From Ashes to Rainbow
Over the 4th of July holiday, I was with a family member who lives in Washington, D.C. I asked her what it was like in our nation’s capital after the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality. One statement she made really touched me. After the ruling, the White House was lit with rainbow colors. Usually, I would just think this was a sweet gesture, another item to add to the list of stuff that endears the Obama’s to me. But this news actually took my breath away. Because 23 years ago images of the White House betrayed a very different relationship between the LGBT community and the nation.
Each week during the month of May, before our worship services, several of us sat down to watch a recent documentary called How to Survive a Plague. The film is largely footage of the ACT UP movement that began in 1987 right across the street from our church to pressure the government and medical establishment to put more money and resources into the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The suggestion to watch the film came from our Social Justice chair, Elyse Ambrose Minson, as a way to capitalize on the energy in New York City around the annual AIDS Walk. I knew of ACT UP, but I had never actually seen or heard the story of what they did. This film changed that. It was basically a chronicle of all of the heroes and heroines who worked tirelessly, risked everything, and often died while forcing the world to pay attention to a crisis that largely affected a population of people who were at that time denigrated and despised by mainstream society—gay men.
Each Sunday morning, we watched with appreciation as our spiritual ancestors held contentious strategy meetings, developed sophisticated medical research plans, and engaged in direct action campaigns from seizing the FDA to dying in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We discussed how scary that time was for the whole nation. And we acknowledged how the saints we were watching on screen were the very people who made it possible for some of us and our loved ones with HIV to be alive today.
I know I was brought to tears many of those weeks of discussion and viewing. But the day that brought all of us to tears was the day we watched the demonstrations that occurred in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 1992. It was the weekend that the AIDS quilt was displayed on the mall. ACT UP invited people to bring the ashes of their loved ones who had died of AIDS to participate in a political funeral, in which they marched to the White House and, through the objections of police, scattered the ashes of their children, partners, and friends onto the lawn of the president’s home insisting that President Bush must no longer be unaffected by the human crisis occurring on his watch.
This act of watching the grieving masses march to the home of the world’s most powerful person, demanding he use his power to save them and many many others from the fate of their friends was incredibly moving. Largely made up of young gay men and their advocates, these angels, despised by our world, were agents salvation. Their actions, their passion, and their grief pushed our nation to do the research that has saved the lives of so many in our community today.
So, yes, when the White House—which, at its perimeter, was once dusted in anger with the ashes of dead gay men—suddenly is found sporting the colors of LGBT liberation in celebration of national marriage equality, it takes my breath away.
So the questions we must answer in these days of victory are, How will we honor the sacrifices and the struggle of those who have come before us? and Whose angels will we be? Who of God’s children will survive and find salvation because of the work we have done?
The author of Hebrews, after listing many heroic spiritual ancestors, writes this, which sounds so right for this time:
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…