February 2010 – It’s Called Love – A Service to Mark LGBT History Month.
A baby girl is born, and a baby boy is born, and the baby girl grows up into a young woman, and the baby boy grows up into a young man, and they meet, and fall in love.
It’s called love.
And sometimes, a baby girl is born, and another baby girl is born, and they both grow up into young women, and they meet, and fall in love.
It’s called love.
And sometimes a baby girl is born, and a baby boy is born, and they both grow up into young men, and they meet, and fall in love.
It’s called love.
And sometimes a baby boy is born, and another baby boy is born, and one of them grows up into a young woman and one of them grows up into a young man, and they meet, and fall in love.
A child is born, and another child is born, and they grow up, and they meet, and fall in love.
It’s called love.
It’s called love.
Not long after I’d started coming to the Octagon, probably around the time I had my membership service, after which I vowed I would never, ever stand at the lectern again, I realised that there was an issue I was going to have to confront. I’d been around long enough to pick up on some of the general principles of the place, knew what the atmosphere was like, and felt that – although it mightn’t be popular, although I might be judged, although it might alter how people perceived me – it would be safe. Secrets, after all, are generally corrosive, and if Unitarians have a trinity, it’s freedom, reason, and tolerance. So with that in mind, I pulled all my courage together, stood up here at the front, put my faith in God and in Unitarian acceptance, and stated, out, and reasonably proud, that I really really don’t like gardening.
People have been very understanding.
But joking aside – here’s the point: it’s that random, it’s that arbitrary, and that incidental that I’m also in a same-sex relationship. And fortunately, on the whole, I think that’s how most Unitarians, and certainly most of the congregation here, see the whole issue. It’s something about me. It’s not who or what I am. One of the things that first attracted me and my former partner to the Octagon, and made us stay, was that from the start, no-one was actually particularly interested in the fact that we were a same-sex couple. We have never felt like ‘the lesbian couple’, and sexuality has never been an issue.
I have never been specifically proud of being a lesbian (this, dear reader, was several years ago before I started defining as bisexual), any more than I’m proud of having brown hair or being left-handed. But at LGBT pride last year (that’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender pride), I was enormously proud of Unitarianism and the Octagon. Although we’re growing hugely, we’re still not that big a congregation, but there were still at least fifteen people there from the Octagon. And I’m pretty sure I can safely say ours was the only banner to be carried by a Sunday School. And the attitude in which people attended Pride wasn’t one of needing to be seen to be supportive of a minority, it was one of wanting to join the celebration of diversity.
Unitarians have a long and proud tradition of acceptance of ‘the other’. The first female Unitarian minister, Gertrude Von Petzold, was accepted into ministry in 1904. We weren’t the first - various other non-conformist denominations have also been fully accepting of women ministers for centuries. But we were in the advance guard, at least.
And the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians (the GA) carried a resolution back in 1977 stating that This General Assembly resolves that the Ministry of this denomination be open to all – regardless of sex, race, colour, or sexual orientation.
In 1984 it declared its belief that the age of consent for homosexuals should be the same as that for heterosexuals.
In 2000 it declared that it called upon the GA Council actively to work for the equal acceptance of lesbians and gay men in all walks of society.
And in 2008 it called for marriages and civil partnerships in England and Wales to be on an equal footing.
There are omissions here, which you will probably have spotted. There is no mention of bisexuality, and no mention of those with a gender history: those who are or were transgendered, and those who have gender dysphoria. I don’t claim to know why that is omitted in our history and in our resolutions, and I’m bound to admit it troubles me. I do think though, that, on the whole, most Unitarians accept gender as it is, and that that might go some way to explain the omission. But it doesn’t excuse it. The banner that we carried at Pride last year proclaims that Unitarians Celebrate the Diversity of Creation, and I know that that is intended as a fully inclusive statement. But statements need to be stated, not implied, and that is something the denomination needs to be aware of.
Unitarians, then, with some caveats, have a history of openness and right thinking on matters around gender and sexuality. But it’s safe to say that many other mainstream denominations – within Christianity, within other Abrahamic faiths and in some non-Abrahamic faiths – don’t have such a shining history.
