Acts 10.44-11.4, 18

Acts 8.27b-31, 35-40

Bar None:  The Legacy of Stonewall

1969:  That Was The Year That Was

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In 1966 a member of the Genovese crime family in New York City, a mobster known as Fat Tony, bought a bar – it was euphemistically called a “tea room,” but had a long history as a speakeasy until it was destroyed by fire two years earlier.  Fat Tony was actually one of three investor/owners of the bar; the other two were also Mafiosi.  They slapped black paint on the walls and windows and stationed a bouncer outside the front door.  Just inside the door was a wishing well, one of the few survivors of the fire.  There were two bars in the building and rooms for dancing to the jukebox.  The management served cheap liquor that had been poured into bottles with high end brand names.  With customers paying premium prices for cheap drinks, Fat Tony liked to brag that his investment was recouped in the first few hours of reopening the bar.  The original owner, back in the 1930s was also a mobster – his name was Vincent Bonavia, and he called his place “Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn.”  Fat Tony dropped the “Bonnie’s but retained the rest of the name.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, the Public Morals Division of the NYPD Vice Squad raided the Stonewall Inn – and not for the first time.  The ostensible reason was because it was an unlicensed bar selling illegal liquor – which was probably true.  But Stonewall was also New York City’s largest gay bar, and the clientele knew they were the real targets of the raid.  It wasn’t the first time gays and lesbians were targeted by the Morals Squad, but it was the first time they began to resist.  In fact at one point the seven-man police squad had to lock themselves in the bar for their own protection as the crowd outside began to grow and throw rocks and bottles at them.  To the lasting credit of the police leadership, no shots were fired that night.  But the raid marked a turning point.  The gay population was tired of being singled out for prosecution, and the riots of that warm June evening turned into a series of demonstrations that extended into the following nights, and then turned into a movement that included regular rallies, advocacy, demonstrations, and civil rights legislation.  To me what is truly amazing is that less than forty years after Stonewall, marriage equality began to grow and take root on a state-by-state basis, until on June 25, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-gender marriage was protected by the fourteenth amendment.

For many, it was a moment of victory.  But there is also a sense in which the ruling was not a conclusion, but rather a beginning, a new beginning; there is still a great deal of work to be done to bring full acceptance and equality to the LGBTQ community.  It’s like when a church decides to become Open and Affirming; many believe that the accomplishment marks the end of the effort, when in reality the question ought to be, “OK, what do we need to do next?”  For same-gender marriage to be the law of the land is a tremendous milestone.  But a recent FBI report warns that hate crimes against the LGBTQ community have been steadily rising since 2014, and in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, more than 1100 incidents of violence against gay and transgender men and women were recorded.  Additionally the Human Rights Campaign lists, in detail, the murders of twenty-six transgender people in 2018, and fifteen so far this year. And in a little-remarked development from last weekend’s deadly shooting in Dayton Ohio, while most news reports mentioned that one of the shooter’s victims turned out to be his sister, hardly any mentioned that his sister was transitioning to male.  The stories provide a stark reminder that fear and suspicion and violence against “the other” remains a reality that our society has only begun to confront.

Last week we read a passage from the book of Acts that described Peter’s dream in which he was told to eat the meat of animals that were ritually unclean, and Peter hesitated until he heard a voice tell him, “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.”  The dream, or course, was not really about animals, but about people, and it was God’s strong sign that both Jews and non-Jews were blessed of God – and remember, the earliest church was composed entirely of Jews – Gentile membership in the church was not even a question.  This morning Deb read the rest of the story, a story about Gentiles, the non-Jews, becoming baptized welcomed into the blessed community.  The irony is that those who objected most strenuously to their inclusion were people who were already members of that blessed community – which is to say, the church.  “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’  So Peter began to explain it to them step by step…”  The most stubborn resistance to those considered “outsiders,” or “the other,” came from people who were steadfast members of the church of Jesus Christ.  This is a lesson to which we need to pay attention, because we are the very ones who should be welcoming the other, not keeping them at arms’ length.

