History

What Would Jesus Do: The 90th Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every year we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of the greatest leaders in American history – for his role in the civil rights movement. As a young African American woman, I admire him greatly and not just for his social activism, but also for how he used religion to advocate for peace, especially during a time when it would have been easy to forsake God altogether.

Source:  The White House

I recently spoke with Sarah Azaransky, author of This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement and assistant professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. We discussed how Dr. King used religion as a platform to transform the American social landscape and how he relied on different religious teachings to build a worldwide connection among people of different backgrounds.

I consider myself a devout Catholic – one who prays frequently, attends mass every Sunday and believes that yes, there is life after death. I understand religion, especially the Catholic Church, with its misdeeds and missteps, can alienate even the most faithful followers. However, I also believe part of what makes religion – not just Catholicism – worthwhile is that when used to uplift and not condemn, it has the ability to make us treat each other the way we want to be treated – regardless of race or social class.

It’s no secret that Dr. King was inspired by Gandhi as he and his wife, Coretta, traveled to India to study the activist’s philosophy in 1959. Moreover, Dr. King wanted to see how he, a Christian, could learn from other non-Christian traditions.

“It’s what we call inter-religious receptivity,” Sarah tells me. “That takes a special kind of humility and modesty. So when we think about the role religion can play in movements today, it’s about learning critical inter-religious engagement that takes religious differences seriously and helps us learn from other people.”

Source:  NBC

Source: NBC

“It has to involve that critical attention to other religious traditions and for Christians especially, for us to recognize Christian privilege. We’ve been at war for almost 20 years with countries that are majority Muslim. What does that mean?”

When we think about religion working in social movements today, the solution is recognizing traditional Christian-focused power dynamics and uncovering ways to shift the power with non-Christian religions. This was central to Dr. King’s success in intertwining religion with social advocacy.

In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King cites Jewish and Christian theologians as a means to fight back against the injustice he faced at the hands of people using religion to propagate separation, not inclusion. He says:

“Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation.”

Source:  MoMA

Source: MoMA

Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

“In this moment, he’s using the very best of what he knows and showing it in practice by willing to be imprisoned and saying ‘you clergy, you white Americans, you claim to have the authority of the law and the authority of religious traditions, and I’m telling you that not only do I know them as well as you do but more importantly, they are my traditions too, and I understand them better than you do because I am showing you how they work,’” Sarah says.

“The Letter From a Birmingham Jail is the perfect example of his career, showing Americans that segregation is not only unconstitutional but morally wrong as well,” she adds. 

In light of years-long sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, I question how people asserting so-called Christian beliefs can commit vile acts, while also claiming to practice His teachings. I understand that humankind is not without sin or fault, but using God as a means to justify despicable behavior will forever be one of the greatest tragedies of the Church. However, the same juxtaposition occurred with slavery and the civil rights movement, where traditional religion was used to justify inequality.

And as more and more people leave behind religion altogether, the question becomes, at what point do we know when to claim the teachings within the tradition versus when to leave the tradition. But there’s another option, one Dr. King chose, and that’s making new traditions so religion can stake its claim as a healer and unifier because, as Dr. King says in a 1959 speech, the “worldwide struggle” doesn’t apply to one group of people.

And in a real sense what we are trying to do in the South and in the United States is a part of this worldwide struggle for freedom and human dignity. Our struggle is not an isolated struggle; it is not a detached struggle, but it is a part of 1959 the worldwide revolution for freedom and justice.”

“We are not sitting here detached, as I said, but we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. So we are concerned about what is happening in Africa and what is happening in Asia because we are a part of this whole movement.”

“And we want Mr. Mboya to know, as he prepares to go back to Africa, that we go back with him in spirit and with our moral support and even with our financial support. Certainly injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And so long as problems exist in Africa, or in Asia, or in any section of the United States, we must be concerned about it.”

Then and now, Jesus would agree.

Cover image by George Conklin

The History and Importance of National Coming Out Day

October 11th, 2018, will mark the 30th Anniversary of National Coming Out Day

National Coming Out Day originated when some members of the LGBTQIA+ community decided to respond to the challenges of the time. Its purpose was to help heterosexual people realize that they likely knew someone who was gay or lesbian, as well as to instill pride in the gay and lesbian communities. It brought together many things that, in the 1980’s, desperately needed to be addressed: personal acceptance, public awareness, positive mental and physical health, kinship, and unity.

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In modern times, National Coming Out Day (NCOD), is a day of both self-reflection and festivities. It’s an opportunity for people who have already come out tell their stories, for people who have been wanting to come out to take that first difficult step, and for celebrating how far the LGBTQIA+ community has come.

Thanks in part to the hard work of Jean O’Leary and Robert Eichberg, NCOD is considered by some to be almost unnecessary. So many are out and proud, getting married, marching in pride parades, that it can seem like overkill to have a day dedicated to coming out. But acknowledging the obstacles the community has overcome and honoring those who faced seemingly insurmountable odds, is also an essential part of National Coming Out Day. Being aware of our history and recognizing the challenges that were overcome, helps ensure that we do not take equal rights for granted.

