One day in my life before ministry when I was working in the nonprofit sector, I went to lunch with a coworker. We were just beginning to strike up a friendship. She knew I was a Unitarian Universalist. I knew that she had been married and was divorced. That day as we walked to lunch, she shared with me that she was in a new relationship. I said, “that’s great. Tell me about him.” Without missing a beat, she said, well, “it’s not a he. I’m in a relationship with a woman.” I said, “Oh. I’m sorry. I just assumed because you had been married ….. Tell me about her.” I knew in that exchange that this person was coming out to me. I also knew how little I know about the complexity of gender identity and sexual orientation, and how many assumptions I make.
Early in my ministry, I had someone come out to me as transgender. I listened, not sure what to say. I had so many questions. Trying to understand, I ventured in, asking a question without knowing how. I can’t remember the exact words I used, but it was something like: “Can you tell where you are in the process?” I was trying to understand if this individual was transitioning from one gender to the other or already had. This person shared that they chose not to undergo a physical transition. That was not what I thought of as transgender. I knew then just how little I know about the complexity of gender identity and sexual orientation, and how many assumptions I make.
Last month I attended a gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers. There were about 500 of us in attendance. When I received my name tag, I noticed that at the bottom there were the words: Preferred Pronoun with a colon after it and a space to indicate my preference. I wrestled with what to write in the blank space. While I identify as a woman, I consider the gender binary inadequate and gendered pronouns outmoded. I long for gender neutral non-binary pronouns in a world of hyper-genderism. But what else is there? l considered writing “they” on my nametag, a term being used as a singular pronoun, especially in the transgender community. But I was told the term “they” might lead to misunderstandings and assumptions about my gender identity. Would that ultimately make me a poor ally? I was not sure. So I left the space blank. Did that make me a poor ally? I was not sure. I knew then how little I know about the complexity of gender identity and sexual orientation.
You see, despite how open and accepting I may be on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (GLBTQ) issues, and despite how open and accepting I would like to be, I am a work in progress. I make assumptions. I do not know what I do not know. I have a lot to learn. The language and our collective understanding is always shifting.
Our church is also always shifting, always a work in progress on GLBTQ issues. The ability to make progress on GLBTQ issues is an area where Unitarian Universalists have often been leaders. Unitarian Universalists have a long and established record of being welcoming to the GLBTQ community. Our religion has taken stances on discrimination, AIDS, the military, sex education in public school and the employment non-discrimination act. Unitarian Universalism is one of the few religions that ordains openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Unitarian Universalist Association developed a Welcoming Congregation Program so congregations could address homophobia and later on transphobia in their communities. Our church here in Reading is a Welcoming Congregation.
Our Whole Lives (OWL), a health, behavior and sexual education curriculum, developed jointly by the Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ in 1971, has been a significant educational tool on issues of sexual orientation. It has helped children, youth and adults explore positive, healthy attitudes toward human sexuality. Our church here in Reading is now offering the OWL program for our youth regularly.
Since 1984, UUs have performed commitment ceremonies and marriages for GLBTQ couples. Our faith actively advocated for national marriage equality and was a catalyst for bringing the issue to the Supreme Court.1 Performing a legal same-sex marriage was an historic day in my ministry, following the June 26, 2015 decision that made marriage equality a national reality.
Nationally, there has been progress, and marriage equality is one example. The June designation of the Stonewall Inn, where riots launched the gays rights movement, as a national landmark, is another example.
The country also continues to be a work in progress. Transgender restroom access is an area calling for more justice. The topic has been making headline news recently. But just think about that for a moment. Just think about how momentous that is. The very fact that transgender access to restrooms is garnering such attention and receiving presidential support is cause for celebration. The controversy is also an indication of just how much progress is being made, even as it uncovers fear and prejudice. Each time there is progress toward people’s right, there seems sadly to be backlash as well.
There are individuals who have been taught to hate and fear anyone who is different and anyone whose gender identity does not conform to the gender binary. There are individuals who have been taught to hate and fear any sexuality that is not heterosexuality. There are individuals who have internalized this hatred learning not only to hate and fear others but also to be self-loathing. The consequences have been devastating, as witnessed with the Orlando shootings. States like North Carolina and Mississippi clamber to roll back anti-discrimination policies and to target transgender people.
It takes work to undo these negative patterns. Yet even amid the backlash, progress is unmistakable. On college campuses throughout the country, students are routinely asked to indicate their preferred pronoun with choices that include: he, she, they, ze, none, name only, and more. This is progress, and also for students a mixed blessing. Some students are reluctant to risk a non-binary pronoun, worrying that it will lead to discrimination by professors and other students, and might impact their job prospects later on.
