Tuesday, June 24, 2014

UpStairs Lounge fire: Deadliest attack on LGBT people killed 32

“See You at the UpStairs Lounge” by Skylar Fein

The deadliest attack on LGBT people in U.S. history is being remembered in powerful new ways on its 41st anniversary, including a new film, book and online exhibit. An arson fire killed 32 people at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, 41 years ago today on June 24, 1973.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
UpStairs Lounge fire: 32 killed in deadly attack on LGBTQ people

Few people cared about the UpStairs Lounge fire at the time. The crime was never solved, churches refused to do funerals for the dead, and four bodies went unclaimed. Now there is a resurgence of interest.

The newest materials, all made available within the last 12 months, are the trailer for documentary “Upstairs Inferno” from filmmaker Robert Camina; the book “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Dead in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973” by Clayton Delery-Edwards; and an award-winning online exhibit at the LGBT Religious Archives Network.

“Upstairs Inferno” will be the first to interview several survivors who have kept silent for decades. The documentary is being produced and directed by Camina, whose previous film was the widely praised “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge” about a police raid at a Texas gay bar. Now he aims to create the most comprehensive and authoritative film on America's biggest gay mass murder. A trailer has been released while a fundraising campaign is underway for funds to complete the film. The anticipated release date is fall 2014.

UPSTAIRS INFERNO - Teaser Trailer [HD] from Camina Entertainment on Vimeo.

LGBT Religious Archives created an online exhibit about the UpStairs Lounge Fire with more than 120 artifacts that weave together stories about the fire and its aftermath, early gay activism, and the beginnings of Metropolitan Community Church in New Orleans. Original artifacts include newspaper and journal articles, photographs, correspondence, government reports and recordings from the time. The exhibit went online in September 2013 and received the 2014 Allan Bérubé Prize for “outstanding work in public or community-based LGBT and/or queer history.”

Other recent works about the fire include he musical drama “Upstairs” by Louisiana playwright Wayne Self It is playing in New York this month after opening in New Orleans and Los Angeles in June 2013. Also in 2013 the New Orleans Museum of Art acquired Louisiana artist Skylar Fein’s major installation “Remember the UpStairs Lounge.” The tragedy is also recounted in a documentary by award-winning film maker Royd Anderson released on June 24, 2013, and in the 2011 book “Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire” by Johnny Townsend.

For queer people, the UpStairs Lounge served as a sanctuary in every sense of the world. It was a seemingly safe place where LGBT people met behind boarded-up windows that hid them from a hostile world. Worship services were held there by the LGBT-affirming Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. The pastor, Rev. William R. Larson, died along with a third of congregation. Half the victims were MCC members. Those who died included people from all walks of life: preachers, hustlers, soldiers, musicians, parents, professionals and a mother with her two sons.

The horror of the fire was compounded by the homophobic reactions. Churches refused to hold funerals for the victims. Finally MCC founder Rev. Troy Perry flew to New Orleans to conduct a group memorial service. Families of four victims were apparently so ashamed of their gay relatives that they would not identify or claim their remains. The City refused to release their bodies to MCC for burial, and instead laid them to rest in a mass grave at a potter’s field.

The crime received little attention from police, elected officials and news media.  The only national TV news coverage at the time was these video clips from CBS and NBC:

Louisiana playwright and composer Wayne Self spent five years weaving together the stories of the UpStairs Lounge fire victims and survivors. The result is a dramatic musical. He says his work takes the form “of tribute, of memorial, even of hagiography.”

The musical "Upstairs" brings back to life people such as MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell, who managed to escape the fire, but ran back into the burning building to save his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both men died in the fire. Their bodies were found clinging to one another in the ashes. In the musical, Mitchell sings a song called “I’ll Always Return”:
…Modern age,
Life to wage.
To get ahead, must turn the page.
I can't promise I'll never leave,
But I'll always,
I'll always return….

“I’ll Always Return” is one of five songs from the musical that are available online as workshop selection at http://upstairsmusical.bandcamp.com/.

Self raised funds so that Mitchell’s son and the son’s wife and could travel from Alabama to attend the play. Many victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire were survived by children who are still alive today.

The musical also explores the unsettled and unsettling question of who set the fire. Rodger Dale Nunez, a hustler and UpStairs Lounge customer, was arrested for the crime, but escaped and was never sentenced. He was thrown out of the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the fire for starting a fight with a fellow hustler. He committed suicide a year later. Self says that other theories arose to blame the KKK and the police, but he implicates Nunez -- with room for doubt -- in the musical.

A gay man may have lit the fire, but the real culprit is still society’s homophobia that set the fuse inside him. Homophobia was also responsible for the high death toll in another way. The fire was especially deadly because the windows were covered with iron bars and boards so nobody could see who was inside. But they also prevented many people from getting outside in an emergency.

