On Sunday, December 10, 1989, the direct-action group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) mobilized several thousand people outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to AIDS education and the distribution of condoms. Of these thousands of protesters, a few dozen entered the church during Mass, and one of them crumbled a consecrated communion wafer.
ACT-UP’s incursion into St. Patrick’s became legendary, and in the minds of many Americans that one protestor’s act of desecration remained an indelible image, forever defining both gay and AIDS activism. Every gay person I knew was appalled by those protestors who’d entered the church and disrupted the service, not just because they were morally wrong, but also because their action could hardly have been more counterproductive. The Religious Right depicted gay people as enemies of religion; the disruptive actions by those members of ACT-UP only seemed to confirm that image. (In fact many of the people who acted most outrageously that day later turned out to have been devout gay Catholics motivated not by hatred of religion but — quite the opposite — by a frustration with Church officials’ views that was intense precisely because their love for the Church was so intense.)
In the wake of the assault on St. Patrick’s, gay people sat together shaking their heads in disbelief, calling the organizers of this idiotic stunt every name in the book — even some ACT-UP leaders were appalled. But I don’t remember hearing any gay person call the invaders of the cathedral anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. Indeed, if you went through the annals of the modern gay-rights movement dating back to the Stonewall riots in 1969, I suspect you’d be hard put to find any account of a movement leader accusing another movement leader of being anti-Christian. I certainly know that when I and other gay writers came along in the 1990s and called similar actions against religious targets ill-advised, the whole organized gay-rights movement came down on us like a ton of bricks, calling us self-hating gays, traitors, and worse. When I gave talks in churches about homosexuality in an effort to build bridges, icons of the gay community such as the late Paul Monette savaged me for “rub[bing] shoulders with … the church supper crowd of the Christian Reich,” which, in his view, amounted to “pandering to creeps … accommodation with the enemy.”
Okay, cut from New York in 1989 to London in 2011. The stakes are higher — much higher. The mosques in Britain’s capital aren’t just refusing to hand out condoms or instruct gay believers in how to have safe sex. (Imagine!) No; they’re preaching to their ever-growing congregations in that increasingly Muslim city what Islam’s holy books teach about homosexuality — namely, that gays deserve to be executed. This has been going on for years, of course. The latest twist — and it will certainly not be the last — is that in February the East End, a neighborhood where many gays live but that is fast becoming a Muslim enclave, began being papered with stickers. They depicted a rainbow flag placed within a black circle and crossed out by a diagonal black line on which were printed the words “Gay free zone.” And they featured two quotations from the Koran. One of them read: “Arise and warn.” The other: “And fear Allah; verily Allah is severe in punishment.”
Now, this could be dismissed as a nasty prank by some isolated, harmless jerk with too much time on his hands. But to do that would be dangerous. For the sentiments expressed on those stickers are widespread among Muslims in the East End, and indeed among Muslims throughout London, Britain, and Europe generally. It’s no coincidence that as the East End has become more Muslim, the number of gay-bashings has risen sharply and steadily. Not to respond in some way to this latest provocation, then, would be a show of weakness and of fear, and an invitation to push harder. Here’s one way to look at it. Let’s say a heavily gay neighborhood in the U.S., like West Hollywood or the Castro in San Francisco or Washington’s Dupont Circle, had experienced a major influx of fundamentalist Christians in recent years. Let’s say the preachers at these churches were known to give rousing sermons about the hellfire awaiting sodomites. (While countless imams in the West openly remind their congregations that their religion calls for the execution of gays, not even the most extreme fundamentalist Christian — not even Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps — preaches such a message.) And let’s say that stickers declaring the neighborhood gay-free and citing anti-gay Bible quotes suddenly began appearing on lampposts and mailboxes. What would happen?