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The Time I Called Pope Benedict 'the Devil' to His Face

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I'm celebrating a silver anniversary tomorrow. There are many things we all regret 25 years later. I'm thinking this is not one of them, though I'll let you all be the judge of that.

On Jan. 26, 1988, I jumped on a platform and addressed several hundred startled people who comprised the upper crust of New York Catholic and political society, including the recently deceased Supreme Court justice nominee Robert Bork; the influential conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., and his socialite wife Pat; New York City Mayor Ed Koch and a slew of other New York politicians (Catholics and non-Catholics, Democrats and Republicans alike); and a battery of Wall Street power brokers and corporate leaders.

Pointing not 10 feet away at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul's emissary from Rome who had come to give a political speech promoting the Vatican's positions, which include condemnations of homosexuality, I yelled down to the rapt crowd in the loudest voice I could: "He is no man of God!" I paused briefly, as they listened intently, and then continued: "He is the devil!"

I truly had no idea where that came from, nor could I explain what force had had me jump on that platform.

The collective gasp from the audience -- and the cold clasp of police handcuffs around my wrists -- jarred me into reality as I quickly took stock of what I'd just done: A lifetime of Catholic teaching telling me that I was "intrinsically disordered" for being gay had come to a head, and in an almost involuntary action I was confronting the man who was responsible for it; the man who led the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; the man who came up with those vicious words that were so frequently used to attack lifesaving safer-sex education programs in the midst of the AIDS epidemic; the man who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would go on to become the pope himself.

It was exhilarating.

Let me be clear: I'd not interrupted a religious service of any kind, nor was the talk even inside a Catholic church. The event was held at St. Peter's Church, a stark, modern Lutheran church housed at the base of a citadel of American capitalism, the famous, sharply angled skyscraper in midtown Manhattan known as the Citigroup Center. This was a political visit, and the Vatican required a more neutral location, free of the ornate and scary statuary of a Catholic church, so that the most prominent secular leaders would attend.

I'd previously never imagined that I'd be doing anything like this, but the night before, I'd gone to my first meeting of the direct action group ACT UP, which is the subject of two recent, powerful documentaries that everyone should see, United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague (which has been nominated for an Academy Award). Inspired and interested, I went to the Ratzinger protest, which was announced for the next day, solely to watch as ACT UP members planted all around the audience jumped up as Ratzinger began to speak, chanting, "Stop the Inquisition!" and, "Antichrist!"

But suddenly much of my childhood and adolescence flashed before me; I vividly recalled the bullying I'd experienced at the hands of kids who called me a "faggot." I recognized on one side of Ratzinger the PR flack for the New York Archdiocese who had previously been the dean at the Catholic boys' school I had attended on Staten Island, where I was mercilessly bullied and the administration did nothing to help. I looked back at Ratzinger. "Because of this man and his teachings," I thought to myself, "I was taunted and attacked, treated like garbage." Suddenly something just overtook me, and there I was, jumping on that platform. Cardinal O'Connor, who sat on the other side of Ratzinger, buried his head in his hands, exasperated. But Ratzinger himself sat there stoically, staring at me, his eyes burning right through me.

I was carted off to jail, and the next day there I was, in handcuffs, along with other protestors, on the front pages of New York's tabloids, under the satisfying headlines "Gays Rattle Pope's Envoy" and "Gays Protest Vatican Biggy." It's funny, but all I could think about that afternoon as I was shoved into the paddy wagon was, "I can't go to jail! I have a dinner party tonight." I was, at the time, a nightlife columnist, covering premieres, parties and nightclub events. But my life changed forever that day, and I immersed myself in ACT UP, chairing its media committee and publicizing AIDS demonstrations, trying to bring the message of government negligence to the public. Ratzinger unwittingly baptized me that day into AIDS activism and gay politics, setting my journalism career on an entirely different course.

In the years that followed, Ratzinger went on to become Pope Benedict XVI and further pushed his horrifically anti-gay agenda while heading a church that covered up an international sex abuse scandal while blaming it on gay priests. In recent years, as LGBT people worldwide have made gains, particularly on marriage equality, Benedict has taken his anti-gay positions to a new level, saying acceptance of gays destroys "the essence of human creation."

After seeing Benedict's latest attacks a few weeks ago, calling gay marriage a "threat to the future of humanity," I thought of my upcoming 25th anniversary of calling him out and how it changed my life. Was it wrong to do? Immature? Unproductive? I don't think so. People like the pope need to hear from us over and over again, as activism has a cumulative effect even on the most intransigent. Moreover, those in the room needed to hear it, too. Perhaps one person, one influential individual in that room, thought about why these people would risk arrest and call the pope "the devil." And maybe it moved them to act.

We also need to speak out like that to empower ourselves to defend our own dignity, and to tell ourselves that we will not take the hate lying down. When we stand up and challenge our enemies and call them out every chance we get, we are stronger, and we let one another know that we will never be silent.