Monday, July 06, 2015

Climbing the Mountain

This is the sermon I delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on July 5, 2015.  You can listen to the podcast.  [Note: this is not the sermon that was planed for this week, so the description on the church's web site doesn't match.  This was a last-minute replacement due to public events.]

It was her twenty-fifth birthday.  Marsha P. Johnson had gone to a local bar to celebrate, to dance with friends, to have fun.  Marsha P. Johnson was a twenty-five year old African American Transgender woman, and her birthday fell on June 28th.  The year was 1969, and the bar was the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  At the time, it was one of the few bars in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people could gather and dance with little fear of police harassment.  Stonewall was owned by a member of the famed Genovese crime family – three members of the Mafia spent $3,500 to convert what had been a restaurant and nightclub into an intentionally gay bar.  It’s said that the mob would keep track of who frequented the club so they had blackmail material at the ready.  None of that mattered to Marsha Johnson on that Saturday night.  She was having fun and she was in one of the few places that LGBTQ people could feel safe in a decidedly unsafe, hostile, world. 

At a little after 1 am that dangerous world burst into the Stonewall Inn in the form of six police officers, announcing a raid.  In other clubs at other times these raids had a predictable rhythm.  I’m quoting here from Wikipedia’s article about Stonewall, “Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested.”  But that’s not what happened this time.  This time the patrons resisted and a riot ensued – a riot that is often cited as the beginning of the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBTQ rights.  Less than two weeks ago, 46 years after the events of that night at the Stonewall Inn, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that marriage is a human right and that it cannot be denied to homosexual couples.  Justice Anthony Kennedy in his Majority Opinion wrote,

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest. With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”  (And that “basic charter,” of course, is our Constitution.)

This is a time to celebrate!

It’s been a long journey.  In October of 1972 the Supreme Court dismissed Baker v. Nelson, a case challenging the legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples as it was seen in marriage restrictions.  A few months later, in January of ’73, Maryland became the first state to pass a statue explicitly banning same sex marriage.  (Virginia came next in ’75.)  Jump ahead to 1993 when then President Bill Clinton signed into law the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, an act which defined marriage as between “one man and one woman” and which ensured that the roughly 1,200 protections and responsibilities that marriage triggers at the federal level would not be available to same sex couples.  This underscored the “separate and unequal” state inherent in “same-sex unions” which had begun to be legally recognized as an equivalent to marriage.

State by state we’ve seen this play out.  A court case here; a referendum there.  But what we’re really talking about, of course, is people’s lives.  Couples who loved each other yet whose love was seen as “other,” “different,” “evil,” even.  State by state, court case by court case, referendum by referendum they watched their lives – their love – discussed and debated, argued over and attacked, all the while just wanting, as Justice Kennedy put it, “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”   The Supreme Court’s verdict on June 26th affirmed that “the Constitution grants them that right.”  For so many this was a day so long sought even if never fully imaginable.

Yet I can’t simply invite us to celebrate, to shout out “Love Won!” as if all of the struggle is over.  This is hardly any more a post-homophobic America than it is a post-racial one.  And, so, there have been other voices.  One of many that touched me was posted and reposted on the FaceBook feeds of a number of my friends.  I do not know David Dezem, but I’ve found his words worth listening to:

"Dear Friends: I listened very carefully this Pride weekend as person after person celebrated that "they never thought they'd see gay marriage in their lifetime." And as I listened closely -- really closely -- I heard another feeling underneath that celebration. I heard sorrow, pain and loss that we need to be aware of in the days and weeks after the party calms down. Because "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime" also means "It wasn't available to me for most of my lifetime." So please, look out for your gay friends, particularly those who aren't in their 20's or 30's anymore, who have had to make personal, financial, medical, familial, and other life decisions without these newly acquired privileges. There's something going on there that I can't quite put my finger on: A sense of lost time, and lost loves, and lost lifetimes that are being mourned in private, away from the public celebrations. And a sincere sadness, melancholy and perhaps even depression that we really need to listen for if we want to hear it over the (equally sincere) shouts of public joy. Our country took a long overdue step towards justice on Friday. Gay Seniors and even Gay Middle-Agers are celebrating that fully, even as they recognize that for many of them, on a practical and emotional level, justice delayed is still justice denied."

