John 1:1-18 Promiscuous Incarnation:
In the beginning were Desire and Longing:
Desire for ecstasy and connection, longing for the deepest of communions.
And Desire and Longing were with God.
And Desire and Longing were God.
Desire and Longing were with God in the beginning.
In fact, they were the animators, the prodders, the relentless whispers
which propelled the explosion of creativity:
stars and planets and the whole company of creation. These all came into being out
of that Desire and Longing and not one thing would have been without
the promise of ecstasy, connection and communion.
And then, as now, Desire and Longing were threatening to the forces of destruction,
dis-connection, dis-memberment and death.
But then, as now, these did not prevail and what came into being because of and through
Desire and Longing
Life, and Life abundant.
It was early September 2017 in the Upper Midwest of the United States. It was on Dakota land that had been stolen by settlers over two hundred years ago. It was in front of a predominantly white, suburban congregation which had engaged in study and work around the Doctrine of Discovery—that series of papal pronouncements which baptized genocide, chattel slavery, cultural destruction and wholesale stealing of land (among other things) and had been codified into US law.
It was in that time and that place that the lone protestor held the sign. “Homo sex is sin” it read. The white, settler, presumably-straight and presumably-cisgender man seemed to be seeking to menace the congregation as they entered their sanctuary for worship. His presence there with his anger and judgement and threatened violence was an embodiment of the ways in which his Christian ancestors had literally thrown the two-spirit/gender non-conforming/gay “savages” to the dogs when they first encountered First Nations peoples in this hemisphere. His presence there with his anger and judgement and threatened violence was an embodiment of the connection between the permission to commit genocide against indigenous peoples and the permission to destroy perceived sexual perversion. His presence there was a reminder that the forces of dis-connection, dis-memberment, destruction don’t discriminate.
As they walked into the sanctuary, several congregants talked amongst themselves about what to do. They had voted long ago to be welcoming and affirming of queer, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people. And they had lived up to their promises over the years. So they wondered how to engage this man and his sign. They made the explicit connection between the colonizing violence of indigenous genocide and the colonizing violence of homo-hating. But how might they witness to the Word/Desire/Longing become Flesh?
One teenager whose gender identity was still in process said to the pastor, “I want to go talk with him.” And as they walked toward him, they breathed in: In the beginning were Desire and Longing…connection and communion. Before they got all the way to where he stood, they paused and then spoke,“we just want you to know that we love you…”
His face did not change, his sign did not come down. He still glared and menaced.
But in that moment, Desire and Longing, connection and communion became flesh. And that teenage, genderqueer person was a witness and a testimony to the promise of life, and life abundant. They were not life themselves, but they pointed toward life. And their actions, their impulse pointed toward true communion.
That true communion, that ecstasy and connection which enlivens everyone, is coming into the world. S/he was in the world, and the world came into being through them; yet the world did not know them. S/he came to what was their own but their own people did not accept them. But to all who received them, who believed in their name, s/he gave the power to become the children of God, who were born, not of the forces of destruction and hatred, not of the impulse to harm, but of God.
And the Word/Desire/Longing became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen their radiance and we have felt their invitation, their sacred pull and tug toward God, their sometimes-inexplicable impulse toward one another. In this Incarnation, in this embodiment of Word/Desire/Longing, we have seen and felt this one who is Beloved of the Creator, like a child precious to a parent. (And the one who had come before them but was not them, testified and cried out, “This was s/he of whom I said, “S/he who was born after me but is a fuller expression of the Divine because they were present at the beginning.”) From this Incarnate One we have all received, passion upon passion, connection upon connection, blessing and grace upon blessing and grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; passion, connection, blessing, grace and the truth of communion came through Jesus the Christ, the Incarnate One. No one has ever seen God/Creator. It is God the precious child, born of God’s longing and desire, who is close to Creator’s heart, who has made Longing/Desire/God known to us.
Pride: The public manifestation of being out
Pride is the annually visible marker of a long-term shift in LGBT “strategy” of visibility and “coming out,” as it were. “Pride” began in varied places in 1970 as a commemoration of the Stonewall Uprisings of 1969 –a protest led by trans and other marginalized queer folks, many of them people of color. These first Pride events were very much in the tradition of the protests they celebrated.
One place commemorating Stonewall was Minneapolis: Jean-Nickolaus Tretter was a local amateur historian/activist who documented the movement over decades and whose collection formed the heart of the Jean-Nickolas Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. I have heard Jean talk about a small group, maybe a dozen people, marching through downtown in those early years, feeling – and being – very exposed: to be seen (as “coming out” required) was also to be exposed to potential abuse and violence (as activists knew to expect then).
