Expressions of Pride

BIMG_0034 (1).JPGethel College (KS) Pride Week Convocation: April 11, 201

On June 28, 1969, as police were filing patrons out of a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, something historical and monumental happened. Usually when the police conducted raids of gay bars, they checked IDs, arrested those who didn’t have them, occasionally committed acts of brutality and the patrons of the bar would go home. But that June evening in 1969, preceded by several decades of consciousness raising, organizing and quiet forms of resistance, people didn’t simply go home. They stayed outside and formed a sizable crowd, until the energy was high enough and a sense of community palpable, and fought back. The patrons of this bar, the Stonewall Inn, reflected the diversity of what was then called the “gay” community, butch lesbians, trans people, drag queens, gay men, all from varied class and racial backgrounds. The following year, activists at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations proposed with a resolution that they move the “Annual Reminder” celebrations that took place on July 4 to “remind” gay people of their inherent worth as citizens to late June to commemorate Stonewall and rename it to Christopher Street Liberation Day. Today, Christopher Street Liberation Day, now known as “Pride,” is celebrated around the world every year in June.[1]

The word “pride” itself comes from late Old English and had cognates in several Scandinavian languages. Interestingly, most Indo-European languages today do not distinguish between a good or bad sense of pride, but in those languages that do, the bad sense seems to have come into use first. Some historians theorize that pride meaning “the state of having a high opinion of oneself,” reflects the Anglo Saxon’s opinion of the Norman Knights who called themselves “proud.”[2] Historically, the term has been associated as one of the seven deadly sins, reflecting the old Biblical notion that “pride comes before fall.” Its association with a group of lions is related to this history because European medieval artists often used lions as symbols for the sin of pride.[3]

During the first Pride Week, thousands of activists in New York “marched up Sixth Avenue from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park for a ‘Gay-In’ to celebrate the Stonewall anniversary.”[4] Among the crowd, people shouted slogans such as “Say it loud, gay is proud!” and “gay is good.” This public proclamation of pride was an act of resistance against a history of shame.

The term shame also has an interesting etymology and history. The word most likely comes from a pre-Germanic word that meant “to cover.” The Oxford English Dictionary records that this likely reflects the belief that “‘covering oneself’ [is] the natural expression of shame.”[5] In those terms, then, pride can reflect “uncovering oneself,” stepping out from that which veils us, maligns us, and isolates us.

Expressions of lgbtq pride throughout the last half century have been complicated, artistic, both inclusive and exclusive, a reflection of intracommunity issues, and most importantly, necessary. While we recognize what we have inherited from those who came before us, we can learn to express pride in ways that honor multiple truths and realities. Today I’m going to explore a few of these expressions: self-determination and self-naming, building community, and social and artistic expression.

Self-determination and naming has been a vital part of shaping expressions of lgbtq pride. The terms homosexual and transsexual both originated in clinical settings and are linked to the pathologizing of lgbtq people. Before Stonewall, activists attempted to popularize the term “homophile” as an alternative to homosexual. This term was used to signal being part of a social group rather than having a deviant sexuality. Leading up to and after Stonewall, “gay” began to replace “homophile.” Both these terms are self-referential and take the power of naming back from those who have maligned gay people. The term transgender has a similar history. In her 1994 book Transgender Nation, Gordene Olga MacKenzie described the term as “self-generated and not medically applied and [not] a term of disempowerment.”[6] The term transsexual has been used as a form of violence against trans people, reducing them to their sexual organs. Transgender, on the other hand, originated inside of the communities it describes, about twenty-five years after transsexual was coined.[7]

These collective acts of renaming were and continue to be an important place to uncover our truest selves. While the terminology will likely continue to evolve and change as we evolve and change as a community, what is important is that we are using language rather than language being used against us. What we commit to when we name ourselves is the radical act of knowing ourselves, contrary to what shame has told us about who we are. In Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility, author Michael Bronski states of early gay activists, “They recreated themselves as people they chose to be, not people they were told they had to be.”[8]

In Mennonite contexts, I have seen this in my peers who have come out, both in large, public ways and in more quiet, private ways. We have inherited the work of those Mennonites who came out forty, fifty years ago, in much more hostile environments. That act of naming has laid the foundation for my generation and the generations after us to name ourselves publicly. Of course, this history is complicated and there have been countless before us who have been unable to name themselves. When I think of my personal history, I recognize both sides of this. I never came out in the evangelical church I grew up in; I left before I ever came to this knowledge of myself.

And then I came out my sophomore year at Goshen College in the newspaper. I have come to see my leaving and my public coming out both as expressions of pride. In the former, I turned away from the shame I inherited in church; and in the latter, I affirmed who I am as a lesbian. Affirming my identity publicly made me accountable to the label I claimed; it required that I live authentically, to uncover myself while making room for others to do the same.

In recognizing that we are all at different points in this process of naming ourselves, we can also recognize expressions of pride can reflect both communal and unique identities. As lgbtq activists in the mid-twentieth century developed a sense of pride, they also developed a communal identity. In 1970, the apartment of Vernita Gray, a member of Chicago Gay Liberation, became a sort of “early center,” for the lgbtq community in Chicago. Because her number was easy to remember (it spelled out FBI-LIST), when Gay Liberation advertised events and meetings, they included her number and name on the flyers and posters. Eventually, people called at all hours of the night, whenever they needed to and many asked for a place to stay because they were homeless after coming out. Gray offered her apartment as a place to stay, as well as place to hold meetings for Chicago Gay Liberation. Because Gray was able to offer her name publicly, it allowed lgbtq people in Chicago to create a community.[9]

Communal identity as an expression of pride has had many iterations throughout history. An activist who was emblematic of creating community in the name of pride was Brenda Howard, a bisexual rights activist who is often called the “Mother of Pride.” Howard organized the first Christopher Street Liberation Day, with prior experience organizing in the anti-war and feminist movements.[10] According to activist Fred Sargeant, the march a year following Stonewall “indicated a change in strategy for the movement.” He stated, “Leaders promoted silent vigils and polite pickets such as the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia. Since 1965, a small, polite group of gays and lesbians had been picketing outside Liberty Hall. The walk would occur in silence. Required dress on men was jackets and ties; for women, only dresses. We were supposed to be unthreatening.”[11] This shift represented a movement away from “respectable” modes of activism to those that reflected the diversity of the lgbtq community. This was an important shift especially for gender nonconforming and trans people. Howard’s activism and community organizing opened up space for a wider range of lgbtq people to express pride.

A facet of Howard’s activism included co-founding the New York Bisexual Network in 1988, which was a central communication hub for several different bisexual rights organizations. She was also “part of the core group of bi delegates who actively lobbied and educated gay and lesbian delegates from around the country who successfully got bisexual into the title of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.”[12] Her commitment to combating biphobia specifically, was a mark of her own pride: she “uncovered” herself in order for other bisexual people to come out and to challenge hostile environments that made coming out difficult. Other community organizing efforts that fostered expressions of pride for specific parts of the lgbtq community include the founding of the Dyke March by the Lesbian Avengers in 1993 and the Trans March, which first began in 2004. Howard’s legacy is one that paid attention to nuance and specificity in a way that allowed more members of the lgbtq community to resist shame and build community.

