Friday, June 26, 2015

Amazing Grace.

Last week, I watched a documentary called Limited Partnership. It told the tale of Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan, two homos who fell in love in LA over forty years ago. The one kink in their love story was that Tony was actually Australian, just visiting the US when he first met Richard. In order to stay--his childhood in Australia being extremely abusive, he had extra reason to not want to return--they thought getting married was the one solution. An extremely kind and adorable feminist behind a clerk's counter in Boulder, Colorado granted them their wish. 


As you would expect, the federal government did not deem this marriage certificate from Boulder in 1975 valid. In fact, Tony received an official response from the INS that stated: 
"You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots."
This quote became an integral part of Tony and Richard's story, but I knew nothing about their story before watching this movie, and my mouth dropped open when the end of that sentence was read. An official of my government sent that out. If there were any superiors at the INS that reviewed that letter, they didn't find anything wrong with it, either.

After many failed lawsuits, Tony was deported, but eventually sneaked back into the US. He continued living with Richard illegally for decades, not being able to work or receive benefits, not being able to live openly as a US citizen--not that he exactly hid. I think the INS gave up the fight of chasing Tony out of the country eventually, but of course, that doesn't mean he actually won.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the documentary was a section that took place during the '80s, I think, where, after continually losing legal battles, they thought public opinion could help sway power to their plight. They went on Donahue, where a bitter woman, among other guests, spewed the most vile hatred at them, shouting from the audience in her shoulder-padded power suit, while they both sat quietly, placidly on stage--not angry, just hurt, vulnerable, and sad.

In the end--bit of a spoiler alert here--Richard's health declines; he gets cancer. Their lawyer strongly urges them to renew their vows in a state where marriage is now legal, something they've never done, to make sure that their old Boulder marriage holds up federally if Richard dies. In the last recorded interview with both of them on screen, planning this trip to get married again, Richard says, in his weak, strained words, that he loves Tony more than ever. He dies the next day.

I spent a lot of time during this documentary feeling humbled with my own gay privilege, and thinking about how often you hear that gay rights have swept the country so quickly. I married the love of my life in the first state to ever legalize gay marriage; filing for our license was easy and never questioned. We've filed joint federal tax forms for two years now. I have a lot of guilt and conflict in my heart about the fact that I've stayed mostly closeted at my new job for the past year. But when I cross the bridge over the Columbia River and come home again each day, I breathe freely; my muscles relax; I know I can be who I truly am, without complete fear of violence. I have lived in liberal cities for the last decade, taken the easy road. I work in a conservative town, but I was still able to walk into my HR office and ask if I could add my wife onto my insurance benefits and they didn't blink an eye, because they were legally bound not to. 

Yet Tony and Richard--and so many others--fought for decades; hid for decades. Tony kept saying, "Those were hard years," in reference to being deported, in reference to all their friends dying from AIDS and being blamed for their own deaths; in reference to being publicly humiliated and harassed on the Donahue show. "Those were hard times," he kept having to say, over and over and over.

When the words came on the screen that Richard died, before they could renew their marriage vows, before they could hear the Supreme Court normalize their life, I actually said "No," out loud and broke out into sobs. It was so unfair. One of the last scenes is Tony watching the news about the fall of DOMA, alone in his pajamas. He calls Richard's sister, happy, but sad, wishing Richard was there to see it. The last update to hit the screen before the credits roll is that Tony is again petitioning for citizenship, as the widower of an American citizen. He is still, in 2015, fighting.

I've read a decent amount of LGBT history--most LGBT people have. But even as a lesbo, I had never heard of Richard and Tony, even though their story seemed pretty important, pretty pioneering. I thought about how much of my own history I still need to learn, how much more meaningful knowing this history makes current events.

-

Yesterday, I watched a documentary called Love Free or Die, about now infamously out Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson from New Hampshire. Yes, watching documentaries that make me cry is a nasty habit of mine, and no, they're not always about gay people. PBS has just really been gaying up my DVR recently, completely out of my control.

