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

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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It’s so simple

Recently I was talking to a family member about the process of encouraging his congregation to become publicly affirming. In frustration he said, “It’s so simple. Why can’t we make a statement that we welcome all people and don’t discriminate on the basis of whatever characteristic? Who could possibly disagree with that?!” Indeed.

I’d like to propose that the difficulty our congregations and denominations have in coming to this “simple” conclusion reveals an underlying problem with how we understand ourselves as a peace church. I watch as the teaching “violence is wrong” is distorted to “conflict is bad,” and the value that “community is good” distorted to “the majority is never wrong.” Conflict is neither inherently bad nor good, and is an inevitable part of genuine relationships. One need not look hard at history to find examples of times the majority has been wrong, especially in relation to minorities.

Violence and conflict:
It is our responsibility to name and challenge violence when we see it. When we stand up to people and institutions that are causing harm, we can expect to find ourselves in the midst of conflict. Often those who bring attention to historical and current discrimination and who call for restoring right relationship are labelled militant, unreasonable, extremist, troublemakers, divisive, and even bullies. This is a clear attempt to blame the victim and deflect attention away from the real problem – the bad behaviour. Avoiding conflict when we see violence means making a choice to allow violence to continue. It is time to (re)learn from the gospels and our scholars a different way to view conflict and understand power.

Community and majority:
Valuing community includes valuing all of the individuals in the community. Healthy communities, similar to healthy families, care for, nurture and protect all of their members. While being in community can require compromise or stepping aside at specific moments, this only works given equal power and mutual respect. Healthy communities do not sacrifice individuals for the convenience of the majority. In fact, healthy communities go out of their way to protect their more vulnerable members. The nature of “majority rules” decision-making is that those with fewer numbers or less power will always lose. This is why nations who believe in protecting minority rights don’t put those rights up for a general vote.

Recognizing violence:
Violence is a strong word, and I choose to use it. The ideology and rhetoric that justifies physical violence against lgbt people is an extreme form of the same ideology that justifies discrimination and exclusion in our church. Without minimizing physical violence (which we should get more riled up about), we must learn to see the violence when “love the sinner, hate the sin” goes unchallenged, when parents of lgbt people are taken out of leadership positions, when a transgender youth knows that to live an emotionally healthy life he will lose his faith community, and when a lesbian couple is grateful they are allowed to attend a congregation though they can’t take communion. Let’s get shocked, saddened and angered into action.

Walk the talk AND talk the walk:
As individuals, and as communities we can work to overcome any discomfort we have learned and internalized. We can actively educate ourselves out of the heterosexism, sexism, racism, ableism, and all the other systemic oppressions that we have been taught. We can strive to treat all people, especially those who have been treated as less-than, with love and respect. We can say, out loud, that we affirm all people, including lgbt people.

When we do these things our communities become healthier places for all of us. All members can bring all of themselves into relationship with each other and the whole. All members find the courage to bring questions, concerns, and affirmations, with the confidence that they will be treated with care and honour as whole people. Who could possibly disagree with that?


Good Cheese

I refuse to support an organization that actively or passively contributes to my own oppression.

This is a recent realization, and I still often feel compelled to be apologetic about this choice.

But I’ve tasted something better. You see, I thought I knew what an “lgbtq-friendly” congregation or organization was. Then I found some that were actively non-heterosexist. It’s like stumbling upon an array of gourmet cheeses when you didn’t know there was anything other than those individually wrapped slices.

The next time I walk in to a place and someone offers me a sandwich with the rubbery stuff, I’ll be saying “no thank-you” and spending my time where I am nourished. It’s true I may go back occasionally, but only to witness to the poor souls who haven’t heard that next door everyone’s enjoying cheddar, brie, and gouda

As the secular and religious lgbtq movement grows it’s getting harder and harder for people, congregations and institutions to serve up believable excuses for continuing discriminatory practices. If your group is thinking about how to become welcoming, check out one of these short papers:

Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Brethren Congregations
Doing Process Well: Recommendations for Mennonite Congregations

And bring on the feta.