Thus, Pride, early on, continued its history of protest. Since then – and mirroring changes in the place of Q+ folks in our society – Pride has undergone its transition over the decades: from protest march to parade to festival. Anyone who has been to the Pride festival in the 21st century would not find “protest” there.
That we now talk about the “Pride Festival” says a lot about the improved place of LGBT people in U.S. society. That the largest group of booths at Pride – in the aggregate – is likely the various corporations’ booths, says a lot about the overlap of capitalism and corporatism in our society: to be recognized as a “marketing niche” is a contemporary marker of acceptance.
Coming Out has worked.
That seems like a great rhetorical (and uplifting) place to end – yet, Rebecca originally implied in her request a personal reflection on Pride. So, I extend what I just wrote a little further.
It is all good that Q+ people’s place in society, though not yet secure and certainly uneven, if much improved over the darker days of our past. For many – mainly the old and the Marxists among us – the corporate focus of Pride is at best a rueful recognition of both “It Gets Better” – because, yes, for sure, it has – and “be careful what you wish for.” Capitalism and its corporate U.S. focus is not about cementing change and improving people’s lives: it is about making money for investors.
So, you can hear (if you wish, or get caught at the wrong brunch!) a long-standing argument between those who love the party atmosphere of today’s Pride Festivals, and those wholly uninterested in being marketed to, who regret the loss of activism that was the motivation for Pride. One need only look at the complex calling out of faux-corporate support for racial equity – or a “green future” – to understand why the evolution of Pride garners mixed reactions.
I was asked by Rebecca to give a reflection on Pride. But Pride is so personal to me… and I’m not the person who’d be good at GLBTQAI+ history/ herstory. Hmm What is Pride to me? Pride is such joy! But so different now from then. Corporate even! With all kinds of people, not just queer. I remember the days where it was both awe, and terror. Now it’s our joyful family holiday!
“Terror to joy…” Rebecca said. “That kind of fits. The others touch on the history some, how about you go with your coming out, how Pride changed for you?”
So here it is.
Born three years before Stonewall, I never heard of it until 20 years later. I was in college at the time. Growing up, I’d pretty much thought that gay people lived in San Fransisco, or NYC, not rural New York. I was about 12 or 13 when on a subway in New York City, I saw a woman with a button, “I like sober dykes.” “Dad, what’s a dyke?” I said. Fortunately, he answered in his matter-of-fact way, “That’s a woman who loves another woman the way others love men.” “Oh.” I tucked that away, but never considered it applying to me.
Fast forward to 1984, freshman year in college. I fell head-over-heels in love in a way I’d never experienced with a boyfriend, and she with me, but I was forbidden to ever tell a soul. We spoke in code, and I became an incredible actor. Not even our roommates had a clue. Remember those t-shirts, “I’m not gay, but my lover is?”Yeah, we were both the “not gay,” part. The break up a year later was soul crushingly devastating. And my silence – absolute. Odd the things you’ll do for love. Twenty years later I broke that silence when a dear friend to both of us, put it together and asked, but she’d had no idea at the time.
Anyhow, I took the whole situation as a one-off, and made no connection that I might be lesbian or bi. I dated this wonderful, cute, and gentle man, with gorgeous eyes, especially when he looked at me. He had upstanding values that would be great in any father or family. We were a ”cute campus couple.” And then I met Becky.
Becky had values clearly not similar to mine, but we became friends and she would play guitar and sing to me… and then she roped me into handing out stickers and literature for Pink Triangle Day, at a table on the main hallway of Runyan Hall, the campus center with the bookstore, the coffee shop, and the route to mailboxes. I was the “straight ally,” until that evening, when she surprise kissed me in a dark room, and ran off yelling, “I’m sorry!”out the door and across a field. I wasn’t sorry. The contrast between Becky and Rob was extreme. I cringed at her values, but clearly, my heart was racing again, in a way it didn’t with my wonderful boyfriend.
Yet, I was terribly disturbed. Dreams left me so tense and anxious my roommate, directed me to write whatever it was on paper and tear it up so I could feel more control over it. Outdoors, where no one could see, I wrote, “I am homosexual,” and in seconds tore it up in a zillion pieces.
