Scripture: Acts 8: 26-40
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
June 24, 2018
June is Pride Month. Today is designated “Open and Affirming Sunday” in the United Church of Christ. I thought that the movie “Battle of the Sexes” would be most fitting for today. I could personally relate to this movie on every level — from tennis competition to the fight for gender equality to struggles with sexual orientation.
Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in the 1973 tennis match billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.” King was at the top of her game, the first female player to win over $100,000 in a year. Thirty years earlier, Bobby Riggs had been at the top of his game. He had been ranked the #1 player internationally for three years. Billie vs. Bobby. This match became one of the most televised sport events of all time, reaching 90 million viewers around the world.
On September 20th, 1973, the new Houston Astrodome was filled to capacity. King made her grand entrance. Billy Jean was carried like Cleopatra, Roman style, into the Astrodome. Riggs opted for a rickshaw driven by a group of buxom models dubbed “Bobby’s bosom buddies.” They even exchanged gifts: King received a novelty-sized Sugar Daddy lollipop (Riggs’ personal sponsor for the match). Riggs was given a baby pig, a symbol of his male chauvinism. (Show trailer.)
King won the match in three straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The match represented an enormously satisfying win for women in tennis. After the tennis, the two became friends and remained close until Bobby Rigg’s death in 1995. King said she spoke to Riggs the day before he died, and they said, “I love you” to each other.
In addition to her public battle for gender equality on the courts, Billie Jean King faced a private battle off the courts. Though she was married to a man, she struggled with her sexual orientation. King told The New York Times in a 2006 feature that she discovered her attraction to women in 1968. “The whole world was in tumult, and so was I,” King said. “I was so ashamed.” She didn’t tell her family or her husband about her struggles and was unprepared to cope when she met Margaret Barnett, her hair stylist who later became King’s personal assistant and girlfriend.
This love affair between King and Barnett nearly cost King her career. Billie Jean King did become an LGBTQ advocate. In 2009, King received the National Medal of Freedom from then president, Barak Obama.
During this Pride month, I give thanks for those courageous persons such as Billie Jean King who have made a way for the LGBTQ community. I give thanks for such persons as:
Quentin Crisp. Born in England in 1908, Crisp coined the phrase “coming out of the closet” in 1931. His exact words were, “I wish to live in the world and not in a closet.” For decades he was the lone out gay man in all of the UK. Despite numerous beatings, false arrests and denial of public accommodations, he stood his ground.
Gertrude Stein lived from 1874 – 1946. She was an American writer and poet, famous for writing honest and candid portrayals of lesbian relationships.
James Baldwin, an African-American literary writer and critic, as well as an icon for civil and gay rights. Far ahead of his time, Baldwin was “out and proud” before that term became a popular cultural idiom.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history. He literally sacrificed his life. In a premonition, he said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
William Johnson, the very openly gay person ordained in a mainline Protestant denomination. Which denomination ordained him? United Church of Christ. This took place before homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association.
Ellen Degeneres on her t.v. show Ellen in 1997 said the words “I’m gay.” She reached 44 million people all at once with those two words and changed popular culture forever.
Trans person Chaz Bono reached millions too as he appeared on Dancing with the Stars so soon after his transition.
I give thanks for straight allies such as Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, and Dolly Parton. Dolly, especially, who was raised as a conservative Christian in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, yet embraces everyone.
One of the first straight allies of all time was Jeremy Betham, a British philosopher who wrote an early defense of gay rights in the 1700’s. He argued against laws prohibiting homosexuality, arguing that society was disproportionately making too big a deal out of something that is largely private.
During this Pride month, I give thanks for these courageous persons who made a way for the LGBTQ community, which I believe began way back in the book of Acts. In our scripture passage today, we meet a black Ethiopian eunuch. What exactly is a eunuch? A eunuch is a man who had been castrated for various reasons – often because of military conquest.
Needless to say, our modern cultural context is very different from the biblical context. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the words “transgender” or “gender non-conforming.” This does not mean that there are not gender variant folks in the Bible, however. In biblical times, the main group of gender variant people were “eunuchs.”
Often times they served as protectors or overseers of royal women since they are now considered “safe” to be around women because they had been surgically altered.
Though eunuchs held esteemed positions they were often looked down upon in ancient Jewish culture. Why? Because the Jews were a small tribe. They could not risk being overrun by neighboring tribes. Therefore, reproduction was of the utmost importance. Eunuchs could not reproduce.
During early Israel’s history, eunuchs and “foreigners” (all people who were not Israelites) were on the “excluded” list. Yet, in our scripture passage today we meet this eunuch who was reading the scripture about the Messiah as the suffering servant. Certainly, the suffering servant is someone he could identify with. This Messiah had been cut off, just like him.
Empowered by the scripture passage from Isaiah, the eunuch asks, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” The way the eunuch asks the question implies that this person is used to having people and things stand in the way of his full acceptance in society. The eunuch was asking Philip to be courageous enough to believe that the eunuch too was loved and welcomed and accepted by God. Philip boldly baptizes the eunuch into the family of God. The first gentile convert to Christianity is a black Ethiopian gender variant person. This is revolutionary and highly symbolic of who is included in the Kingdom (Kindom) of God.
During this Pride month, I give thanks for those persons — from the African eunuch to Philip, from Billie Jean King to you who call us to a world of radical inclusivity for all. I firmly believe that God calls us to nothing less.
While love may mean nothing in tennis – quite literally – it means everything as followers of Christ. Beloved, may we continually expand our ever widening circle of God’s radical, revolutionary inclusive love! Amen.