The Raleigh Rant

Personal Reflections on Stonewall and LGBT Rights

Stonewall Was a Riot

The celebrations of 50 years after Stonewall in New York are permutating the posture of New York as the center of the universe. It is claimed that is where the LGBT movement began. Yes, it probably was the first large LGBT riot against the police, but it was not the first movement in the nation. There were a number of small organizations scattered around the country, some of which had more success than others. The Advocate, based in Los Angles, started national publication in 1969.

Yes, there were problems even in the big cities. Los Angeles had a notoriously homophobic police chief. The numerous gay bars in New Orleans were regularly raided by the corrupt police not to enforce morals but as a power play for more money. The riots over civil rights in 1968 all over the country had pushed LGBT issues to the background. People who were transgender were invisible as a matter of self-protection. Drag queens were called female impersonators and were popular in San Francisco and Las Vegas even though they were reported to have first started in the South. As the 60’s came to a close, the free-spirited sexual revolution faced a mean-spirited backlash.

My jobs in the 60’s left little time for political action, but I became more active sexually. I was firmly closeted in the 50’s, but by the mid-60’s, I freely enjoyed patronizing gay bars, baths, and restaurants without a hassle in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco. I picked up tricks in Mexico City. In 1967, I was living openly with a gay partner in Dallas in the gay district of Cedar Springs. I had a 35-year gap (1965 - 2000) in visiting New York City so I missed Stonewall. I also did not have the opportunity to visit Fire Island or Provincetown in their hey-day like some of my friends did.

I became more active in LGBT politics in the 70’s. The Texas Gay & Lesbian Task Force was formed, and a small publication This Week in Texas (TWIT) had statewide distribution in the bars. I recall going to a political rally at the AstroArena that drew thousands in Houston. I met Harvey Milk at a workshop in Dallas. The Advocate Magazine hosted a cocktail party at a large hotel in Houston for subscribers who lived in the “fly-over” zone of Texas. Obviously, they thought we lived in the wilderness. I “came out” in San Antonio. The first trial of a gay Methodist preacher was held there in 1976 that sparked a media frenzy.

The Republican Revival in the 80’s pushed LGBT issues to the background, but it was during the Clinton Administration that we suffered one of our worst setbacks. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was promoted as a compromise, but in practice it institutionalized discrimination in the military. It took 20 years to reverse that. Of course, the spread of AIDS sparked a backlash against homosexuals that was fueled by fear and promoted by right-wing politicians and religious groups.

The Supreme Court in 2003 struck down the sodomy laws and in 2015 allowed same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, there is still no federal law that bans discrimination in employment, public accommodations, or housing. The current trend is to promote laws at the state level to protect “religious rights,” i.e. the right to discriminate against LGBT people based upon religious beliefs. We still hear extremists who cry “kill the gays,” and they receive national notoriety for their hatred. The media coverage merely inspires more copycats. Unfortunately, transgender people of color remain the most vulnerable group. The Stonewall riots marked a time in history when the LGBT community decided to fight back, and thus they are well worth noting now

My views on the progress (or lack thereof) in North Carolina will require a separate article.

Divorce: Methodists’ Style

Divorce CourtIt’s time for the people of the United Methodist Church to have a divorce. Jesus condemned divorce, yet in our understanding of modern psychology we have come to accept it as sometimes a necessity. When people quarrel endlessly for 47 years, disparaging each other, and focusing on a single unresolved issue, then it’s time to move on.

We’ve heard pleas for reconciliation and discernment, and the Council of Bishops tried to open up church polity to more diversity. It failed, and with it we got a confirmed position of maintaining the status quo both in terms of doctrine and in church structure. Folks worry that the complicated structure of a connectional denomination that doesn’t have “independent” congregations will simply dissolve into nothing. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians did it and survived.

I’m not a “sore loser.” I simply believe that when we lose focus on the mission of the church to evangelize and to bring the good news to all nations, then we have the wrong priorities. The purpose of the church is not to be self-sustaining either in providing jobs for the clergy or the administrative structure of the organization. Our objective is not to enforce compliance with current dogma. Power plays and politics are just a sideshow.

