Tuesday, June 25, 2019

What Happens When You Follow Your Bliss?

 My path to ministry began with that Joseph Campbell interview. I had spent years training to be an opera singer, but the longer I kept at it, doors no longer opened, and the path became increasingly hard to follow. I had finally dropped out of the Masters’ Program at the Peabody conservatory with great sadness, but also some relief, and was working as a receptionist at a company that made non-ferrous fasteners. The path I had assiduously followed towards a career in classical music hadn’t led me where I wanted to go. The folks at my new job told me how lucky I was to have landed in a family-run company that promoted from within – I could have a salaried position in the accounting department if I stuck with it. I struggled with depression and a sense of purposelessness in my life, but also a lightness that came from choosing to leave music. I had practiced every day since I was a little girl, and I had a newfound sense of freedom, and a sense that somewhere out there was a path that would be right for me.

Having been raised in a family of musicians, I also knew that having a career in music required a lot of hard work, that it would require sacrifice. Perhaps that's why I had trouble leaving- because I had never thought it would be easy. Campbell questions the idea that hard work and dedication are all it takes to make a meaningful life. There was this other quality,  Bliss, by which that one could orient... like a compass. My dad gave his life to music, and while he knew hard work and sacrifice, while music never made him wealthy, I think it always brought him bliss. It always felt right to him. Our very last conversation was about the new music he was discovering, and bringing him joy.

The idea of following your bliss is finding a new way of orienting that is not dependent on material success, because such success comes and goes. Campbell said, later in that same interview: 
“In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there’s the revolving rim of the wheel. And if you attached to the rim of the wheel, let’s say fortune, you will be either above, going down, at the bottom, or coming up. But if you are at the hub, you’re in the same place all the time. And that’s the sense of the marriage vow, you know. I take you in health or sickness, … in wealth or poverty, but I take you and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, nor the social prestige, but you. And that’s following your bliss.”
So following your bliss is about finding the hub of the wheel - the place inside yourself that is a touchstone in good times and in bad. That is our primary job as a faith tradition; to seek the hub, to seek a center which isn’t dependent on wealth or circumstances.

Campbell came to the word bliss as a translation of Sanskrit word “Ananda” also translated as sacred joy, or blessedness, or rapture. The problem is that we so often confuse “rapture” with mere happiness. Certainly our consumer culture encourages this. The American narrative is that the new Lexus or the trip to Disneyland are the peak experiences towards which our whole story is leading, and once we have our Lexus, our gold medal, our wealth, we will be happy ever more. But happiness is like eating an ice cream cone, before you take the first lick it has already started to melt.

I was reading an article critiquing parents who tells kids “all we want is for you to be happy.” It puts the pressure of all the meaning making for a whole family onto a kid’s happiness, and creates unrealistic expectations. The “tyranny of happiness” sets us up for failure. It is not humanly possible to be happy all the time. Happiness is just one emotion on a rainbow of emotions.  Some of the most profound and meaningful experiences I’ve ever had weren’t necessarily happy ones. Leading a family through a memorial service, for example, is profound, meaningful work, I would say there are moments of “Ananda” in that work, but I wouldn’t say it makes me happy. Even the enlightened masters don’t claim to have achieved perpetual happiness, only equanimity, an ability to face life’s turmoil from the center of the wheel.

The Hindu sense of “Ananda” or bliss is a joy that comes from inside, not from any external good fortune or treats. Some traditions claim it can only be reached through meditation. But Campbell is encouraging us to use it as a compass to show us where our true north is. How do we find our rapture or bliss? Campbell says: “we’re having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.”

When I was in college my favorite class was called “Women in Ancient Israel” which was a feminist hermeneutic of the Hebrew Scriptures. And I didn’t so much feel “happy” in that class but deeply engaged, and curious in a way I didn’t feel in any of my music theory classes. It kind of blew my mind. When you come across one of those bliss experiences, how do we follow Campbell's advice first you just enjoy it, and notice it, and remember that feeling is possible. There’s a temptation to get ahead of bliss, to clutch it and project it into the future. To immediately turn that experience into a career. (Or in my case a minor in women’s studies, which did not bring me joy, but that’s a story for another day). The mind takes that one experience of joy and builds expectations and stories around it. Perhaps that’s what had happened to me with music.

Some of my happiest experiences in Jr and Sr High School were spent sitting on the floor of my room singing along with musical theater and later, opera. My best moments in High school were in the drama department. But Bliss, that kind of deep fulfillment of the highest self, does not come to show us a career path. Moyers asks “what happens when you follow your bliss” and Campbell replies “you come to bliss.” He doesn’t say “you have a stable career” or “you become financially independent.” Bliss leads us to bliss. And the most important place bliss it leads us is the bliss of the moment itself. Bliss leads us to the present moment.

If we start with the notion that bliss leads us to the center of the wheel, then we should be able to use it as a compass when the wheel is up and when the wheel is down. Sometimes you are the lead in the high school musical, other times you are one of 600 voice majors and no one remembers you well enough to write you a recommendation for grad school. Is the singing still leading to bliss? Is it still leading you home to your true self?

Now as Campbell hints, bliss sometimes also leaves a breadcrumb trail that helps us find a calling. And again, calling is not the same as career. In a way I’m a bad example of this because although following my bliss did not lead to a career in opera, it did lead me here. Well, maybe that’s not such a bad example. That moment of joy in my “women of ancient Israel class” did not lead me to become a scripture scholar, in fact I hardly ever get to do that kind of work in the parish, but it did lead me (eventually) to seminary. And seminary led me to study meditation, and yoga, and theology, and to many moments of deep self knowledge and bliss. It also prepared us to be ministers to middle to large size congregations, which it turns out is not my favorite ministry. When I served a large congregation, what brought me joy was teaching and preaching, not supervising staff and administrating the infrastructure of a large church. My family an I left the economic prosperity of the San Francisco Bay area following the intuition that somewhere there was a home that would be a better fit. Colleagues thought I was crazy to leave a settled position to move cross country without a new job in hand. I certainly had my doubts. In seminary I never once said to myself “I’d like to be the part-time minister of small churches” but that is where following my bliss has lead me. I think I might serve the 2 kindest, most loving, generous churches in the UUA.

But following your bliss never leads to an end point, to a “save game” where everything is stable and happy for ever. It requires a constant attention and vigilance. Each of us is changing and evolving our whole lives through. Following our bliss can help us navigate those changes. A colleague of mine spent 20 years as a yoga teacher, she was passionate about it. Later she became a religious educator, then a minister, and now in her retirement is passionate about learning the guitar and jamming with other musicians. “Why’d you give up yoga?” I asked, truly mystified, since yoga is such an important part of my life. “I was just done” she said. Something in her shifted and she followed it where it led. I have never seen a happier or more dedicated guitar student. It brings her such joy.

At some moments in your life, like when you are graduating from school, or changing jobs, or moving to a new town, following your bliss has big visible manifestations. But the million small moments and choices each day are just as important in this practice. Because bliss comes not from choosing the right major or the right job, but from choosing bliss.

Even committee meetings are an opportunity to choose bliss. I was leading a board retreat for another congregation a few years back. Someone suggested that communication might be improved if each committee submitted a written report each month. I asked “and when you think of writing and reading those reports, does that bring you joy?” Laughter filled the room. They decided instead they would make an effort to connect with the committees chairs over coffee hour and have a conversation about how they were doing. By letting the experience of joy be part of the decision, instead of a niton of what we aught to do, they  made room for the possibility of bliss.

Now I am the parent of a young man heading off to college. What advice could I possibly give? I mean obviously I hope he has academic success, and it would be great if he found a field where there are jobs available for graduates, but I think what I most want to say is “we’re having experiences all the time which may …render …a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.” It won’t necessarily help you get a job or make money, but if you can learn where your own joy is, life will open for you.

This is the same advice I would give to anyone in my congregation, even those of you who are grown. Cultivate Joy. Notice the inklings, the intuitions of bliss, of blessedness, of rapture, and take the time to be present to them, to notice and experience them. If doors open on that path, dare to go through those doors. Dare, even now, to follow your bliss.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Of Moss and Ministry

Preached on the occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Aileen Fitzke

For over a decade, Aileen and I have been part of a group called “Interfaith Action for Healing Earth.” Together we have fomented study, discussion and action about how our faith traditions are called to participate in the healing of our earth. Let me tell you Aileen knows all the best books, because she has read ALL the books.

Most recently we’ve been reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who works just up I-81 at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, as a Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Even in a group of die-hard eco-geeks, some of us were not convinced we wanted to read a whole book about moss, but we have learned time and time again that the natural world can be an amazing teacher if you take time to look closely. Even moss can teach us something about ministry, and about how to heal the world. Kimmerer assures us that a piece of moss from the forest floor the size of a muffin top hosts hundreds of thousands of living beings. If you look at it under a stereomicroscope, it is like a tiny forest teaming with life so tiny most humans don’t even know it’s there. [p. 53]

My favorite inhabitant of the moss forest is the microscopic tardigrade, also called a water bear. “Trundling along on 8 stumpy legs, the water bear bears a remarkable likeness to a tiny polar bear. Low slung, with a round head, its body translucent and pearly white.” [p. 59] The water bear relies on the microscopic moss forest, and for food and a moist environment. Now moss is great at holding water, but when drought comes moss, and the water bear, have an amazing adaptation. Both have a dormant form when water is scarce. They “shrink to about 1/8 of their size, forming barrel shaped miniatures of themselves called tuns. Metabolism slows to near zero and they can survive in this state for years. The tuns blow around in the dry winds like specks of dust, landing on new clumps of moss and dispersing farther than their short water bear legs could ever carry them.” I had seen moss as merely a lovely green fuzz, but it turns out it’s a whole world in there!

UUs affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all apart and the more I pay attention to the web, the more strands I see. There’s a certain kind of moss that only grows on the top of logs. Kimmerer spent quite some time trying to figure out why, in some probably gross experiments that involved picking up slugs, until one day she and her grad student saw a chipmunk running across the top. After a series of experiments which involved picking up chipmunks and tracking their footprints, they were able to determine that this special kind of moss (D. Flagellare) reproduces and spreads because chipmunks love to run across logs. Whenever they stop to check for predators, little bits of moss are kicked up from the surface, creating spaces for new propagules, which they, conveniently and unknowingly carried around on their little chipmunk bellies and toes. [p. 89-90] Without knowing it, moss, chipmunks and the trees that became logs have been evolving in a profoundly interconnected way.

In our individualistic consumer culture, we have been raised to believe that we are independent beings. That we can take our money and go to our grocery store, and buy our food for our dinner, and that our ability to feed ourselves is a consequence of our individual responsibility and achievement. Even the way we have studied evolution is about the survival of the individual gene.

This worldview has allowed us to extract resources and walk away from the waste, without worrying about the impact on other living beings, on the health of our own ecosystem in which we grow our food, drink our water and breathe. We hear the new UN report on climate change, and we despair. The world is in our hands, and we seem powerless to heal it. But moss gives me hope.

A few years ago the city repaired my sidewalk, and left behind a covering of fill dirt on which nothing would grow. Months went by, years went by, but the dirt that is good for laying sidewalks on is not actually good for growing things. I tried amending the soil; I tried writing to city hall. I managed to bring some life back to a small patch by my house, but the bare, sterile patches stretched all up and down our street -- more than I could ever heal. One spring day, I was passing that patch of ground with my now habitual despair in my heart, and noticed that moss had begun to claim the barren spots.

It turns out this is one of the great gifts of moss to our ecosystem. It can grow in places where nothing else can grow. Kimmerer did an experiment on a piece of land covered with mine tailings from an abandoned mine. The company had closed and moved away, and “half-hearted” attempts at restoring the land had all failed. Like I discovered in my front yard, you can’t just stick grass seeds in any dirt; plants need a humus-rich soil to grow. Kimmerer’s experiment involved planting seeds in three places: directly in the mine tailings, in a shag carpet that mimicked some of the characteristics of moss, and in patches of moss. In the harsh unprotected land of the orphan mine, only in the moss could the seeds find a hospitable place to begin life. The super-power of moss is how it traps and holds the ingredients for life- water, nutrients, and the seedlings of wildflowers and Aspen trees- the possibility of a fresh start. Kimmerer writes “out of the carpet of living moss came a crowd of seedlings, the next step in binding up the wounds of the land, life attracting life.” [p. 50]

Our UU principles ask us to affirm and promote “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part” and I would argue that many of the problems of our day trace back to the illusion that we are alone, that we are separate. This illusion not only leads us to ecological destruction, but shapes the way we respond to refugees, and the way we divide resources in this economy. It has made us the loneliest culture on earth because we don’t see how profoundly connected we are to one another.

