turning an ocean liner.

25 Sep

Why it Still Matters, by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 25, 2011.

This past Friday morning, I was at Highland Baptist Church for a Faith Leaders for Fairness forum co-sponsored by Louisville Fairness and by HRC, the Human Rights Campaign.

HRC is an advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equal rights in this country, and they were here in Kentucky with their “On the road to equality” cross-country bus tour.

It was nice to connect with other ministerial colleagues who support GLBTQ rights.  And it was nice to see so many First U folks there – possibly more than from any other congregation.

I was there to co-lead a workshop in the second half of the morning. That workshop was about moving from ally to advocate, and my co-leader was the Rev. Derek Penwell, of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church.

But before our workshop, there was a panel discussion with the lofty title of “Assessing the Louisville Faith Community’s Opportunities, Challenges and Self-Interest with Regard to LGBT Inclusion and Advocacy.” I thought it sounded pretty meaty, and I was looking forward to learning something. And I suppose I did, but not what I was expecting…

There were 4 panelists. All were men. 3 were white men, all of whom were past or at least pushing 50. There was one African American pastor. One Rabbi from Reform Judaism. 2 of the men self-identified as gay, while the other two didn’t say anything – a right usually reserved for the heterosexual. No women. All four representing Biblically based faiths.


One of the panelists talked about the struggle he had with his congregation – how he came from a church that could make strong, quick movements and he was now leading what felt like an ocean liner. And he talked about how hard it can be to turn an ocean liner.

My heart went out to him, and I thought about something I read recently in Anne Braden’s memoir “The wall between.” She talks about her experience with Civil Rights in the 1950s and beyond, and how when she and her husband Carl purchased a house for an African American family, they were chastised even by their progressive peers as moving too fast, of not taking it slow. And yet, she observes, it is doubtful that the Civil Rights era would have occurred had not a few people risked taking giant leaps forward rather than being content to simply take one slow step at a time.

Sometimes, in order to turn the ocean liner, you have to go slow and be patient. And other times, it helps to have someone leap in and help push the ocean liner a long a bit faster.

US activist, writer, and founder of the Catholic Workers movement, Dorothy Day wrote this:

People say, what is the sense of our small effort. They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.

A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples. And we can’t always predict what those ripples will be. I know, that back in June, when this congregation passed a resolution asking me to stop signing marriage licenses until civil marriage is a civil right in Kentucky, I know we weren’t thinking that in the fall there would be an opportunity for me to represent this church as an interfaith voice at a workshop about how to move from ally to advocate. And yet, the reason that I, a heterosexual female minister of a non biblically-constrained tradition. had been invited into the conversation with HRC was a direct ripple of that June action.

What other ripples are out there, perhaps gaining force? Why does what we did in June still matter today, at the end of September?

In order to answer these questions, we first should learn, or refresh our memory as to what happened in June. It was our annual meeting, and at the very end, when we have a section for new business, a resolution was brought before the congregation. The resolution read: “We, the members of First Unitarian Church, request that the minister of First Unitarian Church shall decline to sign Kentucky marriage licenses until such time as Kentucky ceases to discriminate against same sex couples with respect to civil marriage.”

Perhaps unlike many of you, I was prepared for this resolution. The people who brought it forth had talked with me about it, gotten my input and my thoughts. I had had time to do some reflection and discernment. And I had committed that, should the congregation pass the resolution, I would comply.

I appreciated the conversation that I had with the advocates for this resolution. Unlike many of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues, I had not already taken this stance on my own. In fact, for a while I was against such actions, thinking it was not fair to deny one group a right in order that it may be granted to others. But in truth, I hadn’t thought a whole lot about it – other things demanded my time and energy and thought. Until that Sunday afternoon in June. Because suddenly, I found myself at the microphone, explaining why this was so important. I startled myself with my passion. Suddenly, I got it. I grokked it, I understood at the deepest core of my being: participating in an unjust institution when one has the choice not to is, in effect, perpetuating the unjust institution.

Let me say that again: participating in an unjust institution when one has the choice not to is, in effect, perpetuating the unjust institution.

The institution of marriage has changed vast amounts over the centuries. We know this. Civil marriage grants hundreds of rights to couples simply because they happened to be lucky enough to have been born with a preference for a mate of the opposite sex. This is not just. And most of you probably do think that civil marriage is a civil right, that we will get there soon – within the next 25 years at the most. Probably sooner now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed. So what does refusing to sign a marriage license do, other than deny heterosexual couples the right to the benefits of civil marriage?

Signing a marriage license is the only time that the state recognizes clergy as acting on its behalf. It is the only time the church and the state are still egregiously entangled. But I have a choice as to which couples for whom I officiate at their wedding. I cannot be compelled against my will to officiate at any wedding, same sex or not. It is my choice. My faith tradition and my conscience agree that I can officiate at weddings for heterosexual couples and for same-sex couples.

