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I remember my early years of seminary with a mixture of nostalgia and shame. I was in my early thirties in Chicago back in graduate school after a ten-year early life sojourn into finding myself before following that halting call to ministry. This was the late 1980s. Gay rights was just beginning to become an issue in mainstream America and the UUA was strongly supporting the Welcoming Congregation program. I was sitting in the Curtis room of Meadville Lombard Theological School, an associated seminary of the University of Chicago. The small neo-gothic building on a leafy corner of Hyde Park adjacent to the University where we did most of our course work. We students were having a lively discussion of gay marriage. I was on the more conservative end of the spectrum, not at all sure I could officiate at a wedding of two men or two women. I remember being especially bothered by the idea of two men getting married. I said something like “I mean, do they have to kiss after the vows?” Not one of my proudest moments.
Since then I have officiated at close to a thousand weddings in my career and I would say over 200 of them have been gay. I found that love was love, but my own road to that realization was a rocky one.
This past weekend the UU Players put on an amazing performance of the Laramie Project. The story of the tragic hateful murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man attending the University of WY. The Laramie Project was based on extensive interviews with members of the community from bigots to progressive clergy. The UU minister has a brief cameo but was not the strongest faith leader to point out that hate from within the community and not just the murderers led to Matthew Shepard’s horrific death. It was the Catholic Priest who called for change most sincerely:
“You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but, you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a…dyke…Do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence. And I would resent it immensely if you use anything I said…to somehow cultivate that kind of violence…Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.”
“To say it correct” means to me that we continue to embrace those who are marginalized, we continue to change in the service of inclusion.
Affixed to our sign on Lyons Plains Road is a small rainbow placard, as if to announce to the world that we welcome Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people, trans. I approved of that small placard when I first arrived as your senior minister five years ago because I knew that you had successfully completed the work laid out by our denomination to become what we call a ‘Welcoming Congregation’, it was small because we didn’t see it as the defining issue of identity we once did. As a congregation we believed we had finished the work of transformation. Of course, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people are welcome here. For us, we thought, that was a given. After all we weren’t encountering the issue for the first time like our Methodist Friends around the corner who just saw their church split over welcoming gay people; our Methodist church here is firmly in support of welcome LGBTQ people.
So, we thought that we had moved on. Right? Moved on to other issues that we saw as vital to the health of our faith, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. But we are wrong. Social change continues regardless of what we believe. And we are no longer as welcoming as we thought we once were, specifically to those who gender identities are changing. I met with one young man a year ago who told me that while he loved our theology of a loving god for all people, he didn’t see himself as welcome here. He was just transitioning from the female body he was born with to the male identity he embraced. This was a moment of particular pain for me, reminding me of that moment over twenty years ago when a person in a beautiful dress and a wig came up to me and asked me in a gruff voice whether she would be welcome in our church. I remember looking around at the little kids running through the halls and felt threatened. I said “No, I don’t think you would be welcome here.” Here we were the only UU congregation in town and I had just told this person that their identity as a human being was not welcome.
We have, I have, come a long way since then. And yet, not far enough by far. Because the gender equity is deeply tied to gender identity. To be clear gender identity is not the same as biological identity, which is our default in most societies. After all the first question people ask after a baby is born is what sex is it. And then once that is answered, we swing into a million assumptions of who that child is and will be. But the fact of the matter is that many people identify different than their biological genital. Some trans people will go to through the process of changing that gentilia and others will not, but if they identify as something other than what there are born with; it is that identity and that identity alone that we, as a truly welcoming congregation, need to respect. And we are just now beginning to learn how to do this.
I won’t go into the many definitions needed to understand LGBTQplus people. We will learn them as we grow into this together. But know this: I believe this work is absolutely vital to our identity and theology. As a congregation of largely cis-gendered people we will make mistakes. I make them all the time. But we can no longer claim our faith identity as a welcoming congregation for the 21st century by ignoring the needs of the transgender community. The reality is that we are no longer as welcoming as that little plaque on our sign proclaims. And if we are truly here to fulfill our mission towards welcoming families and young adults than we need and we will renew our status as welcoming to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgender and queer people. Today you will see some early attempts to do just this. Signs, at first temporary that explains our bathrooms from the outside so that people who identify differently than cis-gender people can find the right space, the right stall in order to relieve themselves or perhaps change into clothes that more adequately represent who they are. There is material from the Triangle Center which is our local LGBTQ organization in Norwalk which supports people with different identities. We will continue to educate ourselves on how to be more welcoming so that the young man who came into my office last year will not have to explain to me that we are not welcoming. We will offer labels for our name tags that identify our preferred pronouns, most commonly he, him, his or she, her, hers. Those are there to help you understand who the person is you are speaking to. And yes, some people want to be called they and them. A plural pronoun used in a personal way is one way in which an identity can be expressed more inclusively. As time goes on we will learn to ask what pronoun someone wants to be addressed as. As time goes on we will not ask transgender people what sex they “really” are, which is no different than asking an Asian American “where are you really from?”
Identity is tricky. Many of us will want to throw up our arms and say “this is ridicules” but so was the internet when it first came out. Look, I know because I did feel this was ridiculous, but as time went on and I met more and more trans people, mostly friends of my daughters, I began to take this seriously. I could see their pain as they tried to fit in a world that didn’t see them at all. If you think as a cis gendered person that this is hard, try living your whole life with a body and an identity that is completely foreign to you. Now that is torture in a profound sense. Our principles call on us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people, including those whose identities differ from the norm.
Last Sunday was the International Transgender Day of Remembrance: 22 trans people were killed in 2022 so far in the US. A few of them were recognized last Sunday:
Acey Morrison, a 30-year-old Two-Spirit person, was a ”kindhearted, down to earth, joyous, respectful, and loving soul” who was a “helpful and giving person who was always there for her family and friends.” She was shot dead in Rapid City, South Dakota on August 21. Two-Spirit people are indigenous North Americans who possess both a feminine and masculine spirit.
Mya Allen who was also known as Regina Allen, was a 35-year-old Black transgender woman who was full of joy and laughter. Mya was active on social media, often posting selfies of her beautiful outfits and makeup. She was also a member of Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity (SHEBA), a local advocacy, empowerment and support group for Black transgender women. Mya was killed on August 29 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At barely 26-years-old, Aaron Lynch, a trans man, was shot and killed by police in McLean, Virginia on July 7, 2022. Aaron, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, was first unsuccessfully tased by police after some back-and-forth discourse, resulting in one of the police officers shooting him four times. Police officers had originally responded to a 911 call to Aaron’s house with a trained mental health co-respondent and returned a second time without one after not initially finding Aaron on the premises. (Source HRC.Org)
It’s been a slow growing for me to realize how colonized I am in my worldview. It has taken me decades to realize that change is not only inevitable but necessary. It has taken me decades to learn that in a predominantly White, patriarchal and racist world, most of our society is more like Laramie WY than we want to admit. Just as the majority has colonized this land from the American Indians, so too are we colonized into the tight categories of male and female, white and heterosexual thereby supporting white patriarchy.
Anything that decenters our sexuality, gender, race and status, at least for a while, is going to make the change we are living through serve our principle of inclusion.
At the end of the play the Laramie Project, the Father of Matthew Shepard delivers this after the jury had delivered a life sentence to one of my Matt’s killers: “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time you wake up in your prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious. and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of the one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
In my own life, two of my daughters married women. Another close family member is trans. Life goes on, and changes and, I for one am thankful for that.
Let me Close with this from Lyn Cox:
We give thanks for the beauty of this day and for the company of those assembled here. Thank you for the breezes of change, clearing our heads and bringing fresh ideas. May they cleanse our minds of the oppressions and isms that divide us. Thank you for the flame of hope, the heat of righteous anger, the warmth of compassion, and the fire of commitment. May they bubble the cauldrons of transformation. Thank you for oceans of love, rivers of connection, tears of relief, and pools of serenity. May healing waters flow over us and through us and among us, wearing down the sharp rocks of despair to bring joy in the morning. Thank you for the good earth beneath us, around us, and within us. May we take this clay and co-create a new realm of justice and beauty. Thank you for all these and more. We accept our gifts and commit to building, sculpting, painting, singing, and dancing them to life; to abundant life. Blessed be. Amen.