Pride Problems

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I’m pretty proud of my church after Pride weekend.

There’s been a tension and a conversation for a long time about the purpose of Pride parades and celebrations in particular, and LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual) activism/advocacy/culture in general. I don’t know a ton about the history of the LGBTQIA rights movement (I should know more), but I think there’s probably always been tensions between different variations of the pull to be political/challenging/risk-taking/intersectional and the temptation to simplify/pacify/commercialize/comply/assimilate. Pride is a lightning rod for this. Over the past couple decade, folks have been increasingly critiquing Pride for how

  • it’s become all celebration and sex, and no protest or politics;
  • it caters to cis gay men (and straight cis people), and often marginalizes queer women, bi people, asexual people, trans and nonbinary people, people of color, and disabled people, people who can’t afford $15 tickets (and probably other groups as well) (all linked Tweets are from Philly community members);
  • it seems to have been bought by figures and corporations that at best have nothing to do with LGBTQIA liberation and at worst contribute to the oppression of marginalized people, including LGBTQIA people, and especially people of color;
  • similarly, how it has encouraged the participation of police and other institutions that endanger and contribute to the oppression of marginalized people, including LGBTQIA people, and especially people of color;
  • it in general doesn’t get intersectionality or collective liberation.

This year, the tension has grown. In the US, thanks to the current administration and social climate, there’s a growing awareness that LGBTQIA “equality” has not been achieved, and that the legal progress that has been made is not necessarily safe. There’s also growing awareness of white supremacy and dangerous capitalism and how they both interact with homophobia. In Philly, there’s been growing awareness of how race and racism exist in LGBTQIA spaces (I referred to that when I preached last October).

To be honest, most churches are not super advanced in how they engage with Pride and LGBTQIA stuff in general. For churches and Christian groups, declaring and practicing inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity is an accomplishment, and can made that church feel like they have ~arrived~. As much as it shouldn’t be, it’s still pretty significant for a church to get to the point of marching in a Pride parade or tabling at OutFest.

So, about a month ago, when I started thinking about how and whether I would participate in Pride, considering all the issues and even calls to boycott, I didn’t give much thought to how the participation of my church, Arch Street UMC, might be affected. Arch Street loves LGBTQIA people, Arch Street loves marching in Pride, we march every year with the other Reconciling UMCs in the area, and that’s that. Why would we ever question marching? It felt unfortunate but unavoidable that even Arch Street, a politically active community committed to acting for racial and economic justice, was not necessarily ready to think critically about its participation in Pride. I assumed that if there was any alternative or counter-march, I would be participating by myself. But Rev. Robin, the pastor and my supervisor, was wrestling with the same tensions, and was a little more optimistic or convicted than I was. He strives to integrate an awareness of racial justice struggles into every aspect of Arch Street’s ministry, and he thought our participation in the Pride march should be no different. So he invited me into a conversation about how our congregation could at least start the process toward thinking more intentionally and critically about how we participate in Pride. The first step was a slightly broader conversation with a few other members of our community whose experiences and identities made their voices crucial to the process. During that conversation, we read an article that used the example of a Trump-supporting Philly Pride organizer to examine how politics and economics interact with Pride (strangely, the article we read is no longer online). We reflected on these questions:

  • What did you hear in that opinion piece?
  • What rings true for you?
  • What questions does it raise for you?
  • Where is Arch Street UMC in this conversation?
  • Where is God in this conversation?
  • In this complexity, how will we let our light shine?

In that process, an important realization for me was the fact that, just as participating in Pride feels like a bigger deal for churches that it might for other groups, not participating in Pride would mean a different thing for us than it would for other groups. We hear about how sincerely meaningful it is to many Pride spectators to witness a Christian church marching in Pride. Our participation is a message of unconditional love and acceptance refuting the messages of judgement and exclusion that too many LGBTQIA folks have heard from the Christians in their lives. Marching in pride is a ministry of presence, and that’s a significant sacrifice to weigh against the call to divest from a very flawed parade. But the truth is that, even while for some people, seeing Arch Street marching may be healing and encouraging, for others it could be interpreted to mean that we don’t care enough about racial or environmental justice to think critically about our allyship.