Divorce always is a painful process and an admission of failure to fulfill our vows, but it is a better alternative to remaining in a destructive relationship that destroys the people involved. The pain and suffering of a divorce is less than continuing years of conflict that never can be resolved no matter how hard people may try. We’ve had commissions to study our problems and to make recommendations, but they didn’t work. The neo-colonialism of the Methodist structure has perpetuated a system of patronage and inequality. We’re trying to mesh many cultures without any effort at assimilation. Europe has faced this problem with a surge of refuges that we are only beginning to recognize. The United States has been a melting pot nation that has welcomed cultural diversity and yet brought people together in a community of tolerance and acceptance.

Now the United States is experiencing a clash of cultures, economic classes, and warring ideologies both political and religious. The United Methodist Church is only symptomatic of the broader breaches in our society. People claim we have become less Christian and more secular, but in fact we have become more representative of the many religious communities within this country. We’re quickly becoming less white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant, and some in the existing power structure are frightened of losing control.

Let us separate with as little acrimony as possible and move on to a new structure with new hope and vigor and less fighting.

Come Holy Spirit, Come

Come Holy Spirit, Come

Jesus lived and died in an occupied country that was only a tiny troublesome corner of the Roman Empire. He also dealt with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees who collaborated with the Romans. He tried to stay out of politics, and his stories dealt with the concerns of the common people. So why should we mix religion and politics? The Republican Party has manipulated the evangelicals to do its bidding, regardless of the cost. Their booming issue now is religious rights, i.e. methods to skirt the law. The Democrats often have appeared hostile to organized religion and seem to favor the secular.

What is the role of Progressive Christians? John Pavlovich recently challenged us to try to answer that question. We do not want to become as hostile, but we cannot remain passive in the midst of such a crisis of the assault on moral authority in this nation. The language of doublespeak has infested even the church, much less the political realm. People don’t seem to matter; it’s all about power and money. What we call populism is a joke and an insult to the common people. How do we define the “common good,” and does it matter anymore? The goal of many people seems to be about winning the pot of gold and maintaining the privileged status of a few. Even a billionaire such a Ray Dalio recently commented on a 60 Minutes interview that we are in danger of losing our democracy due to our economic inequality and lack of opportunity for all.

Christianity has strayed at times over the centuries from the message of Jesus and the Good News, and we seem to be in another valley of deceit again. The church appears to be more concerned with searching out heretics than in serving, and the poor and disenfranchised are left to rot. Sure, we still do lots of good mission work and help in times of disasters, but so do the so-called heathens. We are divided not so much by theology as by a division of worldviews. Openness versus fear; love versus hostility; abundance versus scarcity. How can the Holy Spirit move in the chaos of such division?

In the most basic terms, the isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. Everyone thinks God is on his or her side. But how do we know what he wants? Yes, the Bible is a good guide, but too often it is merely used as a weapon. It is not a question of different interpretations; it is a matter of priorities.

The radical right has adopted two social issues: abortion and homosexuality as the litmus tests of religious righteousness. Nothing else seems to matter to them. Strange that Jesus never talked about either of them so are they just the sins of the 21st Century? Perhaps the objective was simply to create more divisiveness as a means to win elections? Pick a hot button issue and get elected or have some convenient bogeyman to preach against. Who are we to judge their motivation? The question is how can we reach across that chasm? How can we engage the power of the Holy Spirit to meet such a challenge? That is the issue of our times.

So What’s Next?

Early Spring in Raleigh

The uproar following the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has not subsided. The discussion has become more widespread and more heated both within the church and the media. Speculation is rampant, and at this point no one knows what the results will be. If I were placing bets, I would conclude that the Methodists eventually will split like the Presbyterians and Episcopalians did. I’m not in the political hierarchy of the church, in fact, I’m not even a member anymore so my opinion counts for very little.

On March 28th, Sacred Witness NC hosted a rally at the headquarters of the North Carolina Conference of the UMC to receive a petition signed by 1,300+ people opposing the Traditional Plan. Several hundred people heard a dozen or so speakers address their personal concerns, including the Bishop. It was indicative of similar actions across the nation as supporters of the Reconciling Ministries Network have risen up to express their concerns.

For the first time in years, I feel at peace and no longer in conflict with my church. I’m on the outside looking in: an interested observer but nothing more. I do not suggest that approach for anyone else. It simply was my decision for my personal physical and mental health

As for me, I’ve moved on to other things. I’m still involved with my local congregation and planning for an upcoming BBQ dinner. I’m slowly phasing out of RUM-NC and will miss Annual Conference for the first time in several years, I’m becoming more involved with the North Carolina Council of Churches. They have several initiatives that are of interest to me. They’re involved in discussions about immigration and gun violence. These long-festering issues are coming to a head in North Carolina, and the General Assembly is being pressured to take some action. I attended their legislative workshop at North Raleigh UMC.

We have more than enough local issues to deal with. The Mayor of Raleigh has announced that after a decade she has decided not to run again. Early reports predict a contentious campaign.

The regional transit authority, Go Triangle, has announced that it is abandoning the light rail project that had been in the works for a decade. The plan was opposed by Duke University and the NC General Assembly, and that effectively cut off state and federal funding. I expect that the lack of any plan will hurt future development in Durham and Chapel Hill for another decade as we continue to fail to cope with the rapid growth in population. Raleigh already was 20 years behind when it abandoned the Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC) plan. We just don’t have the leadership in the state that politically supports public transportation. Charlotte is the only example of success.

I don’t have the money to become actively involved in the upcoming 2020 elections and don’t have a strong interest in volunteering at the local level. It’s way too soon to sort out the Democratic candidates, and it’s not productive only to oppose Trump. I wish we limited campaigns to three months as some countries do. The lengthy campaigns have become a tiresome process for the candidates, who face more of an endurance contest rather than exchange of plans and ideas. The public also has to suffer months of negative campaign ads.

Driving home from lunch recently, I passed miles of flowering trees in full bloom with a variety of colors, and the beauty stuck me emotionally. For a fleeting moment I felt happy.

Withdrawal of Church Membership

Dear Rev. Roberts,

It is with regret that I request to withdraw my membership in the United Methodist Church. I will continue to attend and financially support the congregation that has welcomed me just as I am, rather than the church that tells me what I should be.

Jeffrey WarrenI have struggled to become reconciled with my church ever since my partner in 1967 was told to drop out of seminary because he was gay and had no promise within the Methodist Church. I observed the witch hunt trial of Gene Leggett in San Antonio in 1976 that became a public spectacle and an embarrassment to the church. Subsequent clergy trials have occurred depending upon the arbitrary opinions of the local bishops, who can choose how to enforce the Book of Discipline. The resolution of these trials is capricious and inconsistent, and a trial often is ignored if a person is willing to lie. If our church is willing to prevent from ordination an outstanding young preacher such as Jeffrey Warren, who is reaching out to spread the good news to unbelievers, then it has the wrong priorities. (His presentation at General Conference was shared 516,560 times on social media just in case you thought he had no impact.)

Over the years it has become apparent to many that the United Methodist Church is more interested in maintaining the status quo and appealing to leaders who represent a conservative class of older members who have the most money. The debate is not about a cultural divide; it’s about political power. The Methodist Church was envisioned by John and Charles Wesley as an evangelical movement, but it was never fundamentalist in its interpretation of the Bible. After 14 years of serving as a co-leader of a weekly Bible study, I am still growing in my knowledge of the scriptures and also how to interpret them for the 21st Century. The fundamentalists cannot say the same. Love the sinner, hate the sin is still a statement of judgment. This struggle is not an interpretation of scripture over which we can amicably disagree. It has consequences.

This long debate about dogma has alienated not only the LGBT community from the church but also many others who see the church as focused more on self-righteousness than service. According to the UMC polls of the current generation, the Methodist Church has become irrelevant to their lives. The church has become an archaic institution that holds no promise of salvation unless we are in strict conformity with a 19th Century dogma. The Special Session of General Conference passed the Traditional Plan enforcing the restrictions of the 2016 Book of Discipline. Some are hopeful the plan will be overturned by the Judicial Council. If that occurs, we still will have the status quo. That is unacceptable to me. We are not petty children who have been hurt because we lost a game. We have suffered shame and abuse, sometimes murder, from those who claim to act in the name of God. As the Special General Conference demonstrated, the priorities of the church have changed, and evangelism is near the bottom of the list. Doctrinal purity is foremost.

At 83, I now believe that reconciliation with my church is not possible and that the established order will continue for the foreseeable future. I also have withdrawn my participation in the Reconciling Ministries Network and the North Carolina Chapter. The church hasn’t listened to our pleas. I can’t continue to participate in an exercise in futility. The Bishop’s periodic sessions of dialogue have served only to talk the issue to death with no real progress. I don’t want to hear another endless debate of the “issue.” I am not an issue; I am a person. If the church cannot accept me just as I am, then it has no place for me.


John Suddath

cc: Gray Southern
Hope Morgan-Ward
Helen Ryde