Tag Archives: LGBTQ Justice

faith on a plane.

25 May

Talking with a colleague recently, he asked about the increased travel I am doing as a Congregational Life Consultant for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I told him I enjoyed it, and that I had worked out most of the details – what processes work for me, what hotel chains I like, when to fly. At that last point, we talked about how difficult it can be to fly as clergy – as soon as our seatmates ask what we do for a living, it opens all sorts of doors for conversations we may, or may not, want to have.

When I told him that, for the past 9 months, I have been wearing my clerical collar whenever I fly, his face took on a shocked expression. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked me.

I shared with him that I was bothered by the increasing violence that is occurring on planes, and that I wanted to be prepared to be a force for good if something happened in my presence. I know that people respond differently to me when I wear a collar. If I were to witness something violent on a plane, in a collar I could stand up and be a witness in ways that are more powerful than I could as a mid-40 year old woman. Especially if I then started singing or praying.

I also want people to know that I am a safe person – that I am willing and able to try to de-escalate a situation, or be a good ally if that is needed. So in addition to my collar, I also wear my Black Lives Matter/Pride Flag/World Religions safety-pin (which I wear every day).

I completely understand why some of my clergy colleagues prefer to travel anonymously. But for me, this public witness is a part of my spiritual practice when I travel. It is a away to claim my religious authority and put my faith in action and declare that I am on the side of the marginalized. As a white minister, I have so much privilege. This feels like a good way to use it. I hope I am never needed in such a way when I travel, but if something does happen, I am ready.

a letter to Democratic Party leadership.

19 Dec

Power to the People

This letter was written after I sat in the Kentucky Statehouse today (12/19/2016) with my teenage kiddo as the Electoral College voted. In that room, I heard the Governor say he didn’t understand why people were protesting. I heard the head of the GOP party in the state talk about how Republicans have a mandate in the state. I watched the old white men who were the Electors (one woman out of 8) sign away our future as my child asked me what happens now. When I reached my car, I broke down in tears, and then wrote this letter.

Dear Democratic Party Leadership,

What happened? Where did you disappear to?

When HRC was running, you seemed to be all over the place trying to defend her. But since the election, it is as if you have been sucked into a vast black hole.

We need you. Our children need you. The entire country needs you.

We need you to be on the TV news, on the radio, and in the papers, boldly asserting that THIS IS NOT OKAY. It is not okay that HRC won by nearly 3 million votes and Trump is proclaiming a mandate. His selections for cabinet positions are not okay. His business conflicts of interest are not okay. Bringing his children to State meetings is not okay. Not getting intelligence briefings is not okay. Being infiltrated by Russian propaganda is not okay!! Having election results stand, knowing the Russians tampered with the election IS NOT OKAY!

Others have written about this – about how, if the situation were reversed, the GOP leaders would be pitching a fit. They would be everywhere: they would be filing lawsuits, they would be gathering committees to examine WTF is going on, they would be giving press conference upon press conference stating and restating ad nauseam their horror, disgust, and how THIS WILL NOT STAND.

And yet from you, crickets.

I know you are shocked. I know you don’t understand what happened. And I don’t care. YOU MUST LEAD US.

For years now, you have been moving to the middle, thinking a centrist position would serve you best. And now you know how wrong that is. Now you know that we are well divided between left and right and the center is kinda lonely. So get out of there and come to where your people are!

I hear the cries for leadership amongst our people. We are afraid. Immigrants are afraid of being deported, whether they are here legally or not. Black people are afraid of not being able to vote, and of continued violence. Muslims are afraid of having to sign up for a registry. Same-sex couples are afraid to lose the rights they have gained in the last decade. Trans people are afraid they will be beaten or killed for going to the bathroom. Women are afraid of being treated as incubators for lives that are apparently more important than ours. The working poor are afraid they will never achieve a livable wage. College graduates are afraid that they will never be able to pay off their educational loans*. And across the board, we are afraid that our government has been usurped by the Russians**.

Progressives have a compelling message, if you would just claim it. Claim your voice, proudly. Claim your values. Stop being so wishy-washy-wait-and-see because there is an army of us who are behind you and who will put our bodies on the line for our cause.

And if you realize that maybe we are actually too bold for you, if you find yourself confused by how upset we are and how scared we are and HOW ANGRY we are, or if you don’t have the courage to speak up, then may, just maybe, you need to get out of the way so that others can step up.


Me, and probably a whole lot of other progressives desperate for leadership


* College enrollment has been steadily dropping since 2011.

** Russian popularity among Republicans has been skyrocketing, as shown in the tweet below.

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

The Opposite of Compassion
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 19, 2016


Back in April, when we sat around the table at our Worship Planning meeting for this month’s services, there was a lot we knew, and a lot we didn’t know. We knew the theme for the month was compassion. We knew we wanted to integrate that theme into the service each week: we had Linette kick off the month by connecting our flower communion to the Flower Sutra in Buddhism, which links compassion and mindfulness. Last week, we had a sort of primer on compassion that got us thinking and reflecting about it in our own lives. For today, we planned on presenting a service on the opposite of compassion. And then we decided to round out June next week by having the chance to practice embodying compassion for youth across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

We had no idea that there would be an immediate example of the opposite of compassion that I could utilize today. And no idea how urgently our service next week for young people would be needed.

947a732ac5e8f78f057f5328d70b50baacb1f551But now we know. Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, a male, American-born citizen – raised in our country, claiming allegiance to ISIS, choose a holy time of day, in the holy month of Ramadan, to go to gay bar that was celebrating Latinx night – a gay bar which the shooter had frequented many times and at which he was known. He went in with an assault weapon and pistol – and he proceeded to kill 49 innocent people and injure more than 50 others before he was finally brought down and killed by police.

And so we add another chapter to our country’s stories of sanctuary being defiled by gun violence: the sanctuary that the GLBT community finds in these few, rare spaces, that are theirs, where they can dance, hold, and enjoy their loved ones without fear of reprisal.

The cynical side of me supposes that was to be expected. There really is no safe place – senseless violence occurs anywhere these day – schools, churches, movie theaters; and now gay bars. What’s next? Hospitals? Plays? Concerts? Sporting events? Probably.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave another anti-gun-violence speech. Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, pointed out that Obama has hosted 12 state dinners but has had to give 16 mass shooting addresses during his tenure.

Meanwhile, after sending thoughts and prayers to Orlando, the GOP House Chair blocked an LGBT protections bill. And even after a filibuster, there’s still no deal for either gun control proposal on the table right now – one that keeps people who are on terror watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that requires background checks for sales at gun shows and online.

Meanwhile, much of the media ignores that the victims were mostly people of color. This tragedy is a poster-child for intersectionality, a concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like -isms & -phobias are interconnected and not magically separate issues. The reality is that queer people of color still have the highest fatality rates for transgender murder, HIV/AIDS, and youth homelessness. They are often rejected by both communities.

The blaming has been intense, if not surprising. Blame guns, religion, sexual orientation. But there are some things we don’t want to look at – like the fact that the shooter was raised in this country. He was one of ours, a byproduct of our culture, our educational systems. The reality is that it’s very difficult, and complicated, to have conversations that look at all the intersecting factors in this tragedy. But as Chris Hedges points out, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Have we reached the point where our civilization is condemned to die? My colleague, The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, summed it up beautifully on her facebook page: “Let’s be clear: In our current national climate, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, and Transphobia are at a loud, fever pitch. One of our presidential candidates explicitly spouts all of them and STILL BECAME A MAJOR PARTY NOMINEE.”

And not only has hatred personified become a major party nominee, but there are tens of millions of people in this country willing to vote for him. Tens of millions of people to whom his message of hate appeals.

Mr. Rogers, in the moment for all ages, said that in scary times, to look for the helpers. There we will find hope, and comfort.

And I love Mr. Rogers – I really do. I was shaped by his theology as a young child and continue to be inspired by him today.

But looking for the helpers is not cutting it for me right now. I don’t think it is enough for any of us. Fred, I want to ask him, that is great, but what about after the urgency of a crisis? Then what? Where do we find hope in the ongoing struggle? And, more importantly, how can we fight this rising tide of hate, of dehumanization, of oppression?

Now, here is the point where you might expect me to get all ministerly and say that we need to be more compassionate, that we are called to love even our enemies. Yadda yadda yadda. But frankly, right now, that type of response feels trite. Insufficient. Unrealistic.