I have to tell you that the very fact that the conversation is underway is very good news. That our own Unitarian Universalist Association and clergy are engaging a conversation about preferred pronouns is very good news. And it is a work in progress. Our progress on Pride is a work in progress. There is and always will be a need to continue to learn and to continue to cultivate awareness. It’s important to continue to broaden our welcome as we recognize the various ways some individuals are being excluded.
Victoria Safford says people sometimes ask “Is this a gay church?”, meaning Unitarian Universalist congregations. She wrote those words in 2003. Today people are not only asking “Is this a gay church?” They are also asking: “Is this a trans church?” The Westboro Baptist Church is asking that very question.
Actually, they have decided they know the answer. These are the folks that protest funerals of gay people, including the funerals honoring those who were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. About a half-dozen Westboro Baptist Church protesters showed up at our annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists in June. Prior to the event, the Westboro Baptist Church issued a press release. The headline tells the story: “LORD WILLING, THE GOD HATES TRANNIES PREACHING TOUR STOPS AT THE TRANNY-PIMPING UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST GENERAL ASSEMBLY (GREATER COLUMBUS CONVENTION CENTER, COLUMBUS, OH) ON FRIDAY, JUNE 24, 12:45 – 1:15 PM.”
About 200 Unitarian Universalists turned out to the streets of the convention center in Columbus in a peaceful counter-protest. As the Westboro Baptist protesters left, UUs chanted: “We love you!” We UUs are “a gentle, loving people.” And we are people who are open and welcoming, people who are still learning, who have more progress to make on GLBTQ issues. UUs have more work to do to see how GLBTQ justice is linked with justice for everyone.
Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, Minister at Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Illinois, says:
These days, pride isn’t just about being seen or celebration. It’s about making sure there is room in this world for all of us, justice for all of us, food and housing and medicine for all of us – the young genderqueers, the queer people of color, the lesbians, gay men, genderful and genderfree people with disabilities, the people who are seeking to live their lives with integrity. It’s NOT about having to fit in or be “nearly normal” to be seen and loved and have what you need. It’s about being loved and seen for who you are, and it’s about justice for all.2
UUs have more progress to make on being in solidarity with pride within our congregations. There is more we can do to get to know each other across our differences and beyond our labels and to become aware of our own assumptions about GLBTQ identity and sexual orientation. It is not possible to know whether someone is GLBTQ just by looking at them – though it may seem that way sometimes. Just because a person is in what appears to be a heterosexual relationship, for example, does not mean that they are heterosexual. They may be transgender. They may be bisexual. They may be questioning. It is not possible to know someone’s story by looking at them – though it may seem that way sometimes.
And - people are not one thing. For example, when I hear the word lesbian, certain people come to mind, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres, among them. They are both white and TV figures. Because of my literary background, I think also of Audre Lorde, the African American feminist lesbian poet. And of course there are Latinx lesbians and lesbians who are disabled and lesbians who are Muslim. People can and do have multiple identities. And they are more than any of those identities.
Identity-justice is complex. Within the GLBTQ community, an African American or Latinx can experience racism. Within the African American or Latinx community, a GLBTQ person can experience homophobia or transphobia. Alternately a GLBTQ person can have white privilege and also experience homophobia or transphobia. Moving past labels and assumptions is a work in progress. Our congregation is in the early stages of learning to see and talk about anti-oppression and multiculturalism.
Sewall says people ask, “Is this a gay church?” I say, let them also ask, “Is this a trans church? A lesbian church? A straight church?” Let us answer “yes” and “yes” and “yes” and “yes.” Does it matter? Yes. It matters because, as Sewall writes:
Ours is a church where everyone is needed, where everyone’s experience is cherished as a sacred text, because no one’s experience of living or loving can be comprehensive, because each of us holds clues the others need about how to live with dignity and joy as a human person, and none of us knows enough about that yet to be considered whole.3
None of us knows enough about that yet to be considered whole. We are a work in progress. Our holy imperative is to help each other uncover those clues the others need. Our holy imperative is to cherish everyone’s experience. Our holy imperative is to love – and to embrace all of who we are and the fullness of our lives and identities. Let us celebrate and be thankful for how far we have come. Let us be thankful that ours is a church and a nation in progress, not standing still, not complacent.
May this church continue to be a welcoming space whether you are gay, if you talk about race a lot, if you put up a ramp to your front door, if you like gospel music. Let this church be a welcoming space where what matters is love, and where everyone is needed. Our prophetic imperative is love. May we be “gentle, loving people,” and may our church be a beautiful work in progress dedicated to human wholeness and justice.
Amen. Blessed be.