Sermon by Nicholas F. Benton
Delivered at the First Congregational Church, Washington D.C.
On Gay Pride Sunday, June 13, 2010
It’s a great honor for me to be here in this place speaking to you this afternoon on Capital Pride Sunday.
Ellen, your remarks were terrific and the same for Harry (Knox of the Human Rights Campaign—ed.), who preached the “Big Gay Sermon” here two weeks ago. I too have been involved in Pride activities over the course of the week, beginning on Friday night. A friend of mine, a young fellow named Joey from Falls Church, who I’d published a story about in my newspaper, was performing at the Town discothèque. His other name is Tatianna, and he was one of the final four in the Ru Paul Drag Race reality TV show. He was the headliner at Town on Friday night and put on a great show. I went and got his picture to put in my paper. We’re very proud of him.
Then last night I was in the Pride parade as many of us here were as well. I was not able to march with the First Congressional Church because I had my own entry for my mighty Falls Church News Press, Virginia’s most progressive newspaper. We’re gay-owned, and that would be me.
We had a great time and I was amazed at how many people were out there. It was the first time I’ve actually been in the parade. The turnout was phenomenal. Of course, now I’m a little sweaty because I have just walked up from the Pride Festival. I was up early setting up our booth down at the festival that’s going on right now. Again, the First Congressional Church is down there too, but I haven’t had a chance to greet our people there yet. The crowds were starting to get big while I was there, got myself set up and then walked over here.
I can’t stress too much what an experience the Pride festival is. If you get a chance, go down there. It will go until five o’clock this afternoon. It never ceases to amaze me: Pride festivals are unique in that a lot of gay community gathering places, clubs and so forth, cater to special groups of people – older, younger, male, female, racially prominent, and so forth. But, at Pride, everybody’s there, they’re all there, big people, little people, people of all ages all in an environment where they appreciate each other. It’s a very unique and terrific thing. You see all these spirits, they all walk around with their carrying cases, their bodies, not only celebrating the day and the great experience they are having, but also looking obviously for connectiveness, one of the things I think is a most prized value that people have.
I am especially heartened when I see young people and think to myself, “You know, not just when I and my friends, our small group in Berkeley, Calif. were co-founding the Gay Liberation Front there and facing a pretty hostile world in the context of doing that, but earlier when I was going to high school, you saw the kids who were out there today who were then the outcasts and steeped in self-hatred. Now, they’re very happy and outgoing and able to be themselves, coming from everywhere.”
I’ve seen already in the short time I was there at Pride today, the distances some of these young people have come to be in this celebration, and to dress funky and everything else, (Showing off a rainbow colored necklace I am wearing—ed.) This was five bucks by the way! When I was in high school, these kids were marginalized. These were the kids nobody talked to. These were the ones who felt really bad about themselves and, still, in many parts of the country and the world, this is still the case for a lot of kids, less so thanks to the Internet and all of that, but also very much because of Pride.
Pride is not only an occasion for them to get together, but for all of us to get together and celebrate. It sends a message out to the world to people who are in places where they’re faced with being subjected to exorcisms and other things designed get rid of their tendencies. It is a great experience. I can’t say enough about its value to everyone.
Now, for the story from today’s New Testament passage, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. I think on so many different levels, it is really germane to what we’re experiencing now.
My New Testament theology professor when I was in graduate theological seminary, asked me a question, which has haunted me my entire life that I’ve often repeated. He came up to me after class one day and asked, “What do you think Lazarus did after he was raised from the dead? What did he do? Did he go back to picking dates or doing what he was doing before? He had been brought back from death to life. What did he do from then forward?” Of course, I didn’t know. Did he want to just go back to the way he was? Well, the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead has great significance to me, as a gay person in three ways:
One is the personal transformation from “death to life” as you might say, of “coming out.” It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it for themselves what that is like and how it changes one’s life. I’ve been in and out and in and out of the closet. I’ve known what it is like to be in the closet; I’ve known what it is like to be out of the closet and back in and back out. I hope I don’t go back in.