The reality is that there is no one single answer, no one theological exercise, no one piece of legislation, no one solution that will bring all this pain and suffering towards healing. As Rev. Gordon points out, “We cannot, cannot, cannot decry one [of these forms of oppression] without actively and passionately resisting all of them. They are inextricably linked and rooted in a basic failure to recognize both our common humanity and the beauty of our unique differences.”

But for many of us right now, the idea of passionately resisting all of them, heck maybe even passionately resisting one of them – well, it makes us want to crawl into a cave. But there is something we can do that is not as overwhelming as compassion or passionately resisting, and not as insufficient as crawling into a cave. And that is this: we must not allow ourselves succumb to the hate and dehumanization of those who brought us to this point.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I know many of you know this quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We often focus on the last part – that we need love to drive out hate. But if we are not in a place of love, then, perhaps we can be in a place of not hating.

I am not talking about hate in the way I would say, I hate beets, or I hate predictable movies. No, I am talking about hate that dehumanizes. Hate that is born of judgmentalism. Judgmentalism that is, at its root, the opposite of compassion.

Judgmentalism tells me that I am better than someone else. That I am more worthy. It leads to a belief that my rights are more important than your rights.

Terry D. Cooper, in his fabulous book “Making Judgments without being Judgmental” lists a number of characteristics of judgmentalism.

When we are judgmental, he says, we are not concerned for others. We presume to know people’s motives without reasonable evidence rather than trusting someone else’s motives unless we have reason to do otherwise.

When we are judgmental, we cling tenaciously to moral and religious concepts with disrespect and intolerance for those who differ, rather than being respectful and tolerant of differences.

When we are judgmental, we denounce the personhood, the humanity, rather than the behavior of those to adhere to erroneous ideas or destructive behavior. We refuse to recognize problems or limitations with our own viewpoint and we insist on absolute certainty rather than having humility.

It is judgmentalism, in part, that leads fundamentalist Christians to focus on the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that peripherally deal with homosexuality rather than focusing on Jesus’s call to love one another, and to judge not, lest ye be judged.

It is judgmentalism in the form of white supremacy that allows Trump to say that Mexicans are rapists, and that we are going to build a wall to keep them out.

And it would be judgmentalism to blame all Muslims, or all gun owners, for what happened in Orlando.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe my morals are superior to those of the shooter. And I absolutely believe that our liberal religious values are superior to those who preach or teach hate.

But while we can condemn behavior, if we are to condemn people, to see them as less than, or unworthy as human beings, then we are likely to fall prey to the same dehumanizing behavior that we find so troublesome. Cooper points out that “Reactivity begets reactivity. It’s hard to keep our balance when we’ve been clobbered by [someone else’s] judgmentalism.” And so, rather than calling for compassion or love, I ask that we combat the judgmentalism in ourselves that might leads us to hate. The judgmentalism that is the opposite of compassion.

Perhaps, if we are able to not succumb to judgmentalism and hate we might find a way forward that works for us all. And, one day, we might better embody the compassion of the Samaritan, who helped out a broken man on the road, simply because another human being was in pain. For there is a twist in this ancient story – one that not many people realize. Jews and Samaritans – they did not get along at ALL. For generation upon generation, over 500 years, the two cultures were at odds. And so it was absolutely relevant that Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Jew who asked who our neighbors were, told a story in which other Jews passed the injured man by, but it was a Samaritan, a despised Samaritan who not only stopped to help, but paid for the injured man’s care out of his own pocket.

If we cannot be compassionate, then at least may we not succumb to hate, to judgmentalism. For perhaps, as we heal, as we seek comfort, we might eventually get to that place of compassion after all. As Rev. Gordon writes “It is each of our job to listen to the experience AND the pain of others, and to stay open to the pain that we ourselves feel- not to harden our hearts in fear or defensiveness. It is only then that we can collectively turn our pain into resistance, solidarity, compassion, and a more just community.”

I give the final word this morning to Greg Zanis, who built 49 wooden crosses then drove 1,200 miles from Illinois to Florida to place them outside the Orlando Health Medical Center. “My message today is love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge ‘em.” May it be so. May we make it so.

the dangers of all gender restrooms?

27 May

It has been a year since the church I serve (First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY) converted all our first floor restrooms into All Gender restrooms. Since children are more likely to be molested in churches than in bathrooms, I figured what better place to weigh in on the current bathroom controversy than from what must be a hotbed of child abuse and molestation? That was sarcasm, by the way.

The reality is that there have been no reported cases of child abuse in our church bathrooms. And no women have reported seeing peeping-toms over the stall doors. Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the biggest issue has been that many men seem to have been raised in a barn:  there is often tinkle on the seats and on the floor. Come on, guys! Who wants to drop trou when your trou will be mopping up the pee? Ick! But as disgusting as that is, it is pretty minor as far as safety goes. And we are working on retraining everyone to be more considerate of what it means to use an all gender restroom.

So how did we avoid the “inevitable” dangers? Did we put police by the doors? Did we install secret cameras? No. It was quite simple. We had two gender specific restrooms and put on signs to indicate that they are both All Gender restrooms. We took the men’s room and turned it into a handicap-access family restroom by replacing the urinal with a diaper changing table and putting a lock on the outer door. The women’s room was even easier: we took the 3-stall restroom and simply lowered the stall walls to the floor.

In truth, it did take some getting used to. As I dashed in right before the service, sometimes in full liturgical garb, it was a little startling at first to run into a patriarch of the congregation. But these brief moments of weirdness have disappeared as the experience has been normalized. Now, we smile and nod, and usually laugh a bit.

I think most people would be willing to put up with a little (temporary) weirdness when they see the wide array of benefits it has produced at our congregation:

  • The single dad with two daughters under the age of 5 now can take them into either restroom safely and without weird looks (and without exposing his young daughters to men at urinals);
  • The mother with a grade-school aged son (who tends to act out and likes to play with rolls of toilet-paper) can go in together and he can be supervised;
  • The elderly man who is the caregiver for his wife as she descends into dementia can lovingly help her with her toilet needs;
  • And, of course, our trans and gender-nonconforming and gender-queer folks feel welcome and safe, too.

On the whole, this has been an amazingly positive experience for church members and for the hundreds of people our building serves throughout the week. It has been a point of conversation and curiosity, and it has become a way for us to share our values that all are loved and deserving of respect. Would that there were more areas in life where issues of respect and safety were as easy to address.

the bruise that never heals.

21 Feb

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016


Derby City Roller Girls

Bruises are a part of roller derby. A celebrated part. So much so that it’s not uncommon for players to take pictures of their biggest, most colorful, most interestingly shaped bruises and post them online for the admiration of other players (really – look it up!). Bruises on your shins from where another player’s skate smashed into you. Wheel-shaped bruises on your thigh where you sat down on a pair of skates. Bruises on your hips and shoulders where you were hit or blocked by players on the opposing side. These are bruises that go deep into your tissue, and come out in amazing blues, purples, and blacks that eventually fade to greens, browns and yellows.

It is not uncommon to find bruises on top of bruises, especially on a skater’s hips or upper thighs, which get the most abuse in the game. A few of my teammates even had bruises that never went away – they would get worse and worse, becoming super-sensitive, where even just getting dressed hurt because the area had been mangled – not by one big hit, but by the constant barrage of small hits in the same place, over and over. What was strangest is that sometimes, these most sensitive bruises were invisible, lacking the loud color of bruises that would heal – as if the skin itself has resigned itself to injury.

For one of my teammates, this invisible bruise that never went away eventually hardened into a lump. She ignored it for a while, thinking it was just forming a protective barrier that would eventually heal, but when it didn’t go away even after she stopped playing, she got it checked out. It turned out to be cancer. A cancer caused by repeated minor trauma.

When I first heard about the experience of microaggressions, I immediately related them to bruises in roller derby. Derald Wing Sue, who has studied microaggressions for a decade, defines them as:

“the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

A person from any marginalized group can be the target of microaggression from someone from a dominant perspective: people of color experience them from white people, women experience them from men, people who are transgender experience them from cisgender people, people who are differently abled experience them from the able-bodied. You can experience them based on your sexual orientation, your religion, your social class, and more. What is common to all microaggressions is that they contain a hidden message that is experienced as invalidating, dehumanizing, and demeaning.

