by Pastor Doug Kings
Below is a (somewhat edited) Reflections I wrote in 2019. June has become Pride Month in many places. Also, this Sunday is the 10th anniversary of Gloria Dei’s becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation, which we will observe the following Sunday when I am back. So I share this for both historical, personal, and biblical background to these events.
Tomorrow, June 28, is the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York’s Greenwich Village. It is widely viewed as the beginning of the Gay Rights movement. The commemoration of the event a year later was a parade. And thus began Gay Pride, a celebratory tradition that is now a global phenomenon.
In many places they are week-long events with the flavor of Mardi Gras. In larger cities parade attendance is in the hundreds of thousands, with much of the crowd being young and straight. Children and strollers are not uncommon sights. Nor are politicians, corporate floats, military bands, and church groups. What a difference a half-century makes.
Stonewall is a gay bar (still open) which had been repeatedly raided by NYC police, mostly for publicity and to appease local politicians (the police have since issued a formal apology). The raid on the night of June 27 (the “riot” starting in the following early morning hours) became the last straw. Bar patrons and neighborhood residents collectively decided (in the mysterious way mass movements begin) that enough was enough. This time they didn’t run but stood their ground and resisted. And history was made.
Of course, it was about more than harassment and bar raids. Stonewall was the culmination of decades of persecution, abuse, exploitation, and ignorance. The PBS American Experience episode on Stonewall begins by telling how homosexuality and homosexuals had been viewed in the 20th century. It was a story of ruined lives, ludicrous parodies presented to children and youth to warn them of these evils, and appalling medical quackery and psychological “treatments” to cure people of this “disease”.
One of the saddest and most notorious stories is that of Alan Turing, computer pioneer and unsung British war hero. His mastering of the German Enigma code machine enabled the allies to read messages to German commanders and anticipate their plans. Turing also developed the idea of the modern computer and artificial intelligence. In 1952 he was arrested for “gross indecency” and breaking Britain’s laws again homosexual activity. In a plea deal, Turing agreed to chemical castration to avoid prison. He died of arsenic poisoning in 1954, likely a suicide. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”.
The passion behind Pride is often misunderstood (and resented) because it grows out of a uniquely personal experience, that of being perceived and treated as abnormal, and therefore unacceptable. I spent the first half of my adult life as the epitome of American normal: straight, white, middle class, Protestant, male. Then I finally realized I didn’t fit one of those categories and my world changed.
With culture already changing and having all those other “normal” boxes checked, my new life was still pretty easy and safe. Yet I remember vividly the shock of the first time I encountered a person who clearly judged and rejected me without knowing anything about me, except that I was gay. I was suddenly confused, scared, hurt, and angry all at the same time. Of course, I had experienced people disliking me before, but this was different. Now, because of something that was deeply and fundamentally “me”, I had been judged and rejected—and there was nothing I could do about it.
In subsequent years I have experienced the love and acceptance of countless people—but not always. My older brother fully embraced me, while my parents were hurt and never really understood or accepted the “new me.” My bishop at the time said he was happy for me but hid behind the rules in effect then and would not give me a new call. The bishop of my home synod, however, was glad to have me back. “We know you’re a good pastor,” he said, and that’s all that mattered. (He regularly shocked congregations by telling them, “I have no problems with the sexuality of our gay pastors. It’s our straight pastors that get themselves into trouble.”)
Yet even though my experience has been mostly positive, it is strange and draining that, in some way, I must go through this “screening” with almost everyone I meet. Despite society’s increased acceptance, gay people still wonder what reaction they’ll get if they kiss or hold hands in public, have their partner’s picture on their desk at work, or take their children to a store or amusement park.
A while ago a pastor told me she didn’t think it was important that her congregation become Reconciling in Christ. They welcomed gays and lesbians but didn’t want to make it an issue and over emphasize it. I’ve seen “ALL ARE WELCOME” signs outside Catholic and Evangelical churches, knowing full well that “all” does mean what most people think it means. Unfortunately, the church’s history of hypocrisy is still being written. To be genuine, our welcome must be more explicit, not less. Our welcome of the unwelcomed is not an issue, but needs to be the issue.
It certainly was for Jesus. “He welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees grumbled. Jesus seemed to make a point of hanging around with all the wrong people: sinners, women including prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles including Roman soldiers, children, the poor, the sick including lepers and the dying. Anyone Judean society’s movers and shakers looked upon with disdain, Jesus welcomed into his company. When told his family was looking for him, he looked at the crowd gathered around and replied, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” He accepted the rejected and saw in them the face of God.
Pride festivals and parades can be raucous affairs: loud, flamboyant, and bawdy. They are celebrations. But as much as they are celebrations of being gay, they are celebrations of being alive. This, I think, is what attracts their growing straight audience: yes, we know how to party. It is also part of the reason people were attracted to Jesus. He knew what “they” were saying about him: “He’s a glutton and a drunk.” Every time you turn around in the gospels, Jesus seems to be at a dinner, banquet, or party. And such events were the most common images in his parables for God’s kingdom, the presence of God on earth.
The diversity of the creation is beyond our imagination, and that includes these creatures called human beings. Jesus taught that life was a gift of God and should be celebrated to the fullest by every person. By welcoming them, he showed the ignored and the rejected that they were included, as well. Put down by the elites, Jesus made them proud and glad to be alive. That’s something every person can celebrate. Happy Pride!
Blessings in your life and ministry.