The day Santa Claus stormed Macy’s to protest AIDS

In the fall of 1989, Mark Woodley saw an ad in a local New York newspaper: Macy’s was looking for Santa Claus to bring joy to its department stores during the holiday season.

Although he was trained as an architect, Woodley applied for the job. He thought that boosting the morale of the children might boost his own.

Woodley had been at a particularly low point. It was the height of the AIDS crisis in the country, and he mourned the loss of his best friend, who died of the disease. At the same time, he was dealing with his own HIV diagnosis.

But playing Kris Kringle provided a loophole from his diagnosis.

“It’s hard to be depressed when you’re with a horny little kid,” Woodley, now 72, said in a StoryCorps interview last month.

“It was just magical,” he said, “little kids walked in and wonder in their eyes. And I was one of them. I’ve never been loved so much. I mean, c was love for Santa Claus, but I was the recipient. ”

Macy’s invited Woodley to occupy Santa’s chair the following year. As part of the hiring process, he was asked to pass a routine physical exam, during which he disclosed the HIV and mental health medications he was taking.

“I was just being honest,” Woodley said. “And the minute I said that, I knew I had made a big mistake. The doctor’s attitude changed.”

Woodley said he was told they weren’t hiring him back as Santa Claus. Macy’s argued, according to Woodley, that he was unfit for the role because he was taking antidepressants. But Woodley, citing discrimination against AIDS, took legal action.

As Woodley’s case dragged on, Jon Winkleman, a young gay man from Rhode Island, had organized himself with the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), when he read the situation. hard from Woodley in the log.

He brought it to the group. “I just said, ‘We should do something about this,'” he recalls in the StoryCorps interview.

As part of an ACT UP subgroup called Action Tours, Winkleman said, “We did these crazy, colorful, theatrical zaps that it was really impossible for the media to ignore.. “

On Black Friday 1991, the busiest shopping day of the year, they staged a front-page protest.

That day, 22 activists donned Santa Claus costumes and descended on Macy’s. Cheerful crowds watched the swarm of Saint Nicks walk into the 34th Street store in Manhattan, singing Christmas carols.

“Everyone is clapping and applauding because they think it’s so cute and adorable,” said Winkleman, 54.

When Santas reached the cosmetics aisle, they chained each other in a circle, he said. They then gave the holiday classics a new twist, singing lyrics like, “Santa has HIV, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la / Macy’s won’t hire him back, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. “

On that day, 19 Santa Claus were arrested, including Winkleman.

“It was genius,” said Woodley.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Macy’s Santa event.

“We forced the media and the public to talk about AIDS when they really didn’t want to talk about it,” Winkleman said. “We had a sense of humor in our business, but the backdrop was that the people we loved were dying.”

Woodley eventually came to an out-of-court settlement with Macy’s and continued to play the role of Santa Claus at various pediatric AIDS clinics in New York City.

Macy’s did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement reported by The Washington Post a day after the protest, the department store said Woodley was not offered the job “due to the specific type of medication he was taking and advice from our medical expert.”

When Woodley remembers the loved ones he lost to AIDS, he said, “Sometimes that heartbreak is so sweet. But other times there is such pain that they couldn’t live a busy life like I did. “

Product audio for Morning edition by Eleanor Vassili.

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