We Were Never Meant To Survive
A sermon given for Pride Sunday. The text is: Luke 4:1-22
I am honored to get to preach today, a day that celebrates the contributions of the LGBTQ community to this church and to the larger world. Today is the beginning of Pride week; a week in our city that will be marked by movies, events, a festival, and a parade. It’s a week of celebration and a week to remember where we came from and to think about where we’re heading.
Some of you know me quite well, others have only seen me in passing and so today I want to share some of my stories; It’s a journey that has taken me from growing up a fundamentalist in rural Pennsylvania to being the first, out, transgender man ordained to the priesthood of the Old Catholic church. The path from there to here has been, shall we say, complicated.
When I was in high school if you had told me that one day I would be preaching at a service for Pride I would have been horrified!
I grew up in a very conservative church tradition where being gay was sinful and being transgender wasn’t even on the radar. Not only that, but pride was a terrible sin. In fact, I was told not to get a Master’s degree because it might make me prideful.
The idea of being proud to be a queer or transgender person wouldn’t have been something I couldn’t even wrap my mind around. As I began to come to terms with my own identity I saw it as something shameful and something I needed to keep hidden. I thought that I needed to be cured of my sinful desires and so I prayed super hard that God would fix me. Make me “normal”.
I didn’t know anyone like me and the messages I was being given about being queer made me think that it was impossible to be a person of deep Christian faith and to be a person who was secure in my identity as someone who was transgender.
Now, those of you who know me even a little bit know that I am a HUGE book nerd. When I have a problem in my life I usually attempt to read my way out of it. So I attacked this “problem” by reading everything I could get my hands on about the Bible and homosexuality. The books and movies about what the Bible “really said” about being gay were helpful, at first. I read these books and thought, I can be gay and a Christian (so long as I remained celibate). Nothing about my life has to really change. I can still be an evangelical, I can still go to my church. I can keep my relationships with my family and friends. I can still be respectable. And respectability was hugely important to me; I wanted people to know that I was exactly the same as them; just gay.
But other things started to crack for me. I began to read theology that had been kept away from me during my youth; the work of liberation theologians who said that God had a special concern for the poor, the work of people living in intentional communities who believed that following Jesus was about more than getting saved and getting into heaven, but was about working to bring about the Kingdom of God here and now. My understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus started to change; now it wasn’t just about getting into heaven (and getting other people to get there with me) it was about being a part of the work of God right here which meant working on issues of justice both in the church and in the world.
Along with my deepening understanding of my faith, I also became more comfortable with my sexuality and my gender identity. But at some point I had to make a decision: Was I going to be honest about who I was and what I believed (and by being honest lose the church that I loved, lose the job that I had, and possibly lose my family) or was I going to keep it all private in order to stay safe and respectable?
For all of us who have shifted identities or beliefs; whether we’ve come out or transitioned, whether we left the church of our childhood and embraced a different church, whether we’ve shifted our politics or our priorities. There comes a time when you have to make a decision: Will you be honest about who you are or will you hide? Will you stand up for what you believe in or will you play it safe? What will you do? These questions; these decisions have been faced by people throughout the centuries; from Jesus and his movement to the LGBTQ movement as a whole, we are not alone in facing hard choices. So what can we learn from the stories of the beginning of the church and the beginning of the LGBTQ movement?
In our text today, from the Gospel of Luke, we start out with a strange scene. Right before this story, Jesus has been baptized and then we get the litany of his genealogy; the people he comes from, traced all the way back to Adam and to God. Jesus returns from the Jordan River, full of the Holy Spirit, and is led into the wilderness where he is tempted for 40 days by the devil.
Outside of horror films, many of us are uncomfortable with talk of the Devil. It feels archaic or too conservative. But really, in this passage the devil isn’t the point; the temptations are. Jesus is about to start his public ministry and he needs to decide how he’s going to go about it: Is he going to pursue political and religious power or is he going to be a subversive? Is he going to play it safe or is he going to go and speak boldly even though that might get him killed?
After all of these temptations, Jesus leaves the wilderness and begins his public ministry. And he does so by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus has been tempted to pursue the path of politics and power. To choose to meet his own needs, to care for himself, to pursue a life of safety. Instead he stands up and proclaims that he is called to something much more radical; proclaiming good news to the poor, releasing the prisoners, and liberating the oppressed. It’s a path that is fraught with danger because it means reorientation away from politics and power and toward justice.
