Catholics push San Francisco lawmakers to reschedule gay activists’ party

Thursday, March 25, 1999

Sister MaryMae ...
Sister MaryMae Himm
Under intense pressure from angry Catholics and other members of San Francisco's religious community, the mayor and two city supervisors have suggested delaying a planned 20th-anniversary Easter party for gay activists.

The brouhaha over the celebration of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a troupe of gay, lesbian and transgender activists who wear colorful frocks and nuns' habits and satirize Catholic assumptions about gay people, began when the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese denounced the Sisters' choice of Easter for the party. The archdiocese calls the Sisters sacrilegious and says they should not be allowed to party in public on a day considered one of Christendom's holiest.

After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to allow the closing of a street in the Castro neighborhood for the April 4 party, the archdiocese blasted the board for supporting a group it claims “mocks the Catholic Church” and compared the Sisters to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported that hundreds of Catholics have deluged the mayor's office and individual city supervisor's offices with calls to yank the Sisters' permit.

Earlier this week, Mayor Willie Brown said that the date of the celebration should be moved, if the Sisters would agree. Two members of the board, Alicia Becerril and Amos Brown, have asked the board to reconsider the permit at its next meeting on March 29. Becerril and Brown have suggested that the Sisters' party be moved to April 11, the date of the Greek Orthodox Easter. The archdiocese in its newsletter urged Catholics to pressure Amos Brown, who is also a Baptist preacher, to persuade the supervisors to reconsider the date of the celebration.

At a March 22 meeting of the board, Becerril said that “the consequences of holding this celebration on Easter Sunday are being felt throughout the city,” and “if changing the date can avert this conflict, we should do so.”

Mark Leno, a member of the Board of Supervisors, said that the Sisters' celebration would not be delayed. He said the board would have to agree unanimously to change its original decision and that there was simply not enough support on the 11-member board for doing so.

Leno also criticized the archdiocese's descriptions of the Sisters and its planned celebration. Leno noted that the group raises lots of money for San Francisco's homeless and said it was not in any way hateful.

“Unfortunately the archdiocese has put out some inflammatory and disingenuous information about the Sisters,” Leno said. “The Catholic Archdiocese has compared the Sisters' celebration to allowing a group of neo-Nazis to demonstrate in public on Passover and the KKK marching on MLK day. I really believe that if those who have emotionally expressed concerns were to better understand that the Sisters are a group of caring people, we would not be in this situation.”

Leno added that the Sisters have a First Amendment right to celebrate their anniversary in public and that it should not matter that the celebration would take place on Easter.

Board President Tom Ammiano derided the attempt to change the Sisters' party date as a “scam.” He said, “It's an empty gesture to appease inappropriate pressure on the democratic process,” and that he was “very concerned about the very cherished value of separation of church and state.”

Maurice E. Healy, the archdiocese's communications director, however, disagreed with both Leno's and Ammiano's descriptions of the situation. Healy said that the disgust with the board's actions was not confined to the archdiocese, but was being fueled by “grass-roots Catholics” as well as other members of the religious community.

“This is the first year the Sisters have asked for a permit from the board,” Healy said. “That makes a lot of difference, because in essence they are asking the city to sanction” abusive treatment of a religion.

The Sisters group, however, maintains it needed to seek a permit because its anniversary celebration has drawn larger crowds each year.

In tomorrow's edition of the archdiocese's newspaper, the Catholic San Francisco, Healy writes that Catholics and other Christians do not claim to “own” Easter or to direct others in how to celebrate it, but only that the decision by the board offends them. “It is right and proper for members of the community to express their views and seek redress – in this case a change of the scheduled date.”

The San Francisco Interfaith Council, of which Amos Brown is a vice chair, has also asked the board to reconsider the Sisters' permit. In a March 24 letter, the council urged the board to “respect the sanctity of Easter Sunday and help this group find another day on which to have their celebration.”

The Sisters describe themselves as an “Order of 21st century nuns dedicated to the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt.” The Sisters' “mistress of reminders,” Sister MaryMae Himm, said that regardless of the board or the archdiocese, the party would take place on Easter in the Castro neighborhood.

“This celebration is not about Easter, it is about our anniversary,” the sister said. “And the last time I checked, the Catholic Church did not have a trademark on that day.”

Asked to respond to the archdiocese's accusations that the group practices hate toward Catholics, the sister said that the group only attacks “homophobia, sexism, racism and tyranny in all its forms, whether spewed by the Catholic Church, fundamentalist Christians or a governmental body.”

Himm also accused the archdiocese of trying to “divert attention from the hatred” it has shown toward gay people. The sister cited San Francisco Archbishop William Levada's attacks on the mayor's annual celebration of gay marriages. Since taking office, Willie Brown has presided over an event in which gay couples enter into domestic partnerships. Levada has condemned such unions as detrimental to society.

“To compare the Sisters to neo-Nazis and the KKK is absolutely irresponsible, sensational and without merit and the archdiocese should be ashamed of itself,” Himm said.