But life is tenacious and shockingly creative. I believe the way forward will not come from humans alone, but in what we co-create with life. Moss is just one tiny node in the web that is critical to the trees that make the logs where the moss lives and the chipmunks run need moss too. Moss absorbs incredible amounts of water keeping the forest eco-system moist.

Moss protects the larval phases of insects, and their eggs, food to the thrushes and other birds, who use moss in their nests as do chipmunks, flying squirrels and even bears. “Moss matts often serve as nurseries for infant trees” [p. 147] and the ferns that grow on trunks and branches of old growth trees. Remember those special fungus, the Mycorrhizae, who help trees communicate and share resources? “The density of mycorrhizae is significantly higher under a layer of mosses” due to the moisture of the moss, and the way nutrients like phosphorous that wash down off the trees get stuck in there. [149] Moss is the unsung hero of the forest, and forests are the lungs of the planet -our great allies in the struggle with climate change.

We who worry about the fate of the our living have struggled to communicate the way humans are hurting the earth- the way our emissions are causing global warming, the way plastics in the oceans are injuring sea life. Because our western industrial culture has told us we are separate from other living beings, we haven’t seen all the ways that our footprints, like the chipmunks, are serving the spirit of life. At this moment in the history of our species, we must train ourselves to see the web in every inch of our living earth, and our rightful place in that web. Aileen, this is one of the special gifts that you bring to them ministry. You see the web of life, and you see life springing forth, even in the most unlikely places. The world desperately needs this gift right now

Look for interconnection. Interconnection is everywhere, we just have to train our eyes to see it—to see not only the individuals, but all the strands that connect them in the great web of life. One way of seeing an ordination is the conferring of privilege and honor onto an individual, as a culmination of her discernment, skill and hard work. But you are here today either because Aileen’s life has touched yours in some way, or because the UU community has touched you in some way. Even if you don’t know a soul in this room except someone who dragged you along so they wouldn’t be lonely, you are here because relationships matter. Since the moment Aileen entered this world she was part of a web of relationships, within which she co-evolved with family, classmates, congregations, trees, birds and moss. She enters the UU ministry because in some way the web of life grew her to be that. And we have unknowingly been the chipmunks and water bears who shaped and were shaped by her life.

Today as Aileen receives our blessing on her ministry, she does so within that web -- a web that binds each and every one. That web of life that will never let us go. May we bless Aileen’s ministry by paying attention to the connections that already hold us, that already bind the web of life together. Let our eyes refocus from the individual to the relationships between each and all. Like the dense mat of moss that protects the seeds of the future forest, this web of relationships is where healing and hope will sprout.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Being an Ally

I’m proud to be a Unitarian Universalist- one of the first denominations to openly welcome LGBTQ members and ordain openly LGBTQ ministers. I’m proud to be a member of this welcoming congregation. I’m proud that over a quarter of our membership in this rural congregation is queer. I’m proud of how far we’ve come on the journey to be anti-oppressive, but I’m also aware that people have been hurt along the way. I’m aware that there are many times when someone spoke or lived their truth in our congregations, and did not feel welcomed or heard. A recent TRUUsT survey shows 72% of trans UUs "do not feel as though their congregation is completely inclusive of them.” As our congregational contact Rev. Evin Carvill Ziemer points out “Unsurprisingly, the number is higher for people of color, young adults, and non-binary people; and higher levels of marginalization are experienced by “people of color, non-binary people, and disabled folks.”[i] Our work to truly affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person is far from done. As we celebrate Pride this year it is important not only to honor how far we’ve come, but to re-dedicate ourselves to the work.

I’m using the word ally today for that work, bearing in mind Becky Cory’s thoughtful explanation of why we must use that word with caution. Today I want to use that word to include everyone in this room: gay, straight and pansexual. Gender queer and cisgender. All people have multiple interlocking privileges and oppressions. And each of us has opportunities to “create new ways of being with ourselves and with others”[ii]

Recently the ministers of this area attended a workshop lead by CB Beale, a UU religious educator, who shared some really helpful insights about how we can be effective allies, and helped shape what I want to share with you today. First, they asked those of us who want to be allies to create a braver space. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to be an ally. It’s particularly uncomfortable when we realize that that we are part of systems of oppression. It’s particularly uncomfortable when we realize our inadvertent actions or words have hurt someone. We might even feel shame, and shame feels yucky. A very common response to that discomfort is to turn away. If we allow shame to keep us from looking at the things we need to look at to create a more equal world for all, then it becomes a tool of oppression. But if we think if shame as showing us where the work is, then it can be a tool for change. Beal calls us, whenever we feel discomfort, whenever we feel shame, to be brave.

