Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on June 27th, 2010. It was Pride Weekend in NYC and we were taking an honest look at the LGBT Civil Rights Movement and the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Happy Pride Weekend all! It feels like an odd thing to say, but we say it every year. Commemorating the 1969 weekend of riots started outside the Stonewall bar on June 27th-29th of that year, we return to a defiant consciousness entered through willful celebration in the face of oppression. We remember the drag kings and drag queens who faced brutal beatings and routine rapes by NY’s finest. We remember a time when Sodomy laws were still on the books everywhere; a time when we confused the word “sodomy” to be synonymous solely with homosexual practice rather than its original application to a much wider range of sexual acts that the vast majority of heterosexuals engaged in. A weekend when the heels literally came off, the windows of bars and stores caved in, and a chorus line of queerness staved the cops out. One bastion of reviled counter-cultural queerness struggling against the poster-boy for masculine authority dressed up in a blue-suited drag of its own. Happy Pride…
I remember a time in my early twenties, when I was serving on the board for a major suburban gay and lesbian advocacy group in NJ. The Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County or GAAMC, then at 1500 hundred members and the largest suburban group of its kind, was housed in the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. Dwarfing its host five times over, it was less than a decade away from being a relic of an age of gay culture that was evaporating before the face of the tension between even more local efforts and vastly more national organization. With electronic social media drawing us out of isolation all the while stripping us from a sense of proximate community.
In the mid-90s we said Gay and Lesbian; occasionally we said Lesbian and Gay. We did well to forget Bisexual. And we often didn’t know what we were saying when we said Transgender… when we said it at all. Many a gay man lamented all the Transfolk, or People of Drag, who easily gained the spotlights at annual parades. “Why can’t they just let people see us for how normal we are?” was sadly an all too often refrain among the shame-filled gay men desperately trying to fit in and satisfy their oppressor. They didn’t know, or they simply forgot, their history. The moment of Pride that set us free, was the sharp rebuttal, loudly given at Stonewall by the people who have still yet to fit in. The people that had nothing left to lose, taking action, and as it happened, managed to most readily benefit those of us Queer folk who managed to walk the line of hetero-normativity. The gays who were straight in appearance, or slightly effeminate or moderately butch. It’ll be ok for us. Ok enough to forget.
I remember those very frustrating conversations and the memory impressed upon me the need for the political title of Queer. It’s why you’re as likely to hear me identify as Queer as Gay. I say Queer when I remember. I say Gay when I forget.
That’s what Pride is about. It’s a socio-political celebration of remembering. It’s about coming to terms with our feelings of self-hate and shame. In a recent blog on the Huffington Post from June 24th, a fellow Union Alum, Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng writes, “I believe that sin is not just limited to pride or inordinate self-love. Rather, sin — defined as the way in which, despite our best intentions, we inevitably turn our backs on who God has created us to be — can also take the opposite form of inordinate self-hate or shame, something that many LGBT people experience from a very early age. In other words, sin is not just a matter of lifting oneself up too high (as in the case of Satan, the rebellious angels, or Adam and Eve), but it is also a matter of failing to lift oneself up high enough. Many LGBT people have been taught to hide in the shadows as a result of being taunted and tormented by our peers from an early age. We are constantly told that what we do is unnatural and that God hates us. Is it any wonder, then, that so many LGBT people suffer from a toxic degree of self-hate and shame?”[1] I hear Rev. Cheng’s words and I wonder about the pendulum swing. I believe this celebration is a response to the sinful pride inherent to hyper-masculinity (a really big word for too-much-macho as one congregant put it in worship today); the societal arrogance that is epitomized by the myth of the dominant male and ensconced by the submissive female. It is a ritualized act of self-healing through joy and self-humor. It is a freeing from the ties that bind; and it frees gay and straight alike, male and female. It questions the need for the binary and begs the option for “other.”
