Birthday Bash Celebrating 195 years of Activism: Beth’s Remarks
Beth Zemsky, Rebecca Voelkel and Barbara Satin celebrated their 60th, 50th, and 85th birthdays and their collective 195 years of activism on May 30, 2019, during an event hosted by the National LGBTQ Taskforce at the Dodge Nature Center in West Saint Paul, MN. In this video you can watch the event slideshow and hear Beth’s remarks. To read Rebecca and Barbara’s remarks, continue below.
195 Years of Activism: A Few Reflections on Loving, Fighting and Legacy
May 30, 2019
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
I was born on March 5, 1969, almost four months before the Stonewall Riots. As we gather here tonight, I am profoundly aware of the fact that my life has been intertwined with and deeply impacted by the life of the modern LGBTQIA+ movement. I’m also profoundly aware that many of those rioters and resisters who rose up at Stonewall, people like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and other trans+ women of color like those in STAR—the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries– didn’t make it to age 50, let alone 60 or 85. I stand here because so many have loved and laughed, struggled and died to make the path I’ve trod.
I’m also thinking of many smaller moments and how they have, collectively, knit together my story.
It was 1972 and I was riding the bus with my Grammie. She sat next to me as I stood on the seat and pointed out all the churches along our route into downtown Cleveland because she and my parents had already taken me to so many organizing meetings. It was also 1972 when Bill Johnson, who’d been ordained earlier that year as the first out gay person by the United Church of Christ, was invited by my parents to stay in our home.
It was 1977 and the United Church of Christ published its sexuality report that then sat on my dad’s library shelf for several years before I took it and kept it hidden under my mattress so I could consult with it as I talked with my best friend about whether she’d have sex with her boyfriend.
It was 1978 when I begged Mrs. Cunningham, my third grade teacher, for one of the flyers about the YMCA summer baseball league she was giving to all the boys. When she relented and gave me one and I signed up and we got the word that I wasn’t eligible because I was a girl, my mom organized a petition that reminded the YMCA that there was this thing called Title IX and that she would sue them if they didn’t let me play. I was one of three girls in the league that year. I played for the Dodgers and we lost our first game 44-11. But it was the beginning of a life-long love of organized sports which has included softball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, biking, running and swimming. And all of it taught me to love and trust my own body and its power and vulnerability.
It was 1983 when Melissa Gilbert played Jean Donovan in the made for TV movie about El Salvador’s US-funded death squads and I transferred my crush on Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder to Melissa Gilbert as Jean Donovan and read everything I could find about her and Archbishop Oscar Romero and Latin American Liberation theology. And then it was 1987 and 1988 and 1989 when that crush led me to participate in the Accompaniment movement and to live and study in Central America.
It was 1989 and, because of the courage of the Co-Madre movement in El Salvador and witness of a faith that was necessary for survival, I came home and both broke my silence about being a survivor of sexual violence and came out as a lesbian.
It was the 80’s and the 90’s and the 00’s and the 2010’s and there are so many Marches on Washington—against wars, for queer justice, for reproductive justice, for indigenous justice, for racial justice, for all of these together. I particularly remember marching with Queer Nation against the first Iraq War in which we staged die-ins at the height of the AIDS crisis and chanted hilarious, smart, sexually-explicit chants against the war (ask me what they were, I’d love to tell you!)
It was 2010 and Maggie, my parents and three year-old Shannon and I were driving in a car in which we’d put Shannon’s carseat in the third row of the rental car, surrounded by luggage. Not five minutes into the drive, Shannon, remembering the protest she’d been to when Prop 8 passed improvs from the back seat, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, discrimination has got to go, get me out of the trunk!”
It was 2013 and I stood with many of you in a packed church across from the Minnesota State Capitol the night before the Minnesota House passed marriage equality and we listened to Rabbi Latz talk about the symbolism of the chuppah and pagan leader Robin cast the circle and David Lohman lead us in singing For Everyone Born. And how, for a brief moment, we touched that elusive space of joy and justice.
