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About five years ago, I was at a meeting where there was discussion of using a broader more inclusive acronym for LGBT persons. I was introduced to the letters LGBTQQIAA. I said, somewhat in jest, “I think I want a letter.”
A 35 year old man from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force replied, “Debra, you have a letter. You’re An A.”
“Pedro,” I replied. “I know I’m in my 50’s and that looks old to you, but I’m not asexual.”
“No,” he responded smiling. “The A stands for Ally.”
In other words, although LGBTQQI stands for Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, and intersex, asexual, the final A is designated for people who stand with people who are oppressed because of their gender or sexual orientation.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about the word “ally” and what it means over these past five years. I initially rejected the word ally for my work against discrimination and violence against LGBT people because I see that work as a central to my advocacy for the past forty years for sexuality education and sexual justice. Being an ally sounded to me like it meant standing outside of a cause, and I have worked too long for sexual rights for all consenting adults to be comfortable being labeled an outsider.
Yet, I also understand that as a cisgender woman in a heterosexual marriage I have privileges that lesbian and gay and transgender people don’t have. (Do you know that term? Cis-gender means being born into a body that matches one’s internal sense of maleness or femaleness, the way transgender means someone whose biological body doesn’t match internalized sense of maleness or femaleness or other).
This was driven home to me a few years ago when I attended the national meeting of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force… which brings together thousands of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (and some trans people) for education, networking, and social action. It was the first time I had been to a conference where the assumption was that I, and everyone else, was gay or lesbian. In the real world, that assumption is called heterosexism, the presumption that everyone is heterosexual, a presumption that means that people ask my gay son if he has a girlfriend, that assumes that a bisexual partner with an other sex partner is straight, that a woman talking about an upcoming wedding is about the be married to a man. At Creating Change though, it was me who was in the closet, worrying about whether to come out as heterosexual to my table mates, whether it would be better to say nothing, did I just say “no thank you” to the woman who made an advance during a lunch or did I tell her I was straight, how should I respond to the “Older Lesbians” group who told me “We’d love to have you as a member in about ten years.”
The reality is that those of us who are heterosexual have privileges that our LGBTQ friends do not. Straight people don’t have to decide whether or if to come out on an everyday basis, at the store, at the dry cleaners, at the DMV, at work. Straight people are protected in employment in every state, not only in some of them. Those of us who are straight don’t have to worry that states will pass laws that allow a pizzeria to publicly state that they won’t cater our weddings, and then receive nearly a million dollars from people who support their bigotry. We don’t have to watch our pronouns when we talk about our romantic and/or life partners. We can get married in every state. We can file taxes jointly in every state, and we didn’t have to worry about our parents and families rejecting us because of our sexual orientation as those of you who are gay may have. Just this week, I learned of a friend of my son’s who’s family threw him out of the house and refused to pay any more of his college tuition because he told them he was gay. Most of my gay, lesbian, bisexual and Trans friends have stories of being rejected by important people in their life when they have come out.
And if the situation is difficult in the United States, it is appallingly worse in many countries of the world. In 78 countries, homosexuality is illegal. 78. Around the world, there are currently 247 people in jail or awaiting trial because of their sexual or gender identity. In Africa, thirty-six countries criminalize consensual same-sex relationships.In four African countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense punishable by death. In an April 2014 survey on global views of morality, the majority of Africans reported that they believe homosexuality to be “morally unacceptable.” Many LGBTQ people in Africa face violence, hate crimes, and so-called “corrective rape” (the use of rape to attempt to change an LGBTQ person’s sexual orientation) because of their sexual or gender identity.
Joined by 60 national religious leaders, the Religious Institute, the organization I lead, has created the new Gilead Sabbath Initiative to see, hear, and respond to the violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in African countries and around the world.
The backdrop for these laws in Africa are efforts by conservative U.S. religious organizations through proselytizing, funding, and supporting homophobia and transphobia in the name of religion. Some conservative U.S. religious organizations have encouraged the creation of punitive laws, cultural stigma, and violent rejection of LGBTQ persons in African countries. Yet few religious groups in the U.S. have been actively involved in opposing these violations of human rights in Africa. Congregations and religious leaders in the U.S. have been reluctant to call out the connection between conservative religious views in the U.S. and anti-LGBTQ laws in Africa and other parts of the world. There has been surprisingly little engagement, solidarity, or public support for African LGBTQ people among people of faith in the U.S. Yet, we know that combating religiously-based discrimination is best done from a religious perspective. It is past time for there to be an organized multifaith effort in the U.S. to engage these issues. We must become engaged in the struggle to fight the global oppression of LGBTQ people and to work for global sexual justice.
Uganda enacted a bill last year, promoted by U.S. religious right leaders, that criminalizes homosexuality, and puts people in jail for being homosexuals. International outcry got the section on killing gay people deleted. Here’s how Pepe Julian Onziema, Gay Activist in Uganda describes the situation now:
[The law] has “drastically changed our lives. Some of us [activists] have been doing this for quite some time so we know how to get around, but for the population that we serve, we are meeting new challenges every day. [Suicides are up] …People think the only way out is to take their lives because they know that prison is just as much a death sentence for them.