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History

The 80’s were a particularly challenging time, with anti-gay legislation being passed all over the country, and HIV/AIDS escalating from a few isolated cases within the gay and needle-using population, to a pandemic affecting the entire world. People who came out in the 80’s were likely to lose their jobs, their homes, their friends, and their family. A Gallup poll in 1988 showed that 57% of Americans thought “gay or lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be illegal.” During this time, there was a persistent belief that HIV/AIDS was the fault of gay men. Early in the findings of the disease, the media called it GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. Despite scientists establishing early on that the disease was not limited to the gay population, that belief that had already cemented itself in the public consciousness.

Many citizens took their lead from then-President Ronald Regan, who chose to remain silent on the HIV/AIDS crisis. While the medical community was aware of the disease in 1981, it would take Reagan until 1985 to even speak the words “HIV” and “AIDS” in a public setting. Famously, he and his wife Nancy shunned their longtime friend, the beloved celebrity actor Rock Hudson, when he was simultaneously outed and dying from AIDS.

Founders

Jean O’Leary wisely stated, “Our invisibility is the essence of our oppression. And until we eliminate that invisibility, people are going to be able to perpetuate the lies and myths about gay people.” Helping the straight population recognize that gays and lesbians were also relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors, musicians, actors, actresses, and celebrities, reduced the ignorance and “fear of the other” that was so prevalent in the during this time.

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Within the community, being treated with contempt, unsurprisingly resulted in anger. But O’Leary and Eichberg believed that broadcasting a message of fury and frustration, while gratifying in the short-term, would not be the most effective way to gain straight allies. And so they decided to have a day of ending the silence, while celebrating nontraditional sexual identities. They were confident that if your average heterosexual person witnessed people they knew declaring, “I am a lesbian” or “I am gay,” that they would stop fearing the movement and start seeing how it affected them on a more personal level. Polls conducted since have borne this out, and it’s part of the reason why National Coming Out Day celebrations are still popular.

A leader of the LGBTQIA+ movement, Jean O’Leary was frequently in the public eye. She came out of the closet in her early 20’s and then founded the Lesbian Feminist Liberation organization. It was one of the first organizations to focus on intersectionality between lesbians and feminists. She spent 8 years as an executive member of the Democratic National Committee. O’Leary was also an executive member of the National Gay Task Force (known today as the National LGBTQ Task Force), a nonprofit advocacy group which focuses on advancing equality for LGBTQIA+ people in the United States. During the time that she and Eichberg were working on National Coming Out Day, she was also heavily involved in the work of the National Gay Rights Advocates, a law firm which sought to advance the goals and needs of the gay and lesbian communities.

Robert Eichberg was a psychologist and a writer, who founded The Experience, a course in coming out to friends and family. He also established a political action committee which worked towards lesbian and gay equality. He once stated, “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.” His book, Coming Out: An Act of Love, was considered a vital resource in the 90’s, for both LGBTQIA+ people and their straight allies. Tragically, at the age of 50, AIDS claimed his life.

Science has confirmed what O’Leary and Eichberg long believed. The ability to own your sexual identity without criticism or bullying by those around you, supports positive mental health. Taking pride in being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is a useful (if not always possible) step for those wishing to live authentically.

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Today

While the LGBTQIA+ population is still not universally accepted in the United States, we have overcome much of the mistreatment that characterized the last century. Marriage is now federally legal. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is no longer the military’s policy. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Act allows the Department of Justice to give aid to states in cases of hate crimes.

We have out and proud politicians, athletes, musicians, ministers, artists, actors, actresses, and military personnel.

Recently, however, with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and a majority- republican congress, there have been setbacks. Trump has fought hard to stop transgendered people from serving in the military, and while his efforts have been consistently shot down by the federal courts, he continues to attack. Earlier this year he ended protections for transgender criminals, and now we have trans women being housed with men and trans men being housed with women. Only a week ago, the State Department stopped granting visas to the same-sex partners of foreign diplomats and UN employees’, unless they are legally married in their home country — regardless of whether or not that country allows same-sex marriage.

While all of this can be discouraging, it is also important to remember how far we have come. From the horrors of the concentration camps, to the Stonewall Riots, from HIV/AIDS to hate crimes, we have endured much. Joan O’Leary and Robert Eichberg faced incredible odds but their hard work and dedication brought us to the point where we can start to pose the question: Do We Still Need NCOD? All of those who have come out of the closet before us, all of those who will come out, and all of our allies, are brave and dedicated people. The measures of equality that we have now were brought about through activism and political dissent, and we must continue to persevere. One step you can take today is to make sure you are registered to vote. Another way to effect change is by joining up with LGBTQIA+ organizations — online or in person. If you are short on time, a monetary donation to the Human Rights CoalitionPFLAGthe Gay-Straight Alliance, or O’Leary’s organization — the National LGBTQ Task Force, are all possibilities.

If you want to participate in National Coming Out Day on Thursday, there is a list below of free events happening in major metropolitan areas. If you aren’t able to attend one of these, letting the people in your life know that you are LGBTQIA+ or an ally, is just as powerful*.

