Papal Visit Task Force, San Francisco


Papal Visit Task Force

“Does This Hat Fit You? For Many, it Does Not. For Still More. It Cannot.”

[San Francisco], Papal Visit Task Force, [1987].

Flyer, 215 x 279 mm. Black and white photo of mitre by Mark Kleim. Crisp and clean with stamp at bottom left corner, “Sep. 1987.” Rare ephemera, no copies listed on OCLC.


The legacy of Roman Catholic teachings condemning LGBTQ+ people is violent and enduring. The works of Sappho were ordered to be burnt by St. Gregory of Nazianzus in 380 and all but destroyed by Pope Gregory VII in 1073; one of the justifications for Joan of Arc’s burning as a heretic in 1431 was the fact of her crossdressing; the nun Benedetta Carlini was imprisoned for 35 years until her death in 1661 for a mix of blasphemous visions and same-sex relations; to say nothing of the more recent abuse of queer people in the name of God amongst Christian denominations, both in the west and in places that were once colonised by Christian countries. It is impossible to disentangle these centuries-old religious mentalities from their secular influences, and persecution continues today.

This flyer testifies to the activism surrounding Christian discrimination against LGBTQ+ people: it advertises Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Francisco on 17-18 September 1987, and accuses the Pope of bringing “with him destructive dogma on contraception, gay rights, and the rights of women.” It advertises an “Alternative Religious Service” on 16th September that is “ecumenical and inclusive”,  “RALLY FOR FREEDOM (MAIN EVENT)” held beginning at 4:00 PM on 17 September in which ”we will non-violently challenge [the Pope] to stop Church interference with private lives, and…articulate our own humane, compassionate, and inclusive vision of religion and society.” It advertises a second Rally for Freedom on the 18th September across from St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the Pope had planned to meet local officials. The “Papal Visit Task Force,” who organised these events, was a 350-member strong political group chaired by John Wahl of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club, which drew its membership from a coalition of eight different groups comprising gays, lesbians, abortion-rights groups, and feminists. Ultimately, around 2,000 protesters attended the rally, in comparison to the 100,000 who came out to see the Pope’s mass, including Dignity, a gay catholic group who did not participate in the protest. 

The Church did not address the concerns of the protestors. In 1992 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Pope Benedict XVI—wrote that anti-gay violence was the fault of the victims themselves for seeking equal rights. He also blamed gay men for the AIDS crisis. As Pope Benedict XVI, he compared homosexuality to the threat of climate change. While his successor Pope Francis has taken a milder approach, Francis has neither officially changed the Church’s anti-gay position, nor acknowledged the damage done by his predecessors, whose condemnation of LGBTQ+ people has been used by Christians across the world to justify homophobia and transphobia, both on a state level and in day to day acts of violence. 

However, in response to such a legacy, the aesthetics of Catholicism have been a resource of material for queer performers and activists. And who could resist playing with the lavish papal hat pictured here? In addition to canonising queer saints like Harvey Milk and Derek Jarman, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence adopted religious habit in a kind of camp activism, dressing as nuns and campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as administering important services to their local communities, such as sex education. This is to say nothing of the high camp of the 2018 Met Gala, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” which was essentially a celebration of the past 50 years of gay men’s use of religious garb on the runway. Within religious studies, historians have begun to pay more attention to gender nonconformity within Christianity among individuals, with studies of folk saints who protect LGBTQ+ people like Mamma Schiavona of Montevergine in Italy, poets like Sor Juena Inés de la Cruz who wrote passionately about women, or those who had same-sex partners, such as Mother Walatta Petros. Finally, there has been a reconsideration of Christian theology from a queer standpoint, as in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians (2013). While many arrive on their own at a sense of radical inclusivity from their Christian beliefs, that has not been the mainstream, official message. This single sheet attests to the immense work that has been done by activists to make these approaches possible, and to envision a version of Christianity that is humane and compassionate.


Russell Chandler and Mark A. Stein, “Gay Activists Angered by Pope’s Plan to Visit S.F.: Coalition Plans Demonstrations,” LA Times, 11 January 1987.

Robert Reinhold, “The Papal Visit; Protest in San Francisco Is Largest of Pope’s Trip,” New York Times, 18 September 1987.

Brooke Palmieri