack of power of women in the church. So we planned all these little parts of it: who was going to lie the center aisle—I was one of those, who was going to stand and read a statement—just a few people, who was going to do various little things. Now, it is a very, very cold December day in 1989, there where thousands of us outside—and this was all publicly advertised. We were not sneaking into the church. We were quite public about our complaints and quite public about our intended action. So we get there on this Sunday morning and the cathedral is closed because they have closed it between masses—they have several masses in the morning, so that they could send in police with bomb-sniffing dogs to make sure that we had not, you know we’re not going to blow up the cathedral.

 

Phillip Picardi: And it should be said ACT UP was never violent

 

Ann Northrup: Never. We never heard a person. We were always nonviolent. That was part of our credo. We were absolutely dedicated to nonviolence. We were loud. We were rude. We upset a lot of people, but we were never, ever violent. So we get to the cathedral and it’s closed and people are waiting outside, and Peter Staley and I went as a couple. [laughs]

 

Phillip Picardi: Peter Staley being an also legendary gay activist.

 

Ann Northrup: Yes. So we were dressed for mass and we found ourselves wedged up against the wall at one of the entrances to the cathedral, and as we listen to people around us, we realized they were from Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group who had come down from Buffalo to defend the cathedral. And it got a little scary standing there and listening to them and listening to how angry they were at us and how they expected to have to fight us in the cathedral. And we’re thinking, hey, all we’re going to do is lie in the center aisle. How challenging is that? So we finally get inside and we can spot all the undercover cops there because they always wear the same thing, white sneakers and baggy jeans, and they’re all over the place. And the mayor is inside, Ed Koch, because he is very friendly with the cardinal and wants to defend him. And the police commissioner is inside. And we’re thinking this is this is going to be a little rough, but we’re devoted to our peaceful, if public-challenging action. Well, I was a little concerned, let’s put it that way, but when I got really scared was when the action began, because the cardinal throughout the beginning of the service was warning everybody: we know something’s going to happen, these terrible people are here, we’re going to defend our cathedral, blah, blah, blah. And I’m sitting there thinking, uh, I don’t know. And then the moment came when we were, had agreed to act and we, in fact, started acting. The group that was going to speak got up to make their statement, and those of us who were lying in the center aisle moved to the center aisle silently and lay down there, silently. But then one of our members, Michael Petrelis, who had thought we were being too tame about this in the first place, got, stood up on one of the pews and started screaming at the cardinal—you can see all this in the documentary: murderer, murderer, you’re killing us. And the place went crazy. And all the parishioners and the cops and the mayor and everybody else started screaming at us and attacking us. And I’m lying there in the center aisle and I, that is when I did get scared. That’s when I thought, I am going to be murdered just lying here, this is the end of my life. And the altar boys started walking among us on the, in the center aisle and dropping little leaflets on us that had been prepared ahead of time by the cardinal about what horrible people we were. And it was terrifying. It was absolutely scary. And some of our people were getting hit and abused by parishioners. And it was a mess, it was truly a mess. So then the uniformed cops come in and try to quiet everything down and they start picking us up off the floor one by one, and putting us on these orange stretchers and carrying us out under arrest. And I happened to be the last person carried out, and it was silent by that time. They had quieted down. So as I was being carried out, I started saying loudly—not yelling, but just loudly in the echoing cathedral, we’re fighting for your lives, too, we’re fighting for your lives, too. And that was a very poignant moment. So we all got carried out. We all got put in the police vans. We all got taken downtown to be booked and fingerprinted and everything. But as I like to say, I got home in time to watch the last half of the Giants-Broncos game. But to me, it was again about the power differential. It was about the people in power who are unwilling to give up power and who will do anything to keep everyone else subservient. It is a mystery to me why we settle for that when we so outnumber them. The whole point of power and leadership should be service. I think the definition of leadership should be empowering those you’re working with. I think, I remember telling an old girlfriend of mine who was being offered a promotion and who was concerned about her managerial abilities, I said to her: look, the whole point of being a manager is to make your employees successful, to humble yourself in service to them, because if they are successful, you are going to be a rock star. So please, when thinking as a manager, think about how to empower your employees or your clients or whoever it is that you have that leadership for and make them the focus of your work.

