"The Sisters were clear with me that it was not a situation where there was going to be peace -- that was a fallacy," Ammiano said in an interview. "This is part of a bigger picture of Levada trashing domestic partners, the Catholic League fighting [gay activist and philanthropist] Jim Hormel's appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg, and then using the Sisters as a target." Ammiano said he and the Sisters even suspected that the request to move the day of the event masked a more sinister agenda to eventually stop the anniversary party altogether.

Once Ammiano and the Sisters had cooked up their stew of conspiracy, distrust, and animosity, it was easy to conclude that the appeals for respect by Catholics were not worthy of serious consideration. They were instead a form of gay-bashing. This is, indeed, tortured logic, but it's how the Sisters and their friends apprehended the Catholic objections. They refused to make distinctions between the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an activist organization that threatened a Catholic boycott of the city, and regular Catholics such as Clementina Garcia, the soft-spoken parishioner who went before the board with rosary in hand, love for gays and lesbians in her heart, and a simple request (not a demand) for tolerance and respect.

These distinctions -- between leaders and followers, and between the conniving and the sincere -- are the kind that great leaders see. Fools and thugs see conspiracy theories.

Supervisors Amos Brown and Alicia Becerril tried to strike a peace accord, offering a resolution at the board's March 29 meeting that would have moved the Sisters' event from Easter, but they ran smack into the First Amendment. It was too late for a solution.

The meeting did serve one critically important function. It showed, without any doubt, that Catholics were genuinely aggrieved, that their complaints were not part of an overriding political crusade against the gay community. The meeting also exposed a particularly ugly truth about gay activism in San Francisco: In a vacuum of leadership, the activism quickly devolves into vindictive bigotry.

Numerous Catholics, including nuns, stepped to the podium and pleaded their case. They did not demand; they requested. Only one lodged a threat (of Election Day, rather than biblical, retribution). And each and every one of them was polite and reasonable. This was not the frothing of homophobes. No one attacked the gay community, or indulged in anti-gay rhetoric. They took the moral high ground.

The gay activists had clearly staked out the low road. Divisive and bigoted rhetoric spewed from representatives of the gay community who were hellbent on demonizing the Catholic Church.

A member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence got up and opined that the Catholic position was premised on ignorance and homophobia. And not one of the Sisters' defenders bothered to acknowledge that one of the biggest AIDS service providers in San Francisco is Catholic Charities.

For the purposes of the political struggle under way, it was necessary to avoid reality and reduce the Catholic Church to its most conservative elements.

The Catholic Church was not a multifaceted institution, full of liberal, moderate, and conservative elements.

The Catholic Church was not the leading force behind liberation movements in Central America.

The Catholic Church was not home to Mother Teresa and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The church was simply an oppressive and homophobic institution unworthy of respect or support. It was a remarkably bigoted view, largely uncontested by most supervisors.

Last I heard, Levada was reaching out to the gay community and seeking a rapprochement. Now I know what the gay activists are going to say: We forced him into a conciliatory posture with our hard-nosed politics. Bull.

The larger truth here is that regardless of Levada's position on homosexuality or what you or I might think of that position, he has consistently been the one to offer solutions and compromises. When the domestic partners law became a point of contention, he was the one who devised the compromise. When Ammiano's law on open meetings for nonprofits went into effect, Catholic Charities was the first to comply -- even as other organizations refused. And now, at a time when Ammiano and Leno and their bad politics have carved a chasm between gays and Catholics, it's Levada again who is offering the olive branch.

I have always admired Ammiano's steadfastness on issues. While others sell out and duck their heads between their legs, he stands firm on principle. Responding to criticism of his leadership on the matter of the Sisters' Easter party permit, Ammiano told me, "The leadership is you don't waver and you stay constant."

Not always. Part of being an effective leader is recognizing when a constituency you fail to understand completely, one you might even be hostile to, has a legitimate claim on your attentions. It takes a big, deep person to make that type of recognition. I am afraid this Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence episode has shown that Ammiano is not that kind of a leader.

Lots of lessons can be garnered from the March madness caused by the Sisters' intransigence. For me the most disappointing one is that Tom Ammiano may not be temperamentally suited to be the mayor of San Francisco. I had hoped he would jump into the race against Willie Brown.

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