Straight Eyes on Queer Lives: Justice or Entertainment?

by
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

First Parish in Norwell
October 19, 2003

The first thing that I am going to do when I get to heaven is to ask God, "You know that sexuality thing? . . . What were you thinking?"

And in my imaginary conversation, God smiles at me and says, "Kid, believe it or not… I meant it as a gift. I meant it to be both useful and fun!"

And I will say, "Well, I just got back from being there with the humans and I'm sorry to have to tell you: it's not going so well with the sexuality thing!" And then we will walk off arm in arm and talk about it, and God will explain it all to me. That and the Red Sox, God will explain to me. That's my heaven.

But of course this is just the fantasy, and perhaps a dangerous one. When it comes to sex and sexuality, as it comes to anything else we humans want to know, no one knows the mind of God.

Why does my heart pound at the notion of speaking to you, my beloved community, about sexuality? We have talked about many things together that don't fill me with so much fear and trembling: Sin. Love and grace. Guilt. The nature of Christ and Buddha. Death. And even. . . . money. But when it comes to sexuality, I want to take off my shoes for I am surely walking on hallowed ground.

Perhaps this topic is so frightening because of all the things that make us incarnate spiritual beings, our sexuality is one of the most mysterious, the most private, and the most unavoidable. We live in our bodies; our little space ships for the trip we make until we are released back into spirit. These are the only vehicles through which we can ever know this world. Our sexuality is that instinct that calls us out of our own little space ships into that unknown territory of the body and being of another. It is the still almost only way human life gets perpetuated. Mating puts us in touch with the primitive blood mysteries: it is therefore the aspect of human society that human beings have created the most taboos to regulate. Taboos are never released by any culture without a fight, and the fights to release ancient taboos about sexuality are very much at the forefront of our lives today.

Yet here you are, and here I am, daring to wade in these deep waters together, and I have promised you a sermon called "Straight Eye on Queer Lives," a title I got from a wildly popular new show that comes on Tuesday nights on the Bravo channel. So let us start there. In this show, a group of five gay men burst into the lives of a (willing) heterosexual man in New York City and make him over -- transforming him from an average schlub into a fabulous, fashionable "metrosexual" who knows how to style his hair, wear clothes with panache, and make delicious hors d'oeuvres and cocktails for his gal in his beautiful home (which has undergone its own make-over). It is a kind of gay take-off on the old fairy godmother fantasy. It is a delightful show that I adore, despite its emphasis on acquiring new possessions and making cosmetic changes as a means to achieving a kind of social salvation:

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now… I have acquired a whole new wardrobe and am found,
was blind,
but now that I know how to mix the perfect martini, I see!"

Praise the Lord.

"Queer Eye on the Straight Guy" has been a surprise runaway hit for Bravo, and I say "bravo." I love the moment – and there is always this moment in the show – when the man being made over is feeling like the proverbial million bucks and he embraces the five gay experts (they call them "the Fab Five") with true warmth, gratitude and affection. It is a moment that always brings me to tears of gratitude myself, raised as I was in a world where my gay male friends were rarely treated with respect or admiration from their hetero brothers. It feels revolutionary to me.

But before we hail this revolution too eagerly and think we're done with it, let me share with you another recent gay moment in our popular culture. This one occurred this summer during the MTV Music Video Awards, a show many of our children may have been watching even if we have not. Madonna (and you know who she is, I hope) came out to sing a number with the reigning queen of bubblegum pop, Miss Britney Spears. The moment was intended to be iconic: the most famous female entertainer in the world passing the musical torch to the newest blonde bombshell on the pop/rock scene. Madonna was dressed all in black and Britney Spears all in white ("Like a Virgin!"). And at the conclusion of their number the two ladies put down their microphones and shared a lingering, moist kiss. This moment made the news all over the world and it is still being talked about. It was the smooch heard ‘round the world.

And after I picked my jaw up off the floor, it still took me awhile to figure out why that kiss made me so frustrated and angry. I wanted to see it as the two pop divas' sign of solidarity with men and women who would like to be able to kiss others of the same gender and have it thought a beautiful thing. I wanted to see it as an expression of freedom and empowerment.

