It started simply enough. When I worked at an urban planning agency in Chattanooga, Tennessee in my previous incarnation as an historic preservation I used to go to lunch with a co-worker, I'll call her Kerry. We were about the same age, found that we had similar ideals and a passion for history and a curiosity about the ways that the world could be changed to bring people together at a time when things seemed to be pushing people apart.
Sometimes I'm slow to catch on. After working with her for six months, I got up the courage to invite Kerry to go hiking the mountain trails on a Saturday. We had such a good time that we decided to go hiking the next weekend as well. At the end of the second "date" we went to my house to grab a soda and kick back for a while before supper. The topic of charitable giving came up and Kerry mentioned that she gave to the Lambda Defense Fund.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's a legal defense fund concerned with the civil rights of gays and lesbians," she replied.
I thought to myself, "Wow, that's progressive!"
"I give to the World Wildlife Fund and Amnesty International," I said smiling.
Kerry bit her lip and looked out the window. I was slow to catch on. Maybe that slowness to catch on was because it was something I didn't want to hear.
After supper, Kerry told me that she was a lesbian. I was twenty six and had just met the first, well at least to me, openly gay person in my life. Kerry was still in the closet and I was the first person she had come out to. In our years working together she became more comfortable with herself and I can still remember encouraging her to take her first lesbian date. True to form, they were living together after the fourth date.
As I think back upon that experience years ago I am amazed at the risk that Kerry took in coming out to me. I might have been angry at feeling jilted. I might have told others in the office and she might have lost her job. I might have rejected her outright as a friend. She might have just told me that she wasn't interested in a relationship and walked away leaving me wondering what happened. Instead of following her fears though, she told me the truth and I remained her friend.
The risk that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people like Kerry take just in being themselves are still with us. If someone is open about his or her gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation then he or she might be fired from a job, face discrimination in housing, insurance and lodging, and be ostracized by his or her faith community.
Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. It is the day established by gay and lesbian organizations to encourage gays and lesbians to "come out of the closet," effectively to admit their sexual preference and to tell their friends and families who they truly are. For many who are gay and lesbian this is the single fact that defines their life more than anything else. By coming out of the closet they become, in essence, pariahs to certain groups. They immediately become a kind of minority in American society. When they "come out" to those they care about they risk losing the relationships that have meant so much to them. They risk even losing their livelihoods, their security.
Living in truth is a challenge for each of us, whether gay, straight or in-between. Many of us come to Unitarian Universalist faith after struggling with a faith tradition that no longer speaks to our hearts or our heads. We came to this faith acknowledging that the religious heritage of our family could no longer sustain or nurture us. We came seeking truth not hemmed in by dogma but affirming the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Vaclav Havel, the former Czech prime minister, when he was younger wrote an essay about the cost of living a lie. For Havel, who grew up in Czechoslovakia during the period of Soviet domination, the lie that Czechoslovakians were living was that they lived in a society that was organized for the benefit of its workers. Everyone knew that the workers were too afraid to speak their minds, fearing justly that they would be overlooked for good jobs, ostracized or even sent to prison if they revealed the lie of their society. People in that society worked hard, not for the belief that hard work would be rewarded, but out of fear that not working hard would be punished by the Soviet-backed authorities. They lived in fear—and were slaves to that fear.
Many people live in fear of standing out, of being different, of living in truth by telling who they truly are. I remember Unitarian Universalist friends who told me of their fear of coming out as Unitarian Universalists to their families. A friend spoke to me in theological school about telling her Sicilian mother that she would not be sitting next to her at mass next Sunday morning. Another friend told me about her fear of rejection from her fundamentalist family members. I, myself, did not tell my mostly Southern Baptist family that I was a Unitarian Universalist until I was heading off to theological school for the ministry. Telling someone something that might cause one to be rejected is daring. And some of us have had to tell our friends and family members that we were Unitarian Universalists. Some of us have risked rejection for believing that every religion contained some kernal of truth and that we believed that actions spoke louder than words.
For most of us, "living in truth" is fairly easy compared to what gays and lesbians encounter. We still retain our outward privileges as seemingly heterosexuals, albeit ones with a decided different outlook from the rest of society. We are not at risk of violence just by walking down the street hold our beloved's hand.
Much of the prejudice against gays and lesbians has to be placed upon the Western religious traditions. The Jewish and Christian scriptures have not been kind to gays and lesbians. The first condemnation of homosexuality appears in Leviticus (18:22), the third book of the Jewish scriptures, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." From that original derive all the following texts condemning homosexual acts.
When I lived in Macon, my office was a door down from the office of the Reformed Jewish rabbi in town. One day I had a few minutes to spare so I went to the rabbi's office. As the leaders of the two most liberal congregations in town we enjoyed discussing theological and ethical issues. The subject of homosexuality in the Jewish scriptures came up. The rabbi pulled the text and read Leviticus from the original Hebrew to me. He noted that the text did indicate that homosexuality was an "abomination" in the original Hebrew. Then, he noted that the word, "abomination" only appeared once more in Leviticus in the original Hebrew and that it was in reference to eating shellfish. At that point, I had to chime in, "So what you are telling me, rabbi, is that homosexuality is as offensive to God as eating a plate of fried clams." His response was, "essentially true." I told him that, in my opinion, I could live with that.
At this point in our history it seems anachronistic to appeal to rulings from scriptures written thousands of years to justify the continued oppression of between ten and twenty percent of the human population. It is not that these scriptures are irrelevant to contemporary culture. They are. Their message though needs to be reinterpreted in the context of what we know about human and indeed, animal nature.
A friend of mine was a daughter of a farmer who happened to be a Christian fundamentalist. Her father used to say that homosexuality was "perverted and unnatural." Then he bought a purebred bull to rent out for stud service. The bull was a fine specimen of bovine masculinity. Unfortunately for my friend's father, he was also a gay bull–totally disinterested in a pasture of cows but pining for the other bull in the neighboring pasture. After that experience my friend said that she noticed that her father stopped referring to homosexuality as "perverted and unnatural" and abbreviated it to merely "perverted."
I have a book about homosexuality in the animal kingdom. We've all heard the phrase, "gay as a gazelle." Well, it's true! Gazelles often display homosexual behavior but then so do most mammal and avian species. Like the feminists who questioned the male perspectives on the world a generation earlier, modern animal behaviorists have found that previous generations of animal behaviorists ignored homosexual behavior because they, themselves, felt uncomfortable about it. Yet, they were not really documenting the natural world because it did not fit conveniently into their category of what was "natural."
So, the scientific evidence tells us that homosexuality is natural and that some of every animal species will be born gay–gay gazelles, gay ducks, gay bulls, gay mice. When I was growing up I had a gay dachshund, much to my adolescent, homophobic embarrassment.
The natural world is full of gay and lesbian tendencies in abundance. Yet, we who live lives so divided from the flow of the seasons, the appearance of the natural order, have lost track of this reality. For so many in our culture it is easier to look to abstract theological ideas than it is to observe the natural realm. Many ethical and theological works examine the world through treatises written thousands of years ago but few ask us to see what is really happening outside our windows and to judge our gods by the reality found there.
One of the bases of our Unitarian faith though is that we are to encounter religious truths in many forms and examine their relevance to our lives. The Unitarian movement in New England in the late eighteenth century began with the premise that individuals should read the holy scriptures, without the influence of dogma and determine for themselves what was ultimately true. The theological conservatives, then and now, argued and do argue, that to do so is to risk heresy or disbelief. Unitarians then and now, argue with equal certainty that the world and our experience of it, are the ultimate arbiters to truth. If God is present in the world or created the world then the natural world is also a revelation of God's order.
And that Divine order also has a place for gays and lesbians. Whether by nature or nurture, or by industrial pollutants, homosexuality is part of the natural world as well as the human world. Being gay or lesbian is normal for some of us. It is how the universe planned it to be.
This is especially relevant to the Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester because this is a "Welcoming Congregation." Now, a few years ago I remember driving by a Southern Baptist congregation that had on its signpost the words, "A Welcoming Congregation." I doubt that those words mean the same to them as they do to us.
