Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 30, 2019
“If Not for the Drag Queens”
Stonewall at 50
I will hope to assume that everyone has heard of Stonewall. Who has heard of Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera?
Malcolm was born in 1945 and at the age of 5, began wearing dresses, but stopped after being teased. After graduation from high school, Marsha went to New York City with a bag of clothes and $15, landing in Greenwich Village, which, although at the time it was one of the most tolerant places for people like her, it didn’t protect them from constant police harassment. Harassment ordered for anyone who didn’t conform to gender or sexual norms. For example, individuals had to be wearing at least three items of clothing that matched your gender.
Isn’t that interestingly specific? Three items of clothing. Not two, not four. And just what would have constituted the clothing of your gender? Real men only wear cotton briefs? And can you even imagine what it would feel like to have the police checking your body for the right clothing and counting out loud? One, two… Or can you imagine being the officer assigned to carry out this particular law, which they did not pass, but for which they were responsible to enforce? By anatomical exam if necessary.
Those were small indignities, however, in the face of the reality that no one would hire someone like Marsha. So, like a lot of the others at the time, Marsha was frequently homeless and often worked as a prostitute to survive. She was religious. She loved Jesus, she said, because, “he is the only man I [can] really trust. He listens to all my problems, and he never laughed at me.”
Marsha was generous to a fault and had a jubilant and open personality. She took in anyone in need. Which is how she met Sylvia Rivera.
Sylvia’s father abandoned her at birth. Her mother killed herself when she was 3. Now living with her grandmother, whenever Sylvia was caught trying on her clothing and makeup, she was beaten. By 11, she ran away and became a child prostitute. That’s when she met Marsha on the street. Marsha had a habit of taking in young people and becoming the mother they never had, offering the stability and love of a home they had never experienced.
Both were at the Stonewall Inn that night 50 years ago, on the night of June 28, 1969, when police raided at 1:20 am, the second time that week alone. Interesting side note. The mob owned most of the gay bars in New York, running them as private clubs because such bars couldn’t get liquor licenses. It was a cash cow for the mob. Some claim that’s why Stonewall was raided that night. But the patrons didn’t care what the reason was. For whatever combination of reasons, this time, they had had enough.
Patrons had never fought back before. Police counted on it. But this time when police hit a black woman named Storme wearing men’s pants, she hit back. They tried three times to push her into the police car. She kept fighting her way out. Someone then yelled to turn over the car. Things escalated from there. Merely taunting the police became throwing coins, then beer cans; then cobblestones scooped out of the street to throw at the bar where police gone in to take refuge; to then pulling a parking meter out of the ground to use as a battering ram to force the door open; to setting trash cans on fire; to throwing lighter fluid and a match into the bar through broken windows. It was a riot.
Inspector Pine was within seconds of ordering his officers to use their guns, but backup finally arrived and began to haul rioters away. But not everyone. Tension remained high. Added by a growing number of people from the neighborhood and other bars who gathered around, all of them unaware that they were witnessing the birth of the modern LGBTQIA+ liberation movement. A riot by queer people. A riot, of course, as Martin Luther King, Jr, reminded us “is simply the language of the oppressed.” “Queer people,” a name now reclaimed by the descendants of those who fought back.
Stonewall wasn’t, however, the first time queer people fought back. There was the “Cooper’s Do-nuts Riot” in LA in 1959. The “Compton’s Cafeteria Riot” in San Francisco in 1966 and the “Sip-In” at Julius’s in New York City. The Cooper’s and Compton’s riots involved the same kind of crowd that gathered at the Stonewall Inn. Racially mixed, mostly poor, men who called themselves drag queens, women who dressed in shirts and trousers, and a collection of people who weren’t welcome anywhere else.
The Sip-In, however, was markedly different. A group of well-dressed gay men challenged the law against serving homosexuals by asking to be served. The bartender denied them, which ultimately led to a court case that overturned the law. One of the first gay rights groups ever formed, the Mattachine Society, in the 1950s, believed in the power of respectability. That kind of contrast over the means and method of social change has roiled in queer and other marginalized communities ever since. Is respectability inherently better?
Stonewall wasn’t a one-night event. Skirmishes continued throughout the weekend and into a sixth day. At “Gay liberation” marches and protests that followed in the days and years after, people like Marsha and Sylvia were pushed off stage. Literally. Things came to a head at the Pride March in 1973 when Sylvia was repeatedly blocked from speaking. When she finally grabbed the microphone, she shouted, “If it wasn’t for the drag queens, there would be no gay liberation movement. We’re the front-liners.”
Sylvia was booed and jeered, and she took the rejection hard. After the speech, she attempted suicide. Marsha found her and saved her life. Sylvia eventually gave up activism but not before she and Marsha co-founded an organization known as STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha pressed on and continued to mother kids who escaped the brutality of their homes seeking love and acceptance in New York City. In the 1980s she began caring for people with AIDS, disproportionally affecting exactly those same young black and brown people who looked up to her. Her life ended in tragedy when her body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. She had been the victim of repeated violent attacks. Police ruled her death a suicide. Friends believe she was murdered. To this day, the case is still open. There is a documentary about Marsha’s death and life on Netflix right now. Sylvia Rivera died in 2002.
New York City announced earlier this month that both will be honored with a monument. It will be among the first such dedications to transgender people in the world. The current statues outside Stonewall Inn, declared a national monument by President Obama, are rightfully criticized for not portraying real heroes like Marsha who was black, Sylvia who was Latinx, both of whom called themselves drag queens.
In the intervening 50 years, so much has changed and so little has changed. Denver’s first Pride event in 1975 was a small gathering. The first parade was the following year. Shari Wilkins was there. She said, “It wasn't much of a parade. But Purnell Steen and his band played on the back of a flatbed truck. Sweet.”
Quite unlike this year’s parade of hundreds of thousands, officially titled “The Coors Light Denver Pride Parade.” Those who have lived in Denver longer than I would testify to that unlikely alliance. Is that social progress or smart marketing? I saw a tiny little hand-printed sign along the parade route this year. “Queer Liberation or Rainbow Capitalism?” It’s nice to have “respectable” businesses show their support. There were hundreds of float entries, including from major banks, dentists, car dealers, insurance and accounting firms, Xcel Energy. But would any of them have allowed Marsha and Sylvia to ride on their elaborate and expensive floats? Indeed, how little has really changed.
Instead, trans women of color like Marsha and Sylvia are still among those most likely to experience violence and death. Rejected youth are still homeless and prostitution is still used as a means of survival. The murder rate for trans women of color is outrageous. Just as I was writing this on Friday morning, news came that Brooklyn Lindsay was found dead in Kansas City, on the same street corner where Tamara Dominguez was murdered four years ago. Last year, while President Bone-Spur was preparing to ban the proud and brave transgender soldiers already serving, 29 trans women of color were murdered.
At the same time, I have to say it feels good to have people want to support you. And for our power to have increased so exponentially. Especially in the United Church of Christ. During seminary in the late 1980s, I went out and spoke to churches who wanted to see a live homosexual. I would allow them to debate my humanity. I let them ask why they should accept me. I listened as they complained that next it will be the pedophiles asking for compassion. After guest preaching one Sunday, a woman walked around me looking me up and down. “I’ve never seen one of you in person before.” She was actually very nice and genuinely curious. If not a little creepy. But it was soon after that I decided to end being the Gay on Parade, declaring the debate over. On the national setting of the UCC, the debate has also been largely settled. At least we thought it was until a new kind of resolution was debated at General Synod this past week in Milwaukee.
Over the last 15-20 years, a significant number of the most conservative UCC churches have left, especially after General Synod declared support for marriage equality in 2005. Though to be fair, conservatives have been leaving since 1948 when they formed a separate denomination called the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. After 2005, a group remained, however, and organized themselves into the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” movement to encourage “UCC churches, pastors, and members who consider themselves ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional) to remain in the UCC rather than separating.” About 70 churches formally declare this affiliation while, on the other hand, over 1,500 churches have formally declared themselves Open and Affirming – about 1/3 of all congregations. The other 2/3 are on a range from being open and affirming in practice but not name; to ones which simply won’t talk about it for fear their churches would split; to ones who have more in common with folks who call themselves Faithful and Welcoming.
So, a resolution came to General Synod to deny the Faithful and Welcoming folks a booth in the exhibit hall. The reason? Their promotional materials said 1) marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, 2) churches should change their bylaws to disallow practicing homosexuals as clergy and same sex marriages in the church, and 3) use a litmus test in clergy interviews whether they would consent to officiate at same sex ceremonies.
The argument was that if they are banned from the exhibit hall, then attendees would be spared the trauma of encountering their “emotionally and spiritually hurtful” message. Should a denomination whose resolutions call for marriage equality and affirm LGBTQ clergy include space for a group whose values are at odds with that?
But what would that say to conservatives within the church? This is not about letting Focus on the Family have a booth. These are our siblings in the UCC. They came out with a response that included these two statements in particular: “We affirm the civil rights of and believe in an extravagant welcome for LGBTQ persons in the life of church. And we acknowledge with deep regret past and present pain inflicted on LGBTQ persons by self-identified people who are evangelical, conservative, orthodox, and traditional (ECOTs) within and beyond the UCC.” They removed the three objectional items from their website and materials and asked to remain in relationship. At a hearing before debate, the founder offered an apology. It was a stunning reversal.
In advance of formal debate, the Open and Affirming Coalition offered its own written response opposing the exclusion of Faithful and Welcoming Churches, stating that “as a movement and a church, we need to stay in relationship with non-Open and Affirming churches, because otherwise there is no possibility of transformation,” calling for “graceful engagement.”
That did not settle the matter, however. The floor debate was painful as queer youth, in particular, shared very emotional testimonies that the church should be a safe space. The counter-arguments in support of conservatives were often by other LGBT people, including one pastor whose own ordination was subject to painful delays. Ultimately, the matter was tabled and sent to the United Church Board, seeking to craft some alternative, middle ground. Naturally, that was not a satisfactory answer for some who felt that meant we were backing down from our commitments to LGBT people.
My perspective is that it is better for us to stay engaged. I am grateful for the presence of anyone in our denomination who wishes to be in graceful engagement. At this moment in our country’s history, as we struggle to speak to one another across hard lines, we can demonstrate that it is possible. That we are transformed by being in relationship. It is also a sharp contrast with the United Methodist Church right now on the brink of schism because conservatives want to force progressives and moderates out of the church. Very angrily, “just get out already.”
I was pleased that we agreed to a temporary pause. And yet, as we commemorate 50 years of Stonewall, I wonder whether Marsha and Sylvia would agree. Have they been once again sacrificed on an altar of respectability? If marginalized people tell us that they have been hurt, whose voice shall we heed? In the end, conservatives have other options. For many queer people, the UCC is one of only a few places of spiritual refuge. Even then, honestly, how many of our 1,500 Open and Affirming Churches would be comfortable having Marsha or Sylvia speak from the pulpit?
How powerful would it be to hear Marsha testify that Jesus “is the only man I [can] really trust. That he listens to all my problems,” and in particular, “he never laughed at me.”
A final word. The officer who led the police into the Stonewall Inn that night, Inspector Pine, formally apologized for his role, 15 years before the police department gave an official apology. He also said, understanding the power of redemption, the possibility of transformation, “if what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.” But, nothing would have happened that night if not for the drag queens.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world