 

Phillip Picardi: It feels important to mention that we’re talking at a moment when people are protesting against police brutality all over our country. What do you have to say about what’s going on now? Specifically, what do you have to say to our queer community?

 

Ann Northrup: Well, I would hope that our queer community would see these parallels and realize that this fight is our fight. And I so honor and I’m grateful for all the activists who have decided that they’re not going to take this anymore.

 

Phillip Picardi: Thank you so much for your time today Ann, I really appreciate it.

 

Ann Northrup: Thank you, Phillip. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.

 

Phillip Picardi: This weekend, on June 28, the New York City is the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality. The Reclaim Pride Coalition, in which Ann plays a major role, is responsible for organizing it. I hope that if you can, you’ll join the demonstration. I’ll be watching from my new home in L.A., in both awe and solidarity with all of you. There’s nothing in this world like being in a community with a bunch of loud, proud and angry New York queers. I love you all. If you like me, can’t make it this weekend in New York, consider making a donation to a black-led LGBTQ organization. This year’s Pride is all about centering Black lives and in order to do so, we must specifically uplift and honor Black trans lives. Shout out to my friend Raquel Willis’s epic chance at the Brooklyn Rally for Black Trans Lives a couple of weeks ago.

 

[speaker] I believe in Black trans power!

 

[crowd] I believe in Black trans power!

 

[speaker] Thank you.

 

Phillip Picardi: Check out the Trans Justice Funding Project, a fund helping to resource and grow trans-led organizations at Trans Justice Funding Project.org. I hope you’ll make a donation if you can. There’s a lot to learn about ACT UP and their ongoing efforts to make the world more equitable for queer and trans people and those of us who are living with HIV. For a very deep dive, I highly recommend checking out the ACT UP Oral History Project at ACTUPoralhistory.org.. And if you’re going to watch one documentary about the AIDS crisis, I have been assured that the authoritative and de facto film to watch is called “United in Anger.” You can watch it on YouTube. But before I let you go, I think it’s only fair to point out that activists were not the only heroes of the AIDS epidemic. Many nuns and priests actually disobeyed the official teachings of the Catholic Church to do what was right: provide dignity, mercy, acceptance and prayer to those who were dying of the disease. They are the truest example we have of holy heroism. Here’s Father Michael Carnevale, a Franciscan friar in New York.

 

Phillip Picardi: Can I ask you an uncomfortable question? Did seeing all of that ever make you wonder whether or not God was real?

 

Michael Carnevale: My faith? Sure. Sure. Sure. Many times I’d say, what the hell is going on? What are you doing? You know, people are just looking to be accepted to love. I said, isn’t that what you said, love your brother, you know? And what do you say to the people? And you say, it’s God’s will? God forbid. That’s not God’s will. If believe in God, if you believe in goodness and love, that’s what God is. But, you know, why does God allow things? Well, the only way I can answer that is to say that God is there with us and it’s just a natural thing. And I don’t think God interferes in things like this. He allows life to go on. I remember one of the fellows, Larry, this particular young guy when he was dying and his lover was there and I tried to get in touch with his, that was his mother and father, and they wouldn’t bother. And he said to me he had become a Catholic and I said to him, ow are you doing? He said, you know, you’re going to think I’m crazy, in a certain way if this did not happen, I really wouldn’t have found God, and really found the love and devotion that I received not only from my lover, but from people around me. And you know, I couldn’t believe that.

 

Phillip Picardi: As we close out this Pride month, I have a certainty that I never quite had before: God, whoever the hell they are, is absolutely on our side. Unholier Than Thou is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Lyra Smith, with production support from Camille Peterson and Alison Falzetta. The theme song is Taka Asuzawa, and our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening. And happy Pride bitches!