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First Person: 'We Tapped Into A Collective Power That Said: We Deserve To Live'

Michael Petrelis
Michael Petrelis
Gay-rights activist Michael Petrelis was 30 years old when Act Up staged its historic protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral in December 1989. Petrelis, who played a prominent role in the demonstration, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar about the event and offered advice for Pussy Riot and the new generation of Russian activists.

Things started normally. Archbishop [John Cardinal] O'Connor welcomed parishioners to St. Patrick's for that day's 11 a.m. Mass, and after he made his welcoming remarks, he then said that the church had protesters who were there because they were upset with the church and what it was doing in terms of public policy on AIDS prevention issues, gay rights, and women's health, especially about the church's opposition to abortion. My recollection is that Archbishop O'Connor asked for his followers to remain calm and to not express anger at the disruption that was expected.

It was at that point that an affinity group of Act Up stood up and began to read a statement about why we were in the church. The affinity group from Act Up stands up and is reading a written statement about our complaints with the Catholic hierarchy. And at that point, parishioners stood up and started praying. Then you had other affinity groups stand up and try to read the statement from a different part of the church, which is huge.

I would say about five minutes into that confusing time is when you had other affinity groups step into the aisles and lay down. They were then blocking the aisles with their bodies and what happened next was that assisting priests were stepping over the protesters lying in the middle of the church, and they were distributing a leaflet, a written response from the church to the protesters was being thrown on top of them as they were in the aisles.

I first started blowing a whistle. The reason why I had a whistle that day is because there had been a number of antigay bashings in Manhattan, and the gay community in response had distributed whistles as a form of protection. So there I am, standing up on the pew, blowing my whistle, and a police officer came over to me and was really nice and said, "Sir, you're going to have to sit down." So I sat down for a moment, the police officer went away, I stood back up on the pew, and I decided that I had to scream something.

I was maybe in the 10th row, so I was very close to Archbishop O'Connor. So I started screaming, "Stop killing us." I repeated: "Stop killing us" at the top of my lungs. The reason why I was yelling "stop killing us" was because the Catholic Church had a lot of influence over public policy regarding AIDS prevention and the Catholic Church was stopping the distribution of condoms. More people were contracting HIV, they developed full-blown AIDS, and were dying.

You have all that confusion going on, and it's at that point that uniformed police come with stretchers, canvas stretchers, to start carrying out the people who were lying in the aisle. The folks who were lying in the aisle were resisting arrest. So the cops started putting the protesters' bodies on the canvas stretchers, taking them out through the doors of the church into the police wagons waiting outside.

What we didn't know is that the church service continued and quickly went to the Communion service began. And parishioners and protesters went up to the altar to receive the Communion wafer. And one man from Act Up took the Communion wafer that Archbishop O'Connor had just given him and said, "I reject your teachings." He crumpled the Communion wafer, it fell to the floor, and the assisting priests dived down to the floor to gather up the Communion wafer.

This matter of the Communion wafer being crumpled and falling to the floor was a big part of the discussion, because the Catholic hierarchy had made that a primary focus of their response to the protest. They said that what had been done to the Communion wafer was so offensive to Catholics everywhere.

My mother was Roman Catholic and my father was Greek Orthodox. So I was very familiar with basic Catholic teachings. And one of the lessons I remember very well from catechism as a child was Jesus Christ going into the temple and throwing out the money lenders. And it was always explained to me as a child that Jesus went into the temple to throw out the money lenders and everyone else who was defiling the temple because it was the right thing to do. Jesus wanted to cleanse this house of prayer from the corruption that was inside the church. And that was part of my motivating factor for going into St. Patrick's in 1989.

I was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, and that was two years before Act Up was formed, and we did not have any approved drugs at that point. I was, as you can imagine, very scared that I was going to die within six to eight months, because many people with AIDS at that time died within a year after receiving an AIDS diagnosis.

We were dealing with both a medical crisis and a political crisis. And the political crisis, of course, was due to the fact that many of the people contracting HIV were prostitutes, gay men -- folks considered "undesirables," shall we say, in society. I have to say, as a person with AIDS who was involved with Act Up and activism in the 1980s, before we had the drugs, it's a miracle that I'm here, still active, as are many other folks from that time, because what we did was stand up and say we deserve health care, we deserve drugs.

I hope that the Russians can find a lesson to learn from Act Up in that we brought our anger to the fore. Believe it or not, up until that time, we were fearful of coming out into the streets and saying, "We demand drugs, we demand condoms in schools." And what we tapped into was a collective power that said, "We deserve to live."

I would say to the Russians today who may be facing a similar situation: Find your friends. Find your allies. They are there. There are people who are going to support you. What you may be demanding in terms of democratic principles, and what you may be doing in terms of standing up to religious leadership, is worth fighting for. And you can accomplish change through solidarity.

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