I held my fortieth birthday party at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Yes, the same Stonewall Inn where in 1969 a three-day riot—led by transgender women, drag queens, and queer people of color—launched what is credited to be the modern LGBTQ movement. The Stonewall uprising birthed several LGBTQ organizations, including the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and even Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. (1) Even after being named a national monument, the Stonewall Inn is still a functioning bar, with a pool table on the first floor and a stage for performances on the second. (2)
One block away from the Stonewall is Julius’, a lesser-known historic watering hole. Three years before the Stonewall riots, the LGBTQ advocacy organization the Mattachine Society held a “sip-in” to challenge New York State Liquor Authority’s prohibition on serving alcohol to LGBTQ people. Activists, pretty much all white men wearing suits and ties and followed by reporters and photographers from the local papers, entered Julius’, announced they were gay, and asked to be served drinks. (3) The iconic photo from that day is of the bartender holding his hand over a glass to physically block alcohol from being poured into it. Today, over fifty years later, that photograph hangs on the wall of Julius’.
As a resident of New York City and an LGBTQ advocate, I’ve inherited the benefits of the actions at Julius’ and Stonewall, including the ability to patronize both of these historic LGBTQ sites. After work, I regularly head to Julius’ because it features a grill, serving delicious burgers, hot dogs, and onion rings. The Stonewall has often been a setting for my personal advocacy. In 2011, I was crowded inside the Stonewall watching the televisions broadcasting the New York State legislature’s legalization of marriage equality. Later, through my work at GLAAD, I was on a planning team organizing a rally for the moment when the Supreme Court would release its decision to strike down or uphold the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. One of the owners of the Stonewall was also on the planning call, telling us, “You can do it on the street in front of our place. Everyone just comes there anyway when historic LGBTQ moments happen.” Two years later, we organized another rally in front of the Stonewall after the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality is a right under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. (4)
The LGBTQ movement enjoyed successes and endured devastating setbacks in the years following the Julius’ sip-in and the Stonewall riots. While all this history was taking place, I was a child, closeted and dealing with bullying and rejection by my peers, oblivious to the struggles happening that would impact my future. Even though I’m an heir of the previous generations of the LGBTQ movement’s activism, I learned about Stonewall only after growing up, coming out, and getting involved in the LGBTQ movement for myself. I didn’t learn about Julius’ until after I moved to New York City, well into my personal history of activism.
USE OUR HISTORY TO BUILD OUR ADVOCACY
Part of the experience of getting involved in advocacy is realizing that you missed the beginning of the struggle for justice. We must recognize we have often taken for granted the benefits that have been passed down through others’ actions. I’ve often felt like I’m stepping into a movie that is two-thirds over, just getting to see the ending. I’m sometimes left with the feeling that the victories the LGBTQ community secured were not truly for me. They were for those who had gone before and experienced higher levels of discrimination at a time when our culture and laws were much less accepting and protective of the LGBTQ community.
I wonder if that’s how previous generations of activists felt when they were finding ways to challenge injustice. Did the members of the Mattachine Society know that their legacy would include a photo of the sip-in hanging on the wall at Julius’ over fifty years later? Could they imagine Julius’ would be a setting for films and television series that tell the story of LGBTQ history, from Love Is Strange, to Pose, to Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Go and Do Likewise: The Stonewall Inn and Julius’ are both LGBTQ historical venues in New York City. Research the history of the issue you are working on. Who have been the leaders? Where are some historical landmarks? If possible, visit those historic sites to study the history of the movement you are connected with. What you learn about the movement’s history will inform your work today.
Did the rioters at Stonewall imagine that future generations of LGBTQ people would continue to gather inside the bar in times of celebration and times of peril for the LGBTQ community? Did they know they were creating a historical legacy that would be passed down from generation to generation? Or were they simply trying to survive yet another instance of police and societal harassment, something LGBTQ people and people of color have continuously faced in different forms over the decades? Did they think their circumstances were any more or less dire than what gender nonconforming, queer people of color had endured in the generations before them?
What about us today? Do we realize that we are just as much a part of history as those people we’ve studied from generations past? Or do we think our lives are mundane compared to what previous generations had to endure? Even our churches can tend toward building communities that are safe and comfortable. But when we look around, we realize that we are living in extraordinary times and called to live out heroic lives, just like the judges and prophets of the Hebrew Scripture, the disciples of the New Testament, or the saints over the ages. None of them realized they were called to great things, and they had no idea that their stories, or at least versions of their stories, would live on after they were gone. They were simply doing what needed to be done in the moment.
