“First They Ignore You … Then They Fight You, Then You Win”

11 mins read

As a member of the First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto, I have watched for years as the main denomination gathered thousands of commissioners at their General Assembly to debate and vote on key issues, including whether LGBTQQIA+ people would be welcome at the table. We queer folks (we’ve reclaimed that word) kept losing. It was frustrating, painful, and towards the end, began to feel hopeless.

“Towards the end” are interesting words. Towards the end of what? 

Mahatma Gandhi is famously credited with saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The fight for LGBTQQIA+ rights in the Presbyterian church was mostly invisible until a man named David Sindt stood outside the convention hall for the annual General Assembly holding a sign that asked: “Is Anyone Else Out There Gay?” That was 1974. It would be four decades before the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) would change its rules.

My husband and I are honored to have been given the David Sindt Award by More Light Presbyterians. We accepted the award at a banquet at the 2008 General Assembly by inviting the pastor who had performed our wedding in 1990 to sign our newly legal marriage license. Just an 18-year delay in what should have been done on our wedding day. Today, the PCUSA is fully inclusive of LGBTQQIA+ people. First they ignored us. Then they laughed at us. Then they fought like hell against us. And just when many of us were exhausted and some of us gave up, we won. 

The United States is a multicultural and wildly diverse country with a rainbow of peoples who inhabit the nation demanding visibility, inclusion, and equity. As Elizabeth Warren said, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

As previously marginalized people demand a seat at that table, including those who protested and flew Black Lives Matter banners after the murder of George Floyd, some who currently hold power call our demands discriminatory and divisive.

As those who were invisible in textbooks and school library books demand to be included, some who currently hold power say that we are only trying to make their children feel bad.

As those who were gerrymandered out of political power get their turn to help redraw the lines in their cities, counties, and states, those who previously held that power rail against the new lines as cutting them out.

As record numbers of people turned out to vote in the last election, many who supported the candidate who lost railed against making it too easy for everyone to vote. “If this continues we’ll never be able to win another election!” claimed former President Donald Trump. 

Sadly, more often than not, these aren’t calm, reasonable, rational discussions happening around a table with cookies and juice. The airwaves are filled with screaming, threats, and sometimes physical violence happening at school boards, election headquarters, and city council meetings. The Jan. 6 riot in our nation’s capital and the white nationalist rage-fest in Charlottesville are just two examples of people who are furious about and afraid of the changing landscape. They fear what America looks like and who will wield power in the coming years. And yes, some of the protests following George Floyd’s murder, by people who had endured centuries of punishment because of the color of their skin, also turned violent. 

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator and TV dinner scion, takes pride in saying he is fighting against a “great replacement,” where people who don’t look like him will force him to give up his power. That’s a concept that the tiki-torch carrying white supremacists chanted about in Virginia, screaming, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” 

As I doom-scroll, I’m often shocked by the level of vitriol, and just as in those decades-ago General Assembly meetings where folks said terrible things about LGBTQQIA+ people and our supporters, I can find myself feeling hopeless and scared. Then I remember that in the PCUSA, when the arguments were the most vicious, when those on the side of inclusion were feeling like the cause might be lost, suddenly, we won. 

Rev. Byron Bland, a Presbyterian minister and renowned expert on forgiveness and reconciliation who brought people together in Northern Ireland and is now working to help Congress function better, teaches that in order to achieve peace, people on both sides of a fight must be able to see each other in their mutual futures. That’s why I think it is important to share my vision of the future, so that people fighting against me are assured that they have a place here. In my future, I see a group of children in school, studying history, learning about the spectacular achievements and failures of the people who came before them. Every student will have opportunities to see people who look like them, who have families like theirs, doing great things and making mistakes. My future will put an emphasis on empathy, learning to put yourself into another’s shoes. We will celebrate the tastes and sounds of all the cultures on the planet, cheering differences and pursuing common causes for the good of the community and planet.

In my future, people will go beyond just seeing shades of difference between each other and want to learn more about themselves and their neighbors. Where did my ancestors live, what languages did they speak, what kinds of foods did they eat, what kinds of challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Who lived on this soil before me? What happened to them? If my ancestors did things that we see today as wrong, is there still healing to be done to make up for it? How can we make sure such things don’t happen again? Who might need help up today after being held down yesterday?

If you are a white, cisgender male, can you see yourself in the future I just described? I certainly see you! I’d love to know more about you than what a casual glance might tell me. If you’re a Tongan-American man married to a Latin-X transgender woman, can you see yourself? I certainly see you! Tell me all about how you met and what your lives are like. 

This incredible experiment called the United States of America is experiencing some of the most tumultuous days in our history. I’m a Russian, Romanian, and Polish-American Jewish cisgender gay man, married to a Japanese-American Presbyterian cisgender gay man. We own a book, toy, and gift shop on a street where our customers are from all over the planet and speak a cacophony of languages in addition to fluent English. Within a few feet from my door I can find delicious food inspired by recipes from all over the world. I feel like we may be reaching the end of the era of white European cisgender straight male supremacy in this nation. No one should have supreme power based on their ancestry, gender, or whom they love. 

The white nationalist movement, the Steve Bannons of the world, the tiki-torch people, want to make us think that their numbers are greater than they actually are. They want to scare us into giving up this fight. They want to beat us down and break our hearts. I truly believe they are the minority in this country, aided and abetted by others who see their wealth and power threatened by change. There are some who may profit from discord, and more who are simply afraid that their own place in this country may disappear. All of their voices may seem way too loud right now.

We need to remember the words attributed to Gandhi and recognize that this may, in fact, be the last gasp of a dying belief system. And, when victory comes, we’ll need to make sure everyone who is willing to share in this ongoing experiment in democracy sees a place for themselves in what will truly be an exceptional country, one that lives up to the ideal that all humans are created equal, as free to pursue happiness as all of their neighbors. We all deserve an equitable place at the table and the food on that table will be fabulous because of the diversity of peoples who cooked up the dinner.  

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Craig Wiesner is the owner of Reach And Teach Books Toys and Gifts, a shop dedicated to making the world more peaceful, sustainable and inclusive.

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