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LGBTQ Pride Month: Praying at the Intersections

Same-sex sexual acts have been legal nationwide in the United States only since 2003. Read that sentence again—I identify as a gay man and even I am shocked by how recent that is. That moment came as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

As LGBTQ Pride Month launches today, it might be helpful to recall why that case in 2003 mattered so much and also why it’s still important that faith communities pay attention to this history. Not only to the history but also to the crucial intersections this month invites for our commitments concerning racial justice and gendered equity, and still more, for ecological renewal.

First, let’s recall this: prior to 1962 in the United States, same-sex sexual activity was illegal in all 50 states and punishable by fine or imprisonment or coerced psychiatric hospitalization and electroshock therapy. (The term “homosexuality” itself was invented by nineteenth-century medical researchers and carried with it the stigma of pathology that could in theory be “cured” or reversed.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the police routinely raided gay bars and lesbian clubs and arrested patrons merely for gathering there. These laws changed slowly, state-by-state, until a series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1996 and 2015 finally decriminalized “homosexuality” nationwide and granted same-sex couples full marriage equality.

A turning point in that history came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City fought back when the police raided that bar. The “Stonewall Riots” launched the modern gay liberation movement in the United States in new ways. Anniversary marches began the very next year, and by 1971 more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and Europe remembered that watershed moment with “Pride Parades.” Today, those celebrations and rallies occur all around the world and in nearly every town and city in the United States. Embracing these public expressions of sexual identity with pride is an attempt to reclaim human dignity after decades of being shamed or coerced into silence.

Rather than supposing that “pride” is a “deadly sin,” as many religious communities have long taught, some embrace pride as a path toward flourishing; in contexts where self-denigration and violence are expected, pride is actually lifesaving. This has also been true in various ways for communities of color struggling against structural racism and for women grappling with patriarchal structures of oppression.

“Between Worlds,” Delita Martin

While gender, race, and sexuality are distinct aspects of everyone’s identity, they also overlap and intersect in some complex ways. Indeed, those “intersections” can help all of us appreciate our own multiple layers of identity and how labels simply fail to express fully the richness of human life and relationships.

Anne Sisson Runyan helpfully reminds us that paying attention to the “intersections” isn’t just about adding layers of identity, one on top of the other, like a big stack of labels. As she notes, “women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women. In this sense, gender is always ‘raced’ and race is always gendered.”

As a white man (albeit a gay one), I had a lot of trouble appreciating that sense of racialized gender when I first encountered it; but of course, people of color get it right away. As Runyan explains, “racialized sexist stereotypes of white women portray them, under the still-prevailing legacy of the Victorian age, as passive, physically weak, undersexed, and needful and deserving of protection. In contrast, racialized sexist stereotypes of black women…under the still-prevailing legacy of slavery and colonization, construct them as aggressive, physically strong, oversexed, and undeserving of protection.”

Attending carefully to the rich diversity of human experience eventually expanded “gay liberation” to include “lesbians,” and then “bisexuals,” and more recently “transgender people” in cultural and religious efforts for justice and inclusion. These labels, however, don’t work for everyone. Many African Americans, for example, adopted “same-gender loving” or “SGL” in the 1990s as a way to distinguish themselves from primarily white notions of “gay and lesbian.” There is also a long history among indigenous peoples in the Americas of using the term “two-spirit” as a way to name how gender and sexuality don’t fit into the neat binary boxes that often accompany European ways of describing the world. And still others prefer the word “queer” as a way to name their experience of not “fitting in” with any modern categories and expectations.

“Renewal,” Nancy Desjarlais

The complexity (and the richness) of these intersections grow when we expand this kind of analysis to include other species and the wider worlds of intertwining ecosystems. Leah Thomas is the founder of the online resource hub for Intersectional Environmentalism and writes compellingly about the urgent need to foreground the lives, experiences, and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in movements of ecological renewal.