The UpStairs Lounge is recreated with haunting detail in Skylar Fein’s 90-piece art installation. He builds an environment with artifacts, photos, video, and a reproduction of the bar’s swinging-door entrance, evoking memories of how the place looked before and after the fire. “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” debuted in New Orleans in 2008 and was shown in New York in 2010. In January 2013 the New Orleans Museum of Art announced that it had acquired the installation. Fein donated it to the museum, saying that he did not want to dismantle the work or profit from its sale. He discusses the fire and shows objects from his installation in this video.

The victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire are part of LGBT history now, along with the queer martyrs who were burned at the stake for sodomy in medieval times. Their history is told in my previous post Ash Wednesday: Queer martyrs rise from the ashes.

The UpStairs Lounge fire gives new meaning to the Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples shared a Last Supper. It was also the place where they hid after his crucifixion, but the locked doors did not prevent the risen Christ from joining them and empowering them with the Holy Spirit.

The shared journey of LGBT people includes much loss -- from hate crimes, suicide, AIDS, and government persecution. But the LGBT community has also found ways to keep going. Reginald, one of the survivors of the UpStairs Lounge fire, expresses this strength in the song "Carry On" from the "Upstairs" musical:
I can speak.
I can teach.
I can give of the compassion I've received.
I can build.
I can sing!
I can honor all the loves,
That have passed away from me,
By sharing all the good that they have ever shown to me.
I can live my life.
I can carry on.
Carry on.
Carry on!

New Orleans film maker Royd Anderson's “The UpStairs Lounge Fire” documentary lasts 27 minutes (longer than the fire itself) and includes interviews with an eyewitness, a son who lost his father, a rookie firefighter called to the scene, author Johnny Townsend, and artist Skylar Fein, whose art exhibit about the tragedy gained national prominence. Here is a video trailer for the documentary.

The value of remembering the UpStairs Lounge fire was summed up by Lynn Jordan in the LGBT Religious Archives online exhibit that he co-curated. Jordan, founding member of MCC San Francisco, visited New Orleans shortly before and after the fire. In his introduction to the UpStairs exhibit, he explains:

“I left New Orleans with the promise to each of the 32 who would become immortal, that I would remember their sacrifice and carry them with me in all that would unfold in my life. The research and documentation that is an integral part of this Upstairs exhibit is “my” living into completion the promise to these “32 martyrs of the flames” that they “would not” be forgotten.

For those who would say that this event was so yesterday, i.e., we have achieved so many advances in our civil rights and in our acceptance for this to happen again, I would remind them that hate and intolerance are not constrained to finding shelter in any one moment, any one location in our “queer” history. To focus only on how far our LGBTQI communities may have progressed in 40 years; to fail to remember the sacrifice of all the lives lost or shattered in this journey; to lapse into complacency about our personal security: places us at risk of reviving the tragedy of our past in the present.”
Related links:

UpStairs Lounge online exhibit (LGBT Religious Archives)

The Horror Upstairs (Time.com - June 21, 2013)

UpStairs Lounge arson attack (Wikipedia)

The Tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge (Jimani.com - website of the bar now at the same location)

Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire (glbtq.com)

32 Died, and I Wrote a Musical About It: Why I Did It and Would Do It Again by Wayne Self (HuffingtonPost)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Rainbow Christ Prayer goes nationwide at churches, schools and events

“Stained-glass Rainbow Flag with Cross” by Andrew Craig Williams

As rainbow flags wave with LGBT Pride this month, the Rainbow Christ Prayer evolves and touches lives in exciting new ways.

People have adapted the prayer for a wide variety of settings, including a queer theology class in Dallas, a non-violence training in Pennsylvania, and a poetry reading in Los Angeles. It has been used as a blessing at Shabbat dinners, a meditation at yoga classes, and a wedding gift at a same-sex marriage. It has also been denounced as blasphemy by the hate group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality.

The colors of the rainbow reveal the many faces of Christ in the Rainbow Christ Prayer, which was written by lesbian author Kittredge Cherry and gay theologian Patrick S. Cheng in 2012.

The prayer matches the seven colors of the rainbow flag with the seven models of the queer Christ from Patrick’s book “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ. The rainbow is an important symbol in both the LGBT movement and the Judeo-Christian tradition, where it stands for God’s promise to support all life on earth.

Rainbow Christ Prayer cards and Crosses from Salem United Church of Christ

Small needlepoint rainbow crosses were handed out with a short version of the Rainbow Christ Prayer in 2013 when Salem United Church of Christ in Columbia, Pennsylvania, hosted a training for the Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance. The Alliance helps the LGBT community have safe, peaceful gatherings by providing a non-confrontational buffer between protestors at Pride festivals and other events. A member of the Salem church stitched the rainbow crosses specifically to go with the Rainbow Christ Prayer for volunteers at the training.

The mini prayer cards, measuring only two inches high, adapts the prayer with new opening lines: “Rainbow Christ; You embody all the colors of the world. Rainbows stretch in order to connect diverse realms: Inspire us to stretch beyond boundaries so that we may embody the wonders born from the diversity which You created.”

