Ritual of Remembrance
Let us honor of the Transgender Day of remembrance, celebrated around the world each year on November 20, with the words of Geena Rocero, Transgender Activist and Model. These words are from the Ted Talk where she came out to the world.
Ayla Nettles [was] from New York, she's a young woman who was courageously living her truth, but hatred ended her life. For most of my community, this is the reality in which we live. Our suicide rate is nine times higher than that of the general population. Every November 20, we have a global vigil for Transgender Day of Remembrance. I'm here at this stage because it's a long history of people who fought and stood up for injustice. … Today, this very moment, is my real coming out. I could no longer live my truth for and by myself. I want to do my best to help others live their truth without shame and terror. I am here, exposed, so that one day there will never be a need for a November 20 vigil.
We light a special candle today for all those who were victims of violence or who live in fear because they are transgender
We light this candle in memory, but also in hope that someday no one will be afraid to live authentically.
Harvey Milk gave that speech in 1978, 7 months after he became the first openly gay person in the United states to be elected to office. He had come to San Francisco at a time when the police regularly raided gay clubs, arresting folks they found there on “morals charges.” In those days you could be evicted for intimate acts in your own home. Gay business owners were refused business licenses. You heard Milk mention “Prop 6,” also called the “Briggs Initiative,” which would have banned gays and lesbians (and may be folks who supported gay rights) from working in the public schools in California. Discrimination was everywhere.
In the 1960s the Gay and Lesbian community had begun to fight back. Milk, who served in the Navy during the Korean war, and now owned a camera shop in the Castro, began running a grass roots campaign for City Supervisor in 1973. It took him 5 years, but through growing a web of relationships in his community, and by building coalitions with other communities, on election day in 1977 he was elected and prop 6 was defeated.
When Harvey Milk made that speech, coming out carried some significant risks. You could be fired for being gay, you could be evicted and you would have no legal recourse. Many who came out to their families were cast out or disowned. Milk was calling on all who would listen to do a very brave thing. I’m told that in those days Gay and Lesbian clergy met secretly together, organizing by word of mouth, knowing they would lose their ministry if anyone knew their truth. Today clergy are out in the pulpit, and out in the streets advocating for marriage equality. This fall two couples from our congregation were married in big public weddings in Bradford County Pennsylvania! There was a time when none of us could imagine such a thing. But by coming out to our families, to our friends, to our communities one by one, we have facilitated a great turning of the minds and hearts of people all over the world.
Meg Riley, one of the many openly gay clergy in our movement, believes that the way we began to turn the tide on marriage equality, and the way forward is “deep intimate conversations with people you know, and people you don't. Values based [conversations], where you start with what they think instead of bombarding them with facts about what you care about.” The tide started to turn when the Gay and Lesbian sons and daughters of Congressmen came out to their parents. By coming out to our neighbor, our barber, or boss we interrupted entrenched ideas about what it meant to be queer, about what it meant to be married. People opened their hearts and were changed. When I started writing this sermon 32 states legally recognize same sex unions, but with the latest rulings in South Carolina and Missouri it is now 34. When I was ordained 16 years ago, there was not a single state where I could perform a legal wedding. This is an amazing transformation that we should celebrate. We can be proud that Unitarian Universalism has been part of this good work.
When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out recently he was the first CEO of a major corporation to out himself while still serving in that capacity. He says of his decision:
"I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others," he said. "So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it's worth the trade-off with my own privacy."
Fortunately he serves Apple at a time and place where probably his job was not at risk for his courageous truth telling. But when Jason Collins, a Center in the NBA, became first openly gay man to actively play for a major professional sports team [vi] he knew that he worked in a profession rife with homophobia, where fellow players went on the record saying discriminatory things against gay and lesbian people. This is part of what he wrote in that now famous op-ed article in Sports Illustrated:
“No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”
Collins was a free agent at the time, and he knew he might never play professionally again because of this decision. In fact many hateful things were said about Collins when he chose to come out. But the first time he took to the court after his public disclosure, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Collins said in an interview later “The atmosphere was incredible. Even my first game back during the regular season when I entered the game and getting a standing ovation from the crowd in Brooklyn is something that I will never forget. This amazing moment shows the character of the fans in Brooklyn.”
We have come so far on this issue, but there is still a ways to go. Even now that Pennsylvania recognizes marriages equally, it is not really “safe” to come out, is it? In the state of Pennsylvania, it is still legal to deny a person housing, or employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states prohibit the second parent from adopting their own child when the parents are of the same gender. We recognize Transgender day of remembrance because we know there is still bullying and violence experienced by our transgender neighbors and friends. Coming out today still takes courage, still has power, still requires discernment.
My colleague Nada Velimirovic said once “When I feel that tension in my stomach, I know that it is time to come out.” Do you know that feeling? It happens to me not only when I come out as queer, but whenever I reveal some part of my identity that doesn’t feel completely safe. When your relatives are bashing Obama and you feel compelled to mention that you voted for him. When someone at work says “we’re all Christians here” and you say “Actually, I’m a humanist. ” When you are seated around a big festive table and the person next to you hands you the platter of Turkey and you have to say “Actually, I don’t eat meat.” It happens in a hundred little ways in our ordinary life whenever we risk saying the truth of who we are -- we get the sweaty palms or the lump in our throat that tells us that what we are about to say is a risk.
Coming Out is not the only choice we can ethically make. Wiccan Author and Activist Starhawk tells the story of being welcomed into the home of a Muslim woman while she was in the middle east protesting the treatment of Palestinians. She spoke to this woman in the role of a woman born Jewish in America in the 1950s, feeling that being present across that Muslim – Jewish divide was as much as the meeting could bear, without beginning to explain what on earth Wicca was. She chose not to come out as Wiccan that day. For folks who follow the goddess traditions, there is a realism that comes from remembering the times when women were burned at the stake for such things. A friend of mine who was trained in the tradition of the goddess Hecate, told me that her teacher lived in a very proper British home, all the elements of her religious observance folded into the appearances of ordinary culture-- sometimes passing as mainstream is the smart thing to do.
In UU culture and history we hold up the stories of Servetus, burned at the stake for outing himself and his heretical beliefs. We honor Joseph Priestly who fled to America when his home and his church were burned by an angry mob for his radical political and religious beliefs. And usually I do cone out is bisexual, and usually I do come out as Unitarian Universalist, but recently when I was at a training for clergy on mental health issues and the presenter asked, rhetorically “We’re all Christian here, right? We all know where we are going when we die?” I considered interrupting his presentation to out myself, but I struggled with what I would say: "Actually, I'm Unitarian Universalist, and while some UUs are Christian, I myself am not..." ultimately I just sighed and let it go.Each of us must discern in our own hearts when to answer that call to come out, when to stay quiet and when let that nervous knot in our stomach call us to speak truth of who we are.
In 1992, Oregon was considering an anti-gay rights initiative called Measure 9. The Portland UU church wrap the whole church block in a large yellow ribbon and declared it a “hate-free zone.” Some families left the church over the decision, but many more new members joined, drawn by their courageous stand. "Brothers and Sisters… you must come out." Said the great Gay Activist Harvey Milk in 1978. Who could have imagined how the world would be transformed between then and now, and how our coming out changed the world. These words are not only an important part of our history as Americans, as human beings, but they are also a prophetic imperative in our own times. Part of supporting the inherent worth and dignity of all people is supporting one another when we speak the truth of who we are. Coming out both closes and opens doors. That nervous ball of energy that builds as we will ourselves the courage to speak releases an energy for change in ourselves and in our communities. And we know now, 36 years after Harvey Milk made his impassioned plea, that it can transform the world in amazing ways.