I began by talking about Marsha Johnson.  Some witnesses say that she was really the one who got things going that night on Christopher Street; her resistance inspired others to resist and the rest, as they say, is history.  I should also mention Sylvia Rivera, another key figure.  She was 17, and wasn’t even in the club when the police came; she was one of the many who gathered outside.  Some witnesses said that she was the one who threw the first bottle at the police, and that’s what took the events at Stonewall from just another incident of police harassment to the beginning of a movement.  These two, Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera should be remembered as two of the igniting sparks for all that has come since.  Yet the names of neither of these women is well known today.  I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that both were women of color – Sylvia Rivera was Puerto Rican, and Marsha Johnson was African American – and that both were transgender women.  That’s worth noting.

My friend David Glasgow recently wrote that when we shout “Love has Won!” we inadvertently do several things, one of which is to suggest that “the inability to obtain a marriage license was the most important, or even the only, struggle that LGBTQI individuals faced, and all  but ignores single persons, trans persons, and poor persons categorically.”  Even as we celebrate that the circle of inclusion has widened significantly – and it has, and that is worthy of celebrating – we need to remember that there are so many who are still left out.   Transgender women and men are no more safe than they were a couple of weeks ago; LGBTQ teens are no less likely to be bullied.  And while gay and lesbian couples may now have their love legally recognized through marriage, they can still have their jobs or the housing taken away.  And now because of this ruling both gay and straight couples who have entered into legal domestic partnerships are in danger of losing their right to domestic partner benefits unless they decide to get married.

In her Opening Words Lucy quoted Claudia Black, “It is not the mountain that is moved that makes a difference. It is the little steps taken, one at a time.”  I’ve been thinking about mountains, too, but I’ve not been thinking as much of moving them as scaling them.  It’s been a while since I climbed my last mountain, and even then to a real climber the mountains I hiked would have probably been “really big hills,” but still I can remember viscerally the urge, no the need, to stop.  “Oh man … can’t we … just … take … a break?” Oh, to sit down for a moment.  To pause.  To catch one’s breath.  To take a drink of water and drink in the scenery.

And sometimes you could, but sometimes you couldn’t.  It would take so much energy to get up and get going again on a slope like that, or at this time of day, and you really just had to push on.  Oh, maybe you could pause, but only that.  A quick swig, a quick look around, and then back to the one foot in front of the other.

I want to stop here for a moment, drink in the sight of couples around the country finally free to have their love and their lives legally recognized and affirmed to be equal to that of anyone else.  But there’s a lot of mountain still ahead of us.  As the folks at GetEqual -- #More ThanMarriage – remind us,
  • Black queer and trans people are subject to police scrutiny and violence everyday;
  • LGBTQ people can be fired without recourse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • Undocumented LGBTQ people can be deported and detained, facing abuse & torture;
  • 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ;
  • LGBTQ people continue to face harassment, discrimination, and violence on a day to day basis.

The mountain we’re climbing has many names – Heterosexism, Transphobia, Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Racism.  It is discrimination based on perceived ability, or age, or income.  It is fear of mental illness, or whatever form The Other takes.  In fact, fear may well be this mountain’s first name – fear and hate.

And so, perhaps, now is a good time for us to pause in our climb.  Take off our packs for a moment, maybe unlace our boots.  We can get out our water bottle and that Cliff Bar we’ve been thinking about for the past couple of miles.  We ought to take a moment to look out over that beautiful vista, the view that has opened up with those words, “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.”  What a promising landscape we can see before us.  But then we’ve got to get those boots back on, heft our packs onto our backs, and keep moving.  Oh we’ll get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know we will.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: