“From Power to Pride”
Photo credit: cristy cardinal; uua.org
When I titled this sermon “From Power to Pride” I really should have named it instead, “From Power to Pride and Back Again.” This is too long for the Wayside Pulpit sign – I am advised to keep my titles short and a little edgy to attract attention! I began this study in language noticing that what was originally called “gay power” was now “gay pride.” I was initially thinking about the difference between the two – power and pride – on their own. Power, it seemed, was about the establishment and recognition of rights, equality under the law. Pride arose from something more internal, visceral, personal. And the shift came at a tipping point, I would say, where enough power had been garnered so as to create a context in which one could begin to expect equity in treatment in the public sphere. As always appears to be the case, this causes fear to bubble up and we, as Americans, respond out of that fear in ways that are violent and, honestly, un-American, if we were to be true to our ideals. And from that backlash arose a powerful pushback – a clear ‘NO’ – we will not be held down. We will be who we are, wherever we are, whenever we choose to be. We will do so proudly, without shame or fear. Thus, PRIDE (all caps) was born. And we celebrate it here in the month of June in part because our mission says we nurture inclusion and that we are seekers after justice and equity, because our Principles remind us of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And I want to believe that we do our best to celebrate it the other eleven months of the year because, as I said last week, ‘celebrate’ is a verb, and surely one month is not sufficient celebration for these values.
It has been over twenty years now, but I will not forget the moment when, in the pursuit of a degree in Women’s Studies and being low in credits in the science category, that I took a course on human sexuality, with a focus, of course, on women because that’s what happens in women’s studies programs – the lens is shifted. And there presented was a continuum of sexual expression, not these polar opposites of female on one end and male on the other and never the twain shall meet. You see what I did there – citing female before male – as one is trained to do in such programs! And therein I found myself – not exactly, or specifically, but in that instant recognized myself as somewhere along the continuum. It was a relief, to be honest. I was given permission to be who I was, and science was even backing it up. It’s not that I hadn’t felt permission before in times when trust had been developed, but now I had the endorsement of academia, too, and that somehow made a difference to me – a very “white privilege” sort of posture actually that gives power to what is written over what is experienced, but maybe that’s for another time – an evolution in understanding to be explored. So, I have gone on from then in my quietly queer sort of way – language for which it took me additional decades to parse out. I have not been loud and proud – that would go against my nature. But in my ideals and my practice of those values – in advocacy and support, in close relationships and safe truth telling spaces I have made my way.
And here’s the thing: Power can lead to empowerment. Freedoms granted – I loathe this idea – if they need to be granted then how free are they really – but none the less, granted, by our culture slowly over time have rendered acceptable expressions of self that have always existed but had needed to be buried underground for safety’s sake. Ever so slowly the strict heteronormative frame was loosened, and more and more people have been inclined to “come out” as it is termed – no longer closeting oneself or identity – a sense of empowerment and a clearer path toward perhaps a new normal that is inclusive. So much so that even I was cautiously optimistic about the opportunity to finally express myself openly and honestly, at least in doctor’s offices and collegial gatherings, dipping my toe in the water at first. And it felt good to be able to do so and to not be questioned about it. A friend once shared that she and her wife like living in Provincetown because there the least interesting thing about them is that they are a gay couple. That’s how it should be, to my mind. I can imagine that these most recent decades have seemed like a time when more and more people are picking up their flag of choice and waving it proudly. Above me are the modern pride flag, the Philadelphia pride, the transgender pride, the intersex pride flags, the lesbian pride, bisexual pride, the 6-color pride flag, and the pansexual pride flags. If I didn’t know better I might think that we are suddenly overrun with this incredible variety of expression, as if it were just the cool thing to do and not something that one has for the better part of a lifetime felt the need to sit on, and now could jump up and shout about it, wave a flag about it, if they wanted to. The choice is not who you are. The choice is whether or not to say something about it.
Back to my original thought – about the title of this sermon – and the addition of “and Back Again.” We are back where we started, in a place where we must seek to legislate our rights because that is where they are being confronted. We are back to power in what has moved from a two steps forward, one step back progression to a one step forward, two steps back rhythm. It’s been brewing for a while. Let’s just make it illegal to express one’s gender publicly, to explore one’s sexuality, to receive reproductive healthcare. On July 1st of 2022 Florida’s House Bill 1557 – what we know as the “don’t say gay law” took effect. It restricted what could be taught and talked about in educational settings regarding gender and sexuality. It is dehumanizing in scope. It followed closely after the Supreme Court’s disturbing reversal of women’s autonomy over their bodies. Since then, more has followed in more places than I would like to count. This year alone, as of March, thirty laws restricting gender affirming healthcare, schools and education, free speech and expression, civil rights, bathroom use, drag shows and one’s legal existence in seventeen states have been passed.i I am sure there are more since then. So, this struggle continues. My 2023 Peace Calendar tells me that the new “3 R’s” from the LGBTQ community are refusal, resilience, and resistance: a refusal to be silenced, the resilience to adapt and grow to meet new challenges, and the resistance to never give up.
And I think to myself, this is exhausting. This constant fight for the right to exist as you are, to not have to conform to norms and standards that are unrealistic, blatantly inaccurate representations of our humanity forced upon us. To be forever looking over one’s shoulder for a proponent of an alternate viewpoint, believing themselves empowered by law now, to boldly confront you. Refusing and resisting sap precious life energy that could otherwise be put to amazing use. And I am not convinced that, as the saying goes, what doesn’t take our lives makes us stronger. Even if it might be true, aren’t there better ways to strengthen people?
And for those of us who are allies it is exhausting, too. I have heard a number of you express how tired you are from decades of advocating for human rights in your communities and all over the world. “When will we be done?” you ask. I wish with all my heart that I could give you a date certain, but the truth is that this pendulum will likely continue to swing, sometimes gently and other times more widely because we are talking about people here, each with their own free will, and in the case of our context, with very individualistic frames of reference. It is built into our structure and until that changes our patterns of behavior are going to remain the same.
So, what can we do? We side with love, as our Unitarian Universalist Association asks us to do. We educate ourselves. We look for ways to be as inclusive as we possibly can be. We partner with local organizations. We advocate for human rights. And we come together each week in a space of shared values to be encouraged in the struggle, to celebrate what we stand for. We come at this, each of us, in our own way and for our own reasons. My passion rests in self-discovery and a belief in the value of all beings just as they are to express their identities without fear or shame, to wave their flag boldly and know that they are accepted and loved.
And so today, in recognition of PRIDE month and in the Oneness from which we come, I invite you to come forward for a special blessing. Or if you are unable to come forward I will bring the blessing to you. And for those of you participating at home, know that bearing witness is an equally important part of this blessing.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, June 11, 2023