Cothran

Now there's a priority for you.
Oh, I almost forgot about the sweet added bonus to the Sisters' contretemps: The mongrels of the far right will now have enough fund-raising ammo to keep themselves well-fed into the next decade. (And for the next few years, every way-right bullet sailing over the barricades and into the gay community ought to be labeled "Courtesy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.")

The Sisters' little game of political revenge wouldn't have gotten very far, but for the utter failure of the entire Board of Supervisors to do the damn job it was elected to do.

At the end of February, the Department of Parking and Traffic denied, for a second time, the Sisters' request to close Castro Street between 17th and 18th streets on Easter Sunday, based on merchant concerns that the closure would hurt their businesses on a busy holiday. The Sisters appealed the measure to the Board of Supervisors.

It's simply staggering to me that not one of the supervisors would have guessed that giving the Sisters permission to have their party on Easter might deeply offend Catholics.

One or two of the supervisors (oh, the Rev. Amos Brown, for example) might have recognized the potential for conflict and asked Catholic Church leaders what they thought, and then been informed in advance of the obvious offense to Catholics. Supervisors with open lines of communication to the Sisters (oh, let's say any of the three gay or lesbian supervisors) might have asked the drag-nuns to move the event to another day -- before they rushed the matter to a vote, and triggered arguments about the First Amendment.

The supervisors could have offered the Sisters incentives to move their celebration to any day except Easter: a bigger stretch of Castro Street, say, or city funding for the event. At the very least, public hearings could have been held to air out each side's viewpoint.

But this fantasy of mine about what the Board of Supervisors could have done assumes that the supervisors are capable of insight. This is a false assumption.

Once the supervisors had granted the street closure permit and Catholics had threatened to boycott the city, the issue became instantly intractable.

With angry Catholics objecting to the content of the Sisters' activities, the drag-nuns and their supporters were able to call upon the First Amendment, and its general prohibition against government regulation of speech based on its content. Instead of a debate focused on the legitimate claims of Catholics, who were pleading for respect and tolerance from the Sisters and their supporters in the gay community, the matter became instantly centered on free speech legalisms.

It must have been galling for Catholics to see the emphasis shifted from the public desecration of the Son of God to the civil rights of drag queens.

It doesn't surprise me that the Sisters and their political patrons were blinded by political animosity to Archbishop Levada. It has been, after all, a very nasty past few years. The bad blood ran too deep.

The city's gay leadership, and Tom Ammiano in particular, has been sparring with the archbishop almost since the day the pope appointed him in August 1995.

Things really took off in 1997, when the Board of Supervisors passed a law mandating that institutions and companies that receive city funding have to offer insurance benefits to the lesbian and gay partners of their employees. Since Catholic Charities, a nonprofit adjunct of the archdiocese, receives city money, the archbishop immediately objected to the law, saying it was an intrusion on Catholic doctrine, which, unfortunately, holds that homosexuality is a sin.

Ammiano, the co-author of the law, and Levada were at war for months until the archbishop offered a compromise solution: Church charities would offer benefits to any co-habitant of an employee, be it a mother, a brother, or a domestic partner.

But the peace was short-lived.
Last year, Ammiano introduced legislation that requires all nonprofit groups receiving city funding to open up board meetings to the public. Most of the nonprofits in town objected. Levada, on behalf of Catholic Charities, opposed the legislation. The main backer of the bill was the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, a key political force in the gay community that wanted greater control over how nonprofits dispense AIDS money.

The fight spun out of control from there. Levada lobbied the mayor unsuccessfully to veto the bill after it passed the board. The feud became personal, with both parties sniping at each other in the press.

And just this year, the Catholic archdiocese briefly considered suing the city after the Health Department demanded to know the sexual orientation of Catholic Charities employees and board members, so it could ensure the group reflected the communities it served. (When the church refused, the Health Department rescinded $97,000 in city funding that had been granted to a Catholic Youth Organization mental health program for young people.)

Between these periodic policy bouts, the archbishop's general Scriptural objection to homosexuality kept the rancor from dying down.

By the time the Sisters' 20th anniversary rolled around, it was impossible for Ammiano and other gay leaders to make distinctions between parishioners and the church leadership. It was all tied together in one big metapolitical analysis in their minds. One big Catholic monolith bearing down on the gay community.

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