Anyway, most of this one wasn't news to me, as I'm already familiar with Robinson. But there was a section at the end that just had me crying and crying and crying, for the same reason that I always cry at the Gay Pride Parade, as I did here in Portland a couple weekends ago. He was speaking at a church in NYC before their Pride Parade, and his plan for the day that he implored his parishioners to join him in was to pass out cups of water to the parade participants. It was such a simple act, this passing out of water, just like it's a relatively simple act for all the churches and synagogues and mosques to march in Pride Parades, as so many now do. But sometimes simple acts of kindness really do just knock you flat on your ass. Especially when there's emotional instrumental music flowing in the background.


"It's not enough to pull the people out of a raging stream who are drowning," Robinson says. "We have to walk back upstream and find out who's throwing them in in the first place."

-

I have been thinking a lot about religion lately. After spending every Sunday in church growing up, I stopped going when I went to college and obtained my own free will, perhaps for obvious reasons. Yet one of the most prickly topics for Kathy and I over the last ten years has been Catholicism--I still have this stubborn desire to defend it, even when I know the church has done so many wrongs, even though I still don't feel comfortable walking back into a Sunday mass again. My defense is often illogical to Kathy, because, well, it is illogical. Most deeply rooted emotions that we don't truly understand are. The election and continuing reign of Pope Francis has been raising my Catholicism defenses to all-new heights, almost making me want to be Catholic again. Almost.

And then this year, a student of mine that I find a particular affinity with stays after school sometimes just to talk and rant about life. One day, he begins complaining, loudly, about religion, a topic that he continues to talk about in other after-school chats, about how all the Christians at this school are hateful bigots, how all religion is stupid. And it's wrong to automatically tell him he's wrong, because some of these Christians have indeed said hateful things to him, supposedly in the name of God, and it's important to not erase that. But immediately I find myself protesting this bold, blanket statement of his, imploring him that he can't just say that all Christians are bad. If we did, we'd be doing the same exact thing as people who say that all gay people are bad. That there are a lot of religious people who do really good things and are in fact not hateful bigots.

For the record, I don't think he bought it, but it's often hard to buy what an adult's telling you when you're a teen and everything sucks.

-

This weekend, most of Melissa Harris-Perry's Sunday show was taken up with the live broadcast from Emanuel AME in Charleston, the first Sunday service since the terrorist massacre last Wednesday. The crowds spilled out onto the street. And I know I shouldn't have been surprised, but as a white formerly-Catholic girl, it was still shocking to me to witness how this church and community that had been brutalized to horrific lengths carried out their Sunday worship. There was hurt and anger and sorrow, of course, but the church choir that was on the front steps, singing to the people on the sidewalk and in the street, were singing upbeat, joyful sounding songs, swinging their hips back and forth. And when the preacher spoke inside, he kept making the congregants laugh. He kept making me laugh! The call and response of that church this Sunday was so powerful but also so normal: it was what black churches have done to lift their people up for centuries.

Today, after a joyful morning of absorbing myself in as much happy Internet pride as I could after the Supreme Court declared gay marriage the law of the land, I sat down and watched President Obama deliver the eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney at an arena in Charleston, one of the nine slain during bible study last week, a man that Obama and his family knew personally. The speech was unreal. It almost felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, it felt so spiritual and righteous and true. He talked about Pinckney and he talked about racism--the real, insidious racism that poisons our country, that has poisoned our country from the beginning. He talked about God, and grace, and he talked about them a lot. The call and response that I had witnessed on Sunday continued, but it was more charged this time, a deep electricity pulsing through it, because this was the president of the United States. And he was taking. us. to. church.

And while I believe fiercely in the separation of church and state, while I believe those lines are still far too blurred in too many of our public schools and institutions today, at that moment, I wanted to go to church. I needed to go to church, something I didn't know until I started listening to Obama's sermon. The talk of grace and hope and resolve felt so healing, such a release, after all the anger and fear I've been bottling up since last Wednesday. The anger and fear won't go away, and shouldn't, but man, did going to church feel good. When he started singing Amazing Grace, I felt weak in the knees. It was the most unreal moment of the whole speech, but it was only because of all the words he had said before he got to that hymn, all the truths he had spoken that we've been needing to hear him say. He had preached so intensely that by the time he started singing those words, we were all there. We were there with him, and I hate that we had to get there because of this atrocious act of hate, but it's moments like these when you are there that you truly feel that hate can never win. And without those moments, we are all lost.

It wasn't my church. I was just sitting in my living room in my pajamas. But I was awfully glad I was able to be there.

-

It was not surprising to me, when flipping through news stations this morning, that Fox News had guests on that started talking about how the Supreme Court ruling today sets up a future war on religious freedom. That people who believe in the sanctity of one man, one woman are now somehow going to be persecuted, that somehow, they are not going to be able to live their lives freely.

This week I also read a book called Audacity, a fictionalized novel-in-verse about teenage labor union fighter Clara Lemlich in the early 20th century in New York City. In one poem, she talks about how the garment shop owners hired men to come to the picket line and tell all the Italian girls that the union leaders hated them, and the only reason they were really on strike was to get rid of them. The Italian girls went back to their workstations.
It is a tactic as old 
as the stars,
the poem read. 
divide 
and conquer.
The divisiveness that Fox News tries to cultivate is so transparent, so boring, and most of all, so demeaning to people who truly see and hear their God, who are truly people of faith. By saying that gay marriage is going to lead to a war on religious freedom, one assumes that religion is automatically against gay marriage. This is such a disservice to so many faithful and loving Christians today, to so many Jews, to Muslims and Buddhists and WhateverReligionYouWant. 


There is this perceived division in America that either you respect the Bible or you don't; that you either love the gays or you hate Jesus; that you are either red or blue. And I think so much of it is such a lie. I think people, in general, are so much smarter, so much braver than you would believe. 

Because Gene Robinson may be one of the gayest people I have ever witnessed. He is so gay. But goodness, does he love God. So much. And I think a lot of people are just like him.

You don't have to love God, of course! You don't have to believe in anything! But the possibility that you could, while also being gay or lesbian or gender-binary-smashing, that you could contain multitudes--why is that so hard to accept? In what world does containing multitudes make us weaker, not stronger?

-

I kept thinking during Limited Partnership that if I had so much more to learn about LGBT history, imagine what the general populace could learn about LGBT history! 

And a second after that, I thought, imagine if every non-black person knew the history of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina? The hatred and the strength that had already vibrated through those walls over the decades before a terrorist stepped into it last week? That, as Obama said today, it is a phoenix? That it has already risen from the ashes and it will again?

Imagine if these stories were told in history books. Imagine if students across the nation knew the name Harvey Milk as well as they knew Abraham Lincoln. If students knew the name Clementa Pinckney as well as Martin Luther King. If they knew about the transwomen that sparked a movement at Stonewall Inn; if they knew about the number of trans people that have been killed in 2015. (According to Wikipedia, at least 14.) If we all knew each other's history a little bit better, imagine what the world could be.

-

I hadn't been thinking about the Supreme Court decision that much lately. I knew it was coming, and because of the way recent history's been leaning, I hoped and suspected it would be good news. But I live and work in states where my marriage is already recognized; the federal government recognized it, too. This decision, in a way, wouldn't affect me at all.

But then when it happened today, and I thought about all those people in states that never would have passed gay marriage on their own--all those queers in Mississippi, in Alabama, in Oklahoma, in Georgia--and I thought about all those people fighting immigration battles like Tony and Richard that can be hinged on marriage, and all the people who don't get to sit by their love's deathbeds. 

And I thought about all the people who never got to see this. The dykes and trans warriors of Stonewall, the queens of the New York balls that bravely vogued their way to dignity, the fallen activists of ACT UP. Richard Adams. Jonathan Larson. Leslie Feinberg. All the icons that would have declared marriage a patriarchal piece of bullshit anyway, god bless them. And I was overcome.

And a few hours later, I thought of all the slaves, the activists, the allies, the regular beautiful people that never got to see a black president sing, simply and movingly, Amazing Grace from the pulpit of a black church to the entire United States of America. How surreal it would have seemed to them that this black president was only singing from this pulpit because black people were slaughtered in their church--again--but what an overwhelming moment this would still seem, what a teetering precipice of hope.

How lucky are we. What a responsibility we have; what a future to protect.

-

Our president quoted Clementa Pinckney in his eulogy today, and all of my thoughts from the past week or so were crystallized, affirmed.
"Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. 
We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

Imagine if, even just for a few days a year, we could all go to each other's churches, whether they're in the heart of Charleston or on Christopher Street.

And imagine if we just listened.

1 comment: