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Friday, September 24, 2010

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

This was started a while ago and got lost in the shuffle

Charles Chapman Grafton - Bishop & Ecumenist (1912)


For the past ten years, gay and lesbian organizations in and around Jersey City have staged their own Pride festival on the last weekend in August. This nicely brackets the summer and allows them to avoid competing with the statewide celebration in Asbury Park and the original commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York, both of which take place in June.

A seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??
This event centers around three blocks or so of Exchange Place, a street that ends at the Hudson River in the heart of the city's financial district. As the surrounding office towers are mostly abandoned on weekends, the streets can be closed with a minimum of disruption, and there's plenty of parking to be had. For the first time, this year's celebration also included a short parade from City Hall a little bit further inland.

Several organizations of the Episcopal Church have taken part in these events at various times. The OASIS, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, has sponsored a table where area parishes are invited to give out information and meet community members. This year the OASIS, as well as the NYC-area chapter of the its national equivalent (Integrity) and the Episcopal Response to AIDS all shared the time and expense for this outreach. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss plans for some future collaboration.

What none of us had really given much thought to was the possibility of any conflict. Surely we were past this; our immediate area has become pretty comfortable with LGBT issues, with the majority of the population even supporting marriage equality even if the governor and legislature do not agree.

So I was somewhat surprised when -- dispatched to the pharmacy for twine and duct tape to keep our rented canopy grounded against the fresh breeze coming off the river -- I saw a handful of people with placards and a bullhorn organizing themselves on a street corner a block or so from the festivities.

Truth be told, they've been there before. They showed up several years ago and walked up and down the sidewalks on the perimeter of the event using a bullhorn to bray their various threats of hellfire and damnation at the passing crowd. After a quick ecumenical "Situation Room" discussion, the various church groups responded in a way that we knew would probably infuriate them, but could not be labeled as combative or even really acknowledging their hateful rhetoric: We followed the same path up and down the street, just INSIDE the event, and sang hymns, loudly. Hymns such as "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know", "God Loves All the Little Children" and so forth, in an effort to counter their efforts.

Don't leave home without it!
The only problem is, we quickly discovered that we didn't collectively know much beyond the first verse of anything, and in some cases the Methodists knew one version that might be different than what the Episcopalians or Lutherans remembered. Thus was born one of my bright ideas, that -- as is typical -- gets immediately forgotten until the next time it would come in pretty darn handy. I had made up my mind that I would put together a handful of common, public-domain hymns that suited the occasion and have copies of the lyrics ready to facilitate the singing.

Then, for the next few years, the protesters didn't come, and I forgot about it. But I can see that -- maybe as a hallmark of the progress we've made with the general public mindset -- this event is back on their radar. And apparently, once they figured out where the church tables were, they parked on the nearest corner and kept the commentary up all afternoon. Interestingly, there were two "groups" of them this year... the hellfire gang were joined by one or two people from a more "compassionate" crowd: they represented an "ex-gay ministry" ... something the American Psychological Association and most other credible witnesses describe as pointless and more likely harmful. When it was that guy's turn with the bullhorn he kept telling us how we didn't have to be this way, we could change like him, etc. I recently met a young man who endured eight years of this "therapy" only to realize that sexual orientation is not something that can be "cured", and luckily today he is learning to celebrate and live into the identity he is meant to have.

One event-goer was apparently either prepared or resourceful, because he appeared with a sign that said "I'm with stupid" and an arrow and followed the protesters up and down the street.

Truth be told, with a few exceptions nobody was really paying very much attention to them, and everyone -- even the cops -- were getting annoyed with the bullhorn after a while. We were too busy networking and trying to keep our tent from blowing away to "gracefully engage" them, let alone regale them with ecumenical hymnody.

As the afternoon wore on, the commentary got more random and dejected, wandering between taxes, the speaker's kids and Lady Gaga. I'm not really sure what they were trying to accomplish, but I don't think they won over any supporters, and the tone was in stark contrast to the merriment going on all around them. Nobody present seemed to be experiencing the shame and misery they kept insisting are part and parcel to same-sex attraction.

Would that everybody would be so lucky. In the weeks since, news (and by news I mean blogs and the independent press, since these stories never seem to make the papers) broke of yet another teenager who committed suicide after enduring years of bullying. This follows on the heels of another case, this one in Minnesota, in which the mother reports she had been asking the school to intervene for years. They are hardly alone, as a recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network shows that nearly nine out of ten LGBT teens endure harassment at school.

Does anybody else find it ironic that supposed Christians, trying to portray themselves as "compassionate", would come to a LGBT event and preach conversion to a crowd that is apparently pretty much okay with its sexual identity? The underlying message is, of course, that to be LGBT is to be somehow broken or "less-than", and unfortunately, despite logic, experience and the advice of medical experts, this message continues to imbrue our young people's collective consciousness, courtesy of trusted role-models including preachers, teachers and coaches, and apparently with the tacit approval of parents and other community leaders who refused to stick out their necks when this was pointed out as a problem.

And this abuse does not always wait until a child reaches the age where (s)he even knows what sexual identity is, let alone aware that his or her mannerisms, speech or clothing might be advertising it. In a heartbreaking story this summer that didn't seem to make it past the Huffington Post, a seventeen-month-old Long Island boy was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend because he "acted like a girl". Seventeen months old. Tinky-Winky aside, do we really expect a toddler to be aware of rigid gender roles, much less adhere to them??

These are sobering reminders of how much work remains to be done, and they stand in sharp contrast to the joyous community gathering I witnessed. I can only hope that -- whatever it was they were trying to accomplish -- the protesters couldn't help but notice that what they were witnessing was not a depraved orgy, nor a gathering of unhappy deviants crying out for help. It was ordinary folks of all persuasions, enjoying the freedom to be who they were and love whom they love. Even if they didn't get to hear us sing.

1 comment:

  1. I would encourage you to pursue the idea of being able to sing together in a situation like this, even if it's just coming up with a simple two-sided songsheet with the words (though I wish I had my own Episcopal Emergency Field Hymnal!).

    Many years ago, when I first marched in the NYC pride parade with MCC-New York, we had songsheets and we knew how to use them. It was a fun thing to do together (we were a singing church back then) and the spectators enjoyed it.

    Plus, it makes the protestors a little crazy when you sing "their" music, though, really, if it wasn't for all the (closeted) gay church musicians out there most of these places wouldn't have music programs at all.