Some examples:

  • When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes her, the hidden message being sent is that the Black or Latino man, and others like him, are criminals.
  • When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English”, the hidden message is: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.
  • When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the hidden message is that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles, or that women are less capable than men.
  • When a person uses the term “gay” to describe something they didn’t like, the hidden message is that being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.
  • Or when the outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy” the hidden message is that lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.

These are all examples of microaggressions. And there are many, many more. What they have in common is that they say to someone “You do not belong.” And because these are small, everyday things, the effect of their hidden messages is one that builds up over time. Someone who regularly experiences microaggressions becomes more and more aware of them. The bruise gets bigger and bigger, and more sensitive, until even the slightest touch is experienced as excrutiatingly painful. Sue points out that “These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as ‘small slights,’ but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.”

Now, I suspect that we would all like to believe that we are too enlightened to engage in this type of harmful behavior. But we do, often without realizing it. Sue shares that it is those of us who are well-intentioned who actually engage in the most harmful of microaggressions. Because of course, those who are not well-intentioned are often fin being experienced as racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic.

When experiencing a microaggression from someone who is well intentioned, the target person is placed into what Sue calls a “’damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation. That is, if the person does nothing, [they] may suffer from a sense of low self-esteem, a feeling of not being true to the self, and a loss of self-integrity. Yet, to confront the perpetrator or to raise the issue may result in negative consequences.” Negative consequences like further microaggressions.

Because what often happens when a person confronts the perpetrator of a microaggression is that the perpetrator tries to explain it away, or encourage the target person to “let go” or “get over it.” This results in further microaggressions by giving the message that the target person is off base in their experience, and by indicating that the perpetrator’s intent is more important than the impact it had on the target person.

One can see how this builds up over time. Say I experience a microaggression from someone I care about or work with, I may not say anything. And then it happens again, and maybe again, sometimes from this same person, and maybe sometimes from others as well. And then, because it is weighing on me, finally, I do decide to share my experience. How will I feel if I take this risk, only to be told that it is nothing? Most likely I will feel even worse, more invisible and invalidated.

Personally, I experienced this as a woman in technology prior to entering the ministry. But in truth I got it even worse from other Unitarian Universalists when I had won a sermon award and was constantly introduced as the “young minister” even though I was rapidly approaching 40. Yes, I knew that perhaps I was young compared to the vast majority of people in the room, but if that is what I experienced at nearly 40, what do people who are just out seminary at the age of 25 experience, and how often do we dismiss or overlook “young” ministers? Because that is what it felt like – a dismissal. I got to the point that I would constantly be sharing my age with people to try to prove I wasn’t as young as they thought so that I wouldn’t be so easily dismissed. And they would often laugh it off. It was extremely frustrating.

Of course, this type of microaggression did not carry the threat of danger. It was belittling, and it hurt, but it wasn’t scary. This is not the case for many other people who experience these everyday slights, snubs, and insults.

So how did we, as people who want to respect one another in word and in deed, get to the point where it is our good intentions that have inadvertently allowed us to engage in behaviors that “oppress and engage in prejudicial actions that harm others?” Sue says that “The answer seems to reside in a dominant culture that values ways of being, thinking, and acting that reflects the reality of a primarily Eurocentric, masculine, and heterosexual worldview that is imposed upon racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities.” And because we are a part of our culture, not separate from it, we have picked up on these same traits. Sue points out that whether intentional or not, “oppressors…[feel that they] do not need to understand the thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of various marginalized groups to survive…therefore it is not surprising to find that those who are most empowered are least likely to have an accurate perception of reality.” Indeed, he says, it is this obliviousness that “allows people to misperceive themselves as superior and other groups as inferior; it allows oppressors to live in a false reality.” A reality that we seldom interrogate as rigorously as we should.

It is clear from the the data that our good intentions often contribute to the experience of microaggressions for those who are in a minority. And the effects are far reaching. Sue has found that the “cumulative nature and continued day-in and day-out experience [of being the target of microaggressions] have been found to…contribute to a hostile and invalidating campus and work climate, devalue social group identities, lower work productivity and educational learning, perpetuate stereotype threat, create physical health problems, and assail mental health by creating emotional turmoil, low self-esteem, and psychological energy depletion.” Those who experience microaggressions suffer biologically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

This is where the metaphor of derby bruises and microaggressions breaks down, however. Unlike in derby, where the wheel or the floor suffer no damage when causing a bruise, it is not only the targets of microagression who are hurt in the process. The perpetrators are hurt as well. Sue explains that:

“None of us…would consciously and willingly consent to [perpetrating] such heinous actions. In order to assure the continuance of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, and to keep such injustices hidden…it is desirable to perpetuate a ‘culture of silence’ among oppressed groups as well as perpetrators. When the oppressed are not allowed to express their thoughts and outrage, when their concerns are minimized, and when they are punished for expressing ideas at odds with the dominant group, their voices are effectively silenced. [And] This allows perpetrators to hold on to a belief that they are good, moral, and decent human beings.”

Wherever we intersect with the dominant culture, whether it is because we are white, or male, or cisgender, or heterosexual, etc., we silence the oppressed that are not part of that dominant culture, and this allows us to maintain the illusion that we are good, moral, decent, and even superior whether we consciously believe it to be so or not. And there are costs to us when we perpetrate this type of oppression: cognitive costs, emotional costs, behavioral costs and spiritual costs.

The cognitive costs are demonstrated in the form of cognitive distortion and a false sense of reality. When we become aware of our biases, we often experience “debilitating emotional turmoil” and so we begin to deny our behaviors or rationalize them away. We try to “engage in denial and live a false reality that allows [us] to function in good conscious.”

Emotionally, Sue points out that “the harm, damage, and acts of cruelty visited upon marginalized groups can only continue if the person’s humanity is diminished.” This means that “oppressors lose sensitivity to those that are hurt; they become hard, cold and unfeeling to the plight of the oppressed; and they turn off their compassion and empathy for others. To continue being oblivious to one’s own complicity in such acts means objectifying and dehumanizing [marginalized] people.”

As perpetrators, we may also experience guilt – guilt for being in a dominant group and the realization that we are partially responsible for the pain of others. This guilt can cause us to be defensive, and we may try to deny or diminish the experiences of marginalized people when they share their experiences with us, so that we might avoid further awareness and guilt.

As we begin to feel fear and guilt, we may choose to avoid marginalized people or people who are different from us. We don’t want to continue to cause harm and so we choose to stay away. These are the behavioral costs. We may not go somewhere for fear of what we might do or say that harms others, intentionally or inadvertently. When we avoid such situations, growth becomes difficult to impossible, and as Sue indicates, it “deprives oppressors the richness of possible friendships and an expansion of educational experiences that open up life horizons and possibilities.”

Finally, there are spiritual costs as well. When we oppress, whether intentionally or not, we lose our own humanity for the sake of power, wealth and status. This causes us to lose our spiritual connection with others as we try to dehumanize them. Sue writes that “To allow the continued degradation, harm, and cruelty to the oppressed means diminishing one’s humanity, and lessening compassion toward others. People who oppress must, at some level, become callous, cold, hard, and unfeeling toward the plight of the oppressed.”

I know this is not how I want to live, and I would wager that you don’t either. So what can we do about it? How can we change, and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Sue13 indicates that there are seven things that we can work towards that will help create conditions that make change possible. He says that each of these are required – none of them are sufficient on their own:

First, and foremost we must have regular, prolonged “contact with people who differ from us in race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” We can seek out friendships with those who are different. This doesn’t mean choosing someone as a friend just because they are different, but finding someone with whom we can bond, one of whose characteristics is that they are different in some key way.

Second, we can work together “a cooperative rather than a competitive environment” understanding that when we combine our resources rather than compete for them, there is plenty for everyone.

Third, we can “share mutual goals as opposed to individual ones.” This is a shift in thinking from what I need to what WE need.

Fourth, it is important that learn “accurate information rather than stereotypes or misinformation” – this means questioning, interrogating, things that are presented as true even though they aren’t. For instance, the majority of people who receive food stamps are white, but if you watch the media you will often see a black person pictured when there is a story on the subject. We need to confront such stereotypes and misinformation in search for accurate information.

