Sponsored by our Rainbow Task Force (Welcoming Congregation)
First, my thanks to the members of the Rainbow Task Force and its predecessor, the Welcoming Congregation Committee. You have made and are making a significant contribution toward our shared goal of justice and respect for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. You have helped us to be a more diverse congregation, a more welcoming place – a place we can support with enthusiasm – this religious community.
During the twenty years of our intentional work on the issues around the LGBT community we’ve had significant success – we have cause to celebrate those successes; and the closer you look at those issues the more you see that we need to keep working for more, until there is justice and equity and respect ‘for all.’
The opening lines of the poem The Layers, by Stanley Kunitz: summarizes it well: “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I’m not who I was, though some principal of being abides from which I struggle not to stray.”
During our twenty years of working to be a welcoming congregation we have certainly ‘walked through many lives, some of them (our) own.’ Lives have been changed and minds once closed have been opened, hearts once hesitant have been moved, fears that narrowed those hearts and minds have found the courage to change…to ‘stand on the side of love.’
We are not who we were back in 1967 when the UU Committee on Goals reported the results of a survey that included a question about homosexuality as it relates to the law and to education.
In celebration of the work we’ve done in our Association of Congregations – the UUA – and here in the Unitarian Congregation in Westport I want to offer a condensed history of Unitarian Universalist involvement in and support of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender issues
1967 Unitarian Universalist (UU) Committee on Goals publishes results of its survey on beliefs and attitudes within the association: 7.7% of UU’s believe that homosexuality should be discouraged by law; 80.2% that it should be discouraged by education, not law; 12% that it should not be discouraged by law or education.
Since that time we been through major transformations – we’re not ‘who we were,’ but some ‘principle of being abides from which we struggle not to stray.’
Each of us has something at the core of our being – some call it the soul; some say it’s our authentic self, or our best self. We as a religious community have something similar – some principle of being that makes us what we are at our best – something about our commitment to justice for all; something about our commitment to a spiritual life balanced by the use of reason; something about respect for the individual, respect for the uniqueness and an acknowledgment of the connectedness we share as citizens of planet earth with responsibilities to one another balanced by the freedom to be who we are, to be an authentic self.
‘Some principle of being abides from which we struggle not to stray.’
Part of that struggle is indicated by the attention to and work with the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members of our big human family.
Two years after the above mentioned survey, in 1969, a newly minted Unitarian Universalist minister, James L. Stoll, publicly declared himself to be homosexual.
The next year, in 1970, a resolution was passed at the General Assembly in Seattle – a resolution to end discrimination against homosexuals. It’s worth noting that the date of that resolution the 4th of July. I was there, in Seattle, for my first G.A. as a delegate, and I was among those who voted to end discrimination against homosexual persons and calling on our congregations to develop sex education programs that promote a healthy attitude toward human sexuality in general.
The following year we saw the development of a forward-looking curriculum called About Your Sexuality. The AYS curriculum attempted to present a positive attitude towards human sexuality, including an acceptance of and respect for homosexuality and bisexuality.
The next year, in 1972, a separate adult curriculum about homosexuality was created appropriately, called The Invisible Minority, which won an award from the National Coalition on Family Relations.
An example of the need for such a curriculum occurred when I introduced it to a group from the congregation I was serving in Attleboro. I put an ad in the local paper inviting anyone who wanted to participate in our discussion to attend, and several folks who were not members showed up. I had never met any of them, but was glad to have them, whoever they were.
During the discussion that first night one of our older church members commented that she had never met a homosexual person, to which one of our guests responded, “Oh yes you have, you’ve met me.” Another said, “And me, too,” followed by a few more. They explained that there was a strong gay support group that, of necessity, kept itself private.
So, in 1970 the resolution against discrimination of the gay community was passed, quickly followed by the creation of AYS and The Invisible Minority. The next year, 1973, the General Assembly passed a resolution to Create an Office of Gay Affairs to be staffed by gay people and be a resource to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Let me skip ahead to the General Assembly of 1984, the summer I began my ministry in Westport.
A special resolution was put before that GA in Columbus, OH, affirming the practice of Unitarian Universalist clergy officiating at services of union between same-gender couples.
That resolution was reported in the Westport news.
As soon as I settled into my office to take up the work of a new ministry I got a call from a lesbian couple who read the article. They told me they had been in a committed relationship for over 30 years and asked if I would officiate at a service of union for them. Their decision to ‘have their relationship blessed in a church,’ as they put it, was prompted by one of them having recently been diagnosed with a terminal cancer.
We met to plan a service and I listed as they talked with me and one another about their years together, not dwelling on the difficulties, but acknowledging them. They were in their mid-sixties.
We had the service in the downstairs chapel with about twenty five close family and friends. They asked me to read a poem by Sara Teasdale that one had included in a birthday card years ago.
You had only
To open the door
To bring me the self
I was before.
I thought I should never
See her again;
I thought she was hidden
From women and men.
Her eyes had been bright
As the sun on water;
She sang as blithe
As an elf-king’s daughter.
