Friday, June 27, 2003

Reflections on Stonewall 2003

Thirty-four years now – where does the time go to – since the guys in makeup and heels fought back at Stonewall. It’s once again the gay Fourth of July, Christmas and Easter, Pesach and Yom Kippur rolled into one. It’s time to be gay for all of us old farts who don’t make that much of a big deal about being gay anymore. Time to look around and celebrate. Oh yes, and you young folk who think it’s always been this good, you go ahead and party too.

This year, with all the bad news of war and viral terror, it’s been hard to sing and dance. But Stonewall has rolled around and the gods have decided to be kind this week. There’s much to be thankful for.

On the political front, there are some remarkable differences between now and only a few years ago. In 1992, the Republican convention released its pitbulls against gays. W’s people, however, kept the dogs on the leash in 2000, and after Rick Santorum compared homosexuality with bestiality the White House couldn’t try hard enough to distance itself. When John Ashcroft’s “compassionate conservative” Justice Department went back on its word to allow its employees the usual courtesy of marking this month as Gay Pride month, and was forced to eat its words and give in, W kept silent. Six years ago Republicans savaged the appointment of a gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg; W. just appointed a gay man with a live-in partner as ambassador to Romania. All this from an aggressively conservative government.

In the world of entertainment, CBS is putting out a new sitcom starring Nathan Lane as a gay Congressman, and Scott Wittman plants a kiss on the lips of his partner of 25-years (and fellow songwriter for “Hairspray”) Marc Shaiman at The Tony Awards this year, right out there in front of God and everybody. Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out six years ago was the biggest news on television. These days, Frank Rich of the New York Times reports, the boycott of Disney for its pro-gay stance is a total flop and Richard Chamberlain “declared he was gay to widespread yawns.”

That lovely country up north where “the Mountie always gets his man” has just taken step three for gay marriage. Step one was all the Scandinavian countries, who allowed their own gay citizens to marry but no non-citizens and without adoption rights; step two was Holland and Belgium, who allowed marriage for its own citizens and anybody from countries like Scandinavia where it was allowed – and accepted adoption rights. Canada says there is no reason to deny the right of citizens and non-citizens alike to determine for themselves what they will call a marriage, and of course they should be able to raise kids in a loving family.

For gay people in America, however, it was yesterday when the Berlin Wall finally came down. For seventeen ugly years since police walked into a house and caught two guys in flagrante and the Supreme Court of the day, in Bowers v. Hardwick, said gays had no right to have sex even in their own home, gays have dreamt of the freedom people have in other countries to love and be loved and have that love recognized and accepted. Not in the U.S.A. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, the Court, with a majority of 6 to 3, declared that “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, is not correct today, and is hereby overruled.” The new ruling, in Lawrence et al v. Texas, might have been merely a resounding victory, but the decision of the court to base their decision on a critique of separate laws for gays and straights, which Bowers upheld, makes it a stunning victory, opening the possibility of full civil rights for gays once and for all.

I remember some thrilling moments over the years, the election of Harvey Milk and the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California, the election of gay mayors in Berlin and Paris. But seldom have I wished I might have been in and up close on something as much as this. The New York Times report had the information tucked in with the details of the case that “by the time [Justice Kennedy] referred to the dignity and respect to which he said gays were entitled, several were weeping, silently but openly.”

Me too. Except when I’m dancing in every room in my house.

Happy Stonewall Anniversary everybody!

June 27, 2003

Saturday, June 7, 2003

Canon Gene

Well, it’s done. Gene (He’s one of “us,” you know) Robinson is now officially a bishop. And there he is on the front page of the Herald Tribune, mitre and all, about to give a smack on the lips to his partner of many years, Mark Andrew, who I guess will be moving in to the rectory – or wherever bishops live these days. Mark (“Hi, have you met my Lifemate the Primate?) Andrew, along with Gene’s ex-wife, two daughters, his mom and dad and nearly 4000 other people stood, applauded, cheered and whistled, they tell us, when the ceremony was completed. I would have too, if I had stayed in the church. And if I lived in New Hampshire. And had been invited. And could whistle.

Not everybody is cheering, obviously. There’s lots of talk about how this is splitting the Anglican communion down the middle.

That would be a pity, I think.

I have an especially warm place in my heart for the Episcopal Church. When I was eighteen, and looking hard to organized religion for answers, I wandered away from the Congregational Church in which I had grown up, because it did little for the soul. At least for my soul.

I used to go to mass at St. Joseph’s with my catholic friends during lent. I loved the dark cavernous church, the flickering candles on the many altars, the smell of incense which had seeped into the gothic beams and the stones on the floor. In the Congregational Church there were good people, but the focus seemed to be on ourselves, how we looked, how nicely we all spoke to each other, how much food for thought was in preacher’s latest sermon. In the Catholic church, the attention was drawn away from ourselves, up the beams and out the gothic arches, carried on the incense and the upraised hands of the priest holding the Body of Christ.

There are worse ways of growing up than being torn by two cultural solutions in the battle between the head and the heart. Enlightenment reason was my heritage home. I was a white kid of Puritan stock. The Quakers, with their ability to sit for hours waiting for the Spirit to provoke them to comment, the Baptists who were much about water and washing off the dirt of sin, the analytical bible classes where study took us as much to the world of the Jews and the Old Testament and a proper fear of a wrathful God – all these were my tradition lined up for me, from the anti-intellectual fire and brimstone to the thoughtful Christian Scientist, Quaker, Presbyterian or Congregationalist truth claims. So many choices, so many properly protestant voices to listen to, so many communities of believers to join.

