Can a festival of love and joy also serve as a political protest? And can participating in a political protest generate joy? These are questions with which people who organize gay pride parades have wrestled for more than 50 years.
The first Pride Parade was held in New York City on June 28, 1970 on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969. The latter was an uprising of gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons of the Stonewall gay bar in Greenwich Village when police tried to arrest them in a so-called morality raid.
The 1970 Pride parade in New York and the many others that have occurred since in cities around the world have two sides. They simultaneously protest anti-gay discrimination and celebrate queer identities of love and joy.
These two sides sometimes clash, as during the Edmonton Pride Parade in 2018. Black transgender immigrants protested the participation of police in the parade because of their experiences of police brutality. They thought the Pride Parade — which had grown from a tiny march in 1980 into one of the city’s best-attended, most colourful, and best-supported public events – had lost its edge.
The tension felt each Pride Month between protest and celebration can illuminate the work we do at Mill Woods United Church, I believe. In all our gatherings we try both to protest and celebrate; to stand against injustice and to experience joy; and to acknowledge our troubles even as we trust that the realm of God proclaimed by Jesus is already here within and around us.
In proclaiming the reality of God’s realm of love we align with sacred values and find the fuel to reach out to neighbours and to work for justice. As followers of Jesus, we gather each week to both acknowledge our wounds and our status as children of the God who is Love.
Our Sunday gatherings never combine these two sides perfectly, of course; but I think Pride parades provide great examples of how to do this.
Many things motivate people to march in a Pride parade. We come to be with others who have shared similar trials and triumphs; to express solidarity and strength; to protest actions by hostile institutions; and to have a fabulous time while singing and dancing.
Since the first Pride Parade in New York City in 1970 and the first one in Edmonton in 1980, a great deal has changed. Marriage equality has become the law in many countries, including Canada and the United States. Pride parades have grown into enormous gatherings that are lauded by politicians and corporations. And a few churches, like Mill Woods United, have turned their backs on millennia of anti-gay teaching to support LGBTQ rights and to march in Pride parades.
Unfortunately, there is still much more to be done. Gay bashing still occurs in cities like Edmonton. Police actions still sometimes unjustly target queer people. Transgender people still face fierce discrimination and deadly violence. And in many parts of the Global South, anti-gay laws and actions have become much worse.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a CBC news report about the abuse, violence, and murder suffered by openly queer people in the West African country of Ghana; and I felt helpless about this situation. But then I remembered the role that religion plays in gay oppression. The United Church has only modest links with partner churches in countries like Ghana. But our Catholic, Pentecostal, and Islamic neighbours have deep and ongoing contact with like-minded communities in countries like Ghana.
Unfortunately, the role most religious denominations play on gay rights is negative. Most Catholic, Pentecostal, and Islamic leaders still teach that women are inferior to men and that sexual and gender minorities are sinners. They also support government laws against women’s reproductive freedom and oppose equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
Faith communities like ours that have joyfully abandoned the anti-feminist and anti-gay teachings of our ancestors are often maligned for being too political; and I agree that feminism and gay liberation are political as well spiritual issues. But denominations that continue to deny women access to leadership and that preach homosexuality is a sin are just as political. But instead of proclaiming a politics of freedom, they support an oppressive politics that first arose with slavery ten thousand years ago, which was when women first became subjugated to men and workers became subjugated to monarchs or emperors.
The question is not whether a church is political but what sort of politics it supports. The United Church’s support for women’s and gay rights is about liberation, equality, and love; and I fervently wish that more of our Catholic, Pentecostal, and Islamic neighbours would repent of their toxic politics, which support oppression, violence, and hatred.
Some religious leaders say that Scripture and moral conscience compel them to oppose gay rights. But I view a denomination that continues to discriminate against women and gay people more than 50 years after Stonewall the same way I would a denomination that still supported slavery 50 years after the American Civil War.
As the world’s most prominent religious leader, the Pope could greatly advance human rights and love if he would repent church teachings and support equality for women in the Catholic Church, reproductive freedom, and an end to anti-gay laws. I will not hold my breath for the Pope or any other leader of a large anti-gay denomination to do this, but I also remember the last 50 years of turmoil, change, and repentance in denominations like the United Church, which engenders hope.
In the meantime, I am so grateful that activists in the queer community continue to celebrate freedom each Pride Month and put pressure on governments, churches, and individuals to let go of traditional prejudices. They help all of us to enjoy lives of respectful and exuberant love.
The United Church was formed 96 years ago this Thursday as an attempt to heal 1,500 years of church disunity. When Canada’s Methodists, Congregationalists, and two-thirds of its Presbyterians united, they hoped their movement would attract many other shards of the Christian faith to do the same.
Instead, denominational splits have accelerated, and the differences between the United Church and churches like the Catholic and Pentecostal ones have widened considerably, especially on issues like female ordination, reproductive freedom, and support for LGBTQ rights.
But this widening gap does not end our hopes for unity. We can seek unity with people of goodwill from other faith backgrounds especially those who have been wounded by the anti-female or anti-gay prejudices of their tradition. We can work together to celebrate diversity and to encourage change in denominations that remain stuck in the sin of anti-gay politics.
We desire unity, but not unity based on an oppressive uniformity. Instead, we seek a unity that revels in differences and builds solidarity between men and women, gay and straight, and Black and White. Each person is sacred, and the best way to honour this reality is to oppose inequality, discrimination, and violence.
The search for unity will not always yield immediate results. But when we seek a balance between protest and celebration; between the quest for justice and the needs of the poor; and between lament and joy, we are on the right track, I think.
In this work, I am encouraged by joyous and defiant Pride parades where broken and wounded neighbours gather with creativity and joy to proclaim that Love is Love and that people of all kinds are already united at the levels of Spirit and Soul.
On the last night of his life, Jesus prayed that all may be one. As we come to the communion table this morning, may we do so a people who are wildly diverse and yet joyously One in Love.