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New York City:

Los Angeles:

Chicago:

Washington DC:

Philadelphia:

Phoenix:

San Antonio:

“Openness may not eliminate prejudice, but it’s a good place to start.”

– Jason Collins, First Openly Gay Player in American Sports


*Please do not come out if it could be dangerous for you. No one is obligated to come out, and you know best what the consequences will be if and when you do. Remember, you can come out anytime. If that means this Thursday, ten years from now, or never, it is your decision to make. National Coming Out Day is there to give you an opportunity, not to shame you into doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re feeling unsure, please see these resources from the Human Rights Campaign:

Pride Month: A Look at the History of the LGBTQ Community

Rainbow flags flap in the breeze, a huge crowd of celebrators milling about underneath them. It's a typical weekend in June, and Pride events are in full swing around the globe. The people who come to celebrate have one thing in common with each other. They are either in, or supportive of, the LGBT community.

If you're not familiar with the term, LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. It is used to describe any person whose sexuality falls outside what most people consider to be norm. These events are festive and unique now, but their past is commemorative of a darker time in the community's history. June is considered Pride month in memory of the Stonewall Riots that took place that month in 1969. 

50 years ago, the world had a very different view of homosexuals. Lesbians, Gays, and others in the community were treated very poorly by the rest of the world. There were very few places that homosexuals could mingle without being attacked for their orientation. Most bars and clubs outright refused same sex couples. The only safe places to meet were at specific bars, which were regularly raided by the police. People were arrested, and the bar fined on a regular basis. When a police department raided yet another gay club, called the Stonewall Inn, it resulted in gay people rioting instead of just another crack down. The riots were violent, and spread much farther than the area just outside the Stonewall Inn. Riots started all over the map, in protest to the treatment of the LGBTQ community by police, and other people. 

When the violence died down, that might have been the end of it if it hadn't been for a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard. She organized the very first Pride Parade, The Christopher Street Liberation Day March. A year later, she organized another march on the anniversary of the first one. It was the very beginning of Pride Month, and a wonderful way to turn a violent and stormy start into a productive new beginning.

Source:  CNN

Source: CNN

Today, Pride Month draws attention to the inequality still present in today's modern society. Currently 74 countries completely outlaw LGBTQ relationships, and it is punishable by death in 12 of them. Even inside of some of the most developed countries in the world, homophobia can prevent members of the LGBTQ community from getting good jobs, or in some cases, even getting the medical treatment they need.

Many LGBTQ people find themselves harassed, or their medical claims denied, simply for their sexual orientation. In a situation such as HIV or AIDS, the denial of vital medications isn't just annoying or inconvenient, it can mean the death of the patient. Unfortunately, this kind of inequity is still going on today, inside the US.

Transgenders suffer in particular from doctors who refuse to treat them because of their chosen gender, or worse, wind up sexually assaulted  during their attempts to get health care. Fear of discrimination can prevent the LGBTQ community from attempting to get health care at all, which can wind up deadly if the condition they are seeking treatment for is serious.

Source:  CNN

Source: CNN

These issues are woven into the very fabric of nearly every nation. Events such as pride parades and festivals not only give people in the LGBTQ community a chance to express themselves in a safe atmosphere, they draw much needed attention to the neglect and abuse of the community as a whole.

Thankfully, events like these have already come a long way to helping the community gain equal footing with other sexual orientations. In 2016, the United States federal government ruled it unconstitutional to refuse same sex marriages, making it legal in all 50 states. Before this time, same sex marriages were up to the individual states, putting marriage out of reach for many long term partners. That same year, then President Obama declared Stonewall Inn, where the gay rights movement officially began, a national monument. 

Currently, gay marriage is only legal in 26 countries, and legalization only started 18 years ago, with the Netherlands in 2000. Australia is the most recent country to do so in 2017. Compared to the huge number of countries in the world, the privilege of being able to marry whom you love is relatively rare around the globe.

There is still a long way to go before the LGBTQ community can truly be equal with traditional partnerships. Progress is fragile, and can go backwards as easily as it goes forward. President Trump recently endorsed a recommendation that would ban transgenders severing openly in the military. This in stark contrast to President Obama, who repealed the original ban. 

Currently, President Trumps ban is not in effect due to court challenges, but illustrates the issues of today very well. Without continuing the fight and keeping gay rights in the forefront of everyone's mind, these issues will continue to plague the LGBTQ community.

Despite the challenges they face every day, the LGBTQ community is still alive and strong, and these festivals are a testament to progress. While a parade or festival may seem like an odd way to bring a bout social justice, it helps bring important light to what is going on in the community. It gives people a chance to think about why it is okay for one NFL player to kiss his girlfriend on television—but not okay for another to kiss his boyfriend in the same fashion.

These festivals give people of the LGBTQ community a chance to show themselves safely, and to give people a chance to see they are very real and very normal. With more support being gained through these festivals, they can change the world, and make it better for everyone, one rainbow flag at a time.