But for heterosexual couples, I have an additional choice. After the wedding is over, I can choose to fill out a piece of paper and send it into the state, thereby guaranteeing these couples all those extra rights and tax breaks that other, same-sex couples cannot have. I choose whether to sign the license or not. I can choose to participate in the civil aspect of marriage by signing their license, or I can choose not to. I can choose participate in an unjust institution, or I can choose not to. You, the congregation, asked me to make a choice, and to stop perpetuating an unjust institution. And I did.

The ripples started immediately. The board notified the congregation, and immediately the press picked up on it. Following in the footsteps of Douglass Blvd Christian Church, who had done something similar back in April, the press speculated if this was something that might pick up steam. Many of our own members wondered what the effects would be.

There was a bit of negative push-back from the public, mostly from people who don’t have much familiarity with Unitarian Universalism. Then the story was picked up by media outside Louisville. I think they might have been thinking how interesting it is that this was going on in Kentucky, of all places. And I started getting these emails saying Thank You. Some of them, so emotional. Thank you for being an advocate. Thank you for pursuing justice. Thank you for standing with me, for reminding me that I am not alone.

I have heard that some people, both outside and inside the BGLTQ community, don’t see what the point is, and think that, at its best, this was a benign action, at its worst, a futile effort. That it doesn’t really matter that we took this stance. But it does matter. It matters to the people who sent me those notes. It matters to me, because my conscience is now clear. And the ripples go so much further that that.

Religious institutions have inflicted a lot of harm on BGLTQ people. Whether this particular institution did or not is of almost no consequence – BGLTQ folks are often afraid to come to church because they are afraid they will get told how terrible they are. Taking the stand we took says that this congregation is not like that – we are not just advocates, we are out and PROUD advocates for GLBTQ rights.

It matters because GLBTQ youth are bullied at a higher rate than heterosexual, gender conforming youth, and their suicide rates are heartbreakingly high. Our stance says to our youth, and to GLBTQ youth elsewhere, that we believe that you should have the right to get married and we will push this ocean liner along so that it will happen in YOUR lifetime, not in your children’s lifetime.

It matters because we live in a hetero-normal society – meaning that heterosexual people don’t have to claim their sexual orientation because heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm. Our stance says that gay and lesbian couples are normal, too. This one, in particular, hits home for me because, recently, when I was doing a wedding for a lesbian couple, I heard myself say “Normally, we would…” And I stopped, caught myself. I don’t think they realized what I had said, but I realized. And it hurt ME. Society tells us that gay and lesbian weddings are not normal. But they are. And so it matters that we say that they are normal and so, all weddings should be treated equally. And so we will TREAT all weddings equally.

It matters because no one used to talk about being gay, or lesbian, or bisexual. And taking a stance on gay marriage gets people talking. It even gets them speculating about Bert and Ernie’s relationship. It brings it into the mainstream conversation.

It matters because Rev. Penwell and Douglass Blvd know that they are not alone. And it matters because he and I are beginning to talk about forming a coalition with other clergy advocates in town and perhaps beyond – a conversation that never would have happened. This matters because it was a clergy coalition that led the march to marriage equality in Washington, DC.

It matters because when marriage equality comes to Kentucky, religious leaders will HAVE to be involved.

And it matters because we don’t know what other ripples we might have sent out. It has not even been six months, and we have already seen some. What else might be lurking under the surface? It matters.

Now, some of you might be sitting there, thinking this is just another pep talk. Another sermon about GLBTQ issues and aren’t we already a welcoming congregation, and don’t we have a great banner out front that says “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” and didn’t we already pass this resolution – why do we have to talk about what I already know. And that’s fine if you are asking yourself that. We know that everyone processes at different speeds, and that it takes multiple times hearing something in order for it to sink in, that we are at different places along the advocacy spectrum. That there are new folks here.

So let me ask you: Now what? What is the next action this congregation might take to make this beloved community more safe and welcoming for GLBTQ folks? How can we be a more vocal advocate for marriage equity in Kentucky and in the United States? What is the next step we can take to continue to bring the issue of BGLTQ rights into the mainstream conversation – to make it so that no presidential hopeful would EVER allow a gay soldier to be booed? It still matters. Yes, the ocean liner is turning in the direction of rights, but sometimes it needs a push, despite the voices that caution “Go slow.” Sometimes, an important cause needs someone willing to risk a giant leap, and then reach back to pull the rest up front.

As Dorothy Day reminds us, no one has the right to feel hopeless – there is too much work to do. What is the next brick we will lay? What is the next step we will take?

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