Some, of course, wear their homophobia with distressing – and horrifying – pride. The followers of Christ Jesus at Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas base their whole theology on overt, hateful homophobia. These people – who, it is vital to state, are not affiliated with any known Baptist associations – have as their core mission the eradication of homosexuality and all who support it.
Westboro aims to spread the word of God and the love of Jesus by picketing funerals. Their favourites are the funerals of LGBT people who have died as a result of violence or AIDS.
In 1998, when 21-year old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left tied to a fence to die, by men who had told their girlfriends that they wanted to rob a gay man, Westboro celebrated. In the name of Jesus and of God, this church which thinks that LGBT people and those who support us are abominations, celebrated over the death by torture of a young man.
But judging Christianity because there is Westboro church is hugely unfair. If you take the extreme edges of any movement, you have no means of telling what happens in the centre. Most Christians, most right-thinking people of faith, I think it’s fair to say, despair at Westboro’s views. To some extent, their opinions are so extreme that they almost do less harm than the less overt homophobia at play in some churches.
And within Christianity, it’s fair to say that there is genuine struggle about the issues. The Anglican Community has itself completely tied in knots, but mostly they seem to be doing their best to act with love and compassion. Most moderate Anglicans, to be fair, seem to want the church to get over this issue, and get on with worshipping God. And I think they probably will, but I don’t think it will be very soon.
Gene Robinson, the Episcopalian Bishop of New Hampshire, and the first openly gay man to become a bishop in the Anglican Communion, feels that the church should stop waiting for a consensus on the issue of homosexuality. He states, and apparently said to Rowan Williams, that all the great steps towards justice have been the result of somehow finding the courage to do the right thing, and then thinking it through later – not the other way round. If we’d waited, he says, for everyone to agree about civil rights, there would still be separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites.
The track record of mainstream churches hasn’t always been great. Many LGBT people have been made to feel unwelcome, expected to put up with being tolerated, or deliberately ejected. And the LGBT community has been wounded by this, and continues to be wounded.
It’s been suggested that in doing a service for LGBT history month, I should take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of the church to the LGBT community. I won’t do that. I can’t apologise for something I didn’t do, that would be entirely empty. Twenty-first century Unitarians can’t apologise for what 19th Century Anglicans did, or even for what 20th Century Unitarians did. Nobody from one culture in one time can truly apologise for what happened in another.
What I can do, what we can do, what we must do, is look at what we’re doing now that people may be asked to apologise for in another 200 years. It’s unlikely that any of us can have an entirely clear conscience about every aspect of our lives. If any of our actions support bigotry and discrimination, ever, and it’s likely they do, then we should be mindful of what we can do to prevent it.
Something else needs to happen, as well. The church needs to continue in its struggle to accept and celebrate diversity, and even us Unitarians, self-congratulatory though we could be, aren’t completely there yet. But the other thing that needs to happen is that the LGBT community needs to become more accepting of the church, of religion, and of people of faith in general.
Clearly, most people within the LGBT community will probably never become churchgoers, and that’s mainly because most people will never become churchgoers. But there is can be an assumption that we won’t be welcome, that church isn’t for us, that people of faith will see us as a problem, an issue, an ‘other’. No one wants to go where they’re simply tolerated. But the simple fact is that, although there are still many – perhaps the majority – of churches where that is the case, there are also many, and increasing, where it isn’t. And that situation will only continue to improve if the LGBT community lets itself start to heal and lets the churches start to help that healing. And even amongst LGBT Unitarians, there is sometimes a feeling of oppression.
Gene Robinson says that LGBT people of faith need to do three things. Firstly, he recommends that those who have left their faith community go back. Or, if that’s not possible or comfortable, at least find a new spiritual home. He says “your religion needs your support, your witness. And the LGBT community needs the support of the religions that have traditionally condemned it.” Secondly, he recommends being willing to pay the price for moving forward. “Instead of giving up on our religious communities, let’s think about taking the risks and bearing the burdens of transforming them.” And thirdly, he says, come out! Come out as a person of faith to your friends in the LGBT community, which, he points out, may very well be harder than coming out as gay to your straight friends.