Fifth, we can work towards “sharing an equal status relationship with other groups instead of an unequal or imbalanced one.” Marginalized people are just that – shoved to the margins, where there is not much strength or power. I am reminded of a school that showcases boys sports, even though the girls teams are winning championships. The microaggressions that the girls experience when constantly seeing the boys teams on the front page of the paper or website can be addressed when leadership understands how this perpetuates inequality and they can work forwards a more equal, balanced status.

Which leads to the sixth characteristic for promoting change, we can choose leadership that is supportive of group harmony and group welfare. At the ballot box, but also in other areas of our lives, we can demand and support leadership that understands these mechanisms of power.

And finally, we can work on feeling a sense of unity, a sense of interconnectedness with all humanity. Even, especially, with those who might seem so different from us.

For more information on what these all look like, I recommend reading Sue’s book “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” or one of the many internet articles he has authored.

In roller derby, the bruise that builds up over time can become cancerous, eating away at the victim and causing them harm. Microagressions are like these derby bruises, building up, causing a person harm, impacting their physical, emotional and spiritual health over time. But unlike in derby, the perpetrators of microagressions also suffer harm, cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and

If we believe in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Then we must put in the effort to face our own failings. It means learning about how we may cause harm to people, even unintentionally, and then working to make it right. It means using techniques such as “oops” and “ouch” when we have erred. It means recognizing that the impact of our words on others matters more than our intent. It means listening to the stories of others with humility and an open mind and heart. This requires constant effort, and does not come easy. And with so much other work of this nature, we will break each others hearts and fail over and over again. But, if we let it, this is what will allow us to grow. May we choose to face the difficult truth that we are each sometimes unwitting perpetrators that cause pain to another, and may humility, love, and understanding allow us to be a part of the healing process whenever possible. Blessed be.

FYI, My teammate with cancer has since recovered.

Footnotes removed, but quotes are from the following sources:

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

welcoming all genders.

19 May

Listen Here
Part 1:

Part 2:


Moment for all Ages


Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that someone asks you what happens if you decide to no longer be whatever gender you are – if you change your mind. For most of us, that must seem like one of the strangest questions in the world. We know what gender we are, we’ve always known what gender we are, and while there are always pluses and minuses, we’re probably pretty okay with it.

But for others of us, this question is one that gets asked on a regular basis. “Are you sure that you’re really the gender you claim to be?” people ask. On a regular basis, some people have to defend who they know they are at the very core of their being. All because they don’t fit into the prescribed gender boxes that society wants them to fit into. There is a great interview with Jazz where the interviewer asks Jazz this question, and Jazz astutely responds “That’s like me asking if you are sure you’re a woman. That is what is like for me too,” she explains.

chaliceAs Unitarian Universalists, we want to be welcoming to all those who might find a religious home with us. We understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. We value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. We understand that all of who you are is sacred. We want to be a safe community where everyone is told that you are lovable and you are loved, and that all of who you are is welcome here.

I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want Jazz and her family to find a religious home with us were they to come here. I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want them to feel the warm embrace of a loving, respectful community that would stand by them and be their allies in a world that too often feels like a war against their very existence. I know, beyond any doubt, that this welcoming is something that is very, very important to our core sense of who we are.

And I know, beyond any doubt, that we often do not do enough to make what we want, and what we say, a reality. I know this because I’ve heard it. And it usually sounds something like “I’m just not sure I’m safe here.”

So how do we bridge this gap between the type of religious congregation that we so desperately want to be, and where we are in reality right now?

Step one is education. And in order to get to the other steps, we need to do a little bit of education right now. For some of you, this might seem old hat, but for many of you this is very confusing stuff. That’s okay – especially since as society grows in our understanding and awareness of gender identity, this stuff is changing. Rapidly.**

5bodyThe first thing to understand is that there is a difference between biological sex and gender identity.

Biological sex is the purple circle in the picture to the left.  It refers to what genitalia you are born with, and there are not only 2, but at least three possibilities: male, female, or intersex.

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, a girl, a boy, none of these, both, and so on; it’s about one’s inner sense of being, and is represented by the grey brain in the picture. Everyone has a gender identity, even if it is not a common one.

When a person’s gender identity and biological sex are the same, they are said to be cisgender.

When a person’s biological sex and gender identity are not the same, the individual may identify as transgender, queer, or gender-nonconforming.

Gender expression, the green box, refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect their gender identity.

For most of us, our biological sex, our gender identity, and our gender presentation all line up with one another. But for others of us, they don’t.

Gone is the time where we thought there were only two genders: man and woman, boy and girl.

Today, we reject this gender binary and recognize instead that gender is a spectrum.

GenderBinaryWe see this change at a variety of societal levels. Forms that people fill out are starting to move from check boxes to blank spaces where a person can identify their gender themselves rather than being confined to the usual two.

Just this past week, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “Mx” as an honorific (like Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Mz) for those who either don’t identify as being a particular gender, and for those who are transgender.  And Facebook now has 56 new possible gender identities that you can select from beyond the gender binary.

Transgender (which, by the way, is never “transgendered”) can broadly mean anyone for whom their biological sex and their gender identity are not in alignment. This can encompass:

  • 2 people someone who is transitioning from one gender to another,
  • someone who is not transitioning and may feel trapped in the “wrong” body,
  • as well as those who consider themselves queer or gender-non-conforming, meaning someone who does not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

And these words and definitions are still in flux.

Notice, though, that none of these have anything to do with sexual orientation (the heart in the image above) – that is another can of worms entirely, as it relates to who you are attracted to and who you love. Anyone, of any gender, can be of any sexual orientation. Today, we’re not talking about welcoming people of all sexual orientations – that would need a sermon of its own. Today, we’re talking about welcoming people of all genders: men, women, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, androgynous, pan-gender, two-spirit, and more.

Now, this is such a new awareness to many of us that we may still find ourselves trying to categorize someone: is that person a man, or a woman? We human beings are drawn to patterns, to solving puzzles. We want people to fit into the gender binary box, and we have a tendency to impolitely stare and puzzle until we think we figure out which box a person belongs in.

And there are two very serious problems with this:

First, we cannot make that determination for someone else – instead, we affirm each person’s ability to judge for themselves who they are and express themselves in the way that is most authentic to them.

And second, it dehumanizes the person in question. We objectify them. Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox summed this up beautifully in her interview with Katie Couric, after Couric rudely asked Cox about her genitalia. Let’s watch:

By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of the oppression and discrimination that Trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people experience every day. And there is nowhere that this oppression and discrimination is more obvious than when it comes to where we often feel most vulnerable: the bathroom.

Cisgender people often ask: “Why do trans issues always seem to revolve around the bathroom?” It is such a cisgender privilege to not have to worry what sort of reception we will experience if we are perceived to be using the wrong bathroom – cisgender people don’t have to worry: will someone call management? Will someone beat us up? Will I get killed? But this is the reality for trans, queer and gender nonconforming people.

And this is a huge issue in our country right now. The more stories hit the media about people like Bruce Jenner and now Miley Cyrus, the stronger the backlash against trans people becomes. For instance: the Bathroom Bully bill here in Kentucky, sponsored by a state senator who wanted to allow cisgender students using bathrooms and locker rooms to sue their school for $2,500 if they caught a trans or gender-nonconforming student in the “wrong” restroom. The State Senator says he wrote the bill in response to a Louisville high school’s decision to allow a transgender student to use female facilities, but that incident is really just the prevailing excuse. In reality, the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative think tank, requested the State Senator to submit the bill. And in fact, similar bills applying to both schools and public restrooms were also submitted this year in Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida and Nevada.

In fact, so many states are dealing with this issue, or related ones, that there is now a hashtag on twitter, #WeJustNeedToPee, for trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people to share images of themselves in bathrooms that may match their biological sex but not their gender identity. Which can be dangerous for them. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from someone here at First U who regularly deals with this issue, our music director Christe.

So Dawn has presented a lot of information this morning. For some of you processing all this is no big deal, others may find you are confused with the ever changing terminology. You are not alone. When I began my community activism at 18, we marched for “gay rights”. Gay rights. Not GLBTQ rights. Neither lesbians nor any of the others were acknowledged. And homosexuality, meaning men, was still a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental illness. Gender identity was staunchly on a binary. Any new gender identifiers were trying to fit somewhere in the middle of that male/female binary.