The next step was was figuring out how to shape the experience of Arch Street’s marchers and the message we conveyed to spectators to reflect the complexity of Pride and LGBTQIA liberation. Rev. Robin suggested that we do this through the design of the already-scheduled special pre-Pride worship service, and through the signs provided for our marchers to carry.

Rev. Robin, Anana (another Arch Street young adult), and I sat down to create the worship service and design messaging for the signs. Our signs reflected the intersections between LGBTQIA justice and other areas of justice that are ignored by Pride. They declared that LGBTQIA Black lives matter, that environmental justice equals LGBTQIA justice, that immigration saves LGBTQIA lives. Anana and I painted all the signs later.

When Sunday came, here’s what the service consisted of:

We sang three songs. The first, “We Are Called,” is a hymn based on God’s call in Micah 6:8 for Christians to make our mission one of love and justice. The second was “Draw the Circle Wide,” a hymn by composer Mark Miller calling for communities of wide welcome, where no person is excluded and no concern relevant to their experience is ignored. Our last song was “Sent Out in Jesus’ Name,” reminding us that God’s justice requires our action, and sending us out to march.

Remone Mundle, one of our incredible worship leaders, wrote and presented this powerful opening prayer:

Lord, today we are celebrating diversity here in Center City, Philadelphia. But we cannot overlook the anger, frustration and despair in Minneapolis/St. Paul as there are so many unanswered questions from citizens of this country who think that justice is hardly ever meted out fairly to people of color.

On this day, that we are here at Arch Street, safe in a beautiful, air-conditioned chapel, people from the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina are facing renewed pain and horror on the 2nd anniversary of a racially inspired massacre. Talking about anniversaries, how can we forget last year’s carnage at Pulse Night Cub that claimed the lives of 49 people. People who identified as LGBT but who were also predominantly people of color.

Kids are gearing up for a long summer vacation, perhaps making plans for Six Flags, Disney World or Hershey Park adventures but some, right here in Philadelphia are worried sick that their parents may be deported and their families torn apart in this hostile and unwelcoming political climate.

The disparities, Lord, are blatant, and shameful in a nation founded on freedom and the sanctity of human rights.

Help us to realize Lord that we even when we are lucky to feel insulated from society’s disabling strikes because of the privileges of race, money and status, we are still less free when our society holds one standard of justice for some and another set for others.

We are all less free when institutions of power seek to ignore the rights and basic dignities of queer and transgender people.

We are all less free when we turn a blind eye to the daily abuses of power that are now rampant and disproportionately affecting the most marginalized people across our social and legal systems.

We are indeed less free when our neighbors’ existence is a daily struggle for survival and their families live in constant fear.

But we are here Lord, we are here. We put on good walking shoes to march in the Pride parade, now let us put your armor on, so that we can rise up to take a stand for righteousness and justice. In your name we pray. Amen.

To connect with the march in a unique way, we invited the congregation to join in a visual litany, reading the declarations on our signs as they were projected on the screen.

Later in the service, Rev. Robin used the following words to explain why we were addressing diverse issues on a day usually focused on issues that are more obviously LGBTQIA-related:

Today we will participate in an action that centers the liberation of LGBTQIA+ persons and those who love them. So, we march and show our solidarity but we also march to witness to the struggles of those within the LGBTQIA+ community who are marginalized, to those external forces that seek to exploit the LGBTQIA+ community and to remind each other to connect economic justice, racial justice, immigration justice, healthcare as a human right, disability rights and environmental justice to today’s parade. In that way, we will model what Fannie Lou Hamer meant when she said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The paragraphs that follow, adapted from a statement issued by the organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, describe the concept of Collective Liberation – a way of engaging with the world that provides insight and inspiration for our action today.