Haven group members read the Rainbow Christ Prayer at a poetry event in downtown Los Angeles in April. Adam Ackley is standing on the far right.

H. Adam Ackley, a queer theology professor and Church of the Brethren minister, has introduced the Rainbow Christ Prayer in many different settings.

“Reading the Rainbow Christ Prayer by yourself is so different from praying it aloud in a group led by seven readers who are diverse in race, age, orientation, and gender,” Ackley said. “Just looking at us praying together, you get the picture of radical inclusion. Our voices serve to flesh out the words.”

He entered into a deep relationship with the Rainbow Christ Prayer in 2013 after he was forced to leave his position at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University because he came out as a transgender man.

The rejection put Ackley on a path that led to the Rainbow Christ Prayer as searched for spiritual sustenance with the students at Haven, APU’s unofficial LGBTQ student group.

“Other Christians won’t pray with us, which actually liberated us to explore non-evangelical prayer like your Rainbow Christ one,” Ackley told the Jesus in Love Blog.

The Haven group often prayed the Rainbow Christ Prayer together before dinner on Fridays or Saturdays as “Shabbat” prayer during informal monthly meetings at Ackley’s home.

“It really evolves from theological meditation to communal prayer as we pray it together over time,” Ackley explained. “And then in turn we shared publicly several times after months of ‘family’ prayer.”

They adapted and shared the Rainbow Christ Prayer at two big events in southern California this spring, each with different groups of about 300 people in attendance. The events were:

* A poetry night on “Race/Sexuality” sponsored by Art Share LA, a downtown sanctuary for the arts; and LA Term, APU’s urban semester program. “People applauded after the Rainbow Christ Prayer and many said it was the most of one of most powerful experiences of the three-hour event,” Ackley said.

* Art of Discovery, an evening of music, art, dance, poetry exploring the topics of gender identity and sexual orientation, with lesbian Episcopal priest Susan Russell, hosted by Haven.

Many in the audiences were new to the experience of praying words based in LGBTQ experience. Ackley reports that settings were “mostly heteronormative so this was mind-blowing to most. Progress / witness happened though.”

Ackley, a certified yoga instructor, is also incorporating the Rainbow Christ Prayer into chakra meditations when he teaches yoga classes.

In addition he also rewrote the prayer as a wedding gift for a gay couple this spring. He gave it to Integrity USA’s Mel Soriano and his partner Stephen Mulder, along with a rainbow candle holder, so they can use it for family prayer at home. His wedding version is posted on his blog at Huffington Post.

Ackley’s adaptation is presented here with permission, followed by the original version. The adaptation is more oriented toward public prayer in mixed groups, while the original may be more suitable for LGBTQ settings or private meditations. Patrick and I are working on a revised version based on some of the ideas and feedback from others who have used the prayer.

Update: A Chinese translation of the prayer was used at the opening worship of Queer Theology Academy Summer Workshop 2014 in Hong Kong.

Rainbow Christ Prayer (adapted by Ackley)
Rainbow Christ, You embody all the colors of the world that You created. Rainbows bridge Your different realms: East and west, heaven and earth, queer and non-queer. So inspire us to celebrate each color of Your rainbow together.

Lighting a red candle: The red of Your rainbow reminds us to LIVE FULLY a renewed Life rooted in Spirit. Living and Self-Loving Christ, nourish in us the grace of healthy well-being. Renew our bodies, our minds and our spirits so that we may follow the abundant inner light You give us. Thank You, God, for creating each of us just as we are.

Lighting an orange candle: The orange of Your rainbow reminds us to THANK You for the gift of creativity, including the fire of sacred human sexuality, sanctified by the Spirit. Christ, Word made Flesh, open and free us to receive from You relationships that are mutual means of grace. Help us to forgive the past and to embrace now all that is positive in this present moment, expression our passion and our desire in creative, healthy, grace-filled ways.

Lighting a yellow candle: God, the yellow of Your rainbow reminds us to REJOICE, even in the very gift of self, each of us made in God's own image. Christ, our core, Your Spirit empowers us, radiating in and through us. Grant us grace to value and trust ourselves and each other enough to "come out" continually from secrecy, shame, and self-rejection into Your light that illuminates and affirms Your image and love in each of us.

Lighting a green candle: God, the green of Your rainbow reminds us to LOVE, the very heart of Your Spirit. Transgressive Christ, You are our heart, braking into the perfect freedom that You alone give us through Your perfect love that casts out fear. Fill our hearts with untamed, compassionate love for all beings, including ourselves and each other, in every area of our lives, so that we give love and receive love with happiness, balance, grace, and harmony.

Lighting a blue candle: God, the blue of Your rainbow reminds us to GIVE VOICE to our selves, made in Your image, beloved by God, trusting that self-expression is the voice of Your Holy Spirit in, through and between us. Liberator Christ, You are our voice, speaking out with calm, confidence and power against all that oppresses Your creation. Grant us gracious, prophetic, active, and just voices to speak Your truth in love.

