On December 10, 1989, a significant event in New York City would set the stage for Ray’s remarkable journey. Thousands of activists, many living with AIDS themselves, gathered for the “Stop The Church” demonstration outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Their target: Cardinal John O’Connor, an influential Catholic authority whose statements on homosexuality, abortion, and AIDS had sparked outrage. O’Connor, despite being appointed to Ronald Reagan’s AIDS commission in 1987, controversially claimed that condoms were only 50% effective at preventing HIV transmission.
Led by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) New York, the “Stop the Church” direct action made international headlines and introduced the activist group to mainstream consciousness. Amidst this historic event, a queer, HIV-positive visionary named Ray Navarro boldly declared, “Make sure the second coming is safe – use condoms!”
Ray Navarro’s became a member of ACT UP New York in 1988. Known for their bold, innovative, and powerful organizing in demanding greater attention, research, and resources for people living with AIDS, ACT UP marked the beginning of Ray’s tireless advocacy for those affected by HIV/AIDS.
For the 1989 “Stop the Church” protest, Ray masterfully incorporated performance art by dressing as Jesus Christ. He reclaimed this religious figure, which had been weaponized against queer and HIV-positive people by Cardinal O’Connor, as a radical savior who believed in safer sex and HIV prevention.
Ray was also a founding member of DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists), a collective of artists who used multimedia to document the work and history of ACT UP. They ensured that police violence during protests, often ignored by mainstream media, was captured and preserved.
Ray’s dedication extended to the Latinx LGBTQ+ community, where he recognized the unique challenges faced by individuals affected by AIDS. His bilingual activism bridged gaps and ensured that vital information and support reached this community.
Ray’s performance art, challenged stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding AIDS and LGBTQ+ identity. In 1990, after losing his vision to AIDS-related illness, Ray collaborated with artist Zoe Leonard to create the photographic series “Equipped.” This project centered on disabled people, shedding light on the complexities of disease, race, class, and sexuality.
Ray Navarro died from complications due to AIDS in November 1990 when he was just 26 years old. His passing was a devastating loss to the LGBTQ+ community and the broader AIDS activist movement. However, his legacy endures through his art, performances, and activism, inspiring subsequent generations of activists and artists.
Ray Navarro’s life, art, and activism challenged stigma, demanded justice, and helped change the trajectory of the AIDS crisis. Today, we remember him not only as an AIDS activist but also as a pioneering artist and a fearless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and visibility so that someone like myself could exist, breathe and thrive. His legacy testifies to the resilience and strength of all people living with HIV and AIDS.