The first Sunday I spent with you all at Cedar Lake we talked about the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the royal court who wanted to be baptized.  Bear in mind that a eunuch is one who has adjusted his gender, specifically, has been emasculated, in order to serve in the Queen’s cohort.  The Spirit of God directed Philip to open the scriptures to the eunuch, but what really happened was the scriptures were opened to Philip, and when he read of the good news of Jesus, Acts tells us, he understood that this eunuch was also a beloved child of God, and he was baptized into the blessed community.

Prejudices toward the other in Acts 10, and in Acts 8 toward the transgendered, are difficult ones to overcome, because they are so ingrained, so hard-wired into us as flawed human beings.  I said last week that, for me at least, the best way of dealing with the biases and prejudices that dwell within us is first to admit they’re there - to name them in ourselves – and then to find ways of overcoming them.  So if you’ll permit me, I want to share three brief stories of recognizing  inner biases I wasn’t even aware of, episodes that I’m not very proud of, but which made me realize that I was not quite as woke as I believed I was.

The first occurred when I was in college.  My best friend and I were returning to Connecticut after visiting a friend in Massachusetts, and as we were traveling down Route 84 somewhere near Willimantic he said to me, “You know Alan, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I think I’m bisexual.”  We had talked about sexuality before, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised, but in that moment I decided to make a joke of it, so I pulled the car over to the shoulder of the highway and said something stupid like, “Well, I guess that means one of us is going to have to walk the rest of the way home.”  Like I said, I meant it as a joke, and we both laughed at it, but there was my best friend, basically coming out to me, and my initial reflex was to dismiss it by making light of it.  Fortunately, my friend was a better person than I was in that moment, and to this day we remain good friends.  In fact just last Saturday Debbie and I went to a picnic at his house and swam in his pool.

The second story takes place near the end of a 10K road race I ran when we lived in Michigan.  We were somewhere in the last mile when I heard one of the spectators shout to the woman in front of me, “Way to go Karen, you’re winning the Women’s Division!”  So what did I do?  I thought to myself, “I bet I can beat the first female finisher;” so I turned on the jets and passed her before we hit the finish line. Only afterwards did I ask myself, Why did I do that?  Because she was a woman.  Because she was a woman.  Like I said, it was reflexive, it was spontaneous, it was sexist, and in retrospect it was not a proud moment.

The last story occurred in a Thai restaurant in Danbury.  Debbie and I were about halfway through our meal, I had finished my beer and decided to order another.  So as a young Asian man walked by my table I asked, “May I have another beer please?”  To which he replied, “I don’t work here.”  And I looked around, and sure enough, more than half the diners in the Thai restaurant were Asian, but I just assumed some random Asian man was our waiter.

And so Yes, I need to identify the biases within myself before I can point them out to others.  Or as somebody famous once said, “Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in another’s.”  There is still racism in our world; and we are seeing it become more and more brazen with every news cycle – and there remains some racism within me.  There is still sexism in our world; women still need to work harder than men in order to achieve the same recognition – and there remains some latent sexism within me.  There is a good deal of homophobia in our world; assaults against gays and lesbians and the murder of transgendered persons continue to increase – and there is still some degree of gender identity discomfort within me.  Not that long ago I sat on a UCC Committee on Ministry while we interviewed an older transitioning individual who wanted to be considered for UCC ministry, and I caught myself wondering how realistic this person was to expect to be called to a local congregation.  There is still a considerable amount of ageism in our world; a quick survey of marketing demographics can tell us all we need to know about that - and there are probably some vestiges of ageism within me, although these days I am much more likely to be on the receiving end of things.  In fact when I was searching for a new call three years ago, before I found this wonderful little gem of a congregation in Chester, I did wonder how many congregations in our enlightened and progressive United Church of Christ were looking to call as their minister an old, straight, white male such as myself.

So this summer even as we celebrate the strides taken within and on behalf of our LGBTQ siblings, we also recognize and name the work that remains.  The work of partnership, the work of advocacy, the work of alliance, the work of humanity the work of grace.  We pray for the day when every child of God has both internalized and is able to live out the understanding the Holy Spirit of God fostered and cultivated within both Peter and Philip:  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but among every people everyone who reveres God and does what is good and right is acceptable.”

Amen.

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