Lighting a purple candle: God, the violet of Your rainbow reminds us of the inner vision that seeks and knows Your highest Truth, which is LOVE, the deep intuitive wisdom of Your Holy Spirit. Interconnected and interconnecting Christ, You are our Wisdom, creating and sustaining us and Your universe. Grant us the grace of interdependence, freeing us from isolation. As all the colors of Your rainbow are connected and yet distinct, connect us with each other and with all of Your creation in ways that bring peace, wholeness, balance, and nurture of our spirits. Though the colors of Your rainbow are distinct, You bring them together to make one light. All-Encompassing Christ, our Crown, in this same way You unite humanity with God. So too unite us with each other, liberating us to accept from You interconnection as a gift of Your grace. Like the rainbow, may we too embody and reflect Your light, color, beauty and promise. AMEN.


Rainbow Christ Prayer (original by Cherry and Cheng)

Rainbow Christ, you embody all the colors of the world. Rainbows serve as bridges between different realms: heaven and earth, east and west, queer and non-queer. Inspire us to remember the values expressed in the rainbow flag of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Red is for life, the root of spirit. Living and Self-Loving Christ, you are our Root. Free us from shame and grant us the grace of healthy pride so we can follow our own inner light. With the red stripe in the rainbow, we give thanks that God created us just the way we are.

Orange is for sexuality, the fire of spirit. Erotic Christ, you are our Fire, the Word made flesh. Free us from exploitation and grant us the grace of mutual relationships. With the orange stripe in the rainbow, kindle a fire of passion in us.

Yellow is for self-esteem, the core of spirit. Out Christ, you are our Core. Free us from closets of secrecy and give us the guts and grace to come out. With the yellow stripe in the rainbow, build our confidence.

Green is for love, the heart of spirit. Transgressive Outlaw Christ, you are our Heart, breaking rules out of love. In a world obsessed with purity, you touch the sick and eat with outcasts. Free us from conformity and grant us the grace of deviance. With the green stripe in the rainbow, fill our hearts with untamed compassion for all beings.

Blue is for self-expression, the voice of spirit. Liberator Christ, you are our Voice, speaking out against all forms of oppression. Free us from apathy and grant us the grace of activism. With the blue stripe in the rainbow, motivate us to call for justice.

Violet is for vision, the wisdom of spirit. Interconnected Christ, you are our Wisdom, creating and sustaining the universe. Free us from isolation and grant us the grace of interdependence. With the violet stripe in the rainbow, connect us with others and with the whole creation.

Rainbow colors come together to make one light, the crown of universal consciousness. Hybrid and All-Encompassing Christ, you are our Crown, both human and divine. Free us from rigid categories and grant us the grace of interwoven identities. With the rainbow, lead us beyond black-and-white thinking to experience the whole spectrum of life.

Rainbow Christ, you light up the world. You make rainbows as a promise to support all life on earth. In the rainbow space, we can see all the hidden connections between sexualities, genders and races. Like the rainbow, may we embody all the colors of the world! Amen.

Detail from “Christ and the Two Marys” by William Holman Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)

 I first got the idea for the Rainbow Christ Prayer as I reflected on Patrick Cheng’s models of the queer Christ. Patrick and I each spent years developing the ideas expressed in the Rainbow Christ Prayer. It incorporates rainbow symbolism from queer culture, from Christian tradition and from the Buddhist/Hindu concept of chakras, the seven colored energy centers of the human body. The prayer is ideal for use when lighting candles in a rainbow candle holder.

Kittredge Cherry with Rainbow Candles (photo by Audrey)

I first wrote about linking the colors of the rainbow flag to queer spirituality in my 2009 reflection on Bridge of Light, a winter holiday honoring LGBT culture. Meanwhile Patrick was working on his models of the queer Christ based on LGBT experience. In 2010 he presented five models of the queer Christ in his essay “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People” at the Jesus in Love Blog (and as a chapter in the book “Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection.”)

In a moment of inspiration I realized that Patrick’s various queer Christ models matched the colors of the rainbow flag. Patrick and I joined forces and the Rainbow Christ Prayer was born.

With wonderful synchronicity, Patrick had already added two more queer Christ models, so he now had seven models to match the seven principles from Bridge of Light. He wrote a detailed explanation of all seven models in his book “From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ,” published in spring 2012 by Seabury Books. The following year Patrick authored “Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit.”

For more on the history and meaning of the rainbow flag, see my Huffington Post article Rainbow Christ Prayer honors LGBT spirituality.

Gay spirituality author Joe Perez helped lay the groundwork for this prayer in 2004 when he founded the interfaith and omni-denominational winter ritual known as Bridge of Light. People celebrate Bridge of Light by lighting candles, one for every color of the rainbow flag. Each color corresponds to a universal spiritual principle that is expressed in LGBT history and culture. I worked with Joe to revise the Bridge of Light guidelines based on my on own meditations on the chakras and their connections to the colors of the rainbow flag.