Things change over time. And here we are in this social climate where a day doesn’t pass without a story somewhere in the media about gender issues., stories about people like me, who have never fit on the binary and are trying to live an honest open life, proud, healthy… authentic.
You see by today’s definition I am transgender. I however prefer to be considered gender non-conforming, partly as respect for friends who are seeking full Male/female or female/male gender transition. Here at First I have had no one question my gender or my gender presentation.

But out there, beyond these walls – at the grocery, the home improvement store, the theatre… I am seen as a man, even when I am not in a suit and tie. And about 95% of the time I am addressed as “sir” or Mr….. as they quiz me for a name for the waiting list.

I am perfectly okay with this because it tells me where that person is coming from… if they only have sir or ma’am to choose from. They choose based on where they are, what their perception of me is at the moment. Would that we could move beyond the need for identifiers at all.

So 2 years ago I attended General Assembly here in Louisville. On the very first day it was announced from the pulpit that the restrooms were to be considered all genders and you would find them marked as such. You would find male and female gendered restrooms on the floors open to the general public.

I took the announcement in stride… this was new – living in a way that was radically welcoming. I got more and more comfortable with each session of GA, letting my guard down and being my authentic self. It was not until Saturday night when Dianna and I went across the street to the Marriott Hotel to listen to kRi and hettie that I was again confronted with issues I have lived with all my life.

I needed to make a quick stop in the restroom before going up to the ballroom, and Dianna said she’d wait in the lobby. I found the first restroom marked women’s and stepped in…. Upon leaving the restroom while washing my hands a woman opened the door, saw me and stepped back out of the room to look at the sign. She then re-entered the room and in a very pointed voice she proceeded to tell me I was in the wrong restroom and she was going to get management.

I assured her she was mistaken and excused myself from the room. When I met up with Dianna, I shared the experience. We had a brief discussion about how this kind of thing happens all the time for me… it’s just a part of life.

Because Christe is okay with Christe… but the world at large has no way of defining her or him. I don’t fit on the binary and the world at large continues to see gender as male or female. Me being my authentic self, challenges that assumption.

I was not fully aware until that Louisville GA how much stress I carry about my gender. There are little adjustments, snap decisions that I make every day to keep myself and my loved ones safe. These choices are so very ingrained in me … like waiting to use the restroom where there is only one stall or waiting till I get home even if that means having to leave a gathering early.

You see if I get that kind of aggression in a women’s restroom… what awaits me in a men’s room? I have a friend who is in transition from female to male who fears being gay bashed in the men’s room for his outward appearance as an effeminate gay man. I can’t blame him, history and the media has shown us too many cases of gay bashing for it not to be a valid consideration. And aren’t we all going to the restroom for the same reasons? It is a basic human function.

There are a multitude of things this congregation can do to show that we are not willing to live in “gender jail. By “gender jail” I mean where the male/female binary is used to put us all in the “proper” box .

It makes me proud to serve a congregation that is committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders, and we understand that part of that welcome means that everyone deserves a safe place to use the restroom.

Right now, at First U, we have one all genders restroom. It is upstairs, and you have to walk through the choir room to get to it. It is not handicap accessible. And it is not always available, because the choir room door is often locked.

Most of us would say “Well, a trans, queer or gender-nonconforming person should feel free to use whatever restroom works for them!” – and this is certainly true. But how will they know this if we are not explicit? How will they know that this is a safe place unless we make it clear, to both trans AND cisgender people, that we welcome all genders here at First U?

They can’t know it if we don’t tell them. The reality is that most religious institutions don’t welcome all genders. If we don’t explicitly say that we do, if we don’t provide the appropriate markers, then people will assume we are like so many others that don’t – and they won’t risk it.

And having a bathroom hidden away upstairs, which may be locked, is definitely neither safe, nor welcoming.

This issue, combined with the upcoming move of our nursery to the second floor, has lead the Ministry Council, with the full support of the Board of Trustees and the staff, to reorient our restrooms on the first floor.

What is now the men’s room will become a single-stall, handicap accessible, family-style lockable restroom with a changing table. Anyone, of any gender, can use this restroom.

What is now the women’s room will remain a three-stall restroom, but the stall walls will be extended to the floor. This will also become an all-genders restroom, meaning that anyone can use it anytime.

The leadership, in their wisdom, understand that the 3-stall all genders restroom will make some people uncomfortable, especially in the beginning as we get used to it. This is one reason to extend the stall walls to the floor. It is also the reason that the second floor restrooms will remain binary gendered restrooms: men’s and women’s.

So to reiterate: soon, anyone, of any gender, can use either of the 1st floor restrooms. For those who prefer a men’s or women’s room, the upstairs restrooms are right outside the elevator doors at the top of the stairs.

These changes are beginning this upcoming week and we hope to have them implemented fully by the annual meeting. You will notice new signage when they are completed – rather than using the traditional male/female images which we know do not represent the gender spectrum, we will be using the universally recognized symbol of a toilet.

Of course, we know that our welcome must go beyond our restroom configuration. And so you might notice other changes, though they will be more subtle. We will be endeavoring to use inclusive language in our communications: instead of saying “this event welcomes men and women,” we will say “all genders welcome”; rather than talking about “men and women” or “boys and girls” we will use the words “people” or “children”.

DSC_0151_originalWe also invite you to write your pronoun preference on your name-tags.  Perhaps for most of us, this will be the traditional he/him/his and she/her/hers. But American English has a problem in that we don’t have a commonly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun except “it” which, since the whole point is to stop being dehumanizing and objectifying, is counterproductive. Several alternative gender-neutral pronouns have been tried, however, the singular use of “they” seems to be what is getting picked up most often. So for those of you who are grammar junkies, please know that we will be using “they” intentionally instead of he or she, and that this is now an acceptable usage! And of course, you are free to choose whatever pronoun you would like for yourself, and we will strive to use it correctly.

And finally, as a part of renewing our Welcoming Congregation certification this fall, we will be having adult education curriculum on alternate Sunday mornings that will continue to inform and educate us about the issues trans and gender-nonconforming people face and how we can be both welcoming and good allies.

We don’t do this in anticipation of hundreds of trans, queer, and gender nonconforming people storming through our doors when they hear how welcoming we are (though that would be great). This is primarily for us – it is for the trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people who are already here, several not publically, and those who might find a religious home with us in the future. We do this in order to live our mission to be witnesses for progressive faith and to nurture our community. This is for us, to help bring our actions in line with our highest ideals, values and beliefs.

Because we understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. Because we value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. Because we want to be a safe community where each of you is told that you are lovable and that you are loved, and that all of who you are, including your gender (whatever it may be) is sacred, and is welcome here. May it be so. May we make it so.

**To demonstrate how in-flux our understanding of trans and gender-nonconforming issues are, I have recently been made aware that some members of the trans community believe the distinction between sex and gender is no longer a preferred lens through which to understand trans issues, as it has been used to defend anti-trans bigotry. There is not general consensus on this issue, however. My apologies to those in the trans and gender-non-conforming communities for any harm that my use of this lens might have caused. 

fairness (nondiscrimination) is fundamental.

16 Jun

Fairness is Fundamental
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 16, 2013

Listen to

Thank you, Zoe, for telling us your story and sharing your perspective.  And thank you and the other members of the Red Pen, for realizing that there were stories that needed to be told by GLBTQ students at your school.

I am not sure how many of you may remember this, but in the Senior High Youth Service a few weeks ago, Zoe talked about about this congregation and how it has informed her way of thinking and being with people.  She also played a song that is hugely popular right now, by the artist Macklemore.  The song is called “Same Love” and in the song he talks openly about his support for gay marriage and equality, marking a breakthrough in mainstream hip-hop music.  The track was inspired by his gay uncles and gay godfather and is an issue that is personal to him and the other musicians he collaborated with – it is quite powerful.

And it is telling that a such a breakthrough song is so popular right now.  It speaks to the fact that 53% of Americans now support same-sex marriage.  With the Supreme Court poised to rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it seems as though same-sex marriage will be the law of the land – it is just a matter of time.

