The celebration of Juneteenth marked a milestone in the history of African American people in the United States. June 19, 1865 was the day that Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, where he read General Order #3 finally informing the slaves in the State of Texas that they were free, and implementing the Emancipation Proclamation made by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
And with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15thAmendments, no longer would African American men each be counted as 3/5ths of a man, but only for the purpose of enlarging the impact of the votes of white men in slave states.
But who was left behind?
African American women.
In most states, still under the common law, marriage meant that “the two shall become one, and that one is the husband.” New York was one of a few states that had enacted “Married Women’r Property Acts, first in 1848, allowing married women to control their inherited property, and then in 1860, allowing married women to control their won wages.
But in many other states, women were given from the custody of their fathers, to the custody of their husbands – without rights, just like the “civil death” imposed on convcted felons.
The abolitionist movement had been almost evenly split on the idea of women’s rights.
So – when the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were added to the Constitution, women were told, “you have to wait.”
Women worked on various states, securing the right to vote in some, and ecpanding the number of states in which they obtained legislative relief from the common law “civil death” for inheritances, and wages.
Finally, in 1920, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote – 55 years after Juneteenth.
Women had parity in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – BUT that was a fluke. The last minute amendment to add coverage for women was added by a segregationist, who thought that by adding women to the Act, it would lead what he believed would be fellow patriarchist northern moderates to reject the whole bill.
We are seeing a similar act playing out in the New York legislature today – at the time I wrote this sermon, New York is on the cusp of possibly enacting an historic bill that would enlarge the connubium of marriage rights by making the freedom to marry a gender neutral one, rather than being one of requiring that the parties be members of the opposite sex.
I can think of a couple of similar occasions – when the Roman Republic amended its laws to provide for connubium between patricians and plebeians. Prior to that, patricians and plebeians could not intermarry.
In American history, for many years there were laws against racial mixing in marriage – though they were for the maintenance of some mythical “purity” of the “white race,” since interracial marriages were permitted as long as no party was white.
California was the first state to overturn its anti-miscegenation laws, but the culmination of the effort came when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Virginia’s law (as well as the laws of the remaining 18 states with such laws on their books) in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1) case.
Today, there are yet other civil rights movements, and just as there was a situation in which the recognition of legal rights of women have lagged behind the rights of African American men, we now have a situation where the recognition of legal rights of transgender people are lagging behind those accorded to people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.
New York stands to be the sixth state to allow marriage rights to be expanded on a gender neutral basis – and this does provide rights to transgender people, too. But we were left out of the hate crimes law in 1999, and the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act was passed in 2002 without including transgender people in human rights laws.
Trans people are perhaps the least understood and most maligned minority in the United States. A recently published study, entitled Injustice at Every Turn, discloses the extent of the plight of my people. And yet, in debating the GENDA bill in the Assembly last week, Republicans were openly referring to it as a “:sexual perverts and predators relief act” in their remarks..
Celebration may be coming soon on marriage. And I will join in those celebrations, though my celebration will be muted, somewhat. As Frederick Douglass noted in his famous 4th of July speech in 1841, my time for celebration will not yet have arrived. And until my people are freed from the bonds of discrimination under the law, the idea of celebration rings hollow.
In today’s reading from Isaiah (Is. 61:1-2, 10-11), we see a foretaste of Juneteenth, and of the eventual recognition of the human rights of transgender people “The Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives and release of prisoners.
And what does Paul (Gal.3:26-29) have to say? We are all one in Christ Jesus, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.
In the Gospel of John (John 15:9-17) Yeshua himself calls us friends, and not slaves or servants.
So when people proclaim in their ignorance that God hates gay people, or that transgender people are less than human, they do not know what they are talking about.
When people, including high ranking prelates in large churches, hold out against basic human rights for transgender people, and the right to marry for people who are different, quite frankly, they are not asking WWJD!
So – on this celebration of Juneteenth, when there is much to praise, much to celebrate, and much for which to give thanks, we should also pause and reflect on just how much farther we must go before the arc of history bends far enough so that justice for all can be rendered, and we can all be free.