A person is a gay person whether or not they are in and out of the closet, no matter how much they deny it, no matter how many exorcisms they go through. They’re gay or lesbian or LGBT, or however you want to say it. (I’ll predominantly say gay, because if I say LGBT too many times too fast, I get all tongue-tied).
When you are in the closet, you are a man or a woman without a country because you’re living in the predominant society, you’re building your friendships and networks and so forth on a secret. You know all these people don’t know you’re in this position. So you’re never quite feeling truly among them because you know that when your secret spills out, then everything could change. You don’t know who would ostracize you, beat you up or cease to be your friend.
Also, when you’re in the closet, you’re not fulfilling your true role. You don’t feel a true sense of connectivity with your work and associates. The sense of alienation is something that too many gay people learn to live with often for many, many years. But when someone is touched in a manner to “come out,” the sense of personal integrity, the sense of joy that is associated with that, the sense for the capacity for connectivity – authentic connectivity – with people, is transformed. It’s just such an amazing thing. I recommend it!
The second level on which the Lazarus thing has meaning is in terms of equal rights. With what’s going on now, we’re winning this fight. It’s only a matter of time that the last class of people in our society who are disenfranchised from equal justice under the law will obtain that. It’s simply a matter of time. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to continue to be considerable ongoing prejudice and so forth with regard to that, but it’s going to happen. I think that’s a great thing and I think that the feeling of enfranchisement and everything I’ve said up to this point about reaching out to people and having the world accept and become open and prideful by having equal justice under the law, written into the law, is going to have an enormous and amazing impact.
The third level about Lazarus that I want to touch on which I will mention briefly, has to do with what the gay world has been through since a decade following the time I was in on the founding of the Gay Liberation Movement in the early 1970’s, from 1981 until at least the middle of the last decade, a 15-year time span, which I call the AIDS Dark Age. It’s something a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge or talk about.
I’m not a survivor of the AIDS Dark Age (I was introduced for my sermon this way–ed.), we all are survivors of the AIDS Dark Age. Everybody who’s here, who’s not dead, survived it. And if you were not alive during that time, the movement that persisted through that period of time, the natural proliferating of gay people has continued. God continues to pump gay people out routinely. So the question is: What impact did that era have on the sensibilities of the gay world, our objectives, our way of looking at things? In fact, we could say there’s a continuing suffering of post-traumatic stress syndrome from that era. It is hard to describe how horrible that time period was. It was when I and everybody around me lived not knowing whether or not the next time we developed a cough or a sniffle, or something like that, would represent a death sentence.
I don’t want to go to great depths about how people came down with AIDS after being infected with the HIV virus, but it was a horrible thing. It involved an incredible amount of uncertainty, an incredible amount of people dying, young people dying around you and suffering terribly and suffering alienation, as well, as in many cases, their families would turn their backs on them because they were gay and ill and dying. They were gay and had no one to comfort them. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience and it lasted from about 1981 until about 1996, when Time magazine gave the Man of the Year award to Dr. Ho for having developed a means by which HIV-infected people could survive and live, and that’s kind of what we’ve been living with ever since.
I was on a panel last summer and recognized that a lot of young people on this panel had completely brushed off the concern about HIV infection, which startled me. It was a symptom of their youth, surely, but they felt that because a long-term cure is on the horizon, they didn’t need to worry about protection. And all I can say is that is a grievous problem. We need to be talking more about that AIDS Dark Age if only to get over our symptoms of post-traumatic stress, because I think that post-traumatic stress has created a tremendous impulse within the movement to assimilate.