Much like, years ago, it was just a matter of time that interracial marriage would be legalized.    This week celebrated the 46th anniversary of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision  handed down by the Supreme Court.  Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, a black woman, in 1958.  It was illegal for them to get married in the state of Virginia, so they crossed the border into Washington, DC.  However, when returning home they were arrested and charged with interracial marriage and “mixing races.”  These charges were punishable by 5 years in prison, but the Lovings pleaded guilty, received suspended sentences, and were ordered to leave the state.  Virginia was not for those lovers, apparently.   Before her death, Mildred Loving reflected on their Supreme Court case: “I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”

Many comparisons are made between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement of the 60s.  Before the Loving case was brought to the Supreme Court, there were decades of nonviolent protests, sit-ins, marches, and more – all demanding that people not be discriminated against due to the color of their skin.  Just last month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the accommodations law in Louisville.  Responding to increasing sit-ins and boycotts by black Louisvillians (mostly teenagers – youth will lead the way, as our banner in the Pride Parade asserted), Louisville became the first city south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass legislation that required businesses to serve people no matter their race, their country of origin or their religion.

Next year, on July 2, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act.  This landmark piece of legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and ended legalized racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.

So three years before Loving v. Virginia passed the Supreme Court and legalized interracial marriage, federal nondiscrimination laws were passed.  In fact, in many ways, interracial marriage was hardly a blip on the Civil Rights radar at the time – there were much more urgent issues that needed to be addressed first.  EJ Graff points out that “for blacks and for women getting a law guaranteeing the right to work was central to achieving dignity. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they were flatly denied equality on the job; their discrimination centered around the idea of them as people who couldn’t think or do well enough to stand side by side with white men.”

If we continue comparing the Gay Rights movement with the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, then you might assume that the push for rights for GLBTQ people would follow a similar pattern: first nondiscrimination laws, then marriage laws.  And in fact, in 2011, the Center for American Progress reported that 9 out of 10 Americans believed that such federal nondiscrimination laws already existed.  74% Americans support such laws.  With this much support, it seems like protecting GLBTQ people from discrimination and harassment in their workplaces (at minimum) is a no brainer – so how startling is it that such a federal law does not exist. And in fact only 21 states and Washington, DC have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 16 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.  In 2011, 19 states had NO non-discrimination laws protect GLBTQ people at all on their books.

So what is going on here? Almost 40 years ago, in 1974, two Representatives from New York introduced the Equality Act to the U.S. House of Representatives.  This act sought to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals and unmarried people in housing, employment and public accommodations. The Equality Act marked the first-ever proposed national legislation that would end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the United States. It did not include transgender people.  Regardless, the Equality Act never made it out of committee and was never introduced in the Senate.

Fast-forward to 1994, the first year that ENDA was submitted – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  ENDA would have made it illegal to discriminate against employees based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.  It did not have the broader coverage of housing and public accommodations that the Equality Act did. Still, both the House and Senate versions of ENDA died in committee that year and then again in 1995.

In 1996, however, ENDA managed to make it to the floor for a vote in the Senate, only to  fail by a maddening one-vote margin.  Interestingly enough, that very same day, the House passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as being between one man and one woman.

After 1996 a version of ENDA was introduced in every session of Congress except one.

In 2007, the bill was changed to make it illegal to discriminate not just based on sexual orientation but also on gender identity.  But even as limited as it is, ENDA has never passed.  Earlier this year, a Representative from Colorado re-introduced an ENDA bill in the House (where it has 172 co-sponsors) and a Senator from Oregon introduced an ENDA bill in the Senate (where it has 48 co-sponsors.)  The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) will be holding a hearing on ENDA sometime in July 2013.

So it is strange, indeed, that even though most Americans assume there is, there is not actually any  federal non-discrimination legislation protecting GLBTQ people, and meanwhile the Supreme Court is currently deciding on the Defense of Marriage Act.  This means that even if the Supreme Court overturns DOMA in just a few days, and even if  all 50 states miraculously legalized same-sex marriage, it would still be perfectly legal in most states to fire someone for their sexual orientation, or even kick them out of a restaurant!  What is going on here?  Why are members and allies of the GLBTQ community pushing marriage rights, when we have not yet achieved basic nondiscrimination rights in the workplace, housing and public accommodations?

EJ Graff helps clarify what is going on, when she writes

“The symbolism behind marriage speaks to the defining feature of gay identity (same-sex love) in a way that workplace discrimination does not…it’s comparatively easy for most lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men to hide our sexual orientation…For us, the far more central denial of our dignity has been our exclusion from the social symbolism and law that have shaped our…family aspirations. Being denied recognition for our passions and our families has been at the heart…of our civil and social exclusion, and therefore our movement. Employment rights have been emotionally secondary to the LGB movement…in the way that the right to marry across races was secondary to the African American civil-rights movement. Being denied that freedom to marry across races lines was an insult, but not the central plank of oppression. But being treated as if none of my loves deserved recognition was absolutely at the core of my exclusion, at least as a lesbian, from full participation in my community.”

So the comparison between African American civil rights and rights for GLBTQ people seems to break down as the issues of marriage equality and non-discrimination laws seem to be reversed in priority.  But there is something very misleading in all of this – something that I did not realize until I had it pointed out to me: Every state that has passed civil marriage rights already had nondiscrimination laws on their books.  Every one.  Each state where same-sex marriage is now legal first made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in their places of work, housing and in public accommodations.  Fairness came first.

Interestingly enough, this all came to my attention with the recent passage of Kentucky HB 279, the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”   This law states that “Government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion.”  There were many, many cries and much agitation from progressives against this act – the key point of the outrage is concern that this law might override the Fairness legislations in cities and towns that had already passed nondiscrimination laws – towns like Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco. Conservatives argued that this would not happen, but a little bit of research shows that this is exactly why this type of legislation is being pushed in states around the country.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, has an entire article from 2011 on how they claim same-sex marriage constitutes a threat to so-called “religious freedom” and that nondiscrimination laws must be stopped before they are passed, or they must be maneuvered around, so that they don’t open the door to same-sex marriage.  The Heritage Foundation says that conflicts between same-sex marriage and “religious freedom” will often involve some type of previously adopted nondiscrimination law or policy, and that, as such, nondiscrimination laws can impose burdens on “religious freedom” even in jurisdictions that do not legally recognize same-sex unions as marriages.

I have never used air-quotes so much in a sermon before!  I am doing so now, because the “religious freedom” they are talking about is not at all what you and I think of when we talk about religious freedom.  Instead, they mean freedom from having to consider other peoples religious or secular positions.  This is a group that believes that if their fundamentalist Christian beliefs are not the general law of the land and are not being taught in the schools, then they are being religiously oppressed.  As such, they believe that same-sex marriage is a severe threat to their “religious freedom” and that lawmakers should revisit nondiscrimination laws to make sure that these laws adequately protect their fundamentalist ideas.  Never mind that no one would be forcing them to officiate or participate in same-sex marriages!

This particular branch of conservative fundamentalism pushes these “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” in an effort to cut off the blood supply to nondiscrimination legislation, in the fear that it will open the door to same-sex marriage.

Currently, both Kentucky and Indiana  prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in state employment, but neither state prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in private employment, housing or public accommodations.  Many of the advocates of House Bill 279 think this meager protection is too far and that in the case of towns that have comprehensive Fairness legislation, it is way too far.  These folks must be particularly concerned, since a recent poll indicates that 83% of Kentuckians support Fairness legislation! And yet we still don’t have a statewide Fairness bill.

And so, bringing it to the level of this particular congregation: Comprehensive Fairness legislation, at federal and state level,  is absolutely fundamental.  We need to understand that until we pass broader nondiscrimination laws in Kentucky and Indiana that protect everyone from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations, we will almost certainly not be able to obtain civil marriage equality.  If we are advocating for marriage equality, but not advocating even harder for comprehensive Fairness legislation, then we have put the cart before the horse and need to turn ourselves around.

I love how this congregation has hung a banner outside for years that says that “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” and I love how you asked me a number of years ago to stop signing marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until gay and lesbian couples had the same legal rights.  And I suspect that there are more than a few of us who thought, surely, this type of legislation was already in place.  But it is not.  In order to make sure we are building our house of equality on solid rock and not on shifting sand where it might collapse, we need to go back to the basics.

The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will be holding a hearing on ENDA sometime next month. There are 22 Senators on the Committee, including Rand Paul from Kentucky.  Write them, call them, pester the heck out of them to let them know where you stand on the importance of getting ENDA before the Senate.  And then follow the bill and pester the rest of the Senators and Representatives so that this becomes the year ENDA finally passes.  ENDA is not enough – but we must start somewhere.