In Mennonite communities, we can probably identify our “Brenda Howards” on our campuses, at our churches, at convention and in other contexts. Pink Menno and Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests function in that capacity in many ways, as do lgbtq advocacy groups and support groups on college campuses. In his book about Germantown Mennonite, An Increase in Time, author Richard Lichty states of Martin Rock, the founder of BMC, “His call to gather in mutual support was received by lesbian and gay people as a welcome respite from overt rejection and from the subtle ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mood in other areas of society and some churches.”[13]

At Goshen, I found surrounding myself with other lgbtq people allowed me to understand ways I could express pride. This past January, I attended a workshop on trauma and resilience for organizers. One of the facilitators, Ricardo Levins Morales, stated that shame is the idea that we have colluded with our own oppression. Community and the consciousness raising that accompanies it, allows us to reject that idea

As I learned from my peers about their experiences in Mennonite churches growing up, I was able to see all the ways that oppression is institutional, rather than the result of personal failures. Many of my friends in Prism, the lgbtq support group at Goshen, also allowed me to understand that my “personal failures” do not include my being a lesbian. Resistance to oppression includes community building and organizing, and from there uncovering ourselves from shame is possible.

Mennonite churches such as Germantown Mennonite Church and Inter-Mennonite Church of South Calgary, that committed early on to full welcome of lgbtq people are also an important form of community building for lgbtq people and our allies. The community offered to lgbtq people in these churches was and continues to be a means by which lgbtq people live into our faith as lgbtq people and not in spite of our identities.

In a 1992 issue of Dialogue, BMC’s old newsletter, Joe Miller, of Germantown Mennonite Church stated, “It is hoped that…through being open and unapologetic about its position, Germantown Mennonite Church will continue to be a shining example for the inclusion of all oppressed groups within the Anabaptist tradition.”[14] It is precisely that unapologetic position that allows lgbtq people in Mennonite spaces to uncover ourselves from the structures that have forced us to veil ourselves.

As lgbtq activists in the twentieth century organized their communities, social and artistic expressions of pride proliferated. In Culture Clash, Michael Bronski details the founding of dozens of publishing houses and publications specifically for the lgbtq community. He states, “It was the development of a lesbian and gay liberation movement which opened the floodgates and allowed the founding of print media run by and for the gay community.”[15] These first publications were not without their problems, but they marked an important shift: the development of a shared lgbtq culture and identity. This shared identity became and continues to be an important aspect of expressing pride.

Without images and reflections of ourselves, we cannot understand who we are, we cannot know our truest selves. Bronski articulates, “Read any number of coming out stories and you will discover that many gay men and lesbians first identified their sexual feelings and desires after reading something about homosexuality.”[16]

The summer following my first year of college, I lived in Denver with my family and was becoming increasingly involved in Denver’s slam poetry community. There were several lesbian and queer female poets who were touring and stopped in Denver. I still remember the night I heard one woman read a love poem about another woman and what I felt in my body, the way the gears started turning in my head. It was one of the first times I heard a positive expression of an lgbtq identity and one that I immediately identified with. Her expression of pride, as simple and as quiet as it was, allowed me to come to a greater understanding of myself, to move away from shame.

It also created space for me to express my identity as a lesbian in my own poetry. Bronski articulates the process of lgbtq artistic expression, “Pain accompanies ostracism and prejudice, but its expression has style and conveys integrity, self-worth and a determination that transforms self-pity into personal strength.”[17] In the contexts I grew up in, I was not given permission to express this aspect of myself and the work of these poets granted me that permission. Shame distanced me from my truest self and poetry has brought me closer to it.

Social expression, both in community and in my romantic life, also brings me closer to myself. Historically, for social and legal reasons, lgbtq people have not been able to have a public social and romantic life. In an oral history video, Vernita Gray, the Chicago Gay Liberation activist I mentioned earlier, stated that people in gay bars could not dance together because someone would shine a flashlight on them and they would be kicked out of the bar. To work their way around this, a member of Chicago Gay Liberation who was a student at the University of Chicago, organized a gay dance at Pierce Tower on campus.

Over 200 people showed up to the dance. Gray explained, “To be able to go to a dance where we could dance together and be openly gay at that time was an incredible experience, it was exhilarating.”[18] The creativity of these activists in using what resources were available to them, and carving spaces for themselves in a hostile environment makes me proud to be a part of the lgbtq community and aware of our resilience. The necessity of transforming hostile environments is also made apparent to me in Gray’s recounting of this history; lgbtq pride has been borne out of a response to the oppression, violence and shaming against lgbtq people.

In Mennonite spaces, lgbtq people and our allies have used social and artistic expression in varying ways to respond to the shame we have inherited from institutions that have been set up against our truths. Pink Menno’s witness of hymn singing strikes me as an artistic expression of pride and as a reclamation of spiritual practices that have been used against us. At Goshen, the Open Letter movement to change the discriminatory hiring policy used many different artistic witnesses as activism. My senior year, Open Letter activists made 1000 purple cranes to represent each of the signers of the letter and placed them in the Church Chapel. This artistic and collective act made visible all those who advocated for a change in a policy that forced lgbtq people to hide themselves.

At the Kansas City convention last summer, the silent witness following the passage of the membership guidelines resolution by Pink Menno was, for me, one of the most powerful social expressions of pride I’ve experienced. Often our bodies are made invisible to those who attempt to shame us, but by placing our bodies directly in their sight, we affirmed ourselves, we unveiled ourselves. The complexity present in moments of pride like the silent witness and in other moments such as hymn singing is interesting to note as well. In this, we can recognize that expressions of pride can be both quiet and loud, that binaries have no place here, that we are both/and, rather than either/or, that there is room for multiple and multi-faceted expressions of who we are.

Returning to the dictionary definition of the term pride, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as, “A consciousness of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position.”[19] As lgbtq people have come to understand our position in society throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have also come to understand that our oppression is not worthy of us, that the shame that veils us is not what befits us. The ways lgbtq people have expressed pride, or our coming to know our truest selves despite what we are told about ourselves, are as vast and varied as lgbtq people are.

Pride can, in many ways, reflect both the uncovering of ourselves as individuals and communities and the uncovering of institutional oppression and shame. I invite the community of Bethel College to carve out spaces for different expressions of pride. In what ways can your school not just include lgbtq people, but affirm them? Where can lgbtq people find reflections of themselves on Bethel’s campus? In what ways does Bethel as an institution offer spaces where lgbtq people can uncover themselves? Where is more space needed? What would it look like for lgbtq people to be unveiled, to live in honor of their truest selves on this campus? What support can your school offer to counteract the legacy of shame? What artistic and social expressions are yet to be seen, heard and valued? As you enter this week, I invite you to make these spaces and think about how to sustain them after this week is over.