The symbolism of the rainbow resonates far beyond the LGBT flag. It plays an important role in the story of Noah’s Ark. After the flood, God places a rainbow in the sky, saying, “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:15-16). In the Book of Revelation, a rainbow encircles the throne of Christ in heaven.

Related links:
Rainbow Christ Prayer translated into 10 languages

Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People by Patrick Cheng (Jesus in Love)

Welcome the New Year with Bridge of Light by Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love)

Rainbow Christ Prayer at Believe Out Loud

Rainbow Christ Prayer article by Kittredge Cherry at Huffington Post

Rainbow flag (Wikipedia)

Patrick Cheng's website and Twitter feed

This post is part of the Queer Christ series series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Saints of Stonewall inspire LGBT justice -- and artists

“It was Beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard shows the Stonewall Rebellion
Oil on canvas, 24" x 36," 1999.

Queer people fought back against police harassment at New York City’s Stonewall Inn launching the modern LGBT liberation movement on June 28, 1969.

Their bold rebellion against government persecution of homosexuality is commemorated around the world during June as LGBT Pride Month. The Stonewall Uprising continues to inspire a variety of art that is featured here today.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Saints of Stonewall inspire LGBTQ justice -- and artists, authors and film makers

This year the site of the Stonewall Uprising was designated a national monument by President Obama. “I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s National Park System. Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights,” he said.

The White House also released a video about the Stonewall Uprising and how it sparked a movement for LGBT equality. The monument includes the Stonewall Inn and nearly eight acres around it in New York's Greenwich Village.

The LGBT people who resisted police at the Stonewall Rebellion (also known as the Stonewall Riots) are not saints in the traditional sense. But they are honored here as “saints of Stonewall” because they dared to battle an unjust system. They do not represent religious faith -- they stand for faith in ourselves as LGBT people. They performed the miracle of transforming self-hatred into pride. These “saints” began a process in which self-hating individuals were galvanized into a cohesive community. Their saintly courage inspired a justice movement that is still growing stronger after four decades.

Before Stonewall, homosexuality was illegal and police regularly raided gay bars, where customers submitted willingly to arrest. A couple of dozen acts of resistance pre-dated and paved the way for Stonewall, such as the 1967 demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles.

A new but controversial effort to tell the story of the uprising is the 2015 film “Stonewall.” It is directed by Roland Emmerich, better known for directing the action movie “Independence Day.” The film is a drama, not a documentary, told through the eyes of a fictional young white man from Indiana. Many in the LGBT community objected that the film downplayed the importance of drag performers, trans and bi women, butch lesbians and people of color in the Stonewall rebellion. Boycotts were organized to protest the way the erasure of these real-life activists in favor of a fictional white man.

The Stonewall Inn catered to the poorest and most marginalized queer people: drag queens, transgender folk, hustlers and homeless youth. Witnesses disagree about who was the first to defy the police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. It was either a drag queen or a butch lesbian. Soon the crowd was pelting the officers with coins, bottles, bricks and the like. The police, caught by surprise, used nightsticks to beat some people before taking refuge in the bar itself. News of the uprising spread quickly. Hundreds gathered on the street and a riot-control police unit arrived. Violence continued as some chanted, “Gay power!”

Drag queens started spontaneous kick lines facing the police with clubs and helmets. That dramatic moment is captured in the painting “It was Beautiful” by Douglas Blanchard. The drag queens met violence with defiant humor by singing,

We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!

That night 13 people were arrested and some hospitalized. The streets were mostly cleared by 4 a.m., but a major confrontation with police happened again the next night, and protests continued on a smaller scale for a week.

A month later the Gay Liberation Front was formed, one of many LGBT rights organizations sparked by the saints of Stonewall. LGBT religious groups are indebted to the saints of Stonewall for our very existence.

“Gay Liberation” by George Segal commemorates the Stonewall rebellion (Photo by Wally Gobetz)

One of the most significant Stonewall artworks is also the world’s first piece of public art honoring the struggle for LGBTQ equality. “Gay Liberation” was created in 1979 by famed pop sculptor George Segal. It consists of four statues, a gay couple and a lesbian couple, cast in bronze and painted white in Segal’s typical style. The figures are arranged realistically in casual poses, evoking the power of love with their ghostly presence.

The idea for a public sculpture honoring the 10th anniversary of Stonewall came from LGBT activist Bruce Voeller. His vision inspired the Mildred Andrews Fund of Cleveland to commission Segal to create the sculpture. After much controversy, vandalism and alternate locations, the sculpture was installed permanently across the street from the Stonewall Inn at Christopher Park, which also holds two monuments to Civil War heroes.

Artists usually choose between two approaches when addressing the Stonewall Uprising. Some focus on the action in the past while others highlight the present-day Stonewall Inn, which is still in operation as a bar for the LGBT community.