It’s a typical symptom of post- traumatic stress. You simply want to fit in and don’t want to make a loud noise or anything to disrupt, anything to turn anybody against you. Not that there’s anything wrong with the struggle for equal rights and everything like that, but, you know, I’m not so interested in joining the military so I can go over and shoot somebody in Afghanistan. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” getting rid of it, is an absolute necessary thing to do. On that whole subject, we had great arguments and debates back in the day during the founding of Gay Liberation, and the argument was assimilation versus transformation. Is it our desire to simply, as a gay people, to assimilate, or is it our role to transform society by virtue of being gay people, to have a transformative effect on society? I argued for the latter point. In a climate of social upheaval, the question arises anew, What does it mean to be gay? Does it simply mean an attraction to different anatomical body parts than others? Or, is there something on a more fundamental level?
I would argue that actually the sexual orientation component of being gay is almost not a by-product; it is part of a bigger part of what it means to be a gay person born into the world as a “little different drummer boy” or girl. In the thousands of gay people that I have known and I have had conversations with over the years (I haven’t had sex with all of them but I mean conversations), I’ve seen certain common threads. I have listed a few down here of what I’ve learned from my gay and lesbian friends. As children, there’s a special sense of empathy, and I see that as a certain kind of common thing, a sense and sensibility towards women who are being oppressed, women and children and elderly people. You see that in the gay world, in the culture of the gay world, in the regard for women who are oppressed and those who fight back or resist, the Bea Arthur’s of the world, if you will, or Lady Gaga or Bette Midler, or any of those who are icons in the gay world, are people for whom there is a natural affinity. It is not something put on, it’s a natural tendency to be attracted to that kind of personality, not because you want to copy them or emulate them or anything else, but you have empathy towards them and what they represent. It’s a very natural thing.
I think there’s a sense of being different in some way that so many people talk about, and you don’t even know what it is that makes you feel different. There’s a sense of having a kind of early-on childhood creative impulse that may be towards fashion, or in my case, it may be towards publishing my first newspaper when I was seven years old. Many different gay people have something like this that they can sense about themselves.
In the case of my newspaper, it was very much the case for me; we were a fairly dysfunctional household. My father was an absent father and a very arbitrary cruel guy from time to time (much better now that he’s in Heaven). But, he made things pretty rough on my mom and us kids. My mom worked so hard to create harmony for us. I identified with that totally, and produced many newspapers for my household, as part and parcel of enhancing that harmony. When I tried to sell them up and down the street, my folks weren’t too pleased, but it’s one of those things, a creative event, a spiritual event.
I’ve talked to gay people over the years and there is a very natural spirituality. I’ve had it and have it, and I have many many Facebook friends because of the work I do. But among especially young gays, in the line on where it says “religion,” unfortunately, almost none of them say, “Christian”. None. Most will put “spiritual in somke kind of way,” “Wiccan” is popular, a “white magic faith.” But there is a spirituality that is reflected there that people try to express.
Not going into great depths, but my role model, my hero as a gay person, more and more so, is Tennessee Williams, the playwright. I’ve read his memoirs, which I commend to all of you, his diaries, which are this (three inches—ed.) thick. Tennessee Williams had a unique role of being an openly gay person at a time when it was not acceptable to be that at all. There were certain enclaves where people could be like that. He and his friend Christopher Isherwood, who was another famous writer, found places like Provincetown, Key West, New Orleans, and other places to live their lives in an openly gay way, being very actively gay people, with their relationships and their ups and downs that you can read about in the diaries or memoirs, where they are very candid.
In the case of Tennessee Williams, somebody who is openly gay, was absolutely committed, despite all of his problems which people heard about, to his creative work. This man would get up and to his studio and work all morning long on his art. In everything about him, everything about his art, from “Streetcar Named Desire” and the role of Blanche, he had a terrific empathy. In his personal life, it was toward his sister who had been lobotomized, and toward his grandfather, who even in Williams’ most active Playboy-type period in life he had in Key West, had come to live with him to care for him.
He had a belief in God, a spiritual belief, not an organized religion belief in any way. What he would do with his writing, and what many of his plays talked about, being incredibly honest, painfully honest plays, contributed to social change in the period in which he wrote, especially the ‘50’s leading all the way up to the tumultuous ‘60’s. He was very aware, that his characterization of women and minorities in the South in his plays contributed to performances on college campuses in the North and everywhere else to the rise of the civil rights movement.