In Kentucky, a state-wide Fairness bill will be introduced, again, in the next legislative session.  Again, write, call, pester the heck out of your representatives and let’s get this bill passed!  In Indiana, I am not sure what the status is – there does not seem to be quite the push as there is in Kentucky, but that does not mean you can remain silent – just the opposite!

Regardless of which state you live in, let’s show the fundamentalists that what they fear is actually true: that nondiscrimination laws will indeed lead the way to marriage equality, but that this is not something that they need to fear.  Let’s show them that just as interracial marriage has not brought this country, or the institution of marriage, to its knees, neither will marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples.  As Macklemore reminds us,

“We press play
Don’t press pause
Progress, march on!”

Because it is the same love, and no one deserves to be discriminated against, bullied, hurt, fired, denied a job or housing or in anyway be oppressed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Fairness, nondiscrimination, is where we must start.

widening the circle.

22 Nov

Widening the Circle, a service for Transgender Day of Remembrance

by the Rev. Dawn Cooley, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 20, 2011

When it was announced that Chaz Bono was going to be on Dancing with the Stars, there was quite a reaction.

Chaz is the child of Sonny and Cher. Growing up, Chaz described himself as a male trapped in a female shell. The documentary “Becoming Chaz” chronicles his journey as he undertakes gender reassignment.

Oh yes, there was quite a reaction when the announcement was made. There had never been a transgender person on Dancing with the Stars. There was speculation about who his partner would be; oppressive groups demanded a boycott of the show; a pop-psychologist even went on FOX news warning parents that watching Chaz might make their daughters decide they want penises.

And, thankfully, there was reaction on the other end of the spectrum as well. Support from the transgender community and allies. Worry about the deluge of derogatory comments, the vitriol that Chaz was subjecting himself to. Hope, too, that his story might somehow pave the way toward a more understanding, more inclusive culture.

Though there was some controversy even in the trans community about Chaz’s suitability as a spokesperson, I think his parting comments when he was voted off the show in early October are inspiring: “I came on this show because I wanted to show America a different kind of man. I know that if there was somebody like me on TV when I was growing up my whole life would have been different. So I dedicate everything I did to people like me, especially to kids and teens who are struggling. You can have a wonderful and great life and be successful and happy.”

Chaz wanted to show kids and teenagers struggling with their gender identity that they are not alone. Kids like Haley.

Haley is profiled in Lisa Lings photojournalism essay “Our America” in the episode called “Transgender Lives.” Haley was born a biological boy. Her parents say that from the time she could express herself, she called herself a girl. Not only did she gravitate to dolls and flowers and pink, but her self-portraits were of a girl. In kindergarten, she got into an argument with the boys in the class, claiming she was a girl. She even chose her own name.

Her parents went to therapist after therapist. They kept hearing “Transgender.” Haley was 5. Haley’s father’s religion told them that there was something wrong with their child. He felt shame. It took him some time, and effort to come to a place where he now believes that Haley is who she is, that God made her just like she is.

Many transgender children grow up hating their bodies. They fall victim to higher rates of depression, suicide and drug addiction.

Haley’s parents choose to support her in hopes to save her from a future of heartache and pain. They are learning how to raise a healthy child, as opposed to a child who feels shame and secrecy about who she is. But her parents know it is going to get harder for her. They worry about adolescence, and puberty as Haley becomes more aware of her differences.

Haley is lucky. Her parents are supporting her as she figures out who she is, even as she moves away from the small boxes society would put her into. Most trans children don’t have this type of acceptance. Instead, they have to hide. Suppress who they are. And we know what happens when you have to hide and suppress part of who you are: a piece of you dies.

At the close of the episode, Ling wonders, what happens when a transgender child grows up?

Particularly on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we pause to honor and memorialize those who have been brutally murdered because they themselves were transgender, or because someone they loved is…the question of what happens when a transgender child grows up is not a small one. In this past year, we know of 22 people who were murdered as they tried to live authentic, whole lives.  This number does not include deaths that were suspicious but not proven to be hate crimes.  Put these together and you get over 200 people.  And that still does not count the number of trans people who took their own lives – people who could not find a way to express who they were and so felt trapped.  

It was through a suicidal trans teenager that I came to learn about this issue. Many many years ago, he came to me with his concerns as he began to explore his gender identity. We spent hours on the phone, in email. There was no one else he could turn to – his family tried to understand but just couldn’t.

In truth, I didn’t understand either. It was the first time someone had told me that they felt trapped in the wrong body. Sure, I had seen drag queens, but this was something different. As I listened to this young person talk, my heart just broke. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand what it was like for him – what mattered was his pain. And how he felt there was no way out.

If you do not identify as a trans person, imagine with me, if you will, that you wake up every morning, and you see a stranger staring back at you in the mirror. The shell, the outside, does not match who you are on inside. For many, transformation is the only chance they have to love themselves and to try to fit into the world. The Rev. Paul Langston Daly is a Unitarian Universalist minister who identifies as a trans person. He tells us that “Living authentically takes courage, strength, and above all, faith.”

Faith in yourself. Faith that it can get better, that you can live a full, whole authentic life and be accepted for who you are. Faith that you can find love. Faith that there is a community out there that will embrace you, support you, walk with you on this journey.

It was through my experience with a suicidal trans teenager, who thankfully did not kill himself, that I came to learn how hard it can be, and how absolutely necessary it is, to live true to ourselves – to not put ourselves into a box that may be more acceptable by society but that kills a piece of us. Through my experience with this young person, I became inspired to learn. I began to devour everything that came my way about the trans experience: books, articles, documentaries, movies, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs.

If we want to be an ally for the trans members already in our community (those we know of, and those who we don’t, adults, youth or children who might be struggling with this issue right now). If we want to be allies for them, and for the trans people who might desperately be seeking our community, this is how we begin: through educating ourselves.

When we educate ourselves, we have to begin with language – we start by understanding the various expressions and stages of the vast umbrella we label as trans, which can include (but is not limited to) people who identify as genderqueer, third gender, gender fluid, or two spirit; some intersex individuals; transsexuals; crossdressers; and all self-identified trans people.

If you are new to these concepts, then these terms may have just totally overwhelmed you, so let me elaborate.

We are all assigned a biological sex at birth, for example male, female, or intersex. Intersex is a general term used for a variety of genetic, hormonal, or anatomical conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Some of you may recall the term hermaphrodite from your youth. Today, this is an obsolete term that is considered absolutely inappropriate.

When a child is born intersex, many doctors and parents panic and rush to correct with surgery what they see as a problem. This intervention causes more harm than good, however, and can lead to mental and physical difficulties later in life. Some intersex individuals identify as transgender while others do not.

So we are all assigned a biological sex at birth, but gender is something that we choose for ourselves. We call this “gender identity.” It may or may not match our biological sex. And it may or may not match how we present to the world: our gender expression.

When our biological sex, our gender identity and our gender expression align, we are called “cisgender” – cis, which means on the same side, whereas trans means “across.” For example, I am a cisgender female: my biological sex at birth matches my gender identity, which matches my gender expression.

We live in a society that is called “gender binary” – which means we only have 2 acceptable choices: either male, or female. This is very limiting, and discounts a whole lot of ways to live the human experience. But it makes it easier to put people in boxes: men are masculine, and there is a whole list of characteristics that describe what it means to be male. Women are feminine, and there is a whole list of characteristics that describe what it means to be female. It is when we don’t fit into these little boxes that society doesn’t usually know what to do with us.

There can be a lot of confusion between the term transgender and transsexual. The word transgender was first coined as a way of distinguishing gender variant people with no desire for surgery or hormones from transsexuals, who did desire to legally and medically change their sex. More recently, however, transgender (or trans) has become an umbrella term that is used to include all people who transgress dominant conceptions of gender, or at least all people who identify themselves as doing so.

The trans community may also include crossdressers. Cross-dressing refers to occasionally wearing clothing of the “opposite” gender, and someone who considers this an integral part of their identity may identify as a crossdresser. Today, the term crossdresser is preferable to “transvestite” and neither should be used to describe a transsexual person because a person who is transexual has changed their sex and thus are dressing appropriate to their gender identity and expression.