“Innocent Black and brown people are the most impacted by climate change,” Thomas writes, “but those same people are not present in environmental policy.” Just as race and gender are often co-constructed, environmental activism is typically populated with white people and actions are directed toward locations where predominantly white communities are affected. As Thomas notes, the health and vibrancy of BIPOC communities around the world are the only adequate standard by which to assess our progress on ecological renewal as well as the degradations we’re inflicting on ecosystems.

Given the history of religious condemnation of LGBT people, communities of faith bear a particular responsibility to promote social justice and to respect the full dignity of every human being, and indeed, of all creatures of the same God. “Pride Month” is an opportunity to make that commitment visible and intentional in every way we can and at as many intersections as we can name.

All Saints’ Parish, where I have the privilege to serve as the rector in Saugatuck, Michigan, will be “praying at the intersections” of human identities this month and endeavoring to appreciate in deeper ways the rich diversity of God’s creation, especially when gender, race, sexuality, and ecological renewal all coincide and overlap and intersect.

We will also be posting profiles on our Facebook page of LGBTQ pioneers in the Episcopal Church as well as artists who come from “two-spirit” indigenous communities in the United States. I hope and pray that these posts can elicit the complex beauty that arises from the intersections, those potent locations where God’s handiwork shines brightest when the fullness of our diversity is embraced and cherished.

“Harmony,” Alima Newton
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Divine Dignity for All — Married or Not

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court) just issued a theological statement on February 7. Christians might want to take note. This is what they said: “Proposition 8 [which stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry] serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

The phrase, “to lessen…human dignity” is the theological statement I have in mind. To be clear, I don’t mean that this is only a theological statement; it can easily be a completely secular, non-religious statement, too. But it is also a deeply theological one. Jews, Muslims, and Christians (among others, I imagine) readily claim that every human being is created in the “image and likeness” of God. Well, how much more dignity does anyone need than that? (My friend and colleague Susan Russell has a great post on her blog about human dignity, both religious and constitutional.)

Human dignity, in all its many forms and applications, seems in rather short supply these days. Do we really believe that people living on our streets without homes or food are treated with “human dignity”? Do we really believe that immigrants forced to clean our toilets and pick our fruit but are vulnerable to deportation at any minute are viewed with “human dignity”? Oh, the list goes on and on.

Here’s one more item on the dignity list: There are many people who (to use Christian language) exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” in their lives but who do not feel called to marriage. In countless ways, these “unmarried” ones contribute to the mission and ministry of the Church and to the common good (remember that?) of our society. So, yes to the dignity of marriage for all; and yes to the dignity of those whose relationships just don’t fit that model but are precious gifts to the Church and to the wider society nonetheless.

It really is possible to keep insisting on the dignity of every human person and supporting the dignity of marriage at the same time. Let’s call it spiritual multi-tasking. To suppose we can only talk about one thing at a time is to relegate all those supposedly “secondary” concerns to, well, secondary status.

I recently floated more deliberately an idea that I hatched a year ago to put some of these observations into practice. I call it “Dalantine’s Day.” It’s my modest attempt to affirm that there are many different kinds of relationship from which we all benefit in countless ways and which don’t rely on romantic pair-bonding. The deep intimacy of close friendships, for example, or the affection among colleagues, or the activism of neighborhood groups, or single parents raising children, or children caring for elderly parents, or those particular moments of extending hospitality to a stranger, or relationships of care with non-human animals of all kinds.

All of those various relational configurations are actually lauded by biblical writers, but few would realize it by listening to the religious rhetoric on both the “right” and the “left” today. Both sides perpetuate the idea that the most dignified form of human relationship is marriage. How many churches, I wonder, celebrate any other kind of relationship in their liturgical lives and ritual practices?

We can do better. The peculiar faith of a peculiar gospel people can do much better. In my view, achieving same-sex marriage is a worthy, laudable, and completely Christian cause for celebration, because it’s about justice, fairness, equality, and of course, love. But if we don’t say something more, then we religious folks are falling far short of the standard that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set for us all yet again on February 7: human dignity.