stonewall was a riot

A sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Bukey delivered via Zoom on June 14, 2020.

It’s June, which means it’s usually LGBTQ pride month.  But I have a memo from my little corner of the LGBTQ community.  Gay Pride month is cancelled.  Welcome to queer wrath month.  This started out as a bit of a joke on the internet a couple years ago: in the list of the seven deadly sins, “wrath” comes after “pride.” Ergo, if June is gay pride month, July could be “gay wrath month.” 

But it’s also not a joke.  (And, content warning, this next bit mentions transphobic and anti-black violence and policy.)

The thing is, the first “Pride” was the Stonewall Uprising, a riot against police brutality and literal gender policing.  And fifty-one years later, fifty-one years after black and brown queer and trans people said “NO MORE! You must stop beating and raiding us,” we are still or again in a scary place.

Christian Cooper, a black gay man, had the police called on him while bird watching in Central Park at the end of May.  Police killed Tony McDade in Tallahassee, Florida, a black transman, on May 27.   We are in the middle of a pandemic and an uprising about racist police violence against Black people, many of whom, like Tony McDade, are queer and trans.

Meanwhile in the last week two black transwomen were murdered. Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in Philly.  Then on Friday, this presidential administration announced that it will erase protections for transgender patients against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies. They announced this on the four-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre, and in the middle of Pride Month, in the middle of a pandemic.

And in an economy that’s fallen apart, it’s still legal in a lot of states to fire or refuse to hire people for being gay or trans or bi or queer. There is no federal law that explicitly protects workers from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

So yeah, welcome to queer wrath month.

That word “queer,” by the way.

I’m not sure I’ve talked enough with you about how important it is to me.  How important I think it is for CHURCH to be queer.  This next part gets a little “explain-y,” but I hope you’ll go with me, because I think it’s important.  For those of you that don’t know: “queer” is a word that used to be a slur, but which has increasingly been reclaimed as a term of pride.

It’s always important to note that some people who grew up with the word as a slur still find it stings, and prefer words like “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual,” to describe themselves. Yourselves. I know you’re here.  I personally like to describe myself a few different ways: I’ll say I’m “gay,” I’m “a lesbian” and I’ll also say that I’m “a queer woman.” All of those terms are okay for me.

“Queer” these days is used in a few different ways.  It’s used as an umbrella term that means something like, “Anyone whose sexual orientation is something outside of heterosexual.” It sidesteps the alphabet soup of saying “LGBTQ TGNB” etc.  It’s used as a personal identity, to signal “other than heterosexual.” Some people, especially people who are my age or younger — I’m 37 — prefer the fluidity and flexibility and solidarity of this term. Rather than distinguishing between gay and bisexual or pansexual, a person can just say “queer.”

Queer means “other,” non-normative, transgressive, marginal. A political identity, where we specifically DON’T argue that we’re “just like everyone else” and that all we want are the same rights everyone else has, just a little adapted to make room for same-sex attraction. Where we say, actually, we’re here to be different, because what’s “normal” is at best boring, and at worst, oppressive and violent. 

It’s that last bit that’s important to me. As a white, cis-gender woman with a lot of class and education privilege, it’s easy for me to get lulled into living in the status quo.  And that’s dangerous. The status quo is dangerous.  But being a part of queer community means that I have my friends and community members constantly reminding me “no! We are here and we’re queer.”  We’re not for adjusting the rules. We’re for re-writing them, or throwing them out entirely.

A lot of us in this Zoom have been getting a big wake up these last two weeks about just how not ok “normal” is when it comes to policing. Those of us who are not Black, and those of us who are white in PARTICULAR are getting our assumptions about public safety shaken and taken apart.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t JUST a moment about assumptions.  In this time, we are being called to make specific structural changes: to stop calling the police, to in fact call for defunding of the police. To put our money and our church policies where our mouths are.  To organize the heck out of our communities, get very nitty gritty about things like city budgets and police union contracts. We are being called to do actual things.

And we are being called to reimagine, and that’s where this whole church thing comes in. We are being called to re-imagination, as Dr. Charlene Sinclair told us in a webinar this week.

If queerness means transgressing and breaking up ideas of what is “normal” that are actually constricting and violent then when it comes to public safety we are being called to queerness.

I don’t mean I’m asking straight people to start saying “hey, I’m queer!”  Please don’t do that. But I think we need to learn from those of us who use “queer” as a verb.  Meaning to break the norms. And to break open our ideas about what keeps us safe.  It isn’t white men with guns. It’s care and resources and solidarity.  And brave self-expression. And celebration. And joy.

Because the thing is Stonewall WAS a riot.  It was about black and brown trans-feminine people and butch lesbians throwing bricks.  And so we don’t ever in the queer community get to say that protests don’t solve anything, or that riots are counterproductive because we KNOW better.

But the Stonewall uprising also had multiple rockette-style kicklines.  That’s true. Revolutions are not really won in a day or a week or a year.  They are a process and a commitment. And a way of living.

So let’s honor both Queer wrath and queer celebration. 

I’ll close with this, from James McMaster, is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at UW Madison, about a political education session / open mic / party / demonstration at the Wisconsin Capitol last week:

Oh, and anyone who tells you that pride is cancelled due to the pandemic is just wrong. It’s not cancelled, it’s being celebrated the way it would be every year if we actually honored its roots: under the radar and out in the open, with black queer and trans people at its center calling the shots. You should have seen the queers dancing in the streets of Wisconsin last night. I feel so grateful to have been one of them [in a way I never could] with corporate pride.

Happy fifty-first birthday, Stonewall Uprising.

May the struggle and the fabulousness continue.

Rev. Elizabeth Bukey is the Minister of First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist. She graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2013, and is about to move to Malden, where she will live with her girlfriend, rambunctious rescue dog, and two brave cats. She loves jogging in the Arnold Arboretum and ordering a “Tower Street” at Brassica Cafe.

Corona Days, mixed media collage by Jane Karp.