I did the right thing and split up with Rob. He was probably the first person I came out to and he was actually relieved, “I thought something was wrong with me.” “No Rob, you’re wonderful.” I didn’t come out readily to anyone else though, as I felt that once I left the closet, it would be impossible to go back in. Becky was in a relationship (as she had been the whole time) so I had some time to figure this out, and where else to go, but the Bible. I wasn’t from a family that read the Bible a lot, or even attended church often, but looking at what it said was important to me. Fortunately, there was some support with that at the time, and I attended, in Runyan Hall again, (and possibly with Rev Rebecca even), a workshop on what the Bible says about homosexuality. The idea of looking deeper into stories for the bigger picture changed my Biblical understanding, not just related to those particular passages. What was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah really about? What about other passages? Why did some people focus on some parts of Leviticus and not others? Where were the lesbians, and what else wasn’t said, such as why, if homosexuality was so common among Romans of the time, did Jesus have so little to say about it?
In the spring of 1987, I turned 21, and came out to my parents. But I still wasn’t ready for others in the family to be told, so when I loaded the bus for DC in October, for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, I don’t recall who else was on that bus, but clearly recall my sorrow and anxiety, passing through Arlington without even a call to my Aunt and Uncle. That night, at a bar, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder, and I snaked with others in a slow moving chain with strangers hands on my hips and mine on shoulders singing, “We are family!”
The March was an incredible mass of humanity, more queer people than I could ever imagine! Awe inspiring, freeing, yet I was still terrified, both of the right wing protestors, and of the tv cameras. I kept to the middle so I wouldn’t be seen.
This fear of cameras became especially poignant a year later when I attended a tiny Richmond Pride fest at a small park. I was there with MCC church with a small collection of books they were selling, such as “the homosexual is my neighbor,” spread out along the roots of a tree. I worked as local EMT, and it was well known at the station that if our boss, Bob, learned that anyone was gay, we would be fired immediately.
I needed a date for the company Christmas Party. Ben, a dear friend and divorcee, who had worked there in the past, agreed to go with me. He was handsome and dressed it up. Ben was well respected, and we could see the boss’s eyes light up at our being a couple and the future possibilities.
When we got in the car at the end of the evening, Ben looked at me and said, “You look stunning in that. Let’s go show you off to where the ladies can see you,” and he drove the 40 minutes to Dayton area, to 1470.
Now if you look at your zoom screen for Rebecca, she’s probably smiling at this one. 1470 was the bar where Earlham College’s queer contingent headed on weekend nights to dance our hearts away, in an environment where we could cut loose and be ourselves. At 2 am we piled back into cars to head to campus. When I came to Minneapolis, I was fortunate to learn that I didn’t have to go to a bar to dance with queer folk, I could go to, Lez Be Gay and Dance, contra-dances. That’s where I met April. For me, it was love at first sight – or dance!
When we attended Lyndale, she assured me we could hold hands. That was incredible to me. We married at Lyndale in 1995, and Rebecca repeated the vows with us in 2013 for legal rights. Still though, married for years, partly by habit and yet aware of lingering risk, the two main places we hold hands in public are sitting in church, and at Pride, and we still drop that hold as we get further from the activities.
Carrying the Lyndale green banner with pink triangle on it at Pride was wonderful. There were not a ton of churches there back then. We marched as an independent group. And we had our own booth. It wasn’t that we had lots of activity, but as it was for me finding it reassuring to turn to the Bible when I came out, I found that seeing the row of the religious section grow, was hugely affirming to myself and other Pride attendees.
The first year I didn’t march in the Parade, was when I was pregnant with Keegan. April drove over early to get us a prime spot. The next year, he was in the parade. Pride is always a holiday for us, a celebration day starting with “Happy Pride!” One year Mom did the route in Audrey Benson’s spare wheelchair. We had friends who would return annually for Pride, staying at our home for the week, their son and Keegan fast friends.
Keegan marched yearly until his own travel interfered. Last night we had a zoom call with other friends who we used to eat lunch with on the grass at Loring Park.
Pride, oddly, has become more corporate over the years. It feels different, but there’s still much joy. Last year, April’s employer encouraged employees to volunteer there, and together, we were parade Marshals, keeping the crowd safe from passing floats, and flagging groups in as they started the route. As a result, we were in many photos, smiling with glee.