Another part of being an ally is to allow one another to bear witness. To allow one another to--as we feel safe, as we feel ready -- tell our stories. And we who are allies will listen, really listen. We are not always very good at this. Because if someone tells us a difficult story, we want to fix it, we might even minimize it, or compare it to our own life story. Allies learn not to say: “I’m sure she didn’t mean it” or “that was just one bad apple.” Allies learn to just listen. If someone shares an experience that was hurtful, we learn to simply say “I’m sorry that happened to you. It sounds like that was really hurtful.”

Even when someone says “your words hurt me” we don’t explain, we don’t excuse, we don’t make it about our own discomfort, we just listen, and apologize for harm we have caused. When someone bears witness, we must always remember that intent is not impact. As people in community we bump against one another all the time. If I accidentally drop my water bottle on someone’s foot, even though I had no intention to hurt them, it still hurts. Similar actions can have very different impacts, depending on who experiences those actions. If I dropped my water bottle on the foot of someone who’d just had their cast removed, the impact is larger, more hurtful.

I get people’s names wrong all the time. I call my son by my dog’s name, and my husband by my son’s name. It’s awkward, but they know what I mean and it doesn’t hurt them. When I get the name or pronoun wrong of a transgender friend it has a completely different impact. As Rev. Sean Parker Denison mentioned in their recent article in the UU World Magazine the hurt of having to “ask my mother again, after 22 years, to call me by my name and use my correct pronoun.” Many transgender folks have experienced repeated pain of parents, bosses, relatives intentionally using the wrong names or pronouns out of a refusal to honor their identity. The impact is heartbreaking and exhausting. Being an ally means owning and being responsible for that impact.

My whole life people have called me by my wrong name, and spelled my name wrong. The first time I ever appeared in the local newspaper I was listed as “Marcy.” The fact that I can brush that off, the fact that there is no lingering bruising from that is because of my cisgender white privilege. So if a genderqueer friend bears witness to the pain of their grandfather stubbornly refusing to call them by their true name, I should not tell them that story about being called Marcy. It’s not the same. When a friend bears witness to their own experience, CB encouraged us not to compare, but simply listen, and open our hearts and minds to understanding and growing.

When someone has the courage to bear witness to the impact our actions had on them, we need to be brave enough to listen. Not to make excuses. Brave enough to learn and change. Dennison continues:
“As I look out at the world and wonder about Unitarian Universalism’s place in it, I am more and more convinced that we must stop excusing ourselves from the world- and life-changing work of justice by claiming that we don’t know what to do because we are beginners. There is no excuse for refusing to learn, when there are teachers all around us. The person saying, “Hey, call me by my name and, yes, my pronoun is they,” is your teacher. The person saying, “It’s not good enough to quote all white men in your sermon,” is your teacher. The person saying, “I can’t get into your building and, when I do, you ignore me,” is your teacher. The person saying, “It’s not about your comfort,” is your teacher. The teachers and the lessons have been here for decades. It’s time to learn.”[iii]

One of the most important things we who would be allies need to learn is de-centering ourselves.
“’Centering’ is a concept that speaks to whose worldview is most affirmed and whose voices are loudest; whose perspective is treated as “normal,” and thus at the center, and whose perspective is treated as “different,” and thus at the margins.”
This definition comes from the transforming hearts collective in response to an article that appeared in the UU world while I was on sabbatical. The article was written by a Cisgender UU woman about her own experience of relating to her daughter’s transgender friends. The article caused an impassioned response from the UU Transgender community. As UU Alex Kapitan wrote in response “an article written by a cis person, that centers cis people and cis perspectives, about trans people, is not incremental progress—it’s harm.”[iv] Because people of privilege are used to being at the center, it didn’t even occur to the author or to the editor that the perspectives of cis people are less relevant than the perspectives of trans people when writing about trans people.

