~ 2 Samuel 1:17-27 ~
June 25, 1978 – Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. Newly elected San Francisco supervisor, Harvey Milk, had urged his activist friend, Gilbert Baker, an openly gay former military officer turned artist, to create a new, more hopeful, symbol for the gay community to be used in the annual parade.
You see, up to this point the primary symbol for the LGBT community was the pink triangle. It still is a symbol. Just look up at Twin Peaks where every year for Pride month a huge pink triangle is installed on the mountainside. The pink triangle was one of those symbols that at one time was a badge of shame reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity. In Nazi Germany the pink triangle was used as a concentration camp badge to identify gay men. In the early 70’s it was revived as a symbol of protest against homophobia. Thus it is still a powerful symbol of resistance against oppression.
But I think Harvey was looking for something even more positive, more hopeful, without the dark past of the triangle. So he urged Gilbert to come up with something new.
Judy Garland was a tragic figure, especially in the gay community, having committed suicide in 1969. Of course, Judy’s most famous role was as Dorothy in the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. And, of course, the signature song from the movie was Over the Rainbow. All of this came together to make Judy an icon for the gay community. Indeed, at a time when it was not safe to publicly identify as a homosexual, the euphemism “Friend of Dorothy” became a way to discretely let others know.
All of this influenced Gilbert as he mused about what this new symbol should be. The idea that the colors of the rainbow could be that inspiring message came to fruition in the first Rainbow Flag featured in the San Francisco Freedom Day Parade on that June day in 1978. And quite a flag it was. It had eight colored stripes, not the six that is currently used (Eventually the hot pink and the turquoise stripes were dropped for manufacturing reasons). Baker said, “We needed something that expressed us. The rainbow really fits that, in terms of – we’re all the colors, and all the genders and all the races. It’s a natural flag; the rainbow is in the sky and it’s beautiful. It’s a magical part of nature.” And did I mention that it was a huge flag: 30 ft. by 60 ft.
The rainbow flag became permanently ensconced as a symbol of the gay community when tragedy struck in November of that year – the assassination of Harvey Milk. As a symbol of unity for a grieving LGBTQ community it made complete sense. And now the rainbow flag is flown proudly around the world, including US embassies and our church. So it is that the euphemism “friend of Dorothy” has been transformed into a rainbow display of worth and dignity, to be proudly proclaimed with ‘pride’.
Our scripture reading from Second Samuel appears to contain some euphemistic phraseology. But first, a reminder about what is a ‘euphemism’. A ‘euphemism’ is a mild or indirect way of expressing something considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing; something innocuous in place of offensive. Today, some ‘euphemisms’.
I want to point out that this reading is just coincidentally the assigned lectionary Hebrew text for this Sunday, despite the fact that it has been the subject of considerable speculation that David and Jonathan were, indeed, gay.
King Saul and his son Jonathon have been slain in battle. In response David sings or, as it reads, ‘intones a lament’ over Saul and Jonathan. Towards the end of this lament, David says, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” In a couple other places the chronicler says that “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18:1). And this: “Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David” (1 Samuel 19:1). In another place, Saul expresses his anger toward Jonathan, saying, “…you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness” (1 Samuel 20:30). All these appear to be euphemistically ambiguous. Could they be describing a relationship between David and Jonathan that was more than merely friendship?
It is certainly true that in the Old Testament, same-sex relationships were regarded as sin. Leviticus 20:13 states it pretty plainly: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. Yet, what is often missed here is that this law, indeed, the whole book of Leviticus, was formulated hundreds of years after David lived. But in the ultimate shaping of the finished text sometime after 500 BC, the collating, if you will, of the stories of David, some of the language could have been purposely toned down.
Indeed, this is entirely speculation. And, true, we humans seem to enjoy speculating. But we don’t know if David was gay. There was no such concept in the ancient world, no such distinction between heterosexual and homosexual. Certainly people in the ancient world did have same-sex relations. Did David and Jonathan? We’ll never know. As to why same-sex practice grew into such an abomination in the eyes of Israel’s later lawmakers, I also don’t know.
And yet, through the ages, religious folk have continued to get really worked up about homosexuality. Whereas I am speculating about what these words and phrases from First and Second Samuel, there are those who are quite certain what those words and phrases don’t mean. I find their pushback somewhat interesting.
Basically, they say that David could not have been gay! He was a Holy King, the “apple of God’s eye” (Psalm 17). God would never have chosen him if he was a homosexual. Homosexuality, they say, always was and always will be an abomination to God, a heinous sin. God has never chosen abominable leaders. They are quite certain about all this.
And that certainly has prevailed through much of history. As a result the struggle has been long and arduous, a life-and-death struggle for many, to get to the place we are today. But slowly, things have changed.
Yesterday was the eight-year anniversary of the SCOTUS decision, United States v. Windsor, that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages. On that same day the court issued a ruling that allowed same-sex marriages in California to resume. My friends, David and Will, posted a picture from that day holding a sign, “Just engaged!” Then, of course, two years later in Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruled that same-sex marriage was guaranteed in all fifty states. Incredible victories! And yet, even today there is considerable trepidation that this current SCOTUS could undo all of that. Constant vigilance appears to be needed.
We, here, at Noe Valley Ministry have set aside the extreme nitpicking and literalistic proof texting of the Bible that tries to justify the denial of people’s sexual identity. Indeed, we reject wholly any attempt to use the Bible or religion to diminish the full expression of who we all are – truly beloved of God. Each of us has worth and dignity, and that worth includes our gender and our sexuality. So, here at Noe Valley Ministry, we don’t just put out a rainbow flag signaling we are welcoming, that we open our doors to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Rather, we value the diversity of our sexual-selves and our gender-selves and see them as spiritual gifts. May we live that out proudly.
An interesting story about the euphemism I mentioned earlier, “friends of Dorothy.” In the 1980’s the Naval Investigative Service decided to investigate homosexuality in the Chicago area. Agents discovered that gay men sometimes referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy.” Unaware of the true connection, they went about trying to find the woman named Dorothy who they were convinced was at the center of a massive ring of homosexual military personnel. So they launched a futile hunt for the elusive “Dorothy,” hoping to find her and convince her to give up the names of the gay service members in her group.
Looking back on his legacy, Gilbert Baker, the flag maker, said, “It all goes back to the first moment of the first flag back in 1978 for me. Raising it up and seeing it there blowing in the wind for everyone to see. It completely astounded me that people just got it, in an instant, like a bolt of lightning – that this was their flag. It belonged to all of us.”
And, maybe, just maybe, we have Dorothy and her iconic song to thank. So, let us hear Over the Rainbow sung by Merrill Grant.