Context and history matter

Minority groups understand that context and history matter. A progressive congregation might wonder why they need to bother saying “we welcome lgbt people” – can’t that be assumed? An lgbtq person knows the answer is no. The progressive congregation (whether they like it or not), exists within the context and history of the church, and none of the BMC denominations have ended their discriminatory policies and practices. Right now, an lgtbtq person is likely going to assume a congregation is not welcoming unless shown otherwise.

It will take work to shift the assumption to the opposite. In fact, it will take not only ending discrimination, but also acknowledging past harm and showing over time that attitudes and actions have indeed changed. That’s reconciliation 101.

I say these things recognizing that it is hard to see the effect of context and history when on the privileged side of an equation. I thought I was pretty with-it, but I had some eye-opening experiences when participating in anti-racism training over the past several months, especially when learning some usually un-taught history related to race. (An introductory article I found helpful is Historical Development of Institutional Racism by Robette Ann Dias. Go to crossroadsantiracism.org/working_papers/ and scroll to the bottom.)

I am, hopefully, open to learning about how I’m not as with-it as I’d like to think. I don’t understand when people who have experienced one type of oppression aren’t able to translate that experience to recognizing the oppression of another. How is it that there are lgbtq people who can pinpoint heterosexism, but can’t see their own white privilege? What prevents women (especially those whose lived memory includes the women’s movement) from recognizing their straight privilege? Why do transgender people face oppression not only in wider society, but also within “lgbtq” circles? It sounds like I’m saying I understand when bigotry comes from straight wealthy white guys – which isn’t exactly my point – I don’t want to let them off the hook either.

It would be great if we challenged ourselves to take what we learn from personal experiences and extrapolate to lessons that can be broadly applied; lessons about power, privilege, structures and assumptions. And when you start connecting the dots for yourself, be a good friend and share what you’re seeing with others.


Where’s the middle?

When you ask someone where their congregation is in terms of being affirming towards lgbtq members, the response is predictable. Usually some humming and hawing, and then a “well, some are on one side, a few on the other, and most people are somewhere in the middle.” You will get this same response, no matter how welcoming a congregation is or is not (unless of course, the congregation has made a public statement).

What I want to know is, what does “the middle” mean in this context? Am I, or am I not, a sub-par human being? Where exactly is the grey between being created as a child of God or as an abomination?

Additionally frustrating is that the middle is viewed as neutral, and being neutral is seen as better than taking sides. This is especially true when our pacifist beliefs get distorted to the point where they mean nothing more than the avoidance of potential conflict.

When a congregation has an internal dispute about sanctuary décor or music selection, it is understandable and appropriate for some to find themselves on middle ground, neutral, and possibly taking on a mediating role. But this is not about paint chips or praise bands, this is about people’s lives and how we judge human worth. Besides, how do you mediate a conflict when one party is actively excluded from the table?

When our context is an institution that has historically persecuted and continues discriminatory policies and practices towards particular groups, being “neutral” supports the status quo. This same pattern is repeated throughout history. Silence in the face of discrimination is never viewed as ethically justified when we look backwards in time, yet during each “today” we continue to look for reasons to justify our silence and inaction.

This unwillingness to learn from our past scares me. Until we do some serious self-examining, this pattern will continue. Who will be tomorrow’s marginalized group? Will it be you or someone you love?

Those of us working towards welcome and affirmation sometimes fall into the trap of arguing against those few who are actively working for exclusion and condemnation. Engaging in that argument takes a lot of time and energy, and is unlikely to change that person’s mind. Engaging in that argument also allows the self-proclaimed middle off the hook – they don’t have to do anything, and get to feel good that they’re not as bigoted as those people quoting Leviticus.

It has become clear that the institutional church isn’t going to end its discrimination of lgbtq people until it’s forced to by individual members and congregations. This means the people in “the middle” are going to need to find some moral courage and speak what they are thinking and feeling. Yes, I know there may be some who are uncertain what they believe, but time and time again, individuals share that they are “personally supportive” but can’t say so “publicly” for reasons a, b and c.

We need to ask the people in the middle, and the people in the middle need to ask themselves:

1)      What are the core values of my faith?

2)      What do these values tell me is the right thing to do?

Then do it. I want you to do it even if you come to a different conclusion than I have, because at least you’ll be acting with ethical integrity. When we compromise our own values, we do harm to ourselves and our ability to witness to others on all other issues. This is the true danger the church should be trying to avoid.