Sisters of Perpetual Conspiracy
Satire relies for its effectiveness on context and delivery. An otherwise-hilarious joke can fall flat, or give offense, if delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Let me show you what I mean:
When the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence perform their hijinks (condom Eucharist ceremonies and Hunky Jesus contests) at the gay pride parade, an AIDS fund-raiser, or any other secular event, they can be very funny. But when cross-dressing Sisters perform the same nun-based gags on Easter Sunday, with a government seal of approval, and after hundreds of Catholics asked for respect and were given none, they are deeply offensive.
Many analogies have been drawn to illustrate the insensitivity of the Sisters' Easter plans, some hysterical and offensive in their own right. (I mean, really, comparing the Sisters to neo-Nazis, or the KKK.) Here is an analogy that works for me: Imagine that a Catholic organization won a permit from the city to close down a few blocks of city street, where Catholics planned to parade effeminately around in faux-swishy clothing and play off the worst gay stereotypes (some of the Catholics would sport oversized NAMBLA buttons) on the anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk.
Now imagine the analogy isn't some thought exercise, but a real-life “celebration.”
You would have to work hard to miss Catholics' point. You'd almost have to be hostile to the church, which is my point.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and their main backers in city government, Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno, may have focused their rhetoric on the First Amendment — both its free speech and its establishment of religion clauses — when they defended the Sisters' “right” to party down on Castro Street on Easter. But these rationales cloaked a more basic and fairly obvious reason for their stubborn refusal to heed Catholic appeals for respect.
The gay leadership in San Francisco is at war with Archbishop William J. Levada, a conservative cleric who does not recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. Politics blinded gay leaders such as Ammiano and Leno to both the insensitivity of the Sisters' plans and the authenticity of Catholic concern.
Both supervisors have cast the Catholic appeal for respect as part of the church leadership's overarching policy on homosexuality. Ammiano told the New York Times that opposition to an Easter “party” of transvestites dressed as Catholic nuns was part of a Catholic “jihad” against gays. (Talk about offensive analogies; since when did the Catholic Church start setting off bombs and hijacking planes?)
Leno went so far as to connect the conservative Catholic position on homosexuality to the military's policy on gays and the federal government's denial of basic civil rights legislation for lesbians and gays. Referring to a proposed state initiative to ban gay marriage and the archbishop's objection to domestic partner ceremonies in City Hall, Leno told a packed Board of Supervisors meeting on March 29, “That is what this [the Catholic complaints of offensiveness] is all about.”
This statement betrays all signs of the classic conspiratorial thinking of the wacky left in San Francisco. Everything, in wacky-left-land, is part of larger machinations by sinister forces. There is always a hidden agenda. Nothing is as it seems. Nice, polite nuns asking for respect for the day when (they believe) Christ, the only begotten son of God, rose to heaven to relieve us of our sins are actually soldiers in a war on gays.
I knew Ammiano trafficked in such idiocy. It's surprising to me that Leno does, too.
Tangled up in this kind of conspiratorial analysis, the Sisters and their supporters adopted a war-room posture. No surrender. No quarter. They were not interested in a resolution to the dispute that recognized the complexity of the Catholic Church and the importance of Easter to rank-and-file Catholics (and, by the way, millions of other Christians).
No, the Sisters and their supporters lusted after the public defeat of a sworn enemy. They wanted to teach Levada a rather obvious and unnecessary lesson: that gays have more power in the City of St. Francis than the Catholic Church does. It simply didn't matter to them that they had to plow under the heartfelt spirituality of thousands of Catholic parishioners to get at their target.
Well, the Sisters and their political patrons have proven their point. Look what it's cost: The rift between Catholics and the gay community has widened. The victory did nothing to change the minds of Catholic conservatives. (If anything, it has only further entrenched their feelings about the gay community.) The city now faces a national boycott by Catholic organizations. Hundreds — no, almost certainly thousands — of Catholics in San Francisco have been insulted. Many of those who were willing to see the legitimacy of the gay life, or who were on the fence, are now probably too deeply hurt to push their church toward greater inclusiveness.
But the worst facet of this great clash is, for me, its intellectual foundation. The Sisters and their supporters in government called on the full armory of gay political power and the most hallowed precepts of the First Amendment to protect — what? The right of a group to obtain official sanction for the mocking of a religion on its holiest day?
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. [page]
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.
“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. [page]
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.
I've changed my mind.
On March 1 Bob Prentice, one of two deputy administrators in the city Health Department and a leading advocate of health care initiatives in the African-American community, was sacked. Health Department Director Mitch Katz, M.D., admitted to Prentice that his performance as head of community health programs was exemplary. But Katz told Prentice he was being fired anyway, because he, well, disagreed with Katz a little too often.
I've been told that Prentice's firing is just the most recent example of Katz's increasingly autocratic rule in the Health Department. Seems that Katz makes high-level decisions without consulting the appropriate administrators. Some might call this decisive leadership. But in several cases, Katz's propensity for one-man rule has been embarrassing.
For example, Katz went before the Health Commission month before last and proposed a way of addressing the deficit at San Francisco General Hospital: cap the number of emergency room patients the hospital could see each day. A remarkably callous solution, yes. And when it was proposed, the head of emergency services at the hospital got up and reminded Katz that it was also illegal under state law. Gee, wouldn't it have been better had Katz actually called the head of emergency services at S.F. General before issuing such a radical policy prescription? I hear administrators at the hospital are considering signing a letter of no confidence in Katz.
Any letter would likely fall on deaf ears. Willie Brown apparently just loves Katz's leadership style.
No surprise there.
Prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Bill Fazio may still be undecided about whether he wants a rematch with Terence Hallinan in this year's district attorney's race. But when I talked to him the other week, he appeared to be crafting campaign themes. And they are pointed, to say the least. [page]
“The progressive community ought to be disgusted with this guy,” he said. “Man of the people? He lived in a 22-room home in Ross [a tony Marin County enclave]. That personally gets to me. I started working when I was 16, selling crab cocktails in front of Alioto's. I was an apprentice pressman. I went to night school at University of San Francisco to get my law degree. My life was a real blue-collar mix. I was not some brat who used to cop Sundays [sucker punches] on people living a privileged lifestyle in Marin, and then having my famous daddy bailing me out. My father was a pressman. My mother was a homemaker.”
George Cothran (email@example.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,