But I felt manipulated. I felt we had come to a real "uh-oh" moment in the struggle for gay civil rights. Uh-oh. Two notoriously heterosexual women – one a married mother of two children and the other very publicly linked romantically to one man after the next -- make a same-sex kiss into a public tease and titillation: a kind of "being gay is hip!" moment. And there is the great danger. No matter how much press "queer moments" like this are getting – and I use the word "queer" as it is used in the gay community, as an ironic and positive reclaiming of what was once a derogatory term – being gay is still not safe for the vast majority of Americans.

Watching these two entertainers, I thought to myself how many women (and how many men) I know who, if they shared such a kiss in public, would be in danger of losing their status in their communities, their jobs, and possibly their lives. The very sad reality is that unless you're Madonna or Britney, you're really not safe to hold hands or share kisses of any length with someone of your own gender anywhere but in the movies. . . or on a few select television shows . . . or in a bar or club that especially caters to gay folks…

…or, God willing, in a Welcoming Congregation.

And so now we get to the heart of the gay issue, which is really not a political one at all. It is a religious issue, a theological issue, and an issue that we should know is tearing apart communities of faith all across this country, and all over the world. Because of course, Madonna and Britney and the Fab Five were not the only ones making news this summer. Also in the news was the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church – the Reverend Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (I cannot overstate the impact Bishop Robinson's confirmation is still having in Episcopal churches: it is a struggle that is incredibly painful to read about, and to hear about from my Episcopalian friends and colleagues1 ).

In Texas this summer, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that restored privacy to the sex lives of its straight and gay citizens. And in Canada, men and women became free to marry someone of their own gender, and therefore to include themselves in the multiple legal privileges that are granted to all married couples – including "the right to social security survivor benefits, the ability to make decisions on their partner's behalf in medical emergencies, the right to petition for a partner to immigrate, access to medical care leave for a seriously ill partner, and the right to give their children two legal parents.2

I know this issue is also challenging for our own Unitarian Universalist congregations – no less this one – but I am so very proud that our association of congregations has, since our General Assembly in 1970, "made more than twenty public statements in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their rights to enjoy all the benefits and privileges that heterosexual people enjoy."3 And our leadership developed a denominational Welcoming Congregation program that would help congregations process through some of our own feelings, taboos, fears and just plain information about what it means to be a sexual minority in the church – to sensitize ourselves to those men and women who have traditionally been most contemptuously excluded from God's grace in too many mainstream houses of worship. During that time, Unitarian Universalist ministers began performing same sex civil unions, or services of holy union. Remember that this pioneering movement began as recently as 1970. We are still fairly new at this.

In the mid-90's, I was a lay member of one of our UU congregations that was considering launching the Welcoming Congregation process. I was prepared to vote against it. My argument was that I was already welcoming, I believed our church was welcoming, and I believed that a committee-driven effort to make us especially welcoming to lesbians, gays and bisexuals was unnecessary. It would make us uncomfortable and possibly divide us. I was scared. I had lost too many gay friends to AIDs in the 1980's and felt that a scab was just beginning to form where a very deep wound had been. This doesn't make any sense, does it? But I have come to realize that when it comes to sexuality issues, we proceed from our guts and not so much from rationality. What I feared most was finding out that any of my church friends were – if not outright homophobic – prejudiced against non-hetero people. I didn't want to know.

But here's what I learned as a result of that experience: my church did not exist to keep me or anyone else comfortable. In fact, I was brought to awareness that "my" church was really not "mine" at all, but God's church, where a greater spirit than my own had called a group of seekers together to become more fully loving and therefore more fully human. This was a hard learning. It did not make me happy. I also learned that the church does not exist to make me happy. That was hard, too.

What I learned from participating in the Welcoming Congregation program as a resistant layperson was that the program wasn't for me, and it wasn't about how welcoming I am. It was, and is, a process that is meant to help a community of people open their minds, their arms and their doors wide enough to include the people who are so often turned away from religious fellowship and thus excluded from the church's life-giving ministries. I was brought to understand that the Welcoming Congregation program is not a political program but an exercise in the spiritual art of compassion, and of the practice of radical hospitality as practiced most notably by Jesus of Nazareth (who, by the way, never said one word about homosexuality, although his followers had plenty of opinions about it).

First Parish in Norwell became an officially Welcoming Congregation in 1999. I am proud of you for it. It was a fact about you that deeply impressed and attracted me when I first read your congregational record. And I was proud of you when we did this thing recently that I think turned out to be a bit more provocative than many of us expected it to be… in a manner of speaking, we "came out of the closet" about our welcoming designation! We installed a rainbow flag on the front of this meetinghouse on a windy day last year, and now we are processing through together the impact that flag has made within our congregation and in our wider community. No one in this congregation has asked that the flag removed, but we are talking – and perhaps voting -- about its location. In the two meetings we have held to talk about the flag's location, we have learned one thing for certain: symbols are very powerful.

How we proceed in our decision-making about this symbol will be every bit as important as any practical outcome. This process calls us to listen deeply to one another, and to honor the personal experiences that some of you have trusted each other enough to share from your hearts. I believe this is an opportunity for us to listen especially closely to those men and women to whom that flag was meant to say, "you're safe here." For those of us who have never known what it's like to feel unsafe in a house of worship because of our sexual orientation – and I include myself in that category – this is a particularly rich opportunity for deeper understanding.

We would not be a church if we did not meet these issues together, and meet these moments together. This is how we flex our covenantal muscle!

And we must not only respect but actually love these moments for how they bring our deepest feelings to the fore, how they clarify our values in the fire of conflict, and how they connect us more intimately in the bonds of fellowship, and of learning, and of surprising ourselves with how much we can forgive one another for the awkward ways we stumble for meaning.

Some of you have been approached recently by people who have inquired whether you belong to "the gay church." I want to offer you a response that I have been using for some years when asked the same question (since Unitarian Universalists are the only mainline faith tradition in this country that unequivocally supports the ritual blessing of same-sex unions, I have been asked this question quite a few times) . When someone has said to me, "oh, are you with that gay church?" I say to them, "Are you or someone you know looking for a gay-friendly congregation? Because we want you to know that we are welcoming to people of all sexual orientations." Do you know, sometimes they thank me. They thank us. Once or twice someone has responded, "No, I don't know anyone like that." And I have said, "I'm so sorry." I don't mean it in a flippant way, either. I mean it to say, "I'm sorry that you are paying so little attention, or that the people you've met in your life have obviously not felt safe or free enough around you to let you know that they're someone who loves and desires differently than you do."

Let me close with something a little risky. It is a cartoon that I saw some years ago that made me laugh a kind of shocked laugh. My mother advised me not to share this with you but we've gone this far together and I trust you to go this last little bit with me. In this cartoon, a large, angry man with bushy eyebrows approaches the pearly gates of heaven. He is brandishing a Bible in one hand and he is saying to Saint Peter, "You'll be pleased to know all my life I preached against same-sex marriages, never performed a same-sex marriage, always preached [gays] were less than human – wouldn't let ‘em in my church, by God!" And St. Peter, who is seen kind of draped over the desk at the gate, a purse at his feet, sporting a big hair-do and fluttering eyelashes, murmurs "Well, aren't you just the big silly."

Let this church be safe. Let it be a haven for all of us. From heaven's perspective we are all big sillies, stumbling for justice and compassion and meaning, and I believe we are loved for it, not despite it. Let this house be safe, let all who enter it be welcomed as brothers and sisters. Thank you for listening. Amen.

-----------------------------------------

1This is to say nothing of the bitterly divisive arguments going on regarding the Christian imperative to love and include sexual minorities among Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.

2 Thanks to the Rev. Suzelle Lynch, “What Would It Mean To Be a Welcoming Congregation?” October 12, 2003.

3 Again, Suzelle’s words.