It was 2018 and the temperature with the windchill was close to 30 below zero. Under the guidance and leadership of Kandace Montgomery and other Black Visions Collective folx, several of us who were clergy prayed and supported a dozen folx, including Rabbi Lekach-Rosenberg, who locked themselves to the fences to block the train coming into the SuperBowl to demand an end to business as usual.
In every year since March 5, 1969, there have been several through-lines:
•None of what I am or do is simply about me. I am because so many others are. And my liberation is deeply woven with yours.
•It is my duty to pass on to others the legacy that has been passed on to me.
•To be someone who claims to be spiritually and religiously grounded is to be called time and time again to resist Empire, injustice and violence and to help co-create God’s extravagant, bodacious, sexy world. And worship and protest, praying and breaking unjust laws, singing hymns and chanting in resistance are all sacred, spiritual practices.
•Our movements are at their best when they return regularly to healing trauma, celebrating the blessedness of embodiment and focusing on making love and justice in the world in small and big ways.
•Blessing upon blessing has been mine—through my biological family, through my chosen family, through Maggie and Shannon, through my movement families and particularly with so many of you in this room with whom I’ve had the honor and privilege of making sacred trouble. In particular, knowing and working and playing and praying with Beth and Barbara is sheer gift.
Thank you to Stacey and Sayre and the Task Force and thank you to each of you and all of you for being here tonight.
I’d love to end with some Holly Near. Please join with me. I am open and I am willing, for to be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us. So lift me up to the light of change.
I want to do a riff on Rebecca’s message.
While I am the oldest in age among this trio of Sheroes, I am also the rookie when it comes to length of advocacy activity.
Both Rebecca and Beth have been doing LGBTQ advocacy longer than I have
In fact both of them have been important participants in my trans journey – as mentor, facilitator, guide, model, connector. I value what they have added to my life.
They are an example of how we – all of us in this room – have people who have shaped us or the social environment in which we live. We have been molded and shaped by many
We stand on the shoulders of so many people – some no longer with us, others still doing their work to change the world.
There are a few of the other people I would call out as providing a shoulder to stand on:
State Senator Allen Spear State Legislator
State Senator Scott Dibble
I get called a lot of names – by that I mean really positive names – icon, matriarch, community treasure – some of it because of my visibility within the LGBTQ community – some of it because of my age.
I once – early on in my advocacy work – was stopped by an older lesbian who looked me in the eye and told me “you are a perfect crone.” At first I thought I was being insulted but then she reached out and kissed my cheek and said “thank you.” I finally realized she had confirmed on me a sincere, feminist-based compliment on my wisdom and demeanor.
Throughout most of my 20 plus years of activism, I have exercised what some have called my “Ministry of Presence – being visible as a trans women in places where we weren’t expected to be – restaurants, movie theaters, concerts and plays – and churches – yes, most importantly churches.
Let me tell you briefly how that came to be my approach to advocacy.
Story about National Gathering in Chicago, June 1998 – “that’s my dad”.
That experience led me further into leadership opportunities within the United Church of Christ locally and and nationally.
And that path also led me to the issue of LGBTQ Aging.
Creation of GLBT Generations – the spin-off of Training to Serve and the eventual development of Spirit on Lake – a 46 unit affordable rental facility focused on LGBTQ seniors – only the second such building in the country when it was opened in 2013 and now in its 6th year.
I was named the recipient of the national Allan Morrow Award by the National LGBTQ Task Force – then known as the Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
I was selected by President Obama to be a member of his Advisory council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2016 – since my two year term extended into the new administration – and I had never resigned, I kept waiting to hear from Trump but he never called.
My years of activism have been for the most part fruitful – along with some periods of fruitless effort.
But in all those efforts, I have tried to be true to the work and legacies of those who were there before me.
These are the many folks – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning plus brave allies – who tilled the soil of progressive action that allowed me to take my place and add to their rich accomplishments.
As I close, I want you to think about those who have provided the shoulders you stand on today. I use you to grab a Sharpie and add those names to the poster-board I have created – so their memories and work for equality and justice can be celebrated tonight.
Thanks for being here to share this special night and celebrate the many years of activism that Rebecca, Beth and I have brought to this movement.