The mid-90s remind me of another challenge we faced as a nation and as a people. In 1993, we witnessed firsthand the actualization of the political might of the “Religious Right” in all its forms and names. They galvanized over the issue of gays in the military. I would say, “allowing gays in the military” as most people say, but that would imply we never allowed gays in the military. In reality, the broader gay community has always been present in the military; and yet the military has thrived. What has not happened, is the vocal admission of this fact. The policy that would become “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” helped our country admit the fact that gay and lesbian citizens serve their nation in this respect, even though the epitome of the masculine institution can’t validate their identity. In other words, despite the fact that we serve, and we serve well, we continue to pretend open homosexuality is a threat. The logic breaks down. But this great moral failure to integrate openly and affirmingly was never about logic.
When the issue first came up as a major campaign promise, many of us in the Queer community were happy for the attention, but wondered why this first? AIDS was raging unfettered, proper sexual education was invisible in most schools, marriage challenges were popping up in various states across the country, our youngest teens were facing violence and death – sometimes openly (which tragically continues to this day) and our Transgender community had no protections whatsoever in the work force. Why aim to be openly admitted to the military when so many from our older generation were vocal advocates in the peace movement of the 60s? Many of us on the ground didn’t understand the political trades and agreements being vetted behind the scenes that needed the unknown democratic candidate from Arkansas to get his hands committed to anything regarding queer rights before the gay fundraising machine would start turning for him. But Clinton’s promise of “It’s done” got that machine moving, and unexpectedly woke the Religious Right up in a huge way.
On the ground we didn’t all understand how massive the cultural changes and wars would be; the Christian evangelical movement really only gaining dominance in our country with folks like Falwell – came about in the 1970s. But by the 2000’s most Americans would mistakenly believe Fundamentalism of the Right was the bread and butter of what Christianity meant in the U.S. since its inception. If we looked closely, we’d remember than many of our founding fathers and several of our early presidents were in fact Unitarians. The women in the late 1800‘s that transformed the hospital and mental health systems in our country for the better, were largely Unitarian. The Social Gospel movement of the early 1900’s, the hallmark of Christian liberalism applied to societal change, now gets derided by Conservatives as Communism (at best) and a work of the Devil by some talking heads. The cultural changes were so dramatic that 200 years of Christian Liberalism would seem to evaporate overnight.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come to draw the line in our cultural sandbox. It was as if we were saying, “we know you’re out there, but not in my backyard.” In fact, that was exactly what was meant. This implicit message was what got all of us anti-establishment, feminist, peace advocates all crazy to get acknowledged by the greatest, most visible sign of the establishment we more often had struggled against. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally came to pass, rather than a program which demanded integration, we were shocked. The arguments that won out were lies that connected AIDS to Gays in such a way that suggested they were the same word; ignoring the fact that military screening for AIDS was widely toted as a complete success. The “selflessness” of military dedication as raised up and compared to a trumped up explication of gayness as its antithesis. The line of reasoning that won out stated that military cohesion would be threatened because gay men and women can’t think of anything beyond themselves. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” signified that the country believed that the Queer community was a disease that thought only for itself. I’ve been working through a book titled, “Unfriendly Fire” by Nathaniel Frank. It goes into elaborate details about all these points, and it’s very worth the read if you want to learn more.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being told that by your people and your government? Do you already hear that in some way? Many of us do who aren’t Queer. Poor Americans are told that every day. They’re lied to when we say they’re that way because they don’t work hard enough and they’re too lazy to care about making society better. Black men are lied to that they’re not smart enough to do well in school, and they belong in the prison industrial complex because they’re a threat to society. Our country believes immigrants are such a threat that we need to build walls along our borders (well, those borders that connect us to a country where the folks are not white, the other border apparently isn’t as dangerous.) We even rename immigrants as illegal and as alien. Imagine having your identity be known as Illegal. I do not mean to truncate all these issues, or suggest they’re all the same. But I sure do hear the same rhetoric levied against us all, and am only left to wonder what more do we all have in common?
