Pride Is Life
Jun 22, 2018
By The Rev. Jared R. Stahler, Chair of MNYS Worship Committee
TW: Murder, hate crime
Pride is nothing short of life for me and my family. Yet we didn’t always see it that way. I certainly didn’t always see it that way. In my childhood and teenage years, I don’t think I could even have dreamed about pride as life.
I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town shaped in part by its relationship to surrounding farm country, in part by its relationship to the nearest city centers of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, and in part by the relationship of small town, farm country, and these cities to the metropolises of New York and Philadelphia. A mix of blue collar workers and business persons; a mix of farms, art venues and colleges, we had our own brand of conservative liberalism and liberal conservatism. We weren’t the New York or Philadelphia liberals, though we knew them. We weren’t Bible-thumping conservatives, though we knew them, too. These people were — and are — our family and friends, our co-workers, our business partners. For however close and intertwined, though, I internalized a deep sense of being distinct from all this. Whereas others might be bold and ready to march, rally and canvas for various social causes, not so much people like us. We decidedly averted the so-called culture wars.
Labor was the concern for just about everyone “living here,” as Billy Joel put it in his early ’80s eponymous hit song, “in Allentown.” Here an overt commitment to decency, hard work, honor and family pervaded people of different races, religions, ethnic backgrounds. My father was the local IBEW board president. Picket lines and strikes were regular activities for us. Encamped outside corporate offices, setup on the sidelines of union softball games, and gathered at church picnics, I came to know my father’s work buddies and their kids. Black, latino and white children of laborers—we learned from our parents the value of binding together, standing up for one another and struggling hand in hand.
I never really came out. I’m not certain how anyone would have responded. The earliest litmus I can recall for what it might mean to have come out was a classmate of mine who one day started cross-dressing. It was tolerated for a while. Though when the middle school principal figured out this classmate’s long black dress paired with Doc Martins was more goth uniform than anything else, he banned it. The idea of coming out, in truth, never really crossed my mind. Nothing about the norms of the place I knew and loved as home would have ever sparked in me even the idea of coming out.
While I didn’t know quite how to acknowledge my sexuality growing up, certainly looking back on my teenage years I knew that I was “different.” As a student at Oberlin College I never really came out, either. Many are fond of saying that at Oberlin you are presumed gay before being proven straight. For however much my family tried to have this conversation with me, I would’t have it with them. I perceived it to be too far off the spectrum of what made us, us. This mentality was underscored by my gradual entry into the ELCA’s ordination process in the early 2000s. In the years leading up to the 2009 Churchwide assembly action seeking to curb the church’s discriminatory policies and practices, there were an increasing number of high-profile actions against LGTBQ clergy. I found the prospect of coming out more and more difficult.
At the same time, I was becoming more and more shaped by time away from the place I call home. Oberlin led to Yale, and I was experiencing a widening world view thanks to reading history, learning theory and acquiring a vocabulary to express a variety of perspectives. The conservative liberalism and liberal conservatism I grew up with couldn’t quite hold me as comfortably as it had before.
I finally told my younger sister about Nick. She wasn’t surprised. She did’t quite say she wished I had been open with her before, but she certainly hoped going forward I would be more open and that we would grow closer. She and her husband met Nick and me for dinner one night in New York City. It was clear from the start that they had a future brother-in-law they loved dearly.
About the same time a cousin, who for a number of reasons was more like an older sister than anything else, started dating someone new. She had divorced a few years prior and was raising two children as a single mom. She and my sister were especially close, and one day in conversation they discuss how a man she was dating and was quite taken with was recently out of prison and on parole. He had, just a few years before, killed someone—a gay man.
My sister was immediately alarmed. She was worried about our cousin’s safety and the safety of the two children. Our cousin was worried too, but was head over heels for this guy and seemed captive to his “self defense” story and other attempts to subvert his actions. My sister tried every way possible to help our beloved cousin free herself from this relationship, including telling her I was gay.
The family crisis was epic. Sexuality. Murder. There are few things that send anxiety through the roof and create almost unbearable tension quite like this. Though the family crisis was far from resolved, this man violated his parole and returned to prison. We continued the slow and painful process of responding to my dramatic outing. The fairest way to describe the aftermath of all this was stasis. Everyone was so hurt, and yet fundamentally relieved that real danger was mitigated, that tacit acceptance seemed a positive outlook.
Then, on June 26, 2010 it all changed. The parole board released this man from prison without involvement or notice to our family, as had been promised. He left his Allentown half-way house, bought two military-grade knives at a local pawn shop and boarded a public bus. He stormed my cousin’s home and killed her. He killed her father (my uncle) who lived in the basement apartment. He killed Pop (our name for her grandfather), who was ill and lived with her. A neighbor heard the cries and tried to come to their rescue. He killed him, too.
One year later he pled guilty to four counts of murder among other charges, which meant no long two-month trial as was expected, but a two-week sentencing phase. That didn’t make those two weeks in court any easier, including each evening back at home having to update my cousin’s two children on what had happened in that day’s proceedings. Talk always turned to the four murders. One evening my cousin’s daughter stopped us and said definitively, “There weren’t four, there were five. He killed five people.” She was absolutely right.
In this sentencing phase we learned that the state did not prosecute the first murder as a murder. The investigators on that case had put together that this guy had gone to a gay bar, gone home with his victim and there killed him. It was clearly a hate crime, but never prosecuted as one. He was charged with some lesser offense, which came with less time in prison and an easier road to parole, and re-parole. Every step along the way the file was absolutely clear, but prosecutor after prosecutor, parole board after parole board, responsible person after responsible person turned the other way.
My cousin’s daughter grew up shaped by the same surroundings I had, and spoke boldly and courageously to it. Certainly she did not know the theory behind systemic discrimination nor did she have the theory to express it, but at ten years of age she had the experience to name it. Not four murders, but five.
In our family pride is life because we know all too well the implication of letting the status quo continue while promising to protect the vulnerable. We know the result of silence. And, still more than this. Justice for us means something far more than prosecution and conviction because nothing will ever bring back our loved ones, the hero who attempted to save them and that man killed simply for being gay. Justice for us means eradication of systems that harbor even the slightest element of prejudice because prejudice and discrimination, especially when couched in hollow pledges and spruced up as action, always kills. For us, then, pride is and can be nothing other than life, and life is nothing less than living in pride.
Jared R. Stahler is associate pastor of Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. He and family members are pictured here proudly on the New York City pride float of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and with the Latinos Diferentes / Visible Witness ministries at Iglesia de Sion/Saint Peter’s Church.