And what about that other G word? What about God? Quite apart from not liking gardening, having brown hair, and being in a same-sex relationship, I also do believe in God. This is by no means universal within Unitarianism, I don’t believe in the God of the picture-bible, not the bearded man on a cloud, and the harps, and the angels, but I do believe in a creative spirit, a divine force, in something above and beyond the human experience. I call that God. And generally, I call God “him”, which is not to imply that I think God has any human attributes or that God is in any way male. But “him” works for me.
I can only speak for myself, and clearly, I’m biased, but I cannot conceive of a God who does not celebrate and rejoice in love. Insofar as the God in whom I believe is a personal God – a god who can or could intervene in the lives of individuals – I cannot imagine him having as many concerns about what gender the person we love is, and what sex they were born into, as he does about how fully we love, how wholehearted our passions are, how much we’re prepared to risk for love and how much we’re prepared to hurt for love.
The bible may screw us up in knots about this issue. Fundamentalists may insist that the Bible is clear here, that homosexuality is inherently wrong. It is one part of the bible on which they won’t be shifted. But their answer to the questions Bruce posed in his reading is often – on other matters – that times have changed, that the bible was written in a specific time and place and culture. It was. And if there’s flexibility, and doubt, and change, and the possibility of a wavery line in translations, then that goes for the whole of the Bible. And God, it is often said, and sung, is love. And if God is love, then there is no doubt in my mind that God loves love.
Take away the politics, take away the many and various possible interpretations of some of the bible passages, and what you’re left with is people loving each other. No matter the gender of the people you love, no matter the gender history of the people you love, no matter your own gender history. What’s important is to love wholly, to love courageously, and to love proudly.
There’s a name for behaving like that.
It’s called love.
One of our readings was from John Fortunato, and it went like this:
From Embracing the Exile
[John Fortunato talks of planning a ceremony to bless his relationship with his partner, in Washington DC in, probably, the seventies. His church were hugely supportive, but the press found out and had a field day. John was abandoned by his family, lost his job, and was violently harassed by strangers].
He says: One night, I got up, and I sat in the dark and meditated. And then I had a vision. I know, that’s crazy. It was all my imagination, right? Well, maybe it was, but I had a vision. I imagined something.
I imagined I was sitting there, and God was sitting there, right in front of me. It was very peaceful. I was saying, “You know, sometimes, I think they’re right, that being gay is wrong.” God smiled, and said quietly “How can love be wrong? It all comes from me.”
“Sometimes, I just want to bury that part of myself,” I said, “just pretend it isn’t real.”
“But I made you whole,” God replied. “You are one as I am one. I made you in my image.” I knew he was trying to soothe me, but I’d been through months of good Christian folk trying to ram down my throat that I was an abomination, so all this acceptance was getting me very frustrated.
“Your church out there says that you don’t love me. They say that I’m lost, damned to hell.”
“You’re my son,” said God, in way both gentle and yet so firm that there could be no doubt of his genuineness. “Nothing can separate you from my love.”
“But what do I do with them?”
And in the same calm voice, God said “I’ve given you gifts. Share them. I’ve given you light. Brighten the world. I empower you with my love. Love them.”
That did it. After all I had been through, I’d had it with sweet words. “Love them? What are you trying to do to me? Can’t you see? They call my light darkness! They call my love perverted! They call my gifts corruptions! What the hell are you asking me to do?”
“Love them anyway,” he said, “love them anyway.”
“Love them anyway?” I moaned. “But how?”
“You begin by just being who you are. A loving, caring, whole person, created in my image, whose special light of love happens to fall on men, as I intended for you. You must also speak your pain and affirm the wholeness I’ve made you to be when they assail it. You must protest when you are treated as less than a child of mine. You must go out and teach them. And assure them by word, and work, and example, that my love is boundless, and that I am with them always.”
“You know they won’t listen to me,” I said with resignation, “They’ll despise me. They’ll call me a heretic and laugh me to scorn. They’ll persecute and torment me. They’ll try to destroy me. You know they will, don’t you?”
God’s face saddened. And then God said, softly, “Oh yes, I know. How well I know. Love them anyway.”