“How does it feel to be the first generation to not have a purpose?”
These words were the equivalent of a slap across the face to me. They were coming out of the TV, out of the mouth of an actor playing Cleve Jones, a lion of the TLGBQIA movement who was a contemporary of Harvey Milk and who conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (which by the way has become, at 54 tons, the world’s largest piece of community folk art).
In the scene, Jones is an obviously tired, frustrated and angry activist confronting the reality of a modern queer generation whose equality at this point might feel as though it had been handed to them on a silver platter. The scene is from the third installment of the miniseries “When We Rise,” Dustin Lance Black’s attempt to create a somewhat star-studded documentary/biopic chronicling the modern queer movement from Stonewall to the present.
(Black, you’ll recall, wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Milk”, starring Sean Penn.)
“No! No, it is not over! We cannot give up now… We have got to remember who is not with us!” I blared this at my equally tired, frustrated and angry husband — who is, for better or worse, accustomed to these outbursts from me.
Let me explain.
At 62 years old I have now been out of the closet for 49 years, since I was 13.
I have only been in two long-term relationships. The first started in college and ended when he was killed by a drunk driver who ran a red light — a driver who’d been drinking because his wife was divorcing him for having slept with a man.
My current relationship, as of June 25th of this year, will have spanned 35 beautiful years. And while we were legally married on November 21, 2015, we still celebrate June 25th as our anniversary and probably will for the rest of our lives. It’s a quirk of second-class citizenship.
For 31 of the years we’ve been together, I’ve been a pastor — almost 19 of them as the founding and senior pastor of my current church.
In those 31 years I’ve lost track of the number of funerals and memorials I’ve officiated for those who have died as a result of the AIDS plague. Because if you do the math, those 31 years began in 1986. However, I do remember clearly and can still see the faces of the 14 very close friends — including my best friend from my hometown of Chicago who didn’t live to see his 45th birthday — whom I’ve survived, HIV-negative and still feeling the multi-ton weight of survivor’s guilt all these years later.
I share all this as a way of elucidating why Black’s miniseries has been more than a bit difficult to watch. I lived all that. Even though the miniseries is set in San Francisco and I am from Chicago, I could have been one of any number of the characters it depicts. So the whole thing just rests so heavily on my heart.
I was also rejected by my family. I was the victim of sexual abuse. I was threatened with psychological treatment. I was the victim of hate crimes. I was rejected by the education system and the church of my childhood. I was denied housing. I was threatened with violence. And to this day it’s never been lost on me the threats and dangers I’ve faced as an out and proud gay man living in the South for the last 23 years.
So to borrow from the words of the familiar hymn, this miniseries is my story, it is my song. It’s also the story of countless thousands in the TLGB community — and because it has been our story, it has become the story of countless thousands of QIA folks as well.
Having not yet seen the final installment of this four-part series, I don’t know where it’s going to go our how it’s going to end up. But I can guess. The legal granting of our marriage equality is a great victory. The movement and momentum toward job protections, our assimilation into society, the normalization of our relationships — these are all things we can celebrate and be proud of. We need to hold the s/heroes of these hard-fought advances close to our hearts and always be grateful for their stamina, creativity and courage.
However, we also need to remember something else Cleve Jones has said: “A movement that seeks to advance only its own members is going to accomplish little”.
What does that mean?
It means the current generation does indeed have a purpose, and a great one. While the people whose lives are represented by the T in TLGBQIA have been in this movement from the beginning, they have been treated with disdain, been trivialized, been the butt of jokes, been afterthoughts — and on our worst days, been part of the sacrifice made in the march toward everyone’s equality.
So what is the purpose the current generation needs? It’s to ensure that bathrooms are safe to be used for their intended purpose — and not as a political football. It’s to secure job protections, insurance coverage and a relief from the violence that is aimed so specifically and savagely at transgender people.
In that vein, these words of Dr. King could not be more relevant to this current generation:
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Need more evidence? Look no further than here:
This generation must remember the lesson from this story. These accomplishments have only come about because we came together as a community. Remember that during the start of the AIDS plague the world was willing to let us die. It was only when we came together that we found ways to live!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t supply relevant inspiration from the bible, so here it is:
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Philippians 2:1-4
This generation’s purpose couldn’t be clearer, and there’s a fully modern way of expressing it. It’s to help the world see that:
… and all that it means in the fullness of the Creation and of life on this earth.