So Pride for me? From awe and terror to a fun filled family holiday. I’ll miss it this year. Thanks for letting me say something about it here. And
In my first few years of being out, about a decade ago, Pride was an opportunity for me to see other queer and gender variant people. And it was a deeply healing experience. I had felt like for so long that there was no place for me in the world. I had spent such a long time bracing against the thought that I wasn’t supposed to be here, and then all of a sudden this gap opened up and here were all of these people expressing themselves and living lives in ways that deeply resonated with me. In those years of initial coming out, it’s not too much to say that my reality transformed so I could see a future for myself.
I remember how I felt in New York City in 2011, when that state made gay marriage legal basically during Pride. It was an overwhelming, euphoric experience, another moment where it felt like a gap had opened in the fabric of the world and the streets and the people in them were suffused in love and possibility.
Now my emotional reaction to Pride celebrations is anger, and grief. I’m farther along in my process of reckoning with the past and the present- both my personal past and present, and the past and present of this country. One of the things that the United States does is erase its own history, so that those in power can feel absolved of their sins. To give voice to my own anger and to reclaim some of the power of Pride, I am going to (briefly) recount its history.
The first Pride celebration took place in 1970, on Christopher Street in New York, inspired by the Stonewall Uprising the year before. The Stonewall Uprising was a six-day street rebellion against police brutality, following a raid on the Stonewall Inn that involved the arrest of 13 people. The Stonewall Inn didn’t have a liquor license, because the city refused to issue liquor licenses to gay bars, leaving them to operate as illegal saloons. The Stonewall Inn was also known as a safer place for members of the queer community not welcome in other queer spaces. These were the people who led the Stonewall Uprising: Black and Brown transfemme people, queer youths without homes, and gender non-conforming people like butches and femme men.
After the Stonewall Uprising, the bar closed, and a coalition of revolutionary gay activists came together called the Gay Liberation Front. I didn’t know very much about the GLF and this was my favorite part of my research because I was happily surprised by how radical they were. Unlike, their predecessors in gay activism, the Mattachine Society or the Daughters of Bilitis, who only accepted white, gender-conforming gay men and women as members, the GLF openly called for a complete transformation of US society, saying that sexual liberation could not be achieved without removing social institutions that upheld capitalism, racism and sexism. Social institutions that the GLF wanted to abolish included heterosexual marriage and the bourgeois nuclear family. That’s the group of activists that organized the first Pride March and popularized coming out as a political strategy. I personally, am buoyed by this knowledge.
Despite the GLF’s voiced idealism, trans-activists of color Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson described being pushed to the sidelines of a white-centered, lesbian and gay-centered, queer movement. The GLF didn’t last very long because of internal division. It split up after 3 years.
Since 1970, Pride celebrations have developed in most major cities across the world. And each year these celebrations bring up at least two deep conflicts in US queer communities (I’ll only speak for what I perceive in the US here). Is the goal of gay activism liberation for all people, or is the goal of gay activism the acceptance of select queer people into the prevailing culture? And, are resourced, white, gay activists willing to put people of color and trans people at the center of our movements? The answer to these persistent questions year after year, from the largest, most resourced queer activist organizations, has been to fight for the acceptance of select queer people into the prevailing culture, and to decline to place people of color and trans people at the center of our movements.
And I have a lot of rage about that. I feel betrayed. Pride has evolved from an uprising to a march for rights, into a federally-sanctioned holiday (depending on who’s President). In doing so, it has transformed from a rebellion to a pressure-release valve that ultimately re-enforces the values of a white supremacist state. With the exception of a select few events and chosen family gatherings, Pride parties feel, to me, like an alcohol-soaked celebration of an aesthetic, rather than a venture in queer worldmaking.
I don’t want a Happy Pride, I want a happy life. I want an intersectional politic where queer rights are entwined in the liberation of other oppressed groups. I want violence against Black transwomen to end. I want an economic system that supports the majority of humanity and the natural world. I want to be my nonbinary gender without thinking about it, and for the people around me to see and understand me, without thinking about it.
I have lost faith in Pride as a holiday, but I have a lot of faith in queer community. We are well-practiced in reimagining the world to fit our needs. As we’re speaking there’s a Reclaim Pride March happening in downtown Minneapolis, whose manifesto is to center the voices of Black and trans people. This Pride, more so than with Pride’s past, I feel a sense of relief; queer people standing proud in the streets feels more like a revolution and less like a vacation. May the fabric of the world open up for that revolution, may we embody the change we seek.
 This is a chapter called Promiscuous Incarnation written by Rebecca Voelkel in the work, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization ed by Steven Heinrichs published by Orbis Books in 2019.