This Old House

June 12, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


The first time I was involved in the Welcoming Congregation program in a Unitarian Universalist church, I was serving my internship in Medford, MA. A parishioner asked to meet with me. The man didn't want to be called homophobic so he didn't dare to say this out loud in the congregation but he wanted to say it to someone, and I seemed like a safe bet. "I don't understand why we have to do this," he says. "We're welcoming of everyone. It just seems politically correct or a waste of time to do this whole process. I just don't like it." I was to hear that same remark again and again in the next fifteen years, and so I want to wind my way around to a response with you this morning -- a more thought-out and honest response than I ever managed to give to any people who asked me that question in person.

Let me start with what I don't like about any programs that deal with sexuality, and my objection is not what you think.  It's not that I'm a proper church lady who doesn't think these conversations belong in the church. I absolutely believe that they do! That's why I was so happy to see the students and the teachers recognized last week for completing the Our Whole Lives curriculum together -- those conversations about sexuality and the ethics of relationships are really difficult, and it is thank to Marlon and Amanda's commitment and love that that class was able to do that hard work together. I took the earlier Unitarian Universalist curriculum called AYS (About Your Sexuality) as a kid in one of our congregations and I am glad for it to this day. The images in the curriculum were so graphic, so unromanticized and so earnest, that it impressed upon me that sexuality was a messy business, very strange and definitely not something I wanted to get involved with for a long time. That may not have been the program's intention, as it is not an abstinence-based curriculum, but that's how it affected me. I am proud to be in a tradition that considers human sexuality education as a ministry of the church: what other issue could be more fraught with consequences to spiritual health, psychological wholeness, and right relationship between humans?

That said, what I think can be problematic about the Welcoming Congregation program is that it gives "straight" people the idea that the point of the program is to focus on the sexuality of people of supposedly minority sexual orientation. I say "supposedly" because we are coming to understand in this age that sexual identity and orientation are far more fluid than our rigid categories would allow for, and that sexual desire and practices also defy categorization. What frustrates me is that heterosexual people sometimes start the Welcoming Congregation process thinking that it's about whether or not they want to support or judge or include or exclude the people who identify with a sexual minority. That is not how the program works, but that is how some folks see it going in. Even the well-meaning ones.

This is called heterosexual privilege. See it in all caps in your mind. HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE. And heterosexual privilege is what's at work in any of us when we say, "Gee, we're so welcoming already, I don't think we need a special program to learn how to be welcoming of g/l/b/t people and their families."  I'll tell you how I answered the first person who ever made this remark. I said, "I understand what you're saying but it's important for us to be aware that because it is most especially through religious communities that oppression, abuse and spiritual and physical violence of g/l/b/t people has been encouraged and perpetuated over the centuries, the church has a special obligation to do this work."

I still believe that but I wish I had had the courage to add, "But this isn't just something that kindly straight people do on behalf of our gay sisters and brothers. We're all sexual beings, and not that many of us are probably ‘normal,' whatever that means, so this program gives us a chance to become more honest about that as well. Heterosexuals don't do it "for" the g/l/b/t people: we all study and reflect together, for all of us." The historic Church's-- and the synagogue and the mosque and the Hindu temple and the Buddhist monastery -- attitudes about sexuality are motivated by the need to control. Sex has to mean man + woman = baby in these systems, all of which are patriarchal and invested in perpetuating sex within the institution of marriage for the begetting of children. That's the main goal. People who are acting in a sexually autonomous way outside that structure have always been punished, and still are. That means not only the homosexual teenager in Wyoming but the Indian woman who sneaks out of the house to meet her lover and winds up stoned to death or with acid thrown in her face. The point is that these hierarchical power structures do not want people thinking, feeling or acting on their desires in an unapproved way, because that upsets the power balance. Religious bodies know very well that sex has its own transcendent power and they have always been concerned with reigning in that power.

As the church, I believe we are obligated to keep doing the work of confronting the systematic shaming and punishment of the souls and bodies of those who are g/l/b/t not just as an act of atonement but as an act of reconciliation. When we study together the broad spectrum of human sexuality, we find that there is very little so-called "normal" -- that people's private desires and behaviors are tremendously varied, regardless of what has been proscribed as acceptable by religious authorities over the centuries. We start to dismantle heterosexual privilege by understanding how heterosexuality has been promoted as the only acceptable form of sexuality-- and brutally enforced --by religious and political authorities. Those who study the ways of nature and the animal kingdom know that Nature did not dictate heterosexuality as the norm. Human authorities did, and still do.

We have long known that gay kids have a tragically high suicide rate in America. It's hard to know exactly because of course these kids don't come out and say they're gay -- they just exhibit what other kids designate as "gay" behaviors or tendencies and attract the attention of bullies in this time-old oppression and punishment that I just referred to.  Children can be nasty little people, as you know, and they learn pretty early how to start reinforcing the social order that they learn from adults, either at home or in the organizations they belong to (sports teams, Boy Scouts, church groups, country clubs, gangs). They either learn to cruelly enforce what they are taught are acceptable modes of being, or they learn to appreciate their peers as unique individuals. Bullying happens for a lot of reasons but gender identity and perceived sexuality is at the top of the list (and I say "perceived sexuality" because we have all known of kids who were harassed for being "queer" long before they had any inkling themselves of sexual orientation).

The first murder of a gay youth by bullies that many of us remember is the torture and death of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming in 1998. It would have been wonderful if Matthew's horrifying death had put an end to violence against gay men and women but it did not. Not by a long shot. Very recently, a number of young gay men committed suicide in this country. Some were being actively bullied, others were just broken from years of more subtle forms of emotional harm against them. Dan Savage, a sex columnist who is a witty and sarcastic dispenser of wisdom and tough love, was moved last September to put together a short video of himself sharing a heart-to-heart with gay kids. In the nine minute video, Dan sits with his partner Terry and they talk about how painful high school was: being bullied, having the school administration say there was nothing they could do about it, and knowing that their parents did not accept them as they were. But, Dan says, "if there's one thing I would want 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds to take away from this is that it gets better. And it can get great. But you have to tough it out through this time so that you can be there for when it gets amazing. You have to live."

Dan Savage's video became a movement, the "It Gets Better" movement. Ten thousand more videos were added by celebrities and individuals, and they have been viewed thirty five million times. Actors have made them. Casts of Broadway shows have made them. Politicians have made them.  Sports teams have made them. There is a petition to get the Red Sox to make an It Gets Better video, which I think would be great. These videos are love letters. They are from adults to kids saying, "Please stick around. Please know that this is a difficult time in life and people can be vicious. But we want you to know that you are worthy of love, that you're a valuable human being with something to contribute. That we believe in you. That we want you to be strong so that we can all make the world better together. We want you to be happy. This is a basic right and something we all believe in. So hang in there. It gets better."

For anyone who wonders why we do the Welcoming Congregations programs in our churches, it is because we are committed not only to saying, "It Gets Better," but to actually getting better, and to doing that together in community. We understand that while it is loving and encouraging to tell kids that things better, it is even more loving to work toward communities and a world that is better for them and for all of us.

I would say that becoming and then being a Welcoming Congregation is an act of solidarity that doesn't just benefit the gay, lesbian, transgendered or otherwise outside-the-gender-norms people who walk through our doors, it benefits everyone, wherever we fall in the straight or queer spectrum.*  Most of us have a few secret outlaw parts of ourselves, rebellions against conformity or against society or familial expectation that we feel are unacceptable to share or to be. Becoming conscious of the ways we disown parts of ourselves and then project that disgust onto other people is the only way to get better. It gets better when we all get better.

* Queer is a designation embraced by the g/l/b/t political activist community that means anything outside of heterosexual, heteronormative, Western gender roles.