By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Middle Collegiate Church combined civil rights and Pride for an all-inclusive Juneteenth celebration last week. Senior minister Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis said that the event for Pride month was consciously held on Juneteenth. The holiday, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the emancipation of all slaves from the former Confederate states in 1865.
“We wanted to do something Juneteenth-related because it doesn’t get nearly enough recognition,” Lewis said. “We’ve been celebrating Pride 24/7/365 at Middle for decades and we’re super excited to combine these two liberation movements. This was a way to celebrate these two things together.”
The event, which honored civil rights activist Ruby Sales and gay rights activist Gary Ranker, who died earlier this year, also served as the launch of the photo exhibit, “Queer Faith,” which was also featured at the Union Theological Seminary in East Harlem.
Sales was at the event and spoke about realizing that she was a lesbian, coming out and joining the gay rights movement while fighting for civil rights.
“In that counterculture education, when the word got out, my teachers told me that I could show the world all my identities, that I did not need to live in a sexual ghetto, a racial ghetto, a gender ghetto, that I could show up as Ruby Nell Sales in all my iterations,” she said. “It also taught me that sometimes you have to go into very dangerous places to find the sound of your name. I went to Washington DC in the 70s at the height of the LGBTQ movement and it created a foundation of a cohesive struggle of black and brown lesbian and gay women and men.”
Sales also recognized by name a number of black women that she fought with who shaped the movement.
“It’s important to call the names because even in queer history, all of the names principally are white and only sometimes the names are black and brown,” she said. “As we celebrate pride, it is important to raise our consciousness so that we democratize the way in which we tell the story of how we got over and how far we’ve come to be a community.”
Ranker marched in Sacramento at the beginning of the gay liberation, joining Richard Cassidy and Harvey Milk, and his son Kevin spoke at Middle about his father’s struggle in the movement, especially through the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic.
“Facing that much cost us. It was an entire generation of queer people lost,” he said. “Regardless of what we face, we cannot back down. What I learned from my father is that love is not defined by gender. It’s defined by what’s in your heart. Love will always prevail.”
Actor and singer Tituss Burgess, who attends services at Middle Church regularly, was supposed to perform at the event but got called upstate at the last minute for a film shoot. Despite not being able to perform, Burgess recorded a video message for the audience expressing his regrets and spoke about why the church’s activist message is important to him.
“It takes you to the streets. It’s the place I can be the me-est me and you can be your you-est you,” he said. “The traits that Middle houses are becoming rare qualities in a church and that is not good. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. We are equipped and we have all the tools.”
Wesley Rowell, a member of Middle Church, spoke about how closely linked the emancipation of the slaves and the gay liberation movement are for him.
“We’re talking a lot about intersections tonight, and my address is the corner of queer and black,” he said. “It’s not a leap for me to talk about Juneteenth and Stonewall together. They’re a hundred years apart but for me, it’s just a step. It’s the same struggle.”