[1] Wythe, Bianca. “How the Pride Parade Became Tradition.” American Experience. Public Broadcasting Service, 9 June 2011. Web. 1 March 2016.
[2] “pride, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 1 March 2016.
[3] “pride, n.1.”
[4] Kaiser, Charles. “The Seventies.” The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America. New York: Grove, 2007. Print.
[5] “shame, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 1 March 2016.
[6] MacKenzie, Gordene Olga. Transgender Nation. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. 2. Print.
[7] “transgender, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 22 January 2016.
[8] Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Boston, MA: South End, 1984. 75. Print.
[9] ORAL HISTORY: Watch Vernita Gray Talk about Gay Liberation. Perf. Vernita Gray. Chicago Gay History. 2008. Web. 1 Mar. 2016. <;.
[10] “Brenda Howard.” LGBT History Month. Equality Forum, n.d. Web. 1 March 2016. <;.
[11] Sargeant, Fred. “1970: A First-Person Account of the First Gay Pride March.” The Village Voice. Village Voice, LLC, 22 June 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
[12] Rios, Carmen. “Idol Worship: Brenda Howard, Bisexual Curmudgeon and Mother of Pride.” Autostraddle. The Excitant Group, 04 June 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
[13] Lichty, Richard J. “Culture Wars, Gay Rights, and the Emergence of MC USA.” An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2015. 320. Print.
[14] Miller, Joe. “Open Acceptance: Germantown Mennonite Church.” Dialogue 14, no 2. Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, October 1992, 4-5. Print.
[15] Bronski, 145.
[16] Bronski, 144.
[17] Bronski, 74.
[18] ORAL HISTORY: More Vernita Gray. Perf. Vernita Gray. Chicago Gay History. 2008. Web. 1 Mar. 2016. <;.
[19] “pride, n.1.”

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Coming home to our bodies: trauma and justice

fd559363ad5645958cc2ccdc6005fbd6My senior year of high school, I was talking to a school counselor about an experience I had earlier that year with another classmate. As I finished my explanation, he told me that what I had experienced was emotional trauma. I can’t recall what I said to him, but I remember feeling surprised. No one had ever framed my story that way. That word, “trauma,” framed the experience in a way that allowed me to understand the weight of it, that it wasn’t just “high school girl drama,” as I had been told it was by my peers and by the media. Through this processing with the counselor, I was able to realize that my reaction to this emotional trauma wasn’t overreacting but a complicated interplay of psychological and physiological reactions that are common for trauma survivors. It became clear to me, just in that simple reframing, that trauma took on many forms and that it affected much more of my life than I had ever been able to name. In the following years in college, I was able to expand my understanding of my own trauma and the ways that the church inflicted spiritual, psychological and emotional trauma on me. These realizations were not wounding in and of themselves, but the repression of all the trauma I had experienced up until that point was beginning to unravel. At times this felt like a previously broken bone responding to a change in atmospheric pressure, but more constant, more persistent.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines trauma as “a psychic injury, esp. one caused by emotional shock, the memory of which is repressed and remains unhealed; an internal injury, esp. to the brain, which may result in a behavioural disorder of organic origin.” The use of trauma in this sense was first recorded in an 1894 edition of Psychological Review. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. defines trauma as, “Experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions. It can refer to a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physical and emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.” With these definitions in mind, it becomes clear that trauma encompasses a wide variety of experiences, including psychological and emotional harm we may find difficult to name.

This month I attended a workshop titled “Restoring Power: Trauma and Resilience for Survivors.” I found the event on Facebook and was drawn to the title, so I registered without knowing much about what I was going to experience. The workshop was facilitated by artist Ricardo Levins Morales and Certified Acupressurist Molly Glasgow. Ricardo and Molly led a group of about twenty people in discussions, exploring different acupressure points that relate to trauma (in general but also specifically to trauma experienced in social justice organizing) and considering different ways of understanding trauma.

Throughout and after the workshop, I was reminded of the urgency for justice present in my own body. While some of that urgency is created out of empathy, compassion and respect for other people, it is also driven by trauma:  my own trauma and the collective trauma experienced by my communities and the communities that surround me. When we understand injustice as a traumatic experience, justice becomes even more important. Racism, sexism, misogyny, heterosexism/homophobia, cissexism/transphobia, ableism and other forms of oppression are traumatic, they surpass our abilities to “cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.”

This is further cemented by the intergenerational transmission of trauma. More and more studies have been released that show evidence for this transmission. A report published by the National Aboriginal Health Organization in Canada states, “There is now considerable evidence that the effects of trauma experiences are often transmitted across generations, affecting the children and grandchildren of those that were initially victimized.” Molly and Ricardo spoke about a few of these studies and this is where I felt the most urgency. The effects of trauma don’t begin and end with an individual, but are carried on long past our own lives. So when we consider what progress we are making toward justice, we must acknowledge that the effects of injustice will still be present in future generations. If we don’t work toward justice now, injustice and trauma will continue to pervade the lives of the grandchildren of our grandchildren.

Molly and Ricardo also emphasized that the body is the site where we experience trauma. In addition to this, the body is the way we know everything we know. As my high school counselor processed the emotional trauma I had experienced with me, I can still remember the tension I felt in my neck as he spoke, the warmness of my throat, the slow tears my eyes produced. My body knew the weight of what I had experienced, I just needed to listen to it. The facilitators also explored the ways the body knows how to heal itself. Trauma separates us from our bodies. As I recall the trauma I experienced in Kansas City at the biennial MCUSA convention, I remember a sort of psychic removal of myself from my body. During the silent witness with Pink Menno, as I watched the delegates pass through us, I was body-checked, rammed into, and touched without my consent over and over again in the course of the two hours I stood there. It wasn’t until after the witness was over that someone said to me, “Are you okay? You were body-checked a lot,” that I realized what had happened.

After I was able to return to my body, I recalled other experiences of trauma where I felt as though I was living outside of myself. In the church I grew up in, this separation of body from spirit was constant, and even worse, it was elevated as a goal of Christian spirituality. In this, I was removed from self-knowledge. This injustice was further compounded by the socialization of shame and silence. I was robbed of experiencing my body in its truest nature and was taught to stay silent and feel guilty about it.

As I am learning to come home to body, I’ve experienced a troubling sort of catharsis. While I am reveling in being able to live in my body, to listen to it, to nurture it, I am also aware of what trauma has done to me, physically and emotionally. I revisit my trauma and locate where in my body it has wounded me. My body knows its history, even if I am unable to name it. As I listen to and ground myself in my body, I am able to slowly heal those wounds. During the workshop, Ricardo discussed that this return must be accompanied by a reframing of the trauma. Where I was once ashamed about the emotional trauma I experienced, I am learning to reframe it in a way that is liberating: it wasn’t my fault that I experienced this, I did what I was capable of doing to cope with it.