In our denomination a "Welcoming Congregation" is not just words but an official designation. This congregation went through a program years ago to receive certification from the Unitarian Universalist Association that this congregation affirmed the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. The Unitarian Fellowship of West Chester, in doing so, joined with thirty-eight percent of the congregations in the Unitarian Universalist movement in advocating for a place for sexual minorities in their congregations. That does not mean that mean that the other sixty-two percent of our congregations are unwelcoming. Most are just too lazy to go through the program.
What does it really mean to be a Welcoming Congregation? It means that this congregation is inclusive and expressive of the concerns of sexual minorities at every level of congregational life. It means that we don't assume that everyone is heterosexual and use vocabulary which reflects that fact. It means that the church will not discriminate against gays and lesbians in membership, staff hiring decisions or even the calling of a minister. Being a Welcoming Congregation means that the church engages in outreach into the gay and lesbian communities. Welcoming Congregations offer congregational and ministerial support for union ceremonies and memorial services for gays and lesbians and celebrations of evolving definitions of family. Being a Welcoming Congregation means that this church welcomes and affirms same-sex couples. It means that this church seeks to nurture ongoing dialogue between gays and straights, and to create deeper trust and sharing. It means that this welcoming congregation celebrates gay and lesbian issues and history during the church year. A Welcoming Congregation, as an advocate for sexual minorities, attends to legislative developments and works to promote justice, freedom and equality in the larger society. It means that the church speaks out when the rights of gays and lesbians are at stake.
If the wording of some of that seems familiar to you, it is from the guidelines for the Welcoming Congregation program. As I have been your minister these past two months I have often wondered where this congregation sits on this issue. You do welcome gay and lesbian members, you offer the organization known as "Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays," also known as "PFLAG," a place to meet. Many of you have advocated publically for the naming of a local high school after an openly gay, black civil rights worker, Bayard Rustin, who also happened to be from West Chester.
Yet, I often wonder how this congregation is known in this community. Are you known for who you truly are? Would a West Chester University student walking down High Street struggling with her sexuality know from the outside of this building that this is a "Welcoming Congregation" for her? Would people who are rejecting the dogma of their childhood and are seeking another spiritual path, know that this religious community exists for them? How do you tell your story? What do you tell, and to whom?
In our individual lives we aspire to live in the truth about God and nature, Buddha and Christ. We try to live lives of integrity, believing that which we must believe. We belong to a special heritage as Unitarian Universalists. Our Universalist fore-parents expressed their opposition to slavery at their first national convention in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century. They did so because they knew that those of African descent were people. Our Universalist predecessors in the faith believed so strongly in women's rights that they were the first denomination to ordain a woman to the ministry, doing so during the Civil War. They did so because they knew that women were people. Ours was one of the first denominations to ordain openly gay and lesbian people to our ministry. We did so because we knew in our hearts and heads that gays and lesbians were people too.
Being a Unitarian Universalist must seem easy to the casual observer. It must seem that with the absence of dogma that anything goes. We do seek many sources of truth and meaning. Yet, in the absence of any creed testing us for our beliefs, we have only our deeds to prove who we are and what we believe. Our Unitarian forebearers rallied behind the cry, "Deeds not creeds!" to make their point.
In closing this day, the day before National Coming Out Day, I ask you how you would be known, what deeds would you claim as improving the lot of those of us whose affectional preference is different. What is the truth that you are living individually and as a congregation? If you were to come out as a "Welcoming Congregation" to gays and lesbians, what would it look like? Would you have a pride flag painted on your sign post? Would you move as a congregation that local townships endorse a non-discrimination policy?
This day I ask you to think upon what it means to live the religion in your heart and head as an individual as well, to live in truth. Yesterday we commemorated the life of a member of this church who died a week ago—Julie Pennell. As I spoke with you about her, you told me that though most of you did not know her well, you know that she lived her life through deeds that reflected her innermost values. Is there any greater praise that any of us can give or receive than that we lived in truth?
Let us be in an attitude of prayer or meditation:
Though we live in a time of struggle, may we learn that we live in a time of opportunity. Though we live in a time of oppression, may we learn that we live in a time of greater freedom than has ever been known. With this opportunity and freedom comes the challenge of our souls, our church. May we ever bravely side with truth. May we ever live so that freedom expands and all are valued. In this world there are no hands but ours, may we use them to enrich our legacy and make this place better for our presence. May we have the courage to live the truth we proclaim.