That’s a new twist to the work that we do. [LGBT] organizations have been threatened with closure, plain-clothed police come to survey offices regularly and pretend to be members of the LGBT community needing assistance. The police don’t want to take responsibility for these intimidations, but they are happening. That changes the environment in which we work.
People are fleeing the country — to go anywhere but here. We did anticipate that these things would happen, but not at the magnitude they’re happening right now. We don’t have the resources to evacuate people, to help them set up new lives.”
In some ways, it is more challenging to be an ally here in the U.S. than to write letters or raise monies or use social media to speak out for LGBT people across the world. Yes, it was easy for me to put out calls to #boycott Indiana since I had no plans to be in Indiana anyway.
But, what about in our day to day life? How do we support people who are different than we are? How do we live into our Universalist tradition which recognizes that all people have equal worth or our 7th principle that respects the interdependent web of all existence? Or the Hebrew Bible call, repeated at Passover Seders this past week, that because we were slaves in Egypt, we have an obligation to support the struggles of other oppressed peoples in the world?
We start by remembering when we personally have felt excluded, rejected, bullied, or that we didn’t belong. I’m guessing that we have all had those moments, those times, whether it was out and out rejection or the more subtle feeling that there is an “in crowd” and we just don’t belong. I sometimes wonder if my call to work for justice for others didn’t begin on that second grade playground where no one played with me at recess. Some of you may remember me talking about being the girl with cooties, the object of daily taunting by the girls who called themselves “the hate Debbi Haffner Club”, the boys who threw hot tar down my shirt one day that year as I walked home. I still carry the memories and the vulnerabilities of that year – I’m wondering how many of you carry similar psychic scars from your own past. (PAUSE)
As Unitarian Universalists, we have a proud history of working for and towards justice for others. In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were centrally involved in the abolition and suffrage movements. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee works today around the world on these issues. Perhaps no time in our history did we do more as a religious movement to stand with others than fifty years ago.
I had the privilege of attending the Bend the Arc conference and the re-enactment of the Selma March last month. Denny Davidoff and Randy Burnham were there as well. Two summers ago, I participated in the UU Living Legacy Tour to Mississippi and Alabama where we met people who had gone to Sunday School with the four girls who died at the bombing of Birmingham 16th Street Church; Angela Chaney, who was an infant when her father James Chaney was murdered with Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman; a White pastor who had driven Black people to work during the more than yearlong Montgomery bus boycott and whose home was bombed twice, to name a few. We walked the street where UU minister Rev. James Reeb was killed and attended a meeting at a church in the community where Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26 year old black Army veteran, was shot twice in the stomach by an Alabama state trooper for defending his grandfather and mother against an unprovoked beating by another state trooper. (I highly recommend this pilgrimage to you.)
I knew when I left Selma that I would go back for the 50th anniversary of what is known as Bloody Sunday, to honor my UU colleagues who had responded to Dr. King’s call to the nation’s clergy and to stand as an ally for racial justice today. You may have seen the movie Selma or remember watching the news in 1965, but in case you didn’t, let me take you back to that time, relying on what I’ve learned and Rev. Mark Morrison’s Reed’s book, The Selma Awakening, which I recommend to you.
On March 7, 1965, the first March from Selma to Montgomery set off over the Pettus Bridge, only to be met by state troopers and local police, who within seconds of their arrival, use tear gas, clubs, and horses to push back the over 600 African American marchers. According to Rev. Mark Morrison Reed’s account, “at 4:57 am on Monday, [Dr.] King sent his telegram calling ‘on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.” The UUA received the telegram, and began contacting its ministers. Within two days, 60 UU ministers were in Selma, despite what they surely knew was the potential for violence. Rev. Dick Leonard, who some of you may know, in his book about his time in Selma, wrote that before he left NYC he mailed the church instructions for his memorial, just in case. Rev. Gordon Gibson, who co-leads the Legacy Tour, remembers his colleague Rev. Orloff Miller saying, “Don’t go to Selma unless it’s more important that you go than you come back.”
On Tuesday, March 9th with an injunction against a March, the local protestors and the white clergy – ministers, rabbis, nuns, and priests — from around the country, nearly 2500 people in all, set out again. And this time there were 500 state troopers waiting at the end of the bridge. Dr. King stopped, and the people in line behind him, led by the clergy, knelt in prayer. King turned the march around, deciding to wait for the federal court system and the President Johnson to offer protection. What followed were 11 long days of protests by the white clergy at the courthouse and countless negotiations between Dr. King, President Johnson, and Governor Wallace. On March 21st, the March that went all the way to Birmingham was finally begun, protected by 1800 federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, 2000 additional troops, and a hundred FBI agents. The march took 2 weeks. On the last day, 30,000 people joined the 300 who had completed the entire march, including 250 UU ministers. Later that day, a UU from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, was shot dead in the car she was driving people back to Selma.