We can also extend this beyond our own individual experiences of trauma to collective trauma. I’ll use the example of homophobia. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and non-heterosexual people have experienced the trauma of homophobia, but despite what shame tells us (that we have colluded with our own oppression, as Ricardo put it), we have not inflicted this upon ourselves. As we have understood this basic truth about ourselves and returned to our bodies, we have sought and continue to seek justice. While each generation has inherited the trauma of those who came before, we also inherit their resilience and resistance.

Trauma and oppression are made possible through the institutionalized notion that bodies must be denigrated in order to elevate the spirit. Historically, the marginalized have been associated with the body while the privileged are associated with the mind (especially with logic and reason). We live in social environments that are created and sustained where the marginalized are thought only to be bodies, and then the body is vilified and commodified.

There is, however, an important distinction to make here: privilege, the presence or the absence of it, creates a markedly different experience of this split. Oppression marks the marginalized in a way that those with privilege are unmarked. This creates a complicated web, where we are marked in some ways and unmarked in others. As I am learning to unite my body and mind, I am becoming aware of the ways trauma keeps me from knowing my most authentic self. I am also becoming aware of the ways privilege grants me access, simply based on one facet of my body (such as my whiteness). As I commit to this process, I am able to name my trauma and marginalization and the way they have denied basic truths about my value and worth. I am also able to name my privilege and how I experience it as access, as denying the humanity of those who don’t share this characteristic with me. This naming is part of the process of liberation. As I name, rename and honor the truths injustice and oppression have taken away from me, I honor the truths of others, those which my privilege and socialization have kept from me.

Two years ago I broke my elbow. Occasionally, before it rains or snows, it gets a little sore, or I have difficulty straightening my arm out. As annoying as it is sometimes, it reminds me of the ways the bone healed itself, the resilience my body inherently has. As I have revisited my trauma, in whatever ways I am brought back to it, I am reminded of the ways I am healing. This is not to say it isn’t painful, or that I don’t occasionally wish I could forget it all, but that it is a reminder that I am still here; that as I come home to my body, I am able to name and know myself even as the trauma has begged me not to.

For more information about Restoring Power: Trauma and Resilience for Organizers, visit their Facebook page.

Cross-posted on Outspoken.

–Hayley Brooks

Historically-Grounded Organizing: A Reflection on Stonewall

stonewall_inn_1969When the trailer for the Hollywood-produced movie “Stonewall” was released this past August, activists on the internet took to dismantling the narrative the trailer presented. Featured at the center obf the historic narrative is fictional Danny Winters, a white gay man who moved to New York from Indiana after being kicked out of his home. The trailer depicts Danny throwing a brick through the windows of what is supposed to be the Stonewall Inn and galvanizing the crowd, framing him as the “hero” of the historic Stonewall riots.  In a Guardian article, producer Roland Emmerich was quoted saying, “‘You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,’ he said. ‘I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.’”

Soon after the release of the trailer, a petition on the Gay-Straight Alliance Network was started to boycott the film, and several YouTube videos were released discussing the trailer, including one by Franchesca Ramsey for MTV News and one by Kat Blaque. Several blogs and news sources reported on the controversy of the film, including an article in The Guardian about what current gay rights activists thought of the film, a Salon review, and an Autostraddle compilation of reviews from around the internet.

Aside from some research of lgbtq history in the United States I had done for an independent study at Goshen College, I didn’t know much about the Stonewall riots. I had enough background on this pivotal historic moment to know that the trailer for the Hollywood movie had erased the true history of Stonewall. During my research, I stumbled onto a few mentions of Stonewall and its marking of the “modern gay rights movement.” In September, I saw many of my peers post articles about the whitewashing (as well as cisgender and male-washing) present in the movie and decided to read Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter upon starting my position at BMC in October. As I read Carter’s secondhand account of the riots, I began looking online for other sources and decided to take this research and present it during my visit to Goshen College in late October.

I supplemented Carter’s book with Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, Vicki Eaklor’s Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States, a few primary sources I found online, the PBS produced “Stonewall Uprising” documentary (based on Carter’s book), an audio documentary and several other videos I found online. As I compiled my research in a presentable form for Regina Shands Stoltzfus’ class, “Race, Class and Ethnic Relations,” I realized the salience of Stonewall as the spark for the modern gay rights movement. I also noticed myself looking for a replacement for Danny Winters. As I came to the end of my research, however, Carter pointed something out in his conclusion that the film, at least based on its trailer, was not able to acknowledge. Carter states, “The question of who gets credit for starting the riots is one that deserves consideration. That question, however, contains a premise: that an individual or group of individuals can be singled out as the prime mover in a complex process that many persons collectively created” (Carter 261).

In my research, I became aware of the ways the internet simplifies events such as Stonewall down to a few sound bites or phrases. While what I had read online in response to the trailer was not false, as a whole, the articles I read didn’t address nearly enough of the intricacies of what led the riots to occur in that specific time and place. In his conclusion, Carter gives a page and a half description of all the factors that made Stonewall the historic event that it was. As I read his conclusion, I wondered why such an important event is rarely discussed in history classrooms, and why most lgbtq people in my generation have little if any knowledge of this history.

The events that took place at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969 are rarely talked about with the nuance they deserve. Most people in my generation are aware of the events only peripherally, and know it mostly as the reason why Pride parades take place in June. Within my own circles, I’ve noticed the move away from historically grounded organizing and paying homage to those who came before us. This is the result of a complicated interplay of institutional practices, curriculum in grade schools, new technology and social media, historical revisionism and other factors. As people in my generation organize, create community, and address institutional oppression, we inherit the work of those who came before us, with all their flaws, failures, and successes. Perhaps because we didn’t or don’t have access to comprehensive education on lgbtq history, we often fail to recognize that work. At Goshen College, and I can imagine on other Mennonite and Brethren campuses, I see the need for historically grounded organizing continue to rise. Without extensive knowledge of the histories, traumas, successes and failures of those who came before us, we can’t effectively combat lgbtq injustice. Stonewall and its legacy felt like a good place to start my research and to fill some of the gap created by this institutionalized void. I also want to acknowledge that an institutional change in curriculum and the framing of history needs to occur to effectively address this lack of access to lgbtq history.

Before I started my lecture, I asked the class what they already knew about Stonewall to gauge where I would need to begin my lecture. The class as a whole knew about as much as I did prior to beginning my research. They knew the names Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, that it was a confrontation with the police and took place in June 1969 at a New York gay bar.

In my research, I discovered aspects about the riots I was surprised to find. The first is that the Stonewall Inn, like many gay bars at the time, was owned by the Mafia. The Mafia recruited youth from the Stonewall Inn for their blackmailing and prostitution rings. The riots were also preceded by nearly two decades of work within the “Homophile Movement.” Several organizations were attempting to gain legal rights for gay people (typically gay men) and focused generally on assimilation and acceptance into heteronormative society. The Mattachine Society in New York, the Janus Society in Philadelphia, the Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco and New York were part of this movement. Three years prior to the Stonewall riots, there were riots at a San Francisco Compton’s Cafeteria, led by transgender and gay youth in the organization Vanguard. These riots were strikingly similar to the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn. There were riots in other cities as well, but they did not receive as much media coverage as the Stonewall riots.

The police raids of gay bars during that era were frequent and often a joint effort of the Mafia and the police force. Carter states, “There was such close cooperation between the police and the gay bars that the police would time the raids to minimize the disruption to the bars’ business” (Carter 83). In addition to working with the police during the raids, the Mafia paid off the police in order to keep the bars open. Carter further explains, “Even with police payoffs, illegal bars were raided on an average of once a month but more frequently during an election campaign” (Carter 82). In June 1969, five gay bars had been raided over the course of three weeks and the Stonewall had been raided just days before the June 28 raid. The difference between the night the riots occurred and between other raids was that patrons of the bar began to fight back. In other raids, after the police checked IDs and filed people out of the bar, they usually went home. On June 28, 1969, the patrons of the bar stayed outside and eventually formed a sizable crowd. Inside the bar, the police separated the drag queens and trans people present and then barricaded themselves inside the bar as patrons were escorted out. After two patrons resisted arrest, the riots broke out.

It is important to note that Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was present at the riots stated, “‘What I know definitely from my own experience is that the people who did the most fighting were the drag queens and hustlers. [They] fought with the same ferocity they would fight with when any situation of survival put their sense of dignity on the line, very much like Bob Dylan’s ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’” (Carter 162). While there is no identifiable “hero” of the riots, Carter and other sources emphasize that the most marginal elements of the gay community were fighting the hardest against the police. Ironically, and more disappointingly, those fighting the hardest found themselves still on the margins after new organizations formed in response to the riots.

Immediately following the riots, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed. The GLF’s official statement was, “‘We formed after the recent pig bust of the Stonewall, a well known gay bar in Greenwich Village. We’ve come to realize that all our frustrations and feelings of oppression are real…We identify ourselves with all the oppressed: the Vietnamese struggle, the third world, the blacks, the workers…all those oppressed by this rotten, dirty, vile, fucked-up capitalist conspiracy’” (Carter 220). There was talk of working with the Black Panthers and other progressive causes of the time. Ultimately, it was this focus on “all the oppressed” that led to GLF’s demise. GLF only remained active for three years. Carter attributes the short life of GLF to disagreements between members on this issue, “But of all the contentious issues that wracked this most contentious organization (which claimed not to be an organization at all but a loose collection of individuals and small groups of individuals), the most divisive of all was the issue that had bedeviled it from its first meeting, whether it should be a one-issue organization or whether it should ally itself with all other progressive causes” (Carter 232).

Subsequently, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR) formed. In A Queer History of the United States, Bronski states, “GAA’s single-issue politics had a much greater impact than GLF on mainstream gay political organizing. It became the template for the contemporary gay rights movements, which works to change, not overthrow the system” (Bronski 212). He further explains, “Transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson had left GLF to help form GAA, but ultimately found themselves, and issues of gender identity, excluded. In 1970 they started Street Transvestite Action Revolution (STAR), which became the foundational group for contemporary transgender activism” (Bronski 211). Within these political moves was a complicated series of sacrifice and strategy to further the groups’ political aims. In the case of GAA, transgender members of the group found themselves excluded in favor of reforming the system. Ironically and tragically, those who fought the hardest during the riots were eventually left out of the discussion. This was also true of lesbians in those organizations. Bronski states, “The Lavender Menace, who now called themselves Radicalesbians,…understood that their concerns were distinct from those of heterosexual women and gay men, began a distinct movement: lesbian feminism” (Bronski 213).

Bringing this complicated narrative to a Mennonite context was a little anxiety-inducing. I come to this from a context of knowing some of the marginalization the rioters faced and what sort of anger and frustration the rioters brought with them to that space. I also approach this with a double consciousness: knowing well what the privileged class would think of a riot starting the lgbtq rights movement as well as what those inside the community know of that type of violence. There is also a precarious nuance present in Mennonite contexts. While many Mennonites are willing to admit to and readily tackle the violence the Mennonite church has done to lgbtq people, as an institution, the church has held onto its identity as a persecuted people tightly. As a result, the church has not admitted to the violence it has done to lgbtq people.

I’ve wondered if the slow movement the Mennonite church has made in regards to lgbtq rights has to do with the combination of two assumptions: that a group of people identified by pacifism are unable to do violence and that the actions of rioters responding to police brutality is equivalent to the police brutality itself. In my particular social location, on the outside of several different religious communities I was pushed out of, to now having finished my education at a Mennonite college where I poured myself into its community only to find myself traumatized at convention with the passing of the membership guidelines and forbearance resolutions; it seems to me that the Mennonite church is carrying with it assumptions about its own violence it has yet to name. This all to say, when we process this history in Mennonite contexts, we must ask ourselves whose violence we are condemning, what survival is, and how and where we bring our assumptions, prejudices and understandings of violence to this history.

To my surprise, the students were very open to the complexities of this event. In the final discussion, the class broke up into smaller groups and answered one of three questions. Most groups chose to discuss the question: What impact did Stonewall being a violent event make on lgbtq politics then and now? Most students answered this question with attention to the complexity of this event. I was hoping to make it clear that the riots were not a spontaneous act of rebellion but part of a long series of institutional oppression against the lgbtq community, or as Bronski articulates, “Stonewall was less a turning point than a final stimulus in a series of public altercations” (Bronski 210).

The students in Regina’s class, likely as a result of the content of the class and the social climate at GC, seemed to understand that institutional structures, decades of hard work addressing those structures, and the complexity of intersectional privilege and oppression lead to moments of resistance. The Stonewall riots, as a result of its location, the ways news sources at the time picked up the story and the institutions that surrounded it, caught the imagination of the public. What made it different from other acts of resistance during that same time was not that the other acts were in vain, or were not as important as this moment; but rather that dozens and dozens of factors worked together to make it the historical moment it has become.

According to Adam Curle’s model of social change, there are four stages of social change: education, confrontation/activism, negotiation and transformation/sustainable peace. The Stonewall riots fall in the “confrontation/activism” stage, where the subsequent forming of organizations and the politics surrounding those organizations as part of the “negotiation” stage. With this frame in mind, it is easy to see that confrontation and activism stage are not sustainable methods to achieve transformation. It is also within this framework that we see that the negotiation stage also creates a sort of violence within the movement as well. Women, trans people and people of color were sacrificed to one-issue politics, and were excluded from GAA and other similar organizations as a result. What was interesting to me as I processed this information was that the riots were not comprised of people affected by only one political issue. There were multiply-marginalized people: women, trans people and people of color present at the Stonewall Inn that evening. In fact, during my research, it came up again and again that those most “marginal elements” of the gay community were fighting the hardest at the riots. As GLF declined and GAA formed, it became clear that single-issue politics were most palatable to the privileged majority. This is where negotiation can become violent, in that a group or groups of people are silenced, excluded and pushed out to the benefit of those with more power within the movement.

