The Freedom They Fought For

What would you give your life for? What is the thing that is most precious to you, that you would protect and defend to your dying breath? We’d probably all agree that we’d sacrifice ourselves to save a member of our family. We’d put ourselves in the line of fire to protect our children, our partner, our spouse. Maybe we’d be willing to defend to our death someone we’re not related to if they’re weak and vulnerable. An infant – any infant – perhaps, or someone who’s disabled or elderly. Some people might do the same to protect their property. We’ve all read accounts of people who refuse to turn over their wallet or their purse in the face of an assailant – often to their detriment, and those who stay behind after evacuation orders from a looming hurricane or an approaching fire.

Would you die to save the environment? Would you be one of those people who chain themselves to a grand sequoia to protect it from a logger’s saw? Would you face down men from the pipeline company armed with automatic weapons to protect waters you consider sacred? Would you risk your life to save a whale that’s wrapped in a seine net? I watched a riveting video recently of a dog that was stranded in rising flood waters. A man waded out into the torrent to rescue it, and a group of bystanders formed a human chain to help him and the dog to safety. Was a dog worth his own life? To him, I guess it was.

In her haunting song, sung just a couple weeks ago by our choir, Ysaye Barnwell asks, “Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew/a heretic, convict or spy? Would you harbor a run away woman, or child, a poet, a prophet, a king? Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee, a person living with AIDS? Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth, a fugitive or a slave? Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech, a lesbian or a gay? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?” Would you, would I, if it meant I might lose my life?

Would you die for a cause? For a principle? To what values are you so committed that you’d lay down your life for them? How many death threats would it take for you to back down? Or would you be a Malcolm or a Martin and press on despite the very real risk of harm? How many of us would rally and march for racial justice, women’s rights, assault weapons bans, free and fair elections – name the cause that you’re most passionate about -  if we knew not that we’d just be arrested, but that we might actually be killed doing it? Would we stand on the side of love, even in the face of death?

Thankfully, for most of us, these questions are little more than an intellectual exercise. From the comfort and privilege of our everyday lives, we can speculate. We might even confidently answer “yes” to some or all of them. But we’ll never really know, will we? Until the time comes, which we hope it never will. There are countless things to which we’ll readily devote our lives, but I fear there are very few for which we’d willingly give them. It’s why we revere our martyrs, why we erect monuments to their memory, why mere mortals are immortalized in song and story. Because we know, or at least we fear, in our heart of hearts that we’d never be brave enough to take a bullet willingly for what we believe in.

And while we sit in the comfort and privilege of our living rooms and our lives, there are more than a million of our fellow citizens who are serving in active duty in our military, and another 800,000 in the reserves. At any one time, there are more than two million men and women working to defend our country and our freedom. And, since the military draft ended decades ago, they’re all volunteers. Now, we can argue about how “voluntarily” many in our military have chosen to serve, since many of them have limited opportunities for jobs and advancement in the civilian world. It’s important to acknowledge that there are disproportionately high numbers of poor, under-educated, and black and brown people in our military, and that we have created something of a “warrior class” in our country – people we pay to fight our wars and our battles for us. Nevertheless, at any one time there are more than two million Americans who have sworn an oath to put their lives on the line to “protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic.” Today, as we observe Veteran’s Day on this centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, we offer up our thanks to all those who have served, all those we have lost, all those whom they left behind, and all those who choose to put themselves in harm’s way for our benefit. By enlisting in the armed services, they have stepped forward and said “Yes, I would die for the principles for which our nation stands.” We are grateful for their service.

Now, imagine that you had no choice. No choice but to put yourself at risk. And not just in certain situations or for certain causes, but at every moment of every day. Imagine that, just by doing the normal things that most of us take for granted – walking the dog, going to the supermarket, going to school, eating in a restaurant, walking across the parking lot from your car to your work – you were putting your life on the line. Not because you wanted to, not because you made the conscious decision to, but because, well, that’s the way it is. Because you are a target, simply because you’re you. Most of us can’t imagine choosing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Can you imagine the toll it would take on your psyche and on your spirit if this was a fact of your everyday existence? That’s what transgender people face, day in and day out, for their entire lives. And as we observe the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are called to remind ourselves of this reality. Trans people are the targets of violence at rates that far exceed those of the general population. The rate at which trans people are murdered each year even rivals the rate, in some years, at which our soldiers die in combat. Think about that. And that doesn’t take into account the high rate of suicide among trans people. Because of bullying, lack of family support, sexual abuse and many other factors, between one-third and one-half of all trans people under the age of 25 attempt suicide. As of October, there have been twenty-two trans people, mostly women and mostly women of color, murdered in the United States this year and more than ten times that number worldwide. And we know that the actual number is higher than that, because many families refuse to identify the victims as trans.

To make matters worse – if they could be any worse – we now have an administration in Washington that is trying to throw trans people out of the military and a Justice Department that is refusing to prosecute violence against trans people as hate crimes. And if our President has his way, trans people will literally be defined out of existence because he wants to make it legally impossible to change one’s gender from the one assigned at birth.

And so, today we recognize our veterans, particularly those who gave up their lives in service, and we remember transgender people everywhere, who have been and continue to be the targets and victims of violence. Seemingly unrelated observances, right? Wrong! I see them as intricately, even inextricably, intertwined. Because the freedom our veterans fought for is nothing less than the freedom that trans people seek, the freedom that trans people deserve. It’s the freedom that most of us enjoy without even thinking about it: the freedom to be ourselves. The freedom to live our lives free from fear. The freedom to pursue our careers, our families, our future, all our hopes and dreams, without worrying what might be around the next corner.

Now, I’m not saying that if you asked every soldier or sailor if they were fighting for the rights of transgender people to live their lives in peace and ease how many of them would immediately say “yes.” But if you asked them if they were prepared to die to defend our country and the freedom of the American people, I’m sure they would to a number immediately and forcefully answer in the affirmative. If we asked them if they would lay down their lives so that their fellow citizens could enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we would receive a resounding and enthusiastic “Yes!” If we said, “You’re defending everyone’s right not to be oppressed by a tyrant, not to be written off, not to be defined out of existence with the stroke of a pen,” they’d say “Point me to the front line.”

The freedoms our veterans fought for and continue to defend can’t be selectively applied. We can’t parcel them out based on some criteria that sort and divide us. Not by race, not by religion, not by ethnic background, not by class or education level. And not by gender identity or expression. While we know the Constitution originally excluded some, while we know the Founding Fathers were personally culpable in perpetuating slavery and other forms of oppression, we know now that certain people cannot and must not be excised from the Constitution’s proclamation that all are created equal and all have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No exceptions.

And, while we know this to be true in our hearts, we also know it’s not true in our streets, in our workplaces, in our apartment buildings and suburban subdivisions, in our schools and our courts and our bathrooms. We know that transgender people are treated as less than full citizens, as less than human beings worthy of our love, kindness and respect every moment of every day. And it feels like, as it does with so many progressive issues these days, that the clock isn’t being turned back just an hour, but by decades. But as people of faith we know that, although progress is not always forward, not always upward, with our help the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.

Think about this empty chair, set at our table of remembrance. How many brave service-people it represents down through the course of time. How many children who lost a parent, how many spouses who lost a partner, how many partners who lost a loved one. Countless souls have been offered up for our benefit, and for this we must express our gratitude today. But let us not lose sight of all those who, simply because of their gender identity, are fighting private battles of their own, just to stay safe from harm. Let us remember today all the souls that are suffering every day due to violence not of their own making or their own choosing. Today, as we remember and honor our veterans, those who have made what’s often called the “ultimate sacrifice,” let us also remember the freedoms they fought for, and who is and isn’t free to enjoy them. And let us honor their memories by rededicating ourselves to the proposition that none of us is free until all of us are free.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.