Beginning in 1978 the then popular singer, Anita Bryant, led a crusade to prevent gay, lesbian, and transgender people from attaining any civil rights. In one of her first speeches she said, "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children." She believed that the only way that someone could become gay was if he or she were recruited by another gay person. In response to Anita Bryant statement, a San Francisco Supervisor, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States, began many of his speeches with the catchphrase, "I'm Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!"
Though I am unable to recruit you in the way that Anita Bryant referred to, I am here to recruit you to consider the legal equality for gay and transgender person. This is something that is very important to me. I have organized events in my ministry in congregations to further gay and transgender equality. I have volunteered at congregational booths at gay pride events. I have traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to representatives of elected officials about Unitarian Universalist support for equal protection under the law for transgender persons. I have officiated at some religious unions and a few civil unions for gay and lesbian people. I was always very moved by the couple's courage to come out of the closet and commit to a life together in places and times when such commitment and openness were not affirmed by the majority of people in their community.
It is same-sex marriage that is currently the hottest debate within our society with the simple majority of our fellow citizens affirming the right for persons of the same gender to marry. Opponents of same-sex marriage almost always promote tradition and religion as reasons against same-sex marriage. Most of those persons are theologically conservative Christians.
Today I would like to quote from the Bible all the things that Jesus said against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I would, but he said nothing. As Stephen Colbert remarked, "He must have been so angry at the thought of same-sex marriage that he couldn't speak."
Religious reasons based upon faulty readings of ancient holy texts are still used to justify oppression of gay and transgender people. We can see this happening in the United States and all over the world. In this country, those who track public opinion have come to the conclusion that the major difference between the two dominant political parties is based more upon religious views than public policy or political philosophy. We are a nation divided by religion, a thought that undoubtedly would have made our founding fathers shudder, as they took effort to divide church and state in our constitution.
Last year when I served another congregation as interim minister members of that congregation marched in the gay pride parade through Lambertville and New Hope. I was struck by the reaction that we received from the crowd. People cheered and took pictures. My wife was at the edge of our little band. People said to her repeatedly as she marched with us, "Thank you. You cannot imagine what this means to us."
It also struck me that the congregation was one of three Unitarian Universalist congregations marching in support of gay pride and public advocacy. Some gay people grow up in religiously conservative families and go through their lives ashamed of their same-sex attraction, feeling sinful and unloved by God. The messages that they hear from religious institutions tell them that they are to be shunned or to deny their sexuality. Our faith in reason and compassion tells us that every person is worthy of living and loving, openly and without fear.
There's a great cost for the fear that so many religious institutions pass on to their adherents. Gay and lesbian teens are several times more likely to attempt suicide. The proportion of gays, lesbians, and transgender persons addicted to drugs and alcohol is greater than that of the general population.
In addition, for some, hiding their sexuality gives them mental and physical problems. Our closing hymn today, "These Things Shall Be," was written by John Addington Symonds, a Victorian-era English literary critic. Symonds writes in the poem about "higher friendship." He is using that as coded language for being gay or lesbian.
Symnonds' memoirs were kept under lock and key in a British library for about eighty years after his death. They were considered too scandalous for decades to be read by scholars. His memoirs are his journey into accepting that he was gay. Symonds had been plagued by nervous ticks and digestive complaints all of his adult life. He records that the day after he came to terms with his sexuality that his nervous ticks and digestive issues vanished. His self-hatred was damaging his body and mind.
But not his soul. . . Symonds recorded that his faith gave him the strength to delve deeper into his thoughts with the belief that God would still care for him, regardless of which direction life took him.
When we sing that hymn by Symonds we express our commitment as a religious community to realizing Symonds' dream of the future that has not completely arrived. It is important that we periodically renew our commitment as a Welcoming Congregation to remind us that gay and transgender persons still need our advocacy and ministry as a religious community.
Nationally, no law exists to protect gay and transgender persons from being excluded from employment or fired due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. In Pennsylvania, commonwealth law restricts marriage to one man and one woman. Pennsylvania does not prohibit employment or housing discrimination against gay or transgender persons. According to Equality Pennsylvania, "Here in the commonwealth, LGBT people can be fired, denied a mortgage, or refused service at a hotel, library, or hospital just because of who they are or who they love." Pennsylvania does not have statewide laws addressing harassing or bullying against LGBT children in the public schools.
In New Jersey, the situation is better with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons having employment and housing protections. One of the most significant issues though is that the schools need to focus more on bullying. It seems to be a national problem.
Be bold. Be daring. Take risks when love and justice are involved.