He was conscious about that and did it on purpose. He wrote about the inequities between the rich and the poor, about the inequities between normal people and mentally ill people. His play “Suddenly Last Summer,” turned into a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, contributed almost single-handedly to ending the practice of lobotomies in the United States. It’s about his sister, and it’s about that practice and the cruelty of that practice. Right about the same time that play turned into a movie they stopped doing it.
I will just say about him, as my role model, that one thing, one quote that I will always refer to when it comes to him. He sayid, “How sad a thing for an artist to abandon his art, I think it is much sadder than death.” Art was the basis of his identity. That’s how he was as a person.
He happened to die in the early 1980’s, an unexpected death. His friend, Christopher Isherwood, who was responsible for “Cabaret” and a number of important works and also had voluminous diaries, which are fascinating to read, also died in the mid-1980’s of prostate cancer. He didn’t die of AIDS. These two great giants, these two great artists, these two great role models of gay people died, as a whole generation of gay people was passing away because of the AIDS epidemic.
Sara Shulman, who is a poet in New York City, asks what the impact has been, in New York, of the fact, that in New York itself, in Manhattan, in the 1980’s, 80,000 predominantly male, young males, the most creative people in the nation, died, of AIDS. They died prematurely, died before they were able to reach their full maturity and potential as artists and contribute to our society. What was the impact of that on New York? What was the impact of that on the nation? I think that is very profound.
I was just reading Richard Florida’s latest book. You may have heard of him. He is responsible for The Rise of the Creative Class. He actually invented the term,creative class. He’s saying this is the new rising class in America, which is going to sweep us forward into the future and that it includes gays and lesbians. He identifies gay and lesbian as the people who play terrifically important part in the creative class. His new book is called The Great Reset . It’s about the economic crisis in 2008 and how we’re going to proceed differently going forward. He quotes a Business Week chief economist who has enormous amounts of evidence, persuasive data, showing that over the course of the past decade, it was a lost decade for both productivity and innovation. It was when America should have been surging forward with data and innovation and productivity to grow our economy, grow our society. But it had, in fact, the opposite effect. Rather than an era of rapid innovation, this has been an era of innovation interrupted. Interrupted by what? What? He does go on to say, of course, that it had a direct connection to the circumstances, along with a lot of chicanery and crookedness, that led to the Crash of 2008. The underpinnings of our society, the underpinnings of the creative impulse of our society were weakened over the last decade, not strengthened.
I contend that that is a by-product of the ‘80’s epidemic – a by-product of what happens when gay people are wiped out by AIDS. I would say that not only the meltdown in the economy in 2008 had something to do with that, but the political landscape of the nation in the last decade, from 2000 on at least, probably had something to do with that, too. We had a whole generation of gay people who were wiped out, not around to be role models for the young, not around to develop their full mature capabilities as artists and creative innovators and people who are in all facets of society in technology as well as the arts. By their absence the world took a big turn backwards from about 2000, and that has been documented by this Business Week guy’s research.
So, in conclusion, I just want to say to LGBT people, we are going to get our equality. The Fourteenth Amendment is going to apply. It’s a great thing that must come to pass and it will be achieved.
But, for me, we’re not really free until until our sensibilities are, as the people we are, who may not be likeable to predominant society. We know right wingers may be right in their fear of us, from the standpoint of their values and the standpoint they have. They’re scared about what we can do. We’re going to turn this into a better world, which is more equitable, and which has better economic justice and so forth.
And for me, it’s not until peace and economic justice are achieved with the assistance and aid from the indispensable role of LGBT people, achieved globally so that not until the five-sixths of humanity are made free from going to bed every night hungry, but will have the nutrition, housing and education to build a world of peace for us all, will we achieve our true liberation as a people. So, that’s God’s call to all of us, in that gay people, by being gay people, have a special God-given role within the totality of humanity, to bring God’s kingdom to Earth.