Artists who recreate the past include Doug Blanchard, a gay New York artist who teaches art at City University of New York and is active in the Episcopal Church. “It was Beautiful” and other Stonewall paintings by Blanchard were shown at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center of New York in 1999. His series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” has been featured here at the Jesus in Love Blog and in a 2014 book with text by Kittredge Cherry.

“The Battle of Stonewall - 1969” by Sandow Birk

California artist Sandow Birk put Stonewall history into heroic context in a big way. The oil paintings in his Stonewall series measure up to 10 feet wide. The crown jewel of the series is “The Battle of Stonewall - 1969.” It updates the classic painting “The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle - 1304” by 19th-century French artist Charles Philippe Lariviere. In both cases, the physically superior side attacked those who were considered weaker, but the underdogs won and gained their freedom. Birk replaces swords with police batons and turns national flags into “Gay Power” banners. The knight in shining armor is replaced by a drag queen in mascara and high heels. For more about Birk’s Stonewall series, see my previous post: Sandow Birk: Stonewall's LGBT history painted.

The actual Stonewall riots weren’t as white as Birk's paintings make it appear: “On the first night of the Stonewall riots, African Americans and Latinos likely were the largest percentage of the protestors, because we heavily frequented the bar,” scholar-activist Irene Monroe writes in  Dis-membering Stonewall, her chapter in the book Love, Christopher Street. “For homeless black and Latino LGBTQ youth and young adults who slept in nearby Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn was their stable domicile.”

“Stonewall Inn” by Trudie Barreras (Collection of Kittredge Cherry)

The location where history happened is emphasized in the colorful painting of the Stonewall Inn by Trudie Barreras, a long-time member of Metropolitan Community Churches. Her art and writing on queer religious themes have appeared frequently here at the Jesus in Love Blog. She also does personalized pet portraits as “donation incentives” for Jesus in Love.

“Prostrations at the Holy Places and Veneration to Our Martyrs (Stonewall Pilgrimage)” by Tony O’Connell

British artist Tony O’Connell paid homage to the power of Stonewall by photographing his own personal pilgrimage to the historic bar in New York City in 2013. He prayed with incense at the Stonewall Inn as part of his series on LGBT pilgrimages, which he does as performances recorded in photos. He travels to places of importance in LGBT history, treating the trip as a pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint. For more about O’Connell’s pilgrimages and other art, see my previous post Tony O’Connell reclaims sainthood: Gay artist finds holiness in LGBT people and places.

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem and the Stonewall Riots happen in Station 8 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button

Tennessee artist Mary Button weaves together the LGBT uprising at Stonewall with Christ’s journey to Calvary in Station 8 of her LGBT Stations of the Cross. She shows that a chain of oppression that stretches from the crucifixion of Christ to police harassment of LGBT people today, offering hope for resurrection. For more about Button’s Stations, see my previous post LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.

Despite the progress made, police raids of gay bars have continued in recent years, such as the notorious 2009 Rainbow Lounge raid in Forth Worth, Texas. June 28 is also the anniversary of the 2009 raid on the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas. Five customers were zip-tied and taken to jail, multiple others were arrested or detained, and one got a severe brain injury while in custody. The raid sparked an unprecedented public outcry that led to reforms.

The history of the Rainbow Lounge raid and reaction is told in the 2012 film “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,” directed by Robert Camina. He says it has “haunting parallels” to Stonewall. Emmy-nominated actress Meredith Baxter narrates the documentary. A video trailer is posted online.

May the saints of Stonewall continue to inspire all who seek justice and equality!

Related links:

2015 book for teens: “Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights” by Ann Bausum

Book: “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” by David Carter

Book: “Stonewall” by Martin Bauml Duberman

Video: “American Experience: Stonewall Uprising

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Gay Passion of Christ prints add beauty to home

Prints from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” add beauty to the home of Jesus in Love reader Scott Sella in Ohio.

What a lovely contemplative corner! It invites everyone to enjoy its peaceful atmosphere.

High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at:


Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Uganda Martyrs raise questions on homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights

Uganda Martyrs (with Saint Charles Lwanga in the center) by Albert Wider (Wikimedia Commons)

Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is June 3.

Forty-five Ugandan male pages refused to have sex with their king after they converted to Christianity -- so he executed them. Many were burned to death on June 3, 1886. These boys and young men were canonized by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, leaving some truths hidden by their halos.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Uganda Martyrs raise questions on religion and LGBTQ rights

Does the experience of the Ugandan martyrs illustrate a gay king being oppressed and demonized by conservative Christians? Or does it exemplify Christians heroically trying to rescue boys from sexual abuse by a pedophile king? Did Christians teach young African men shame about their own same-gender-loving desires? Or did Christians give the pages a way to refuse rape by a ruler with absolute authority? Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between? How can the story be interpreted so that LGBT Ugandans have equal access to justice... and to God?