As I think about Stonewall, in all its complexity, in all that came before it and what followed in subsequent lgbtq activism and organizing, I return to the events at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City this summer. In my experience, the negotiation stage of Curle’s social change theory is most relevant to the relationship between lgbtq people and MCUSA today. It is important to note that there isn’t a linear movement toward transformation and sustainable peace in Curle’s theory. The negotiation stage has been taking place in MCUSA, and smaller Mennonite institutions, for decades. There has been movement between all three stages taking place at all levels of Mennonite institutions. At convention, Pink Menno engaged both in education and activism/confrontation. I took part in the guerilla theater action and the silent witness and with this framework in mind, can now see that both were important acts of resistance and activism. The guerilla theater act disrupted the violence inherent in the processes taking place in the delegates’ hall, and exposed the violence the church has done and continues to do to lgbtq people.

Stonewall exposed the police brutality that had taken place against lgbtq people at gay bars in New York in a similar manner to the way the guerilla theater act exposed the homophobia and transphobia a large number of people in the delegates’ hall had waiting at the tip of their tongues. What followed the Stonewall riots, in the negotiation stage, was a devastating replication of the actions of the police. What this means for Mennonites now, is that we are faced with a similar challenge. Do we continue to silence those of us who have put our bodies on the line for lgbtq justice in the Mennonite church again and again? Do we exclude those who are not “respectable” according to the standards of the majority?

Knowing the ways negotiation failed certain parts of the lgbtq community (and ironically those who fought the hardest during the riots) following Stonewall, and where it has failed and succeeded in Mennonite contexts previously, is important to the ways we approach negotiation now. Organization around trans issues needs to occur not as an afterthought to focusing on LGB people; the ways that homophobia and transphobia intersect with racism and sexism and its effects on lgbtq people of color and women, the nuances of sexual violence against lgbtq people inside and outside the church, the way housing and bathrooms are structured without lgbtq, especially trans people, in mind, and so many other injustices need to be addressed. We have a responsibility to the people at Stonewall who were fighting the hardest to not replicate systems of oppressions within our organizing and negotiations. To replicate the violence inherent in the processes that took place in the delegates’ hall would be to sacrifice those who have been caught in its crossfire for the sake of a compliant, palatable minority and for what we have come to call “forbearance.”


-Hayley Brooks

Being Forced Out of the Church

I’ve been very busy since starting seminary. Not just with school work, but also with acclimating to a new place and making new relationships. While there have been struggles since coming to Indianapolis, overall it has been a good experience and I believe this is where God calls me to be. In my pastoral care and counseling class last semester, I studied trauma and grief. One of the things that I’ve learned is that if one doesn’t take the time to grieve, then it will eventually catch up with them. It is time for me to voice my grief. The events that aggravated this grief are important for people in the Mennonite church to know.  Especially, in light of the recent statement released by the Executive Board.

I started seminary in the fall of 2013. For each student pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, they contact their denomination to begin the process of ordination. I had several conversations with the denominational minister, a member of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) staff, who processes new ministry inquiry applicants. I wanted to be honest with her, so I was upfront with being openly gay. She told me that MC USA no longer is processing openly gay or lesbian applicants (unfortunately, bisexual and transgender people are not a part of the conversation). This ruling was made quietly in January of 2013 by the MC USA Executive Committee. I’m astounded that the MC USA Executive Committee could make a decision to exclude a group of people from being considered in leadership. It is especially of concern that this decision was not made public knowledge.

The denominational minister then told me that I could go through the ministry process if I was in the closet. She told me she would not tell anyone that I was gay. I was horrified that she even suggested this. I told her that I was not going back into the closet. I don’t think she had bad intentions by suggesting that I go back in the closet. Still, it is not good to suggest someone go back in the closet for several reasons. One, it can be harmful to the person’s sense of who they are if they are forced back into the closet. A person’s sexual orientation (also gender identity) is an important component of who they are. Making someone go back in the closet could harm their mental health. Another reason that suggesting someone go back into the closet is not helpful is that it is potentially harmful for the congregation to have a leader who is closeted. Authenticity and honesty are important components of leadership. I believe the best option is not encouraging someone to go back into the closet. If LGBT people desire to be “out,” then walk beside them and encourage them to be honest about being a member of the LGBT community.

I don’t think the MC USA executive committee realizes the implications of their decision to ban LGBT people from applying to become pastors in the church. It basically means that openly LGBT people called to ministry are being forced out of the denomination. The dismissal of openly LGBT people from pastoral leadership positions has been happening for decades. Countless LGBT people have been dismissed for “coming out” in leadership positions. There have been a few very public dismissals, but the majority have been done behind closed doors through private shaming.

Being active in the Mennonite Church is challenging for most LGBT people. Although those LGBT people called to leadership within the church face an added barrier. For years, I’ve felt like I’ve had to choose my denomination or my call. God has called me to ministry. If I’m going to be true to God’s calling of ministry, then I’m forced to pursue ministry in another denomination. With the executive board’s recent statement of eight “action steps,” never has the rejection of LGBT leaders been as painfully clear as it is now. The “silver lining” of these “action steps” is that finally MC USA is acknowledging in excluding statements that LGBT people are leaders. In the past, resolutions and guidelines targeting LGBT people have been about membership at churches and same-gender marriage. Still, even with this “silver lining,” the pain inflicted on LGBT people and those who love them are fresh.

This is yet another violent act against the LGBT community. Every time the church closes the door on the LGBT community it hurts. Every reaffirmation of denominational guidelines that exclude the LGBT community hurts. It sends the message to the LGBT community that you don’t matter as much as other people in the church. ALL people matter to God. Jesus is like the woman who searched until she found the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Jesus acts as the shepherd searching for the lost sheep until it is found (Luke 15:1-7). Nothing is lost and no one is forgotten by God.

I’ve joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and taken the first steps in the ordination process. I’ve chosen to be open about being gay throughout the entire process. The Indiana region of the Disciples of Christ has approved me to be under their care for ordination and I will be serving at a Disciples of Christ church this fall as the Student Associate Pastor.  The Disciples of Christ is a tradition that ordains openly LGBT people. Unlike MC USA, the Disciples of Christ do not require LGBT people attracted to people of the same-gender to remain celibate. Although it is still difficult for openly LGBT people get ordained, as it is with many of denominations that have recently opened their doors to leadership from openly LGBT leaders, at least they give LGBT people a chance to pursue ministry.  As long as the MC USA does not allow openly LGBT people to be licensed, ordained, and/or take other leadership roles, then they will continue to lose their LGBT leaders.

I’m thankful for my biological and chosen family, churches, pastors, and other friends who have extended their love over the years. Thank you for taking the love of Christ seriously. Keep up the good work! I will keep connected to Brethren Mennonite Council, Pink Menno, and other welcoming groups. I may be in a different church, but I will continue to sing my part!

Reflections from former Kaleidoscope Coordinator, Reuben Sancken

If an elephant has its foot…

As the current Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests (BMC) Board President, a founding member of Pink Menno, and a young queer Mennonite involved in the movement for a more inclusive and welcoming Mennonite Church for the LGBTQ community for 10 years, I received Ervin’s most recent letter as a more savvy and carefully crafted message than some we have seen in his previous messages. While I appreciate a thaw in tone and a shift towards more respectful language for the LGBTQ community (from “non-celibate gays” to “LGBTQ” for example), this abrupt shift indicates to me a continued need among church leadership for more education led by those in the LGBTQ community who have been immersed in this work for years, some for almost 40 years, such as BMC. As self identified members of the LGBTQ community, we know our own experience intimately and are familiar with the dynamics of privilege and marginalization in church structures, policies and practices. Yet we are rarely called upon to provide training, information and a voice in decisions being made about us.

I continue to see a strong tendency from Ervin and others in leadership to portray this as a struggle between equal and opposing groups with strongly differing theological beliefs.  This leaves our church leaders caught in a morally neutral middle ground trying desperately to hold on to church unity and searching for a magical third way. I would suggest that the search begins by recognizing that privilege and power lie with the status quo, the leaders who continue to uphold it, and those made most comfortable by that status quo. This struggle is not about equals with strong opinions arguing about whose theological beliefs are correct. It is about how we treat each other in the church, and in this case, it is about how some are mistreated by the church. LGBTQ brothers and sisters and our families and supporters have been kicked out, pushed out, shamed, silenced, fired, not hired, refused education, credentials and ordination, told that our love was sin, and generally been treated in a shamefully unChristian way. Meanwhile, our church leadership has portrayed themselves as neutral in this struggle; as if they have not been actively participating in the marginalization of the lgbtq community and our families and friends. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Ervin recognized in his message that there is “growing evidence that the consensus forged on the Membership Guidelines in 2001 during the church merger processes is fraying.” I would argue there never was real consensus, but rather an agreement that was built upon the exclusion and vilification of the lgbtq community, who did not consent but were treated as expendable in the effort to forge a merger in the name of unity. Ervin is correct that the lack of consensus is growing more evident.

Ervin laments that the LGBTQ community and our allies in the church “are no longer willing to be in patient forbearance” as we “disregard the church’s written guidelines.” He desires  “a renewed commitment to…respectful conversation with those who differ with our own stance, and to prayerful, Spirit-led discernment in communities of faith committed to God’s mission in the world.” While for Ervin and some in the church, it may feel like this is a time for renewed patience, forbearance, commitment to conversation and discernment, the LGBTQ community has been in patient forbearance to the dialogue and conversation about the morality of our lives and the value of our gifts in this church while simultaneously absorbing the brunt of hostile and discriminatory policies and practices for nearly 40 years. What is reasonable to expect in terms of “patient forbearance?”

At least once a year I try to sit down to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King was responding to “A Call for Unity” from eight white clergymen who were critical of King and his methods. Their “Call for Unity” lamented the nonviolent demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement as unwise, untimely, extreme, and inciting hate and violence. The religious leaders called for patience and negotiation. If it’s been a while since you’ve read King’s letter, I would suggest another look. While much of the letter rings true to me at this time, one quote seems particularly fitting in our current Mennonite setting. “For years now I have heard the word ’Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ’Wait’ has almost always meant ’Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I would argue that now is not the time for more conversation and dialogue among uninformed members of the privileged leadership class. Rather what is needed is a time of education about the lives of the LGBTQ community within the that is led by the very individuals who know most about that experience, the LGBTQ community ourselves. Brethren Mennonite Council has represented that community for nearly four decades and has experience and resources to offer the church at this time. We can begin this work by taking bold measures to abolish discriminatory policies and practices in denominational structures and agencies so conversation and education can take place not just about the LGBTQ community but with the community.

Unity is not forged by scapegoating and excluding a whole group of people. We will be closer to a genuine and just unity when we realize that we may not all have to believe the same thing but we do have to commit  to treat each other humanely.

In closing, I must borrow once again from A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” MLK
Katie Hochstedler

A Voice Sabotaging the Conversation of Welcome and Safety for LGBT People

I recently met with two members of the Elkhart Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit, their local program coordinator, and members of the unit’s two supportive congregations. A primary reason for my bus tour of volunteer houses for Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) is to make sure that lgbt people connected to MVS are in a safe environment that is open and affirming of them being lgbt.

There was a considerable amount of caution in our conversation together. Caution can be fine if it is done to be sensitive to support those that are potentially vulnerable, but several voices in secure positions were uneasy about what I would report on this blog. This sort of nervousness didn’t promote confidence that this was a welcoming environment. A particularly strong voice present was especially concerned about what I would say and held a perspective of resistance to welcome shared by others in the church I’ve encountered before.  This perspective would say they are open to inclusion, but then say things that distract and sometimes sabotage the conversation of welcome and safety for lgbt people.

One of the voices present shared that volunteers with conservative theological backgrounds have felt excluded and are leaving the MVS program. I don’t know if these conservative volunteers are not welcoming of lgbt people, but that seemed to be what was implied. This objection to a visible welcome of lgbt people equated those that feel excluded because their theology is threatened with lgbt people that feel excluded because of who they are. These two aspects of exclusion are not equal. Someone may feel uncomfortable when their theological perspective is threatened, but someone concerned about their safety is worried about their physical and mental well being. Even though there is a growing number of people and communities (including MVS unit congregations) that are declaring themselves as open and affirming of lgbt people, they are still the marginalized voice in the Mennonite church. Lgbt people and their allies are explicitly excluded by Mennonite Church USA policies and practices.

In addition, these two aspects of exclusion don’t need to be mutually exclusive. For example, one reason I chose not to apply to Mennonite Voluntary Service was because of its affirmation of the Confession of Faith, which has a section that implies heterosexual marriage as the only valid marriage. At the same time, limiting romantic relationships to a man and a woman is not supported by my theology that God blesses both heterosexual and same-gender unions. Those with conservative theological perspectives are not the only ones that have felt exclusion. I know of many MVS alums that felt excluded because they were lgbt and/or allies of lgbt people, and other people that chose to go with open and affirming Christian volunteer organizations because of the exclusion of lgbt people in the MVS program.

Mennonite agencies like Mennonite Mission Network (MMN), which oversees MVS, participate in the exclusion of lgbt people. MMN claims to have chosen not to address “issues of sexuality,” and says, it “is best addressed in congregational and area conference settings rather than in the context of mission.” Although not explicitly stated, “issues of sexuality” means gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. This claim of not addressing “issues of sexuality” is a statement in itself. When people or institutions choose to remain silent, they are not demonstrating neutrality; they are choosing the privileged voice. Just because a voice is dominant does not mean it is right. Also, directly above MMN’s statement of neutrality on the topic of sexuality is a statement saying MMN affirms the Confession of Faith. Historically, this document has been used to dismiss lgbt people in the church.