The labels genderqueer, third gender, gender fluid, or two spirit are sometimes used by people who feel between or outside the gender binary. Individuals may identify as being neither man nor woman, as a little bit of both, as outside the binary, or they may simply feel restricted by gender labels. Two spirit is a term derived from the traditions of some Native North American cultures, and can mean a mixture of masculine and feminine spirits living in the same body. The existence of two spirit people in Native American culture is one of the reasons why the conquering Europeans believed Native culture was inferior and primitive compared to their own. I have to shake my head at this one, as I believe the Native American people got this one (and a whole lot else) right.

You may have noticed that I am not talking about sexual orientation at all. This is because gender identity and sexual orientation are not at all related. Just as a cisgender person might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or consider themselves queer or questioning, so too can a transgender person be gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual or consider themselves queer or questioning.

This can be very confusing for some folks who want to connect sexual orientation with gender identity: if you liked women, they may say to a male to female transgender woman, why didn’t you just stay a guy? Sexual orientation is not correlated with gender identity.

This is a lot of information, and a lot of terminology to understand. As I wrote this sermon, I had to keep editing to make sure I used the terms correctly, so know that it is an ongoing learning process. I invite you to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Identity Ministry website. They have a “Transgender 101” page that explains all this, and more.

If you cannot keep all this in your head, I invite you to hold this: gender expression and identity come in a vast array, rather than simply male and female. The first step in being able to best support the trans members of our community is to learn.

Another step is to respect a person’s identity and self-label, and respect a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference. This is also a way that you can assess if someone else is an ally, whether that person is a journalist, in the news media, or another person in the room. Allies will respect a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference. For instance, if you see Chaz referred to by his birth name, or referred to as “she”, then you can be confidant that the person speaking or writing is not an ally to the trans community. Going against a trans person’s wishes in this manner is a form of power-taking, a form of violence, a form of abuse. It says “I refuse to recognize you on your terms. I will put you into this box and disrespect you.”

So using a person’s chosen name and pronoun preference is important to creating a safe place for trans people. But since you don’t want to make any assumptions, how are you to know? Well, there are a variety of tips I can recommend from my own personal experience. One is to listen, intently, to the trans-person when they talk. It can give clues. Another is to listen, or ask, someone who knows the trans-person and might have insight to offer. Or, when that fails, ask. It can be uncomfortable – for both of you – but if you ask well, it can also be a trust building moment. “I am sorry to have to ask you this, but I want to make sure I treat you with respect. What pronoun would you prefer I use when referring to you?”

Connected to this is to see the person, not the label. I remember when John and I visited a very white-haired church when we were young adults. A few of the members flocked to us at coffee hour after the service and said how glad they were to have people like us there. They meant “young” and I know they meant well. But I walked away from that transaction feeling as though they had put me into a box and seen me only as a desirable demographic, not as a person with specific gifts, talents and needs. If we want a person to feel seen and cared for for who they are, we should not tokenize them in this way, whether they are a young person, a person of color, a trans-person, or anyone else. “People like you” is not an affirmative statement.

Also, and here is one that I am currently working on, we can use terms that encompass all genders rather than only two. For instance, we can say “children” instead of “boys and girls”. We can say “people” instead of “women and men.” I found myself falling into this trap quite a lot recently. As the mother of two biological girls, I would say “Take the girls to the zoo” or “My girls are super sweet.” Or, particularly in email, if I am addressing it to all women, I will often say “Hi ladies!” as a greeting. But these terms are exclusive rather than inclusive, and they assume I know everyone’s gender identity. And what happens when I assume? So I am trying to refer to my kids rather than my daughters more, and I am trying to use a more general greeting in email and other places.

These are just a few steps we can take in our own lives to be more welcoming to trans-people. There are steps we can take as a church community, as well. We can make sure that anytime our literature asks you to identify as male or female that there is an option for transgender and a option for other. We can and soon will be better publicizing that we have a gender-neutral restroom on our second floor for people who prefer such an option. You don’t have to use it, but it is available if you prefer. And we can talk to our kids about this, too. One of my proudest moments as a parent was when one of my kids, in preschool, told her teacher that yes her classmate could grow up to be a girl if he wanted to.

If we at First U want to be a safe community where transgender people can find the love, support, and acceptance that they need and deserve; If we want to be a place where they might be met with love, instead of violence; If we want to be allies instead of oppressors, let us start with drawing circles instead of boxes. Circles, that go wider and wider, until they include and embrace the variety of ways that there are for expressing our true selves. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us ensure that we are not part of the violence. Let us stand on the side of love.

marriage equity.

6 Jun

Yesterday, at our annual meeting, after much conversation and clarification, the congregation passed the following resolution: “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.”

I was thrilled to be able to say “With pleasure.”

Many Unitarian Universalist ministers have already made this decision. Indeed, other liberal religious ministers have as well. If I was so thrilled, why had I not made this decision earlier?

As it sometimes happens, it was the conversation during the meeting that helped me to solidify thoughts and convictions that were murky enough that they had not led me to take a stand. But now I get it. Perhaps I am slow, but I finally get it. Here is what I get:

Marriage in the United States currently has two components: a religious component, and a civil component.

The civil component of marriage is what guarantees the many rights that marriage confers. These rights are granted to a couple when their marriage license is signed and then registered with the state authority.

The religious component of marriage contains the vows, and the “till death do us part” part, and for many couples it is the standing before friends and family and making a public declaration of love and commitment.

The conflation of these two separate components happens because religious authorities (like me) are given the rights to sign the official civil document – the marriage license.

However, these two pieces are not equal. Religious authorities can and should be able to decide whose marriages they honor.  If they don’t want to honor the marriages of divorcees, or gay couples, or without prior marriage counseling, it is their right to do so.  It is also their right to affirmatively choose to honor these (and other) marriages.

Civil marriage, however (the one that grants all sorts of rights and protections), should be between any two consenting adults.  Period.  The state should not discriminate based on a couples sexuality.  Because most states currently do discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, this makes civil marriage an unjust institution.

Because civil marriage is an unjust institution, I will no longer participate in it.  I will still officiate as the religious professional at weddings of whomever I choose (including gay and lesbian couples, which I already do!), but I will no longer participate in the signing of marriage licenses.  This means that I will be providing all couples (gay and straight) the same service: a religious ceremony to celebrate the covenant of marriage.  The legal aspect must be done through the state.

When (and I do believe it is when, not if)  civil marriage is a civil right in Kentucky, I will happily participate in it once again and will sign marriage licenses.  Not until then.

What does this mean for gay and lesbian couples? I already officiate at weddings for gay and lesbian couples.  I don’t call them union ceremonies.  I don’t call them something other than what they are – weddings.

What does this mean for hetero couples?  I will still officiate at weddings – the only part that I will not do is sign the license.  This means that they will have to get a justice of the peace to sign it.  It is a small extra step, and couples can have it done at the same time that they get their marriage licenses – it is not terribly complicated, or expensive.  Certainly it is much easier, and cheaper, than having to drive 1000 miles (which one couple in my congregation had to do to find a state that would honor their marriage).  Or, a hetero couple might choose not to have their licenses signed, and stand with gay & lesbian couples and not participate in civil marriage until it is a civil right.

I am grateful to my church for helping me to clarify my convictions on this subject, and for asking me to take a stand.  As we move forward, our board of trustees will be engaging in research to determine other steps in this direction the congregation might take.  We are hoping to build on the momentum that another local congregation began.  Perhaps others will join the bandwagon.

Standing on the Side of Love

19 Feb

We had a fabulous “Freedom to Marry” service at church on Valentines Day. The Senior High provided music, the middle-schoolers put on a skit based on the book King & King.  The technology worked just like it was supposed to and so people were able to hear (and mostly see) this clip from Iowa Senator Gronstal.  It was good – I even heard some hoots and clapping during the sermon, something I had not heard before at this church.

Then we got to the last hymn. I have been making it a practice to choose one hymn from “the old hymnal” and one hymn from the new supplement in an effort to help the congregation learn some of the great new songs in the supplement.  Before the service, however, our professional accompanist asked if I was “out to get him.”  I obviously must have looked confused because he quickly shared how difficult this song was to play, and that he would do his best, but….

All things considered, the congregation did a really good job with a very difficult song they had never sung before.  Since I plan on using this song a lot, and since even those who read music have a hard time with it, I thought it might be helpful for some of us to hear what it is supposed to sound like.  This link is the closest I could find.  But be warned!  Since it is a solo, the singer “travels” across the notes more than we would when singing this as a congregation.

Give us a few months, and we will sound great.  I can’t wait!

%d bloggers like this: