Saturday, June 16, 2018

Reflections on LGBTQ Pride Month 2018

Here are some pictures that bring joy to my heart as I reflect on and celebrate Pride Month. 

The picture in the upper left is Trish and Kate Varnum with their son Alex.   Trish and Kate were denied a marriage license in Iowa, and when they sued the state, their case went all the way to Iowa Supreme Court.  The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously voted that denying them the right to a marriage license was against the Iowa Constitution.  After the ruling, there were still factions within the state trying to overturn the ruling through the state legislature.  Kate, Trish, I and so many others worked hard to maintain marital equality in Iowa.  I was fortunate enough to meet Alex while we were working on keeping same-sex legal in Iowa.

NOH8, No Hate, began in 2008 when Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, was put before the voters in California.  When Proposition 8 passed, NOH8 became a national campaign.  NOH8 is now a charitable organization whose mission is to promote LGBTQ rights and gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest. The photographers at the NOH8 shoot said I was the first robed, identifiable clergy to have my picture taken for the cause, and they were very grateful to have a minister advocating for the NOH8 Campaign. 

Zach Wahls, the son of two mothers, is a Unitarian Universalist in Iowa City.  That’s him next to me in my robe with the NOH8 sticker on my face.  Zach spoke to the Iowa Legislature as a teen about his two mothers, and now is running for the Iowa Legislature.  He’s another friend of mine and we got someone to snap a quick photo after our NOH8 photo shoot.

The first legal same sex marriage I officiated I cried.  It was within a month of same-sex marriage becoming legal in Iowa.  A lesbian couple had heard of my work in support of the LGBTQ community and asked me to officiate their wedding.  They had lived together for 20 plus years.  I don’t have a picture, unfortunately.  We were all a little weepy and I didn’t think about getting a photo.

Once same sex marriage passed the Iowa Supreme Court, people from all over the country came to Iowa to get married, including Ken Wood and John Price from Springfield Missouri. That’s them in front of the rainbow banner.  I officiated many same-sex weddings during the years when Iowa was one of the few states in which same-sex couples could legally marry.  While their marriage was only legal in Iowa at the time, now their marriage is legal all over the United States. 

            I think back on all these events in my life with great joy and maybe a little pride.  Progress was made for people who deserved the legal right to love one another.  Yet I know I cannot be complacent, I cannot just sit in those “feel good” moments.  Same-sex couples have trouble adopting children.  Same-sex couples still struggle getting wedding cakes.  I know transgender Unitarian Universalist ministers who can’t find a church that will call them.  I know transgender and gender fluid youth who are experiencing prejudice and bullying, and many are unable to use the bathroom of their choice.  There is still a need for groups like PFLAG and Youth Outlook.  And there is still a need for Unitarian Universalists to support the LGBTQ community,  despite the progress that has been made.  The LGBTQ community still needs all its allies.

            On the Unitarian Universalist Association website in the section on LGBTQ Pride, you will find a page on how to be an effective ally.  There are such suggestions as:

            Intervene when someone disrespects or demeans another because of their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, economic status, etc.

Don’t do work alone. Work with advocacy groups for bisexual, gay, lesbian, gender queer, and transgender people’s rights.

            Write letters to the editors and management of newspapers, television and radio stations expressing support for efforts to reduce prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.

            Eliminate outdated and unhelpful terms from your vocabulary such as “minority, handicapped, homo, etc.”  And incorporate more constructive terms like “gender fluid, Latino/Latina, differently abled, etc.”

            I would guess that many of you have done some of these or other things to support the LGBTQ community, or your LGBTQ friends or LGBTQ church members, and for that matter for other marginalized groups that you are supporting.  But one of the things on the list to be an effective ally stood out to me.  It was an area that it took me many years to address in my own life.  It was:  Reflect on the impact of your own background and challenge your own cultural assumptions.

            Our First Principle calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. For me, this Principle grounds me in much of the social justice work that I do.  I am called as a Unitarian Universalist to consider the worth and dignity of all people, and particularly people that I think or feel are different than me; me a white hetrosexual cis gender, cis means that my birth sex is how I identify, and for me, that is male.  So I am a white heterosexual, cis gender male.  Sometimes I have found it challenging to live this Principle with certain people, sometimes due to my upbringing, sometimes due to my lack of knowledge or experience, sometimes due to my own fears, sometimes due to what I was taught, sometimes due to all of these put together.

            I never met an out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender queer person until I was in college.  I grew up in a Catholic home, went to a Catholic church, and attended a Catholic High School.  The message I had growing up was that being gay was morally wrong, and so deep within me existed prejudices, value judgements, and mis-information.  In Freshman year of college I met a gay man.  He was a hemophiliac and most of the time he was restricted to a wheel chair. His name was Gus.  Fortunately for me, he was fun, self-effacing, and didn’t take any offense at my sometimes over-reactions to his being gay.  We developed an easy friendship.  I am grateful for his being in my life. But many of my prejudices and value judgements continued to exist even after his friendship because I didn’t trust myself enough to talk about them with my gay friend. 