Our uniqueness, our rich diversity of experience and expression are killed by these words. Our souls are left for dead, and stowed away out of sight in our closets and our prisons. In the Christian scripture, I remember a story that may be of use here in understanding what we’re doing to ourselves as a people. The Book of John writes (John 11: 32-44). Mary (not Jesus’ mother) had lost her brother, Lazarus, a few days past and was morning his death. She hears that Jesus is near and runs out to meet him.
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
…“Unbind him and let him go.” The story amazes me. I was raised always to hear it talked about as evidence of Jesus raising someone from the dead. But what’s the message? It talks about a man, Lazarus, who’s lying locked away in a cave with a rock blocking his escape. It talks about a man closeted away, with society having given up on him; all except his sister. Jesus had to come forth and tell Martha to take away the stone that made this cave this man’s prison. Jesus doesn’t say that he heals this man. Every other parable relates how he heals those who are ill. This one simply has Jesus say, “Lazarus, come out!” “Unbind him, and let him go.”
What queer words to use. His death isn’t of some ailment that needs to be cured. What’s killed Lazarus is the same thing that begs to keep him locked and closeted away in a cave of their own design. The disease is his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth… The disease is his face wrapped with cloth. The illness is with the people who can’t face to see Lazarus as he is. For me, Lazarus is the embodiment of every Queer person trapped alone in the darkness with few left to weep for them. Lazarus is anyone imprisoned by a society that prefers not to face who they are or what they embody. And weeping, Jesus stands on Lazarus’ side. “Come out! Unbind him and let him go.” …
In unwrapping of the ties that bind, in dissolving those societal constraints that make us dead, we come out of the closet; we come out of the cave. Once dead to the world, we are alive with the faith that knows our purpose here is not to shudder in some corner lamenting what the worldly powers think or fear of us. Our purpose on this earth is to live the life we are given and to do so unbound; to do so with the strips and ties shredding to pieces in our wake. The cry of Jesus is a voice that demands we live in community with one another, not regardless of our differences – but because of them. The Christian Right’s desire to equate Queerness with disease is tragically misguided. This story tells me that the illness lies in our desire to foment separation; it’s in the proclivity to create caves, to create closets, to seek to imprison the body or the soul.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” creates a broad closet. It creates and recreates all the fears and concerns it seeks to alleviate. If we choose to define Queer as negative, then of course it will be difficult to serve with Pride. If we fear that military personnel who are gay will be subject to extortion for their secrets, as is often cited, but we generate a policy that creates extreme repercussions for coming out, then our policies only serve to increase the threat we fear. The government and the military are audacious in their assertion that the Queer community is incapable of selflessness. On what grounds do they say this? On what grounds do we as a people countenance our government to say this?
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is antithetical to our religious principles and purposes as Unitarian Universalists. It denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person that we have covenanted to affirm and promote. There is no justice when soldiers who were once lauded with medals were discharged dishonorably for whom they love. It denies our religious call to seek to affirm and promote the acceptance of one another. It diminishes the democratic process pretending that the merits of some are less than the merits of others based solely upon their identity, not their actions or commitments or dedications. It obfuscates the interdependent connections between people who are oppressed, pitting various disempowered communities against one another – like every other oppressive system does. I ask again, on what grounds do we as a people countenance our government to say this?
Fortunately, I believe this policy is seeing its last days. The White House supports this change, the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee took serious steps at the end of May to change this. But learning from our past, the mid-1990s tell us that we can’t sit on our hands when it comes to building a world of equity and justice. Silence and inaction is the recipe for complicity. In a statement on May 27th, the White House said that now, “Department of Defense can complete that comprehensive review that will allow our military and their families the opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process.” I wonder what this will look like. I wonder will voices for separation and divisiveness be allowed once more to shape how we choose to live into community. I wonder if the voice for the Religious Left will finally clear its throat and speak with clarity, intelligence and heart. Help us to formulate our next steps and to walk that path the world so desperately needs us to walk.

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