I went Lutheran. That way I got to be a tad closer to the spiritual homeland of my grandmother, got to say prayers in German, got to see a Protestant cleric, for a change, deck himself out in brocade and velvet and brilliant color. I got to go to a church that appreciated the value of ritual, without slipping over into the world of the Irish and the Italians, the Poles and the French Canadian “others,” whose views on God I knew, somehow, were not anatomically correct.

I went Lutheran, except that where I went to school in Middlebury, Vermont, there was a pitiful dearth of us – eight or ten of us at most. We formed a student group, and Pastor Dave came over from Dartmouth to do a Lutheran service once a month.

The rest of the time, I got my appetite for ritual satisfied at St. Stephen’s, the local Episcopal enterprise. And so earnest was my desire to participate that I actually went and got special dispensation from the Bishop of Vermont to take communion. He quizzed my Lutheran enthusiasm for a minute or two and then pronounced me worthy.

I had memorized the mass in Latin at St. Joseph’s by going every morning before school. I was a precocious language learner in those days, and it did wonders for my school Latin. But now, in the Anglican communion I was handed what I came to feel was a gift from heaven itself, the Book of Common Prayer, which included lines like the Anglican analogue of the Roman mea culpa: –

We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep,
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
We have offended against your holy laws,
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us...

what’s not to love about this glorious use of the language of God, Shakespeare and the Bible. Never mind the excess of language. Just assume with me that some one of Gene Robinson’s gay predecessors got to write that line in the confessional in his native faggotese. (“There is no health in us,” indeed! Reminds me of my friend Elizabeth, who when some evangelist came to the door of her Jewish household with the line, “Did you know Jesus died for your sins?” responded, “He went too far – they weren’t that bad.”)

Never mind. Excess is delicious, I think. I’m gay. It’s in the genes. And I was at home in that lovely ritualistic communion. It was so Catholic. So English. So pretty.

I left the Church not more than a couple of years later, driven out by the discovery that the Lutheranism I had come to know in America was not at all like the Lutheranism I encountered in Germany. The German Church in Catholic Bavaria had a seige mentality – an island of protestant purity in Germany’s most decadent city. I went on a religious retreat with the folks in my Lutheran dormitory and made the mistake of letting it slip that I had been drinking in the Hofbräuhaus the night before and was ostracized.

Screw them, I thought. I was tired of answering the phone with “Evangelisches Studentenwohnheim in der Arcisstraße, Grüß Gott!” anyway. Too much of a mouthful, this Lutheran business. I found myself looking for an Episcopal Church in Munich. Instead, I found an “Old Catholic” church, something I had no idea existed. After that, I was on a roll, for a while, seeking out all the ways of being Christian that I had never heard of back in the land of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians.

“When it comes to culture and religion,” I asked my graduate seminar in the theory of culture, just recently, “which one is background, which is foreground?”

Not everybody’s idea of an exciting way to spend your time, I grant you. Not everybody gives a hoot about such things. But I do. I really am interested in how religion affects culture and vice versa.

And here we have a delicious example of how culture reigns supreme. In this battle over whether Canon Robinson ought to be where he is, religion is like the candle in a side altar and culture is the cathedral. Whether the Anglican Church will fall apart depends on whether men and women of different cultures can cross their cultural divide. Very little of this issue is religious.

While thousands cheer and hug and kiss and whistle in New Hampshire, the Archbishop of Canterbury is acknowledging that the Bishop of New Hampshire will not be able to take communion in many of the Anglican churches of the world. Nigeria, for example. And Uganda. Laugh if you will, but there are only 2.3 million American Anglicans out of 70 million worldwide. And it’s not just Bishop Kogo of Kenya who has broken his church’s links with the members of their American Anglican family. Canon Harmon of South Carolina is leading a group of Americans who want to cut this limb off the body.

There was a moment during the consecration ceremony when people were invited (you know, like at a wedding when you get to speak or “forever hold your peace”) to object to Robinson’s installation. The Reverend Earle Fox of Pittsburgh got up and entertained the assembly with a graphic list of sexual practices engaged in by homosexuals. He had to be shut up by the bishop presiding over the ceremony.

Don’t you love it? Bishops talking in church about rimming and toe-sucking? Who needs Disneyworld? (And don’t you wonder if there was anybody around to remind the Reverend Earle that somewhere in history there were heterosexuals who once did it standing up?)

This is serious business, folks. Meredith Harwood of St. Mark’s parish in Ashland, we are told, is on record as saying this will not only split the Anglican Communion; it will break God’s heart.”

I gotta tell you, Meredith, the good Christians of the world probably did that already when they stood by and let the Holocaust happen. This won’t even give him indigestion, unless he takes cultural difference seriously.

The Europeans are ready for gay marriage; the Americans are not, but they are, at long last, acknowledging gays should have unfettered civil rights. The Africans are, some of them, now sacrificing children because they have discovered sacrificing goats does not prevent AIDS. Do you think these boys are concerned about whether allowing a good man who happens to be in love with a man named Mark might break God’s heart by wanting to minister to the needs of some New Englanders?

All God’s children looks at things differently.

I’m happy for you, Canon Gene. Blessings on you, your Church, and your loving partner Mark Andrew. I’m happy you’re all sharing the Planet Earth with me today.

June 7, 2003