CB Beal wrote in a powerful response to the article: “In this case, the assumption is that the “default” reader is a cis person who struggles to understand and interact respectfully with trans people, just like the author. This assumption renders trans people invisible or further pushed to the margins. It’s not that cis people can’t ever talk or write about trans people, it’s about how they do so—and whether they are adding to and uplifting a conversation started by trans people or displacing the voices and agency of trans people.”[v]

This important practice of centering and de-centering is a critical part of being an ally no matter what kind of oppression we are talking about. Consider the penguins in our children’s story today. Some of us have been at the center of the huddle for so long, that it just seems “normal” to us. We don’t know that while we are warm, there are others on the margins who are cold and need their turn in the center. In the case of the UU World article, being in the center means getting to have your voice heard. De-centering means inviting in those whose voices have been silenced, allowing them a platform in the main magazine of our UU denomination, while those of us who have many opportunities to be heard and respected are quiet and listen.

Whenever oppressive behavior is called out in our community, it is going to make some folks uncomfortable. But remember we are called to create a braver space. If anything you’ve heard today made you feel uncomfortable I encourage you to welcome that feeling! It that shows us where the work is. It means that you are in the right place right now, thinking about the right things. Of course it’s going to be uncomfortable dismantling structures of oppression. Being an ally means staying in the struggle, because we know it is our struggle. Being an ally means lifting up the voices and perspectives of those who spent too long in the cold, of shuffling them to the center, of celebrating their wisdom and gifts, of accepting their leadership and perspectives, and supporting them in the way they ask to be supported.

Whether we are Gay or straight, cisgender or genderqueer, white people or people of color, temporarily able bodied or disabled, all of us experience a complex web of privileges and oppressions. We need to know when to step to the center and bear our truth, and when to de-center ourselves. We need to know how to listen, how to hear things that make us uncomfortable, And we need to let ourselves be changed by what we hear.


[i] https://www.uua.org/central-east/blog/better-together/one-trans-uus-story?fbclid=IwAR1RWLcwBHL5oTY0mVQi-fJGbioy-Tg3bwqc8T_cGi0VD2cwglKQDg2UaV8

[ii] https://www.racetalk.ca/2009/11/whats-wrong-with-being-an-ally/

[iii] “It’s time to learn: There is no excuse for refusing to learn, when there are teachers all around us.” by Sean Parker Dennison. UU World. 6/1/2019 https://www.uuworld.org/articles/time-learn

[iv] https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/

[v] https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Fusion Pride

Photo Credit John Delorey
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary Stonewall riots in Manhattan, June 28, 1969  -  a “tipping point” for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.  The first pride marches were held the following year in Los Angeles, in Chicago, and a big week long celebration in New York City.  But these marches took on a unique character. The parades became a critique of heteronormative and 'straight' culture.  These parades became a place where gay culture was normalized, out of the closet and into the streets. 

I’d grown up on the east coast, where folks hardly ever talked about such things, so when I moved to the Bay Area to attend seminary, my first semester I took a class called “LGBT Spiritualties” where I learned that people like me, who are attracted to both men and women, are called “bisexual.” (the “B” in LGBT). A friend who identified as Bi asked if I wanted to go to the San Francisco Pride Parade. Now I had attended the modest pride events in Baltimore but I’d heard about the massive Pride Parades in San Francisco, talked about with almost mythological reverence. I asked “are bi people allowed to go to that?” Yes! she said confidently. In fact, Brenda Howard, known as the "Mother of Pride", was Bi. As LGBT rights activist Tom Limoncelli put it, "The next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why [LGBT] Pride Month is June tell them 'A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be.'"

My friend and I arrived in time for the start of the parade, but since we hadn’t gotten up at the crack of dawn to put out chairs and claim our spot, it was hard for me, short as I am, to find a spot where I could see. We finally found a spot where we could see over the heads of parade viewers through the chain-link fence as this magnificent display of LGBT pride marched by. I realized the section we were standing behind was reserved for folks in wheelchairs and their partners. As the tears began to roll down my face, what moved me the most was not only the bravery of folks publicly outing themselves with such joy and flair in solidarity at a time when many lost jobs, family , friends by coming out of the closet, what also moved me was that of COURSE there was a section for folks in wheelchairs. This was THAT kind of movement, And as we wandered the events after the parade and found the tables set aside for bi-activists, I knew there was a place for me too.

