Tamar Carroll

Holding a banner that read “The Church Ladies for Choice,” the group of men wearing flowered dresses and wide brimmed hats burst into a song to the tune of the iconic protest singer Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”: “This womb in my womb, it isn’t your womb, and there is no womb for Randall Terry. From Pennsylvania down to Guam, these wombs were meant to be free.”

The Church Ladies for Choice epitomized the broader partnership between gay male AIDS activists in AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and feminist reproductive rights activists in Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!). Forged during the height of the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, during which conservative Christians attacked LGBTQ people, reproductive rights providers and women seeking abortions, this alliance offered its members personal support and a sense of community while forging a politicized, public queer identity.

The Church Ladies’ satire was an especially effective response to the moralism of the Christian Right and to anti-abortion activists like Randall Terry, the founder of the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, whose motto was “If you think abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” While at first sight we might understand the Church Ladies as simply providing much-needed comic relief during tense political stand-offs outside women’s health clinics, their activism reveals the ways in which queer culture and feminist commitments shaped the response to right wing sexual politics.

The Church Ladies activism took place against the backdrop of a newly invigorated anti-abortion movement. It was 1992 and the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey “reaffirmed” women’s right to abortion prior to fetal viability. It also introduced the new “undue burden” standard, which upheld state regulations on abortion rights as long as they did not create an undue burden for women seeking abortions. The Court ruled that mandatory waiting periods and parental consent for minors did not constitute undue burdens and were thus legal. In contrast, the Court struck down Pennsylvania’s spousal notification requirements, which mandated that women inform their husbands before obtaining an abortion. In anticipation of Casey and in response to a federal district judge striking down a law that banned almost all abortions in Guam, Randall Terry announced the “The Spring of Life.” He called for a blockade of abortion clinics in Buffalo, New York in April that drew an even larger counter-protest of abortion rights supporters.

Church Ladies for Choice, Buffalo Spring of Life counter-protest, 1992, unknown photographer. WHAM! Records, Tamiment Library, NYU. Courtesy of Elizabeth Meixell.

Terry both expanded the visibility of the anti-abortion movement and took it in a more violent direction. He effectively used street theater, including bloody baby dolls and gory images of aborted fetuses, to gain press coverage, and became well-known nationally. His inflammatory rhetoric and tactics promoted violence against abortion providers. One of Terry’s most fervent followers and close associate, James Kopp, murdered Dr. Barnett Slepian, who performed abortions in Buffalo, New York. Terry encouraged his thousands of followers to actively confront women trying to enter clinics by yelling at them, “Mommy, Mommy, don’t kill me!,” and prevented patients from opening their cars by pressing themselves against the doors. He also urged his followers to physically block clinic entrances by lying limp on the ground in front of them and to chain themselves to the doors or to medical equipment inside the clinics. He was arrested more than 40 times for his anti-abortion actions, including for having an allegedly aborted fetus delivered to Bill Clinton during the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City.

For Church Lady Brian Griffin, the best way to respond to the “surreal quality” of Operation Rescue’s fervent anti-abortion activism was to put on drag and deploy camp at clinic defenses. “The minute I put on a dress and a wig it became like, okay, now it makes sense,” Griffin said. “It’s hard to believe that we could show up and normalize things, but in many ways we did.” Drag is the symbolic wearing of clothing and accessories, including wigs and makeup, usually associated with a gender “opposite” to that of the wearer. While high drag performances emphasize realism, requiring meticulous preparation on the part of male drag queens who achieve a highly stylized femininity, the Church Ladies practiced “bad drag.” Through their use of drag, the Church Ladies revealed the performative nature of “traditional” gender roles and heterosexuality, the bedrock of American nationalism for the Christian Right. By allowing beards and body hair to show through their costumes, the Church Ladies embraced a camp aesthetic, which invited their audience into their ironic and satirical joke.

Church Lady founder Elizabeth Meixell brought the confrontational and queer politics associated with AIDS activism to reproductive rights activism and leavened it with humor. She was a member of the direct-action group ACT UP New York, dedicated to ending the AIDS crisis, and WHAM!, committed to securing reproductive freedom. In 1991, inspired in part by Dana Carvey’s popular “Church Lady” character on Saturday Night Live, in which he appeared in drag and spoofed self-righteous church-goers, Meixell organized the New York City-based Church Ladies. She recruited her gay male friends from ACT UP and gave them her old bridesmaids’ dresses, performing alongside them in religious habit as Sister Mary Cunnilingus.

Embracing the creative potential of drag, the Church Ladies developed their own characters and costumes, featuring, as they described: “sensible shoes, floral print polyester frocks, and earrings that pinch – that’s what keeps us so angry!” Together they crafted the Church Ladies Songbook, which rewrote well-known tunes with pro-choice and queer lyrics, including “Stand by Your Clinic,” “We’re Off to Fight the Bigots,” and “God is a Lesbian.”

Church Lady Steve Quester argued that their use of humor was “much more effective” than other direct action strategies because “the angry activist thing just feeds the psycho-Christians,” whereas humor “deflates them.” Griffin observed that by performing next to the “antis” they could provide an “alternative view” and “dissipate tension or just direct people’s attention away from things.” Police and anti-abortion protestors often missed their use of drag, making it much funnier for spectators who got it. While performing as their alter-egos, the Transvestites for Life, at a pro-choice counter-demonstration, a police sergeant determined that the singers “truly were pro-life” and stationed them behind the barricades with anti-abortion protestors. He did so despite the objections of a female police officer who shouted, “They’re being ironic!”

Through their performances, the Church Ladies created queer feminist alternatives to the homophobia and abortion-shaming that dominated mainstream culture. This activism was particularly significant at a moment when Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) led a campaign to eliminate National Endowment for the Arts funding for any works depicting gay sexuality. In the wake of Helms’ censure, museums and cultural institutions pulled shows that included AIDS-related work.

The Church Ladies song repertoire and choice of demonstration locations also held the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Protestant leaders accountable for funding the anti-abortion movement, opposing sex education, and discouraging safer sex practices such as condom use and birth control. The Church Ladies highlighted how conservative clergy directed their followers to take aggressive actions to stop abortions from taking place and encouraging violence against gay men in the context of the AIDS epidemic.

Yes, the Church Ladies wanted us to laugh, but historians should take them seriously, too. Contrary to Frederick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood’s recent essay in The New York Times, which argued that more political histories of elites are necessary for Americans to understand their past, the Church Ladies underscore the ways in which culture, social movements, and political leadership intersected to shape policies that govern individuals’ daily lives. Indeed, it is impossible to understand America’s recent political history without including queer activists.

The Church Ladies’ use of satirical humor and willingness to put their bodies on the line at clinic defenses distracted anti-abortion demonstrators from the women trying to enter health facilities. They lightened the mood of the seemingly intractable abortion debate and won the gratitude from clinic staff and patients. Importantly, the creative and playful elements of their performances also helped them avoid AIDS activist burn-out; although slowing down as some enter retirement, the Ladies continue to perform to this day. Aspiring activists take note: sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.

Tamar W. Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press. She is co-curator with Meg Handler of “‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!’: New York City, 1980-2000,” on view at the Bronx Documentary Center from January 14-March 5, 2017, which features photographs of AIDS, reproductive rights, and queer activism, as well as protests and demonstrations related to gentrification, race relations, police brutality, labor, education, environmentalism, and war.

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