MMN chooses not to include gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other queer words in its Organization Information documents. One of MMN’s organizational values is diversity. It has a list of groups that it includes in its definition of diversity, but the lgbt community is missing. In MMN’s “personal witness” in its “lifestyle expectations” there isn’t a commitment against gender identity discrimination, sexism, and heterosexism. By saying nothing about lgbt people, MMN sends the message that being lgbt person or an ally is shameful. MMN may not be attempting to send these messages, but their silence doesn’t stop people from interpreting their silence as exclusionary behavior. MMN is not the lone part of the church that excludes lgbt people, but as the face of Mennonite Church USA’s mission ministries, they have the power to promote inclusive change in their programs.

Another reason for resisting welcome of lgbt people given by this voice present at the meeting was the “stigma” attached to people and institutions that were open and affirming of lgbt people. It was said that lgbt inclusive churches were seen as a “one topic” church. I responded that welcoming communities do not see themselves as a “one topic” church. Rather, it is those that are not open to welcome that have given them this designation. Welcoming communities are also active in other social justice and faith concerns. For example, they advocate for peace, reconciliation, and the welcoming of all people. But this begs the question of why being labeled “lgbt welcoming” is considered bad? Others gave the Anabaptist’s their name, which means “re-baptizers.” It was considered a stigmatizing word back then, but now it is proudly stated as a part of Mennonite (as well as the Church of the Brethren) heritage.

Thankfully, this was only one voice in the group. Nobody else seemed as resistant to welcome, and would challenge his statements in a respectful manner. The two current members of the house and several others encouraged more visible inclusion of lgbt people in the program. The conversation served as an introduction to what welcoming lgbt meant and included other productive conversations. Most in the room agreed that they need to have something to say to prospective volunteers about where the communities are in the process of welcoming lgbt people. This would be a statement that I suggested they would share with all their prospective volunteers, so an lgbt person looking into being in the house doesn’t need to be out to them to know where the community is. I think this would be a good idea to implement in all the houses. We ended the meeting with requests for continued conversation with how to welcome lgbt people. It may take some time, but I’m hopeful that the Elkhart unit can grow into being more welcoming.

 -Reuben Sancken

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LGBT people and the Arts


One common stereotype for LGBT people is that they are artistic. So many famous dancers, actors, singers, painters, and writers were/are LGBT. As with other stereotypes, most of the time they are simplistic generalizations, but there is often some truth in them. Why might LGBT people be attracted to artistic hobbies and professions?

            The choral director during my freshman year at Goshen College spoke with us about why music is a gift for oppressed groups of people. He specifically addressed the pain of LGBT people, telling us music was one place where LGBT people could be themselves. He wanted the men’s choir to sing a song with Walt Whitman’s text about same-sex romantic feelings. Although we were unable to sing that particular song, we sang Schubert’s “Sehnsucht,” which speaks about same-sex desire, and sang other deeply poignant pieces of sadness and pain. That year of choir had a profound impact on me, as I was not “out” to many people at that time. I was a voice minor, which required a sophomore recital. As I prepared that year and at the beginning of my sophomore year, I put all of the feeling that I felt I needed to hide into my pieces, especially the ones about love and loss.

            The majority of LGBT people grow up in heterosexual communities and are assumed to be heterosexual or cisgender. The construction and affirmation of an LGBT identity is often done in isolation as many LGBT people feel that they must hide or repress their expression of love out of fear of exclusion. Art offers a means to express identity and experience in ways that can speak to an LGBT experience without being dismissed by dominate heterosexual or cisgender expectation. LGBT themes that are not as apparent to the majority of cisgender or heterosexual people, can be understood by LGBT people who have felt or feel the same way.

            Even for people that are “out,” often have a need for artistic expression. Most art represents cisgender heterosexual relationships, so LGBT people need art that speaks to their experience.  LGBT art can be a place to draw awareness to LGBT issues to the rest of society. Instances like Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars have brought the topic of transgender lives into everyone’s home, presenting a chance for conversation and education about lives that are often misunderstood and/or invisible.

            Art can be a powerful tool to promote solidarity for oppressed groups. For example, the civil rights movement used music to unify and protest against racial discrimination. Four-part harmony hymns are a significant part of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite denomination’s worship and identity. At BMC’s recent gathering the LGBT participants, many of us with histories of rejection from these faith traditions, sang our hymns in part to reclaim a piece of our identity.

            At the last two Mennonite conventions the Pink Menno movement organized and participated in hymn sings to heighten awareness of LGBT people within the church. They created a space for allies to join in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. The Pink Menno hymn sing at the Pittsburgh Mennonite convention was a powerful experience for me. I was amazed to spot an individual who was an estranged church mentor for me in the group singing. This person was not as supportive of my calling to go into the ministry after they found out that I was gay. I went and stood beside them, but they didn’t notice my presence until the singing was over. So surprised and happy to see me, they turned and embraced me in a warm hug. I experienced this as an expression of apology and love without saying a word. I’m thankful to God for using that hymn sing to begin a process of reconciliation.

            Art can be a place for LGBT to break their silence and reach out to others. They have a chance to reach out to other LGBT people with common experiences. For those that feel isolated, they can find hope in knowing others understand what they are going through. Knowledge of that shared identity creates solidarity. Art can also create the opportunity for allies in the church to reach out, showing LGBT people they care and are willing to help make the church a more welcoming place.

Building solidarity through telling our stories

Last month I attended my first BMC Gathering.  After corresponding by phone and e-mail, it was great to meet and speak face-to-face with members of the BMC LGBT community. Sharing and preserving our stories were important aspects of the event. Several people attending had their stories recorded for historical records and there were several evenings when people told stories from their “coming out” journeys.

 Last fall, I studied the theological significance of stories in my Bible, Religion, and Philosophy senior seminar class. Every class we were asked to share stories directly related to the theological theme assigned for that week. The class coincided with me beginning to be more “out” on campus, and I chose to be honest in the assignment and share my “coming out” stories. I found it to be liberating and healing, after so many years of holding those stories within me, to finally be able to tell them to others. It was the first time I had written and spoken about several of my stories in a semi-organized narrative. To family and friends, I had shared most of my stories, but they were told in bits and pieces. That class was a safe space for me and my peers to be vulnerable about those sacred stories that were so close to our hearts.

 I’ve learned that sharing stories holds the possibility of building solidarity. I told parts of my coming out journey to attendees of the Gathering during the weekend. When we share our stories we create a window for others to catch a glimpse of our experience. During the Gathering, I found similarities between my story and others. I laughed at the shared awkwardness of “coming out,” and at times was reminded of how serious “coming out” can be. When we share our stories to other LGBT we allow ourselves a chance to see that we are not alone.  When we tell our trusted allies, we give a chance for them to show us their support and love.

For me, an important step in my “coming out” journey was acknowledging and learning that God was present to support me. It was a comfort during those early years to know I was not the only one who knew I was struggling to figure out my sexuality. It is a comfort to know I can still turn to God. Whether you find support through faith or friends it is important to know you are not alone.

-Reuben Sancken