“Selma was much more than a struggle for voting rights…the victory at Selma served as the catalyst of an economic and political revolution that led to an African American becoming president of the United States. …Unitarian Universalists did not know that Selma would become a pivotal moment in our own history. In the past, our religious forebears had stood at the brink of making a difference in racial justice, and had wavered. But not this time. Called, sent, drawn or compelled, hundreds responded. When they left there were two UU martyrs in their hearts and there was conviction in their stride. They had been changed in ways their lives would reveal but which words would never quite capture.”
One of the ways they had been changed is that in order to be useful, these white UU ministers slept and ate in Black people’s homes, camped out, and literally took their marching orders from African American leaders from the South. They were allies in a way that they had never been before – in a way that many, but surely not all, forgot during the Black Power controversy in the denomination just a few years later.
Last month, 70,000 people marched over the Pettus Bridge again in honor of those who marched 50 years earlier and those who had died. We were met at the bottom of the bridge by Black and White police who waved to us. Among the more than 400 UU’s, were at least a dozen UU clergy who had been in Selma in 1965. Denny gave me the honor of introducing me to Rev. Orloff, who had helped organize the UU ministers in 1965 and who had been attacked with Rev. Reeb the night he sustained his fatal injuries. (In a surprising twist, Dr. Orloff had studied to be a sexologist in the 1970’s and knew about my work at SIECUS and the Religious Institute.) The re-enactment march was intensely crowded with little organization, and Rev. Barbara Fast and I held hands tightly as we walked, indeed inched, across the bridge, which we later found out might not have been structurally sound enough to handle all the weight. At one point, an African American woman standing near us asked who we were and where we had come from. When Barbara and I told her we were Unitarian Universalist ministers, she said, “Oh, we know the Unitarians down here!”
I was acutely aware that we were there as allies, as witnesses, but not as leaders. The conference was remarkable. We listed to Dr. William Barbour, the leader of the North Carolina Moral Monday movement; Rev. C.T. Vivien, one of the organizers of the original march; the woman behind the Black Lives Matter movement; and honored the families of James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and Jimmy Lee Jackson. We were challenged to think about our roles today in the movement for racial and economic justice. Surrounded by 400 UU’s committed to racial justice work, it was perhaps the best UU conference I have ever attended.
And I came back full of questions, questions that still don’t have fully formed answers. Are there causes that I’m willing to die for, go to jail for? (When she was 12, my daughter Alyssa asked me to tell her about when I’ve been in jail. When I told her I hadn’t been to jail, she asked me, why not?) How do I bring my understanding of the privileges I have as a white, educated, able bodied, cisgender, heterosexual woman into the work I do for justice? How do I act as an ally to people of color in my professional life? Why since moving to Connecticut do I have only a very few close Black friends, and what can I do to change that? Do these questions have resonance for you or do you have others?
Here’s one description a sexuality education colleague sent about the role of an ally:
“Being an ally is a lot like being a fan of a sports team. Your there to support them, you spend money on their merchandise, you identify yourself as such so that your team fills the love and the world knows yours there, you cheer for them, you tell others about them, you gush about why your team rocks. And you jump in if someone’s talking trash about your team or your sport. You bring a megaphone and a big foam #1 glove, and maybe if you’re good at what you do, you lead the bleachers in a cheer or two and get a few seconds on the JumboTron.
But you’re not part of the team. You don’t get your name on the roster. You don’t hang out in the locker room. You don’t sit in on the strategy sessions. And if someone from the team is doing a press conference, you …sit down and give them the microphone.”
Now, that may sound a little harsh, but it speaks to the need for us to listen to the voices of the people who are oppressed and support their leadership and their strategies. It’s about understanding that most, if not all of us, have experienced being on the outside, whether because of our race, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental health, temperament, or other reasons. It’s about understanding that most of us in Westport do have privileges that others don’t have and to develop cultural competency. It’s about asking out loud why the killing of 150 students in a college in Kenya gets reported on page A 12 when if it had happened in the U.S. or in Paris it would have been front page headlines for weeks. It’s about standing up when someone makes a joke about women, gay people, people of color even if it’s uncomfortable for us. It’s about showing up like those UU ministers did in Selma even when it feels uncertain or even dangerous because it is the right thing, the only thing to do.
It’s about standing for others who are struggling or oppressed, whether they are LGBT people in Africa or Russia, Black people in Charleston, Ferguson or Staten Island, someone being bullied at school or mistreated in the workplace. You probably know this poem written by Protestant minister Martin Niemoller in 1946:
In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
Being an ally is about showing up and speaking up. Last week at the White House prayer breakfast, President Obama said, “Where there is injustice we defend the oppressed. Where there is disagreement, we treat each other with compassion and respect. Where there are differences, we find strength in our common humanity, knowing that we are all children of God.”
More than sixty years ago, as quoted in Morrison’s book, Howard Zinn wrote, “It all boils down to human relationships. It is the question of…whether I shall go on living in isolation or whether there shall be a we…Love alone is radical. Political statements are not; programs are not; even going to jail is not.”
In the Easter story, Jesus at the last supper is said to have said, “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” And so we must. Love one another. Love everyone. How different the world would be if everyone did.
And so may it be.