When I heard the story of the 504 disability rights sit-in recently, I felt a wave of that same emotion sweep through me, so I want to tell you a bit of that story today. In 1973, just 4 years after the Stonewall riots, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act first acknowledged that Americans with disabilities experienced discrimination, and the first federal civil rights protections for persons with disabilities became law. Unfortunately, the Department of Health, Education Welfare failed to issue the regulations that would have put this new law into action. Years dragged by and the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) formed to demand action. “Over months and years, they cultivated relationships with groups such as the Black Panther Party, Glide Memorial Church, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, Delancey Street, the United Farm Workers.” After many years of asking politely, the ACCD decided to stage a series of sit ins during the spring of 1977. The largest and longest sit in was in San Francisco.

In her article recounting her personal experience of those days “ Short History of the 504 Sit In” one of the organizers Kitty Cone reports that:
“In the Bay Area, a broad cross-disability coalition, the Emergency 504 Coalition, began building for a rally on April 5th, knowing we’d sit in afterwards. We set up committees to take on different tasks such as rally speakers, media, fund-raising, medics, monitors, publicity, and outreach.

The outreach committee was very successful in garnering broad community support: from churches, unions, civil rights organizations, gay groups, elected politicians, radical parties and others.

The work of that committee proved to be invaluable once we were inside the building. Those organizations built support rallies outside the building and the breath of the support made it more difficult to move against us. The International Association of Machinists facilitated our sending a delegation to Washington. Politicians sent mattresses and a shower hose to attach to the sink. Glide Memorial Church and the Black Panther party sent many delicious meals that nourished us between days of coffee and doughnuts.”
According to disability activist Corbett Joan O'Toole, in her book “Faded Scars: My Queer Disability History” One member of the Black Panther Party remarked “’We support you because you're asking America to change, to treat you like human beings, like you belong… We always support people fighting for their rights.’[9] When FBI agents tried to prevent them from delivering food, the Panthers held their ground. After that, the Panthers provided hot meals each day until the end of the occupation and never asked for money.” You know it’s a broad coalition when the Black Panthers, Labor Unions, the Gay Men’s Butterfly Brigade, and the Salvation Army are all working together.

One key thing for us to remember, especially those of us who identify as temporarily able-bodied, those of us who are learning to understand and recognize privilege, and those of us learning what it means to be an ally, was that this coalition which came together to support the sit-in was not a paternalistic effort, but true allies supporting Disability activists who were defining their own agenda. In Kitty Cone’s words
“For the first time we had concrete federal civil rights protection. We had shown ourselves and the country through network TV that we, the most hidden, impoverished, pitied group of people in the nation were capable of waging a deadly serious struggle that brought about profound social change. The sit in was a truly transforming experience the likes of which most of us had never seen before or ever saw again. Those of us with disabilities were imbued with a new sense of pride, strength, community and confidence. For the first time, many of us felt proud of who we were. And we understood that our isolation and segregation stemmed from societal policy, not from some personal defects on our part and our experiences with segregation and discrimination were not just our own personal problems.
Without 504 — its coverage and example and the disability civil rights principles contained in the regulations we fought so hard for, and the empowerment of tens of thousands of disability activists through 504 trainings, and activities and mobilizations — there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act, that finally brought us up to parity with federal civil rights laws covering gender and race.”[iv]
Now almost 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, 40 years from the 504 sit-ins, it is time for us to come together again. Rev. William Barber, leader of the modern Poor Peoples Campaign, is calling us to this same kind of broad coalition. Rather than factions fighting for a slice of the pie, he calls us to recognize core moral issues that could bring us together. It is a time when we are called to find new ways to come together as one. Where intersectionality reminds us that not all queer people are able-bodied, not all queer people are white, Fusion politics asks us to come together with people who might seem very different from us, as different as the Gay Men’s Butterfly brigade and the Salvation Army, United Farm Workers and US senators. That kind of fusion is embodied in the process by which the “Gay Liberation” movement became LGBTQIA+; even though the needs of each identity are not identical, we come together to work for change.

Today we celebrate LGBTQIA+ pride. There is so much to be proud of in this 50 year civil rights movement we used to call Gay Liberation. The Pride Parades flow by showing us the incredible diversity of what it means to be human, what it means to love. We celebrate Pride today, a reminder to be proud of ourselves and one another, as diverse as the colors of the rainbow flag. This year, let the pride celebrations also remind us how deeply we are connected to one another. Let us recommit ourselves to show up, to speak our truth with love across an interconnected web of justice. There is a place for every one of is in this web.