I had hoped — and then
I had stopped hoping.
The years ran downward,
Still and sloping.
But on that autumn night
I knew —
The self I was
Came in with you
Five years later, in June of 1989, the Welcoming Congregation program was adopted to combat homophobia in UU congregations and to educate individual UU’s.
The following year saw the publication of The Welcoming Congregation Handbook, edited by the Reverend Scott Alexander and Stephen L’Heureux, to be used as resource material for implementing the Welcoming Congregation Program in congregations who chose to participate.
In 1991 I invited Scott Alexander to speak from this pulpit – Scott was a colleague and friend, and one of the first openly gay UU ministers and he offered a personal and powerful presentation about the Welcoming Church process – the steps that needed to be taken to be sure that the LGBT community knew that they would be welcome here.
In the next couple of years we walked together through those steps, with help and guidance from the gay/lesbian community and we were designated as a Welcoming Church.
In 1993 the General Assembly adopted a resolution in support of openly gay, lesbian and bisexuals in the military.
A few years later, in 1996, UUA Board of Trustees passed a resolution in support of Same-Gender Marriage.
In 2002 the Reverend Sean Parker Dennison called to serve South Valley UU congregation of Salt Lake City, UT, thus becoming the first out transgender person in the UU ministry to be called to serve a congregation as a parish minister.
And the Reverend Laurie J. Auffant was called to serve Follen Church Society of Lexington, MA, becoming the first out transgender person in the UU ministry to be called to serve a congregation as a minister of religious education.
Two years later, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-gender marriage, and UUA President the Reverend William G. Sinkford legally officiated at the marriage of Hillary and Julie Goodridge, who were the lead plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health. They were married in Eliot Hall at the Unitarian Universalist Association.
As of last April 650 (65%) UUA congregations in the United States have done the work to be awarded Welcoming Congregation status.
During my 41 years in our ministry, 27 of them here in Westport, a lot of progress toward our goal of justice for all has been made. We have lots of reasons to celebrate,
Who would have guessed that Connecticut would establish full marriage status to same-sex couples. Who had enough hope to think that Rozanne Gates and Suzanne Sheridan would celebrate their marriage here in this sanctuary in 2005?
We had cause to celebrate! And that was a huge celebration, requiring to clergy to officiate – Barbara Fast and I co-officiated. Rozanne and Suzanne waited until their marriage had the same legal standing as heterosexual couples.
We have more work to do, because prejudice is pernicious – once a fear is planted in the mind it stubbornly refuses to leave. But we know that we humans are capable of change, capable of growth, capable of transformation.
Earlier I made reference to the opening lines of Kunitz poem, The Layers; now we’ll skip ahead to the closing lines: “…in my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus clouded voice directed me ‘Live in the layers, not on the litter.’ No doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.”
We ‘have walked through many lives together, and we’re not who we were.’ Look back at who we were in 1967, when only 12% of Unitarian Universalists supported gay rights. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’
One of the most important aspects of our Welcoming Congregation work has been the support offered to parents and grandparents and family members of gay and lesbian children and siblings.
We moved through this process as carefully and sensitively as possible, without losing the courage and determination it takes to work for such a huge change in our collective thinking.
Prejudice is an assault on the soul – it eats away at that precious part of us we call ‘the human spirit,’ and it disconnects us from the core of human compassion that is so essential to us as moral, ethical persons…that ‘principle of being’ Kunitz called it.
Prejudice against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender persons is pernicious and is far from being rare or outmoded.
More than 40% of adult Americans are opposed to equal rights for the LGBT members of the community.
Crimes against LGBT persons have increased every year since 1990 when the law required them to be tracked as hate crimes.
LGBT youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide; 90% of LGBT youth have been harassed at school; over 30% of homeless youth in America identify as LGBT.
We have work to do. We need to stand up and take notice of the bullying, so often done via the internet, now. We must be pro-active in letting them know they are loved…that they are lovable just as they are.
We have to let our young people know that the phrase, ‘that is so gay’ is a derogatory phrase, not a cute colloquialism.
Language is the primary way of planting prejudice and sewing the seeds of the fears that become the foundation for hatred.
Ernest Gaines asks, “Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?”
It’s a rhetorical question.
The traditional religious community clings to old prejudices and hateful teachings about homosexuality, as if their all-powerful perfect god made a huge mistake. Someone pointed out that the Bible admonishes homosexuals six times and admonishes heterosexuals 362 times, which she points out doesn’t mean god doesn’t love heterosexuals. “It’s just that they need more supervision.” (Lynn Lavner)
In any difficult work a sense of balance must be maintained, which is one of the functions of humor.
Rita Mae Brown said, “My lesbianism is an act of Christian charity. There are so many women out there praying to find a man, and I’m giving my share to them.”
A good sense of humor goes a long way toward keeping the challenges and problems of life in check!
Even more important than humor is a sense of appreciation – so today we express that appreciation and pledge ourselves to continue this important work – together.
Emerson gets the last word: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”