In 1980, I moved to San Francisco, living in a collective in an old Victorian in Haight-Ashbury. Sitting in the parlor one day, I saw our neighbor descending the staircase — a bearded man wearing a nun’s habit. I later learned he was “Sister Boom Boom” of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”
Launched in 1979, the Sisters devoted themselves to promoting diversity and human rights; their ministry to those on the edges has endured for decades. They were fierce AIDS activists. Their irreverent wit can be found at every Gay Pride Parade, often waving 6-foot dildos.
Sister Boom Boom was the first “out” gay man in my life. Less flamboyant LGBTQ people would follow.
Most people my age have lived at the cusp of gay rights. For us, discrimination, ignorance and the closet were “normal.” The Stonewall riots took place in New York City in 1969 and for years San Francisco was an LGBTQ sanctuary. But if San Francisco was the “City of Lights,” my hometown of Pendleton, Ore., was the “town of shadows” where gay people were invisible. Many of us simply pretended not to know, of course. There was the polite wink and a stare to an undoubtedly gay boy in my high school class. God knows how he survived.
If you are ready, LGBTQ people will come into your life. (This is my “Field of Dreams” notion of activism.) I was surprised when a college girlfriend “turned into” a lesbian, after being married and having a child. I felt a smug liberal pride when two colleagues who were “partners” invited our family to their Christmas party in the suburbs. I was heartbroken when I sat by the bedside of Neil, dying with AIDS, planning his memorial service. For decades, straight people and the LGBTQ community have engaged in a dance. LGBTQ people fought, dared or even gingerly opened a door into our lives. Straight people gingerly, sometimes hesitantly, learned the gift of welcome.
I’m not alone. Today most of us have been the straight confidant of a brother or a close friend. Straight allies begin as startled bystanders to a brave and out teacher or co-worker. Early on we blink, clear our throats and privately work our way through old prejudices and fears. But this has created the fertile soil for the Supreme Court’s remarkable ruling.
I wish I could say that the church welcomed all “children of God,” but the truth is that churches have all too often damaged LGBTQ people’s souls. The issues of LGBTQ ordination and marriage equality led to the most bitter fights in my ministry. For more than 40 years, denominations ranging from Methodists to Presbyterians to Episcopalians to Baptists have argued and split over the issue. When I began seminary in 1979, LGBTQ people could not be ordained as clergy or take leadership roles. Marriage equality was a distant dream. Every seminarian struggled ethically in responding to the charged question “Do you support the ordination of homosexual people?” Only a handful of churches would hire anyone who said “yes.”
Activists spoke of “person-ing” the issue. Change, they noted, would take place when people knew or met a real live LGBTQ person. This was true at Stone Church, my congregation in San Jose, Calif. The congregation had a beloved teacher and leader in “C.” Whatever people felt about “homosexuals” in general, everyone loved C in particular. In 1997, Stone Church overwhelmingly voted to engage in ecclesiastical disobedience, disregarding a church ruling that sough to block LGBTQ ordination. This activism was rooted in the congregation’s love for C.
Last Monday, after the Supreme Court announced its decision to end workplace discrimination, I read in The New York Times: “We’ve come to the point in this country where the lived reality of most Americans, and certainly most of the justices, is that they know, like, admire and probably even love someone who is gay,” said Roberta Kaplan, a prominent civil rights lawyer. “It takes that closeness for people to understand the dignity of the other.” It summarized our collective journey.
Neil, Eileen, Michael, Drew, Paul and Dana, Lorna and Holly, Karen … and Sister Boom Boom. I loved them before I truly knew them. I loved them after they made themselves fully known. And you? Who have you loved?
Cornel West has said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Last week’s Supreme Court decision reminds us that this is so.
The Rev. Rebecca Kuiken is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has pastored numerous churches around the country. She lives in Raleigh.