“Collective liberation means recognizing that our struggles are intimately connected, and that we must work together to create the kind of world we know is possible. We believe that every person is worthy of dignity and respect, and that within systems of oppression everyone suffers.

Collective Liberation is not just a value, but an action. When we work together across the barriers kept in place to divide us, we strengthen our organizing. When combined, our diverse identities and experiences give us the tools to dismantle systems of economic and social oppression, and to create a world in which all people are fully human.”

This was followed by sacred conversations within small groups of congregation members about why we march.

By the end of the service, I sensed a new level of connection, thoughfulness, and purpose among the members of the congregation. We had been challenged to do better, to love and care and act more broadly and intentionally. And we had been provided with tools and a gentle and spiritual environment from which to take the first step in to that challenge. Before filing out of the building, folks went to claim the signs that were displayed around the walls of the chapel.

We assembled on the sidewalk with signs and banners, then walked over to the Gayborhood to join the rest of the Eastern PA Reconciling United Methodist contingent.

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As educational as the worship service may have been for some participants, I think that the real-life experience of marching with the intersectional signs was just as much of a teacher. There was no mistaking the excitement of many of the rainbowed spectators lining the streets when they saw messages that broke through Pride’s overwhelming silence on justice for immigrants, the environment, and people of color. There was emotion on people’s faces as they pointed at “immigration saves LGBTQIA lives,” snapped photos of “all Black LGBTQIA lives matter,” and got selfies with the person carrying “God is genderqueer.”

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The person near the middle, pointing, liked my “environmental justice = LGBTQIA justice” sign.

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This sign holder really connected with us. Lots of screams of mutual appreciation.

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Rev. Robin told everyone he interacted with: “God loves you, just the way you are. You don’t have to change a thing.”

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Black trans lives matter!

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The Wells Fargo wagon was right in front of our contingent, pooping all the way. Wells Fargo is one of the main investors in the Dakota Access Pipeline. They also recently took advantage of customers by opening  over a million fake accounts without authorization, and have engaged in racist lending practices.

Some members of our contingent started out skeptical of the political and theological statements that some of the signs made. But after carrying them through the throngs, they understood how meaningful it was for Pride celebrators to see Christians who were not only expressing unconditional love and welcome to LGBTQIA folks, but also recognizing and naming that race, economic justice, etc. are just as significant in the lives and experiences of many LGBTQIA people as are sexual orientation and gender identity. To see Christians reaching the kind of expansive love that fully includes LGBTQIA people, and instead of patting ourselves on the back and taking Pride as a reward for our progress, asking how we can take the next step and expand even more. To see Christians thinking and acting critically, politically, and intersectionally.

Now, Arch Street UMC hasn’t solved LGBTQIA inequity or the lack of intersectionality in Pride. We haven’t even solved these things within our own congregation and community! There will be a lot more learning, a lot more challenging, a lot more prayer, discomfort, and taking action before we are even close. Progress will be made through the collective journeys of congregation members, and not through a top-down decision by church leadership.

And progress will be made through giving attention and value to the concerns and voices of the people in our community who are most affected– LGBTQIA people, people of color, women & nonbinary people, young people, immigrants, poor people, disabled people.

One of the most significant aspects, for me personally, of this journey so far has been experiencing my concerns to be valued. The initial conversation between Rev. Robin and I happened after he saw that I had posted on Facebook asking friends about alternatives or challenges to Philly Pride. After writing off any possibility of Arch Street making progress toward an intersectional, critical approach to Pride, I was invited and supported to help guide the congregation through the first steps of that progress. Anana and I got to design the worship service and parade messaging. I suspect that my initial pessimism about the church’s approach to Pride was less thinking that the church wouldn’t budge, and more that my voice wasn’t strong enough to cause any of the budging. I was proven wrong, and I’m really grateful for that.

Throughout this process, I also collected some resources for problematizing Pride! I learned a lot from them. Here’s my collection. Suggestions for additions are welcome.

Corrections and critiques to any part of this post are also welcome! Just like my church, I am still learning.

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