Each generation of biblical heroes, saints, and present-day advocates draws upon the previous generation’s accomplishments. The Bible is the ongoing story of the relationship between God and humanity, how that relationship grows and changes and evolves with each succeeding generation. We can see the thread that runs through each person, each psalm, each parable, and each action. If we pay attention, we can see that same thread running through our lives, calling us to step up in the same way as those before us. Paul even acknowledges as much in his Letter to the Corinthians, where he states, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (5) God uses our intergenerational efforts to build upon what has been passed along to us and prepare the next generation to take our work to heights we could never have imagined.
REMEMBER YOUR OWN CONVERSION MOMENTS
Our calling to social justice work happens at a particular time and place for each of us. We cannot let timing—thoughts that we are too late—hold us back from acting. We cannot let our past inaction or even opposition to a particular justice movement prevent us from learning, growing, and speaking out and acting against injustice, even the past injustices in which we participated. Many of the most compelling social justice leaders have had their own “conversion moments” that stirred them out of complacency and into action. Or they may have had the realization that they were on the wrong side of an issue and changed their viewpoint completely. Our biblical heroes often have their own conversion moments. Consider Paul, a onetime persecutor of the followers of Jesus, who has his “road to Damascus” experience that turns him into a zealous defender of Jesus Christ. That experience drives him to join the early Christian movement, the very movement he had been violently persecuting. Paul is a latecomer to Christianity. He never meets Jesus or hears his teachings, nor does he witness his death and resurrection.
And yet Paul has the zeal of a convert, stepping into the Christian movement after so many others had suffered and even given their lives. Perhaps Paul feels regret at having been on the wrong side of history and feels a desire to make up for it. He uses his specific moment in history to his advantage, recognizing that he cannot change what came before him. Paul turns to arguing with his former colleagues, the Pharisees. He supports new worshipping communities beyond the scope of what had previously existed.
Paul moves the Christian movement along, helping it evolve from the ragtag disciples who had direct experiences with Jesus into the church that generations have inherited, including us.
I’ve been calling these social justice efforts “movements,” and the metaphor of a movement is apt. (6) None of us was present at the beginning of the movement toward justice, since it began when God spoke the heavens and earth into being. We enter into this movement when we join our actions to the collective actions of the cloud of witnesses who came before us. Eventually, we pass this movement along to the next generation. They will receive the gift of our advances and encounter new challenges that we never had to face.
REFLECTION AND ACTION
Reflect: This chapter’s “Go and Do Likewise” asked you to start thinking about history. What’s the history behind the movement you are feeling called to support?
Act: Spend some time researching who has worked on this before you and who is working on it now.
Reflect: How does your movement show up in Scripture?
Act: Find a Scripture passage that informs your advocacy on a particular issue. (Trust me, this will come in handy later.)
Reflect: Why are you feeling called to this particular move ment at this particular time?
Act: Write it down.
Reflect: What do you hope happens as a result of your participation?
Act: Write it down on that same piece of paper from the last question.
Content taken from The Everyday Advocate: Living Out Your Calling to Social Justice by Ross Murray, ©2023. Used by permission of Fortress Press.
(1) “LGBTQIA+ Studies: A Resource Guide,” Library of Congress, accessed September 12, 2022, https://guides.loc.gov/lgbtq-studies/after-stonewall.
(2) Barack Obama, “Presidential Proclamation—Establishment of the Stonewall National Monument,” National Archives and Records Administration, June 24, 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/24/presidential-proclamation-establishment-stonewall-national-monument.
(3) “The ‘Sip-In’ at Julius’ Bar in 1966,” National Parks Service, August 20, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/articles/julius-bar-1966.htm.
(4) Krystyna Blokhina Gilkis, “Obergefell v. Hodges,” Legal Information Institute, September 2018, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obergefell_v._hodges.
(5) 1 Cor 3:6.
(6) B. Zemsky and D. Mann, “Building Organizations in a Movement Moment,” Social Policy: Organizing for Social and Economic Justice 28, no. 3 (2008): 10–12, https://bethzemsky.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Building-organizations-in-a-movement-moment.pdf.