On this week’s episode of Pose, Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone), the savvy and conniving business woman who is leasing Blanca Evangelista space for her nail salon, gets her house wrapped in a condom. Yes, you read that right. Her house gets wrapped in a condom.
Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) set Lulu Ferocity (Hailie Sahar), Ricky Wintour (Dyllon Burnside), and Damon Evangelista (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to the task as the trio seems to swirl in despair at the foul hand life has dealt them (with Candy Ferocity — Angelica Ross — dying, the lack of call-backs for dance gigs, and the lack of attendance at voguing classes respectively). In an effort to get the group out of their slump, the elders — that’s Pray and Blanca — challenge them to get creative and find a way to wrap a house in a condom as a direct action for ACT UP. And they do it, with a little investment from Miss Elektra Wintour, with Blanca having chosen Frederica’s house in an effort to kill two birds with one stone. And though it’s all quite preposterous, it’s based, in part, in truth — as many big moments on the show are.
Back in September 1991, Peter Staley and other activists wrapped the house of Senator Jesse Helms in a condom. Yep! That same shape, same color, only this time on the front it was printed with the words, “A condom to stop unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus.” The phrase referred to the politician’s staunch opposition to federal spending for HIV research, treatment, and prevention. According to Helms, the disease was a just punishment for homosexuals, and as such deserved no support.
“He proposed and passed laws that are still on the books, enshrining this stigma as official government policy,” Staley wrote in a story for Poz.com about the demonstration. “People with HIV couldn’t travel to the U.S. The CDC was not permitted to spend money preventing the spread of HIV among gay men. Our country never launched a single well-funded HIV prevention campaign because of Jesse Helms. To this day, fifty thousand Americans became infected each year in no small part due to ‘Senator No.’” And since what Helms did was so particularly personal to so many living with the disease, Staley decided to get up close and personal with the Senator himself, bringing in fellow activists Twilly Cannon, Sean Strub, Mark Allen, Garance Franke-Ruta, Derek Link, Jim Serafini, Jasno Childers, and Dan Baker in for help.
The action was the first of Treatment Action Guerillas, which began as a group within ACT UP and later became Treatment Action Group. And while they didn’t wrap the entire house — they just needed to cover the front and the top so it appeared from the sidewalk that the house was wrapped — the $3,500 project kicked up quite a bit of news as press had been contacted prior to the event.
But in truth it was a bit of an elaborate photoshoot. While cops stood and watched, the activists raised the “condom” in about seven minutes, allowed press to take photos for about an hour, according to Allen, and then at the cops’ direction, took it all back down. The Senator was not home — Staley says he was likely in North Carolina while the home was in Virginia — but Allen reports that a “very confused maid was hiding inside.” And á la Elektra and the woman in the curlers from Pose, there was in fact a neighbor who came up and began to argue with the activists, wearing a “baby blue jogging suit and sneakers with white golfing socks,” according to Allen. The cops later calmed her down.
There were no arrests, only a parking ticket according to Staley, but there was a reaction from Helms. Though he complained about it on the Senate floor, according to the activist he “never proposed or passed another life-threatening AIDS amendment. In fact, since he retired from being a senator, Helms has admitted he was wrong about AIDS and has since done activism work himself. Oh, we only hope that’s the fate of Frederica’s storyline!