When I came to this congregation to interview for the interim ministry position. I saw your pride flag on the façade of the Old Stone Church. It stuck out. It was there, right on the congregation's face. The congregation was saying something just by having that flag out in front. The congregation was saying, "This is a religious institution that affirms lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. This congregation welcomes such persons into membership and advocates for their rights in the larger community." That rainbow flag told me what your religious community was about and I was so pleased that putting a rainbow flag or some other symbol of support for the gay and transgender community on the outside of the church building would not be a struggle that I would undertake with you during the interim ministry. By placing that flag out there you prove that religion need not be oppressive.
All of this is personal, you know. Equality under the law is not an abstract concept.
None of us is probably completely devoid of homophobia though. Even lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons sometimes feel it toward each other or at worst toward themselves.
Fear or hatred of gay or transgender people is something that everyone over the age of forty has probably experienced. When I was sixteen years old my high school sociology class watched a 1972 documentary narrated by Orson Welles called, Future Shock. It was about the fast nature of change in the United States and the struggle Americans were experiencing in adapting to that change. In that film was a scene with a minister officiating at the wedding of two men. I felt uncomfortable watching that scene. It was 1979 and the idea of same-sex marriage seemed wrong to me.
After the film, we discussed it in class. Of course, being teenagers in Northeast Georgia in 1979, the scene that really shocked us was of the two men being married. One of my classmates remarked about that scene, "If I were going to marry a man, I would have chosen a better looking fellow than either of them did." That was an impudent, adolescent thing to say, but it made me think. My classmate made a rude comment, but it was not homophobic. For days, I replayed his remark in my mind, trying to figure out why it stuck with me. Finally, I realized that my classmate had done something that I had not done. He had not responded with rejection of the persons in that same-sex marriage scene. He had actually entered it in his imagination. He had tried to imagine what it would be like to be standing in front of a minister wedding himself to another man. He had put himself in another's place and that is what is necessary for us to commit ourselves to justice for any and all people, if we have been privileged to be part of the dominant culture. We need empathy to strive for equality.
This struggle is personal. It is about us as people who are gay or transgender. It is about straight or cis-gender people caring about people we know. It is about moving from abstract idea to the person with whom you are close.
But that is it. I'm here to recruit you because of the people I have known, the people who have struggled. The brave people who have to live as the persons they truly are.
I'm here to recruit you because of my friend Kerry who told me that I was the first person she had ever told that she was a lesbian. Imagine being twenty-nine and never having gone on a real date.
I'm here to recruit you because of my theological school classmate, Jeffery. He felt that it was his calling to be a chaplain to older people. AIDS took him, but I was touched by his faith in his theological school classmates, his ability to listen to our future plans when he knew that he probably had no future, his sarcasm, and his zest for living in the moment, reminding his classmates that the moment is the best that we can have.
I'm here to recruit you because of my openly gay and lesbian friends. It is not abstract. Those laws that discriminate against them and the absence of laws to protect them, are personal. These are people I care about.
I'm here to recruit you because of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people who have been members of the congregations I have served who gently informed me when I got something wrong. They shared a moment in their lives with me and for that I am grateful.
I'm here to recruit you because of the many religious union ceremonies that I have officiated for same-sex couples. It is still amazing that sixteen years after uncomfortably watching that scene in which two men were wed, that I was in that scene in real life, officiating at the marriage of two men as a ministerial intern. Those people came to me to officiate a religious ceremony because they wanted to share their lives. For most of my career in ministry, those ceremonies had no legal standing. They wanted commitment to their love and they wanted that commitment to be in the larger realm of God or the universe. I always become a bit misty-eyed when I officiate at same-sex religious ceremonies. I am always aware that standing before a minister and committing to live and love each other took a struggle in each of those person's lives. And there they are, standing before me and others, committing to sharing their lives.
Our Unitarian Universalist movement stands for health, opportunity, justice so that every human being can reach her or his truest potential. Our predecessors in this faith believed that God gave them the minds they had to think and to love. They looked around and believed that a better world could be made. They were spurred on to make this nation more just. They did not do so for personal gain. They sacrificed and struggled and sometimes died so that those who followed them could have better lives.
At the closing of the movie, "Milk," Harvey Milk says, "You've gotta get ahold of people so a young child, and thousands like him can live hope for a better life; hope for a better tomorrow. It's about the us(es) out there; not just the gays, but the blacks, the Asians, the seniors and the disabled."
What we Unitarian Universalists are doing is about providing hope for a better world, providing hope to all that we are really able to build the kingdom of heaven. Our quest will be long and hard but we are a gentle, angry people and we will find the kingdom of heaven. And at the journey's end, we will discover that the ancient scriptures were right, the kingdom of heaven was in us, among us, all along.