            I have worked over the years to educate myself about the issues faced by the LGBTQ community and again fortunately over my years as a psychotherapist I was never afraid to ask what I considered dumb question of my LGBTQ clients, in order be a more effective therapist for them.  I realized I couldn’t effectively help them if I didn’t understand their world view, their pain and the reasons behind it, their daily struggles.  I want to share one incident that shocked me into a better understanding of what an LGBTQ person faces every day.  At the time, I was working in a good sized clinic of psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers.  I was on the Board of Directors of this organization.  We decided to hire a marketing person.  He was great at his job and every one loved him.  One day he came into my office to talk about some marketing proposal and it just slipped out that he had a male significant other.  He looked at me, very afraid.  He begged me not to tell anyone.  I was surprised by his behavior.  I had suspected he was gay and it was no big deal to me.  But he was genuinely afraid he would be fired if it got out.  I said no one here would fire you for being gay.  But he was convinced that the co-chairs of the Board were either homophobic or just plain prejudiced against gay people.  Over time he had overheard them making negative comments about gay people and even once overheard them make a disparaging joke about a lesbian client in their care.  I couldn’t believe it.  I thought I knew my colleagues.  I did keep his secret. And I was much more aware of what he and other LGBTQ people feel as they move through the world.

            I tell  you all this because it is difficult to be an effective ally if we do not face our own personal prejudices, value judgements, and ill-informed beliefs, especially those that lie deep within that dark place inside us.  We all have prejudices; we all make value judgements; we all have ill-informed beliefs.  All of us.  These can come out in ways we might not be able to predict, ways we certainly wouldn’t want, ways that would hurt someone we know or care about.  And for me, it is not easy to authentically affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of another person when I have not recognized the darkness within me, the prejudices and value judgements, and ill-informed beliefs wthin me.  And for me, it is not just about recognition, it is also about being willing to risk being vulnerable and finding ways to bring my darkness into the light of day. 

You see being an ally, at least for me, means that I make every effort to understand the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, motivations of that marginalized person I am trying to help, with full knowledge that I am flawed, that I have darkness within me and that I am reflecting on that darkness trying to understand it, to not let it control my behaviors or attitudes.

A few years ago I took a test called the IDI, the Intercultural Developmental Inventory.  This test is designed to help a person become more effective in working with people who are different than them, different race, sexual orientation, gender, different in some way.  The basic assumption of this test is that the most effective way to work with someone different than you is by treating them as if you know nothing about them, and start your relationship by asking them questions rather than assuming anything about them. We are most effective in working collaboratively and respectfully if we take the time to understand the person next to us.  This is the purpose of the Welcoming Congregation Certification and Re-Certification Process, to understand the LGBTQ person sitting next to you, working with you, even the LGBTQ person who is your friend, to be an effective collaborator or an effective ally you need to start by asking them questions to better understand them.

            My report gave me some suggestions on how I might be more effective in working with people different than me.  One of the suggestions was write down 1-2  behaviors or attitudes in a group I felt was somehow different than me; focusing on behaviors or attitudes that I was uncomfortable with or felt was somehow wrong or bad in some way.   Then I was to consider the reasons why I believed those behaviors or attitudes made me uncomfortable or challenged my own moral or ethical values. What specifically bothered me about these attitudes or behaviors? After taking time to explore these within myself, I was then encouraged to seek out a person from that group, someone I had a relationship with if possible or someone I felt I could trust, and engage them in a conversation, and listen with an open mind and an open heart, understanding I would not be there to change their minds or hearts and they would not be there to change mine.  Our goal would be to deeply understand one another.  Then I was to begin the process again with writing down 1 or 2 behaviors or attitudes…

            I have been using this process with people who are very different than me and those who might not seem so very different.  This process is key to broadening my perspective, my world view, and makes me a better ally to those people who are different than me.  I understand that every person in this church, in my life, in my outreach and social justice efforts is different from me in one way or another.  I feel I have lived into the First Principle when I am able to listen to someone, really anyone, and deeply understand them, even when I am uncomfortable, even when I feel challenged, even when part of me thinks what that person is doing or saying is somehow wrong or bad.  The First Principle is not a “one and done” kind of thing, none of the Principles are.  Every person I meet or talk to is an opportunity; an opportunity to understand them better and to understand myself better, especially when their experiences and values and beliefs are very different from my own. 

            That is what makes our First Principle so challenging, you have to be willing to deeply engage with one person at a time.   To personally affirm each person’s inherent worth and dignity, aware at the same time of that dark, judgy place you hide inside.  And my friends, it is too easy to feel that the answers that you get from one person represents all of the people in that “different than you” community.  As humans we try to put people in categories in our minds so that we can understand our world in simple terms.  Our world is not simple.  Heck this church community is not simple.  People are complex.  As I have engaged with many people, I have come to realize that each and every person in this world is different than me.  And they are different than you. 

            So as we celebrate Pride this month, take a moment to reflect on how you might more deeply engage with someone whose sexual orientation or gender is different than your own.  Take the time to reflect on the impact of your own background and challenge your own cultural assumptions.  These are ways we might not have considered as we work to be allies, but these are really effective ways to be a better ally with the LGBTQ community.   Ask yourself the difficult questions about a person whose sexual orientation or gender is different than yours—consider things that feel uncomfortable, maybe feel wrong in some way--and then reflect on why you feel that way.  After that sit down with someone from the LGBTQ community, someone you have a relationship with, perhaps someone in this church, someone you can trust, and talk to them in a respectful non-judging way, to really get to know them.  Listen with an open heart and mind to them, their concerns, their values, their struggles.  Be a seeker of truth. And who knows how the world within you and outside you might change.

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