The Uganda Martyrs are little known in the West, but they are famous in much of Africa. Martyrs Day on June 3 is a national holiday in Uganda. The story is called “African Christianity’s most celebrated martyr-passion narrative” by religion scholar Kenneth Hamilton. They were canonized in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.

The 45 martyrs were executed in 1886, but they are still important now with Uganda at the center of worldwide debate on homosexuality and the recent release of the film “God Loves Uganda.” The award-winning documentary exposes the role of today’s American evangelical missionaries in persecuting LGBT Africans and promoting a harsher law against homosexuality.

Once again LGBT Christians are caught in the middle as conservative Christians and LGBT advocates offer dueling interpretations use the story of the Ugandan martyrs for their own purposes. Perhaps this uncomfortable position gives a perspective that can shed fresh light on the event. The history doesn’t fit neatly into the usual debates about the church versus homosexuality.

The Uganda Martyrs have been used to instill homophobia and, as Pope Pope John Paul II put it, “to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” The story weaves together homo-hatred, racism, and imperialism that are still affecting the world today. Conservatives play up the sexual angle in salacious detail to win converts, discredit the LGBT-rights movement and promote “chastity.” At the other extreme, LGBT-rights advocates use the story to prove that homosexuality was indigenous to Africa, not a “western import” as the anti-gay faction claims. They tend to ignore the difference between sex and rape, while both sides blur the line between homosexuality and pedophilia.

Ultimately the story leads back to the same questions that people of faith are grappling with all over the world now: How can the church condemn sexual abuse while still affirming the goodness of sexuality, including same-sex relationships? The search for a new LGBT-positive sexual ethics is expressed in books such as “Sex as God Intended” by gay priest and psychotherapist John McNeill and “Sexuality and the Sacred,” edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow.

Today’s understanding of human psychology shows that rape is violence, not sex, and that pedophilia is not homosexuality, regardless of the gender of the child targeted. Christianity has been used to oppress queer people and colonize native peoples, but sometimes it has also provided an escape from abuse and an alternative to heterosexual marriage.

I watched “God Loves Uganda” for the first time in 2014 when it was broadcast on PBS (and released on DVD). Many others have praised the film, so I will focus here on questions that it raised in my mind.

I agree that American evangelicals are whipping up anti-LGBT sentiments in Uganda now to fuel their own power and egos. I also agree that American LGBT activists should be involved to some extent in Uganda to counteract the hate that is being imported. Thanks in part to the film, Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act law was eased so that homosexuality is punished by imprisonment, not the death penalty.

But what do Ugandans really want, apart from all this outside influence? Before Europeans brought Christianity and colonialism, what did the people of Uganda think about homosexuality?

It’s hard to say. I did a lot of research, but reliable answers are not easy to find. Sara Weschler offers the insights of a foreigner working in Uganda in her article, “How the West Was Wrong: Misunderstanding Uganda’s Gay Rights Crisis Makes It Worse” at Ttruthdig.com:

“One problem with Western LGBT activism vis-à-vis Uganda is that it is largely carried out by people who know little about the country beyond its stance on sexual orientation.... Gay rights will come to Uganda, but they will come slowly, and they will come only as part of a wider movement toward social justice in the country.”

Like many progressive reports on Uganda and homosexuality, the movie “God Loves Uganda” doesn’t even mention the Uganda Martyrs. It’s easier to omit the inconvenient truth of male-male sexual exploitation in the past. But no history of homosexuality in Uganda is complete without discussing the Ugandan martyrs killed in1886.

Here is a closer look at what happened. The Uganda Martyrs died at a time of tremendous change and culture clash in Uganda. The first Christian missionaries had arrived there only about a decade earlier in 1877. Arabs introduced Islam to Uganda at about the same time. It was still a few years before the British annexed the country in 1884.

King Mwanga II of Bugunda, now part of Uganda, was having sex on demand with the young men (and maybe boys) who served as his pages. He has been called “Africa’s most famous homosexual.” But maybe his sexuality was more complex. He had wives and children, so he might have been bisexual. He has been labeled a pedophile, but he was still a teenager himself. He began to reign at age 16 and was about 18 at the time of the executions. No matter how old the king’s sex partners were, requiring sexual service on pain of death is more like rape than gay sex between consenting adults. The youngest martyr, Saint Kizito, was about fourteen year old.

Saint Kizito, Uganda Martyr (Wikimedia Commons)

The crisis started when the king’s favorite pageboy, Mwafu, joined others in resisting his sexual demands. The royal pages were members of the elite, the noble sons of chiefs, but they ranked low in the king’s court. Some of them converted to Christianity and started denying King Mwanga the usual “pleasure,” so he rounded up the pages and ordered them to choose between him and Christianity. Only three chose the king. The rest of the pages got the death sentence. A large group ended up being marched eight miles and burned to death on Namugongo hill, where a shrine has been built. When all the killing was done, the victims were 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics, including chief pages Joseph Mukasa (first black Catholic martyr on the African continent) and Charles Lwanga.

“St. Charles Lwanga” by Julile Lonneman (TrinityStores.com)

The earliest accounts report that the king had sex with his male pages, but over the years there has been increasing emphasis on the “sinful demands” and “perversion” of the “debauched” king. Toxic colonial hagiography mixed homophobia with racist fears about the “dark.” uncivilized, heathens of Africa. The dead were quickly nominated as saints, and were canonized as official martyrs in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches.

A helpful queer analysis of the martyrdom is provided by Kenneth Lewis Hamilton, who wrote about the Uganda Martyrs in several scholarly articles and in his Ph.D. dissertation at Union Institute and University. Hamilton identifies himself as “an Afri-guided, postcolonial, queer, ordained, Catholic missioner.” He writes in an article titled “The Flames of Namugongo: Postcoloniality Meets Queer on African Soil?”:

And so, the establishment of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and Anglican Christianity—in Uganda directly coincides with a narrative about transgressive same sex desire. This makes for a provocative beginning for Christian discourse in Eastern Africa; and the subsequent canonization of the martyrs inscribes dark, dangerous desire into the very skin of Christian Uganda. The canonization, indeed, is a preached message; the narrative of the “martyrdom” now becomes part of a canon of new narratives: the ones about sodomy, race, desire and conquest.

The same article concludes:

I want to get more pictures of the martyrs into African chapels and online….I want more pictures of the martyr-boys on our black Catholic walls. These are the bodies and clans that now inhabit the heavens. But they do so like the slaves did: as a subversive presence, smiling in your face, but always ready to revolt and set each other free.

Inspired by these words by Hamilton, I searched the Internet for images of the Ugandan martyrs to accompany this reflection. First I found various icons.  Then I was stunned to discover an actual group photograph of the martyrs themselves, taken about a year before they were killed. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the photo for a long time. And their faces still haunt me.

Some of the future Uganda Martyrs were photographed in 1885, less than a year before they were killed, at Bukumbi Mission in Mwanza (northern Tanganyika). They went there to welcome the new Catholic bishop, Leon Livinhac.

I was doubly surprised that the queer analysis of the Ugandan martyrs in “The Flames of Namugongo” included a prayer from one of my own books, “Equal Rites.”

I wanted to end this reflection with a prayer too. First I looked at the official church prayers dedicated to the Uganda Martyrs, but they focused heavily on Christian faith and even “chastity, purity, and sexual morality.” They didn’t seem suitable for a reflection that seeks to develop a new ethics and spirituality that affirms loving same-sex relationships between consenting adults.

So I bring this to a close with the same prayer that Hamilton quoted from “Equal Rites.” These words were written by Elias (Ibrahim) Farajaje-Jones in his “Invocation of Remembrance, Healing, and Empowerment in a Time of AIDS”:

Yes, we honor you, our sisters and brothers.
Yes, we remember and recognize you have gone before us.
Without you, we would not exist here today.
Through us, you live on from generation to generation, from everlasting to everlasting.
And so we commit ourselves to a spirit of resistance and life.
We raise our light, our lives, our hope, our love, and we say boldly
and without fear, "Never again!" [Equal Rites, page 27]

I give the last word to one of the Uganda Martyrs. These lines are attributed to Bruno Serunkuma, spoken shortly before he was killed:

"A well that has many sources never runs dry. When we are gone, others will come after us."

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Mártires de Uganda plantean preguntas sobre la homosexualidad, la religión y los derechos LGBTI

Related links, queer interpretations and news:

Report: Anti-LGBT persecution increased under Uganda law (Washington Blade 2016)

Colonial Legacies, Decolonized Spirits: Balboa, Ugandan Martyrs and AIDS Solidarity Today” by Kenneth Hamilton (Journal of Bisexuality)

When Sodomy Leads to Martyrdom: Sex, Religion, and Politics in Historical and Contemporary Contexts in Uganda and East Africa” by John Blevins (Journal of Bisexuality)

Uganda Martyrs: Charles Lwanga and Companions (Queering the Church)

The Martyrs of Uganda witness against sexual violence (Daily Episcopalian)


"Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa" by Ezra Chitando and Adriaan van Klinken (Editors)

Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS” (book) by Marc Epprecht

Freedom To Love For ALL: Homosexuality is not Un-African” (book) by Yemisi Ilesanmi

American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism” by Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities” (book) by Will Roscoe

Related links, Catholic and standard Christian interpretations:

Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine (official website)

St. Charles Lwanga and Companions (Catholic.org)

The Story of the Ugandan Martyrs (America magazine)

The Uganda Martyrs: Their Countercultural Witness Still Speaks Today (The Word Among Us)

African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs” (book) by John F. Faupel (Author)

Related links at Jesus in Love:

David Kato: Ugandan LGBT rights activist (1964-2011)

A saint for kidnapped girls of Nigeria: Josephine Bakhita

Icons of Charles Lwanga and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com

This post is part of the LGBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts