Opening Words [Chris Matthews]:
“Over time, people who advance liberties tend to win the argument, whether it’s for women, African Americans, immigrants, or the gay community. In the end, America takes the side of the people looking for rights. That’s one of the wonders of this country. Eventually, we live up to our ideals.”
Morning Reading, excerpt from, “The Hope Speech,” Harvey Milk, March 10, 1978:
“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you. . . . . Why are we here? . . . . . In 1977, gay people had their rights taken away from them in Miami. But you must remember that in the week before Miami and the week after that, the word homosexual or gay appeared in every single newspaper in this nation in articles pro and con. In every radio station, in every TV station and every household. For the first time in the history of the world, everybody was talking about it, good and bad. Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion. In those two weeks, more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down prejudice. . . . . . I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who’ve lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost-impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings. . . . . [I]n San Francisco, three days before Gay Pride Day, a person was killed just because he was gay. . . . . . And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. . . . . And you and you and you, you have to give people hope. Thank you very much.”
Special Music: “City Hall,” by Vienna Teng
Sermon: “You’ve Gotta Give Them Hope”
There’s an expression that I’ve appreciated since the first time I ever heard it. It’s when a person extends their hand and says, “We haven’t met–” What they mean by that is that, maybe we’ve met in passing, but we have not yet intentionally taken the time to learn who each other truly is inside as a person. So after someone says, “We haven’t met,” we make the time to truly meet. It is only in very recent years that, in our nation, people who are gay have been able to meet others in a fully open and authentic way, because of the undeserved shame that being gay carries.
Some of why I support and advocate for people who are gay is because I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. We were raised to treat everyone with respect and dignity, including people who seemed different than me for some surface-y reason. But I think the main reason I’m an advocate for gay rights is because, in my early teens, I began doing theatre, in school, and in various community theatre groups. During the process of rehearsals, socializing together, and launching productions, I saw that if we try to jump to conclusions from what someone appears to be like on the outside, to what they must be like on the inside, we will end up wrong. A guy who looks like a macho jock is sensitive, intelligent, and has spent time living on a kibbutz in Jerusalem. A woman who somehow looks like the opposite of a homecoming queen is able to play royalty, and authoritatively and convincingly so. And so many people who do not command the center of attention, when you sit around in a circle with them, are outrageously funny. Of course some of the people I did those theatre productions with were gay. But that was never the main point. Our purpose was to create and produce successful plays, and have a lot of good fun in the process.
I continued to do theatre with colleges, universities, schools, and community groups for many years. Then, in the late 1980s, I thought I should get something more like a real job like respectable grown-ups have. So I moved to Peaks Island, off the coast of Portland, Maine, and became a legal secretary and paralegal for a string of law firms. Peaks Island was the most caring, inter-connected, artsy, and geographically beautiful place I’ve ever lived. Our conversations on the ferry on our way back and forth to work and socialize in Portland were so stimulatingly liberal, intellectual, and lively. Being up-to-date on current political and societal events was a requirement. Two of my closest friends were a gay couple named Douglas and Sidney. In the mid-1990s, strident conservatives from out of state came to Maine and launched a campaign to write discrimination into the Maine constitution against people who are gay or perceived to be gay. So before I knew it, several people I knew were hosting or attending “Vote No On One” house parties, including the Unitarian Universalist congregation in downtown Portland, and its minister, the Rev. Fred Lipp.
Personally, I had almost no idea how to speak out against homophobic comments, nor how to convince people to vote no on referendum number one. So I went to as many house parties and other meetings as I could. And I asked the speakers and other leaders for their help and advice. At that time, I was only just beginning to consider becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. I was a person of very little power or persuasive ability. I was a temp in a medium-sized law firm. And one of the partners in that law firm was close friends with the strident conservative who had started the referendum that so many of my friends, neighbors, and co-parishioners were fighting against.
At one lunch hour in a park in downtown Portland, a television reporter noticed my “No On One” button and asked me if I would comment publically on my stance. I remember I was wearing my black fisherman’s cap. I said to him, “I believe that people who are gay should be free to say openly that the person they love most, and share their life with, is of the same gender. At this time it is not safe for them to do so. People can be denied housing and hospital visitation, and can be fired, for being gay, or for being perceived to be gay. And so I urge people to vote no on question one.”
I was on the news that night at six p.m. and at eleven p.m. And so I wondered if, when I went into work the next day, if I would be fired. I could have been fired for speaking out against what the senior partner stood for, or for someone jumping to a conclusion that my advocacy must mean that I was gay, or I could have been fired just because they felt like firing me. I was only a temp, after all. I was not fired that day, nor at any time during the duration of our campaign. And in fact, support for our No On One campaign spread through the greater Portland area, and throughout the entire state of Maine, like nothing I had ever seen before. The posters, signs, and bumper stickers were green and white and black. We started seeing them on more and more shops and houses and lawns and cars, everywhere we looked. One of the areas that surprised us all was Lewiston Auburn, which is heavily Catholic. Since the Catholic church hasn’t been known for supporting gay rights, the leadership of our campaign thought it might not be worthwhile to send many volunteers there. But what you might not know about the state of Maine is that there are large populations of French Canadians, who originally emigrated from Canada. Discrimination and prejudice against French Canadians in Maine has been long and unfair and mean. In fact, many people in Maine who can speak French fluently, hide that fact, out of fear of that prejudice and discrimination. So even though the leadership of the campaign had not advised doing so, “No On One” volunteers rallied in the Lewiston Auburn area, bringing the campaign to all the French Canadians there. That population knew what it is like to be discriminated against for something that is not a choice. And the gay rights campaign prevailed in the Lewiston Auburn area. And “No On One” prevailed state-wide, something I still feel awe about. But sadly, just a few years later, an anti-gay effort passed, reversing much of our previous effort. That was so sad and discouraging for me. It made me weary of getting deeply involved with another equal rights campaign for many years. Working for civil rights can be very hard on the spirits. However, once I became a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have written to newspapers, other media, and to senators and representatives advocating for gay rights and same-gender marriages. I learned how to do so effectively from the gay rights campaigns in Maine in the mid-1990s.
I’m happy to say that the discouragement I’ve felt about joining another campaign has been assuaged. What renewed my motivation was learning about Harvey Milk, especially as he is portrayed Sean Penn in the movie, “Milk.” The story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to a public office, inspired me to get back into grassroots politics. Until I saw the movie, I had no idea that Harvey Milk was so likable, so deeply compassionate and attentive toward individuals and groups who are vulnerable on the margins, and such a brilliant community organizer. Harvey Milk’s motivation to become an activist was, in large part, what we now call, “The Stonewall Uprising.” “Stonewall” was a gay rights protest that occurred at The Stonewall Inn in New York City, forty-five years ago. In the mid-1960s, in New York City, which had the largest gay population in the United States, people who were gay were routinely arrested. [see PBS documentary] “The Stonewall Inn was, however, one of the only places gay people in New York City could socialize, providing a rare haven where they could drink, dance to the jukebox, and be themselves. Previous raids of the Stonewall Inn had resolved peacefully… But the raid on June 28th  was different: patrons at the Stonewall resisted arrest and the police quickly lost control of the situation. A crowd gathered on the street outside the Stonewall, forcing police to barricade themselves in the bar… The violent protests and demonstrations that erupted that night continued for almost a week. [the Stonewall riots, as they came to be known, marked a major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement in the United States and around the world.]”
One after-effect of the Stonewall Uprising has been work to make same-gender marriage legal at a state level. In 2004, gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts. So I officiated several gay marriages in Massachusetts; I felt awe about every one of them. Since then, I saw gay marriage become legal in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C., and, in New York State. In 2012, gay marriage finally became legal in Maine, by popular vote. In January of 2013, the State of Maryland joined the ranks. Then the Federal Supreme Court struck down the Defense Of Marriage Act. Soon after, we saw legal gay marriage in California, Delaware, New Jersey, New Mexico, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Hawaii. Not long after that, gay marriage became legal in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. I worked for gay rights in Indiana while I lived there, through the Unitarian Universalists churches I served, and through, “Indiana Equality.” But the progress in that state I love so dearly was some steps forward, some steps back. Friends and colleagues of mine back there worked successfully to defeat an anti-gay state-wide effort. One thing they found was that, while talking to individuals was an essential part of their effort, they prevailed because they convinced the hospitals, educational institutions, and other major employers of the gross disadvantage to them, economically and in public opinion, of not getting on board with gay rights.
So when I moved to Arkansas, it was one of the states that was farthest down on the lists of states likely to make gay marriage legal. So it was to my delighted surprise that, on May 9, 2014, gay marriage became legal in Arkansas! My day of officiating legal gay marriages in the Pulaski County Courthouse on May 12, 2014 was the happiest day of my career. I have never had so many people express that they were proud of me. But much more important to me were all the expressions of pride and thanks received on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist church that had engaged me as their Interim Minister, and on behalf of Little Rock, and the State of Arkansas. I officiated twelve gay marriage that day. And the feelings I was surrounded with were joy, gratitude, compassion, and awe, not objections. Over four hundred gay marriages took place that day. I officiated the marriage of one lesbian couple who drove from Oklahoma. I only saw one protestor. I think it confused him greatly that he had no support to speak of, and he left quite early in the day. On a break outside the courthouse a few hours into that busy morning, I saw a local couple, heterosexual, taking care of some other legal business there. The woman asked me why so many people and media cameras were there, and what was happening that was drawing so much attention. So I said to her, “For now, gay marriage is legal in Arkansas, because of Judge Piazza’s ruling late Friday afternoon. So there’s a window, and we don’t know how long it will be open before there’s a stay. All these people are here because gay marriage is legal here today.” She looked back at me absolutely stunned and exclaimed, “In Arkansas?!” “Yes,” I replied. And in hindsight, I don’t think she objected. She got a look on her face as though she was thinking through the several people she knows who are gay, or who might be gay but they’ve never talked about it openly. She then left rather quickly. And I wondered if she was going to make some phone calls to friends or family who might want to come to the courthouse to take part in that landmark occasion. [Bless her heart.]
Bless her heart for speaking up and asking me –in my clerical robe, stole, and hastily improvised name tag that says, “Officiant”– what so many different kinds of over-the-top grateful people had come together for. Bless her heart for then setting off to talk about the love and justice she had witnessed first-hand, with the many other different types of people she knows, in her open, inquisitive, non-judgmental, and helpful way. That’s all Harvey Milk wanted us all to do. On June 26, 2015, gay marriage became legal in all of the United States. So we were finally able to publish and gaze upon maps depicting legal gay marriage that were not a confusing mash-up of some states in an affirming color, some in a shaming color, and some in third color where gay marriage had been legal for a time, but then was in limbo. The map on the cover of your order of service shows gay marriage as legal in every state. But there is still more work to do to advocate for gay rights, and the rights of people who are transgender or questioning. There are still more conversations to have, sensitively and bravely, before all people will be able to meet other people as their authentic selves, without the undeserved shame that being viewed as different carries. Harvey Milk wanted us to keep having those sensitive and brave conversations, making some visible steps forward, despite the steps back. That’s what he did until the last day of his life. Harvey Milk made San Francisco a safer, more neighborly place for all its residents, especially individuals and groups who are marginalized. He did so through community organizing and running for political office. He ran three times before finally becoming elected. His work for gay rights literally saved people’s lives. And he won the respect, collaboration, and affection of all manner of people by building coalitions to effect changes that make everyone’s lives better. I’ll close this morning with his handwritten notes called, “Ten Ways to Win an Election:”
- Interview with all major papers [“All” was underlined 3 times on Harvey’s list]
- Knock on all doors.
- Ride busses.
- Visit non-gay bars during the daytime and any single bars at nite.
- Coffee shops and restaurants. Stop off early in the morning and late at night.
- Shakes hands.
- Shake hands.
- As few meetings as possible – just meet the people.
- Door to door of registered Democrats is very best thing you can do outside of media coverage.
- Don’t stop.”
“Shake hands; Just meet the people; Don’t stop– Shake hands; Just meet the people; Don’t stop– Shake hands; Just meet the people; Don’t stop.”
Closing Hymn #407 We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table
Benediction [Harvey Milk]:
“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”
Topics: gay pride