Now let’s jump forward to the beginning of the LGBTQ movement: For years LGBTQ people had been living in the shadows; harassed by police, forced to live and love in secret. And yet they persisted in creating a community, caring for one another, looking out for each other, and organizing in the shadows. Until that fateful night at the Stonewall Inn; the night that changed everything and pushed the underground community into the limelight.
The first Pride Parade was a riot. The Stonewall Inn was located in the heart of the village in New York City. It was a seedy, grimy bar. It was frequented by street kids, lower class workers, and transgender people. The bar was routinely raided and the customers harassed by police. On June 28th 1969, in the early hours of the morning, another raid occurred. But this time the patrons of the bar decided they had had enough. This time they refused to scatter.
And when the police finally chased them away, they came back with even more people the next night, and the next, and the next. For six days they rallied and marched and shouted. They said, enough is enough. We will not be silent anymore.
And from the very beginning there was tension in the movement. There were those who wanted to be respectable and quiet. They wore suits and protested silently. They frowned upon those who were too rowdy or too sexual. They said that we should all be safe and respectable.
The early Christian movement was also born out of a struggle between poor, low class people living in an occupied territory who followed an itinerant preacher who spoke about the Kingdom of God and liberation for all people. They refused to back down in the face of violence; Jesus turned tables in the Temple and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in a protest march.
The Roman Empire killed Jesus as revolutionary; as a threat to the status quo. That’s what they did to non-violent people who were suspected of treason; they killed the leader in the hope that the followers would scatter, but these followers refused to scatter. We read in the book of Acts that the Empire commanded that they stop preaching; that they be silence and hidden but they refused to scatter. They stood up in the public square. They claimed that the Empire had tried to put Jesus to death but God raised him up. They were claiming that the power of life and death wasn’t in the hands of the Empire it was in the hands of God. And if the Empire could no longer threaten people with death, then what else could they possibly do? These Jesus followers stood up and proclaimed that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. It was a radical claim, a subversive claim. It was a dangerous claim.
But the movement that had been born out of tension with the Empire was absorbed into the halls of power and it became the state religion. Which made it safe and respectable.
And that tension between safe and respectable and bold and prophetic continues to challenge us today; both as people of faith and as LGBTQ people.
The parallels between the LGBTQ movement for liberation and the call of Jesus to work for freedom, liberation, and the poor are so intertwined as to be almost inseparable. For me as both a queer person and a follower of Jesus I feel called to speak out and stand up whenever and wherever I can, even if it costs me something; maybe even especially when it costs me something.
When I came out I learned more about the history for survival of LGBTQ people. There is no doubt that things have changed drastically in the last 40 years; We saw the tide turn here in our own state these last years. And there is more representation of LGBTQ lives in the media, there are more states where same gender couples can get married and adopt children.
But there is still so much work to be done.
The statistics are sobering, especially for transgender people. And the issues facing transgender people are compounded by issues of race and class making being a trans woman of color one of the most dangerous identities to have:
- 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ
- 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide
- 19% of transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives and 55% were harassed by staff when trying to get help at shelters.
- 53% of transgender people have experienced harassment in public places.
- 63% have experienced a serious act of discrimination.
I have come to preach good news to the poor!
A young, 16 year old, transgender woman has been in solitary confinement in an adult prison in Connecticut for the past two months without any pending charges. She’s there because she has spent a lifetime being abused by the people who were supposed to care for her; abused because of her gender identity.
I have come to proclaim the release of the prisoners!
And these are the people who survive. In 2013 there were over 238 reported murders of transgender people (and we know the numbers are higher because so many of the murders go unreported).
How, in the midst of this, do we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?
Statistics and stories like this can be overwhelming and depressing. They can bring up in us all sorts of emotions; we can feel helpless or hopeless, depressed or angry.
Fighting for this kind of justice can feel nebulous; when the marriage amendment came up in Minnesota we knew what to do! Raise money, make phone calls, lobby our neighbors and friends, and get out the vote! But stuff like this. What can we do?
Or maybe these issues feel far away from you; maybe you don’t know any trans women of color or homeless LGBT youth. Maybe the anger of radical activists or talking about prison abolition makes you uncomfortable.
Maybe you empathize with the people who call for justice work to be done in a safe and respectable manner. Maybe it does seem that the best way to work for justice is through political channels and established non-profits.
We are all on our own journey and have to make our own decisions about how we move through the world and how we work for justice.
But here’s what I’ve been convicted of and convinced of in my work with teenagers, young adults, and other transgender and queer people, particularly people of faith:
I get emails every week from people all over the world who are desperate to find a community of people who will allow them to bring all of themselves to the table. Some of these people are in places where there are no progressive churches at all; others have found that even in churches that claim to be progressive their identity is not welcomed or valued; whether because they are too radical or too poor or because they call into question the ideas that the church has about what liberation looks like.
And in my work I’ve also come to realize that there are so many people who would like nothing more than to see LGBTQ people disappear. And that no matter how respectable we try to be; no matter how quiet and respectful, no matter how clean cut and well dressed, no matter how much we try to blend in and be just like everyone else only gay, there are still people who do not believe that we even have the right to exist let alone the right to liberation.
And so I’ve decided to set aside safe and respectable. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Because I believe that the call of Jesus to set prisoners free, to care for the poor, and to liberate the oppressed is not a safe and respectable call even today. This call has the power that shook the foundations of the Empire and the movement that was started still reverberates through the world today, especially in places where there are people who are oppressed. This Jesus story has inspired people to stand up and face death and imprisonment all over the world; Oscar Romero in El Salvador who was murdered by the state when he called for the military to lay down their arms, Dorothy Day who started houses of hospitality to house the poor and was arrested numerous times protesting violence and war, to the Christian Peacemaker Teams who travel to places of violence in hopes that their presence will bring awareness and peace.
Likewise there are those in the LGBTQ movement who have stood up and risked arrest and death in order to survive and to claim their own dignity and humanity; from Sylvia Rivera who was a part of the Stonewall Riots, to the members of ACT UP who chained themselves to the FDA building in order to win the release of medicine that would save thousands of lives, to the people in Uganda who refuse to be silent about who they are and who they love, to CeCe McDonald.
I want to tell you CeCe’s story because it happened here in Minneapolis and yet hardly anyone knows it. CeCe is a young, transgender woman of color and she was walking to the grocery store with some friends to get some snacks. As they walked several people who were hanging out outside of a bar started to harass CeCe and her friends yelling racist and homophobic slurs and then finally attacking CeCe. In the midst of the struggle to defend herself one of the attackers was killed and CeCe was arrested. Even though the person who died was a known white supremacist with a history of violence his record wasn’t allowed to be used as evidence. Quickly realizing that the so-called justice system wasn’t going to provide justice for CeCe, she made a deal and was sentenced to a men’s prison where she had to fight to get the proper medical care.
In CeCe’s story we see a young woman penalized for surviving. For refusing to be another number on the list of trans women killed. It’s a story that should make us uncomfortable because it raises questions about who has the right to safety and to justice.
In the face of people who see LGBTQ people as less than human, being respectable is no guarantee of safety. Speaking softly is no guarantee of rights.
The title of this sermon comes from a line in a poem by Audre Lorde. Lorde describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” I want to read this full poem because it has so inspired and shaped me. The poem is called:
A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
I can barely read that poem without crying. Because I know so intimately that fear; I know so intimately the pain that comes from silence. And so I remember those who have gone before me and I speak even if my voice shakes.
What I have come to realize is that I am not just like everyone else only gay; I have been uniquely marked by my experiences as a queer and transgender man. My identity has been shaped, my personality has been impacted, and my view of the world has been filtered through my experiences. And I would not trade that for anything. Because my experience as a marginalized person has made me sensitive to the marginalization of others and it has put within me a passion to see all of us: oppressed and oppressors alike, find liberation.
And so as we celebrate Pride we remember those who have been told that who they are and who they love is sinful and sick, we remember those who have been told that being proud is a sin. We remember those who are terrified to speak their truth; who keep their identities hidden away as a matter of survival. We celebrate those who fuel the flames of their passion in the face of hatred and violence. We celebrate those who put it all on the line, who refuse to be afraid. We hold up those who live in places where their love isn’t recognized, those who live in places where they are afraid they might lose their children, or their jobs, or their lives.
We celebrate our parents and siblings in the struggle who have paved the way. We celebrate those who have faced down violence, disapproval, and hatred to speak their truth with courage.
And we remember that there is so much work still to do; that our fight for liberation is just getting started. May we remember that our uniqueness as LGBTQ people is not something to be hidden or assimilated, but is instead something to be cherished and celebrated.
May we remember who we come from: Both as followers of Jesus and as LGBTQ people: From revolutionaries and rabble rousers, from the poor and those living in occupied lands, from the fierce and the feisty, from the bold and courageous.
And may we speak and fight and work for liberation. May we be proud knowing we were never meant to survive.