(A Very Long Post but not part of the Accidental Plague Diaries)
After reading this morning of the Pope’s decision to throw the weight of the Catholic Church behind obtaining civil union status for same gender couples, I decided to repost this sermon I wrote seven years ago as the Church is coming to the understanding of my central thesis – that religion is defining marriage as a sacred covenant and LGBT folk are defining it as a civil contract providing rights and benefits of the state – one word for two distinct concepts that has prevented appropriate dialog. I wrote this in the spring of 2013, a year before Tommy and I were legally married and two years before Obergefell made same sex marriage legal nationwide. It’s dated somewhat because of the sea change that court decision caused to happen but the likely appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court means that Obergefell may not stand so this central clash has not gone away.
Sermon for LGBT Sunday 6/23/13 – Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham
When the Worship Partners Committee asked me to deliver the pulpit message for this Sunday and also asked me to focus on a topic related to LGBT issues, two thoughts immediately crossed my mind. The first one was “Why me?” I’m no student of history, hold no degrees in sociology or anthropology that qualify me to speak for an entire culture. The second one was “Take the opportunity to share with fellow congregants”. The follow up to that, of course, is how do you share around sensitive topics without over sharing. Most of you who have attended this church for a while know who I am. Some of you have even been around long enough to know the rather complicated story of my life over the last fifteen year. It’s been one of personal tragedy, resilience and rebuilding. When I arrived in Birmingham, fifteen years ago, I was 36, fleeing a bad career situation on the west coast and brought with me Steve, the man with whom I had shared my life for ten years. It was a very different relationship than I have now. I was the quiet one. And the last time I had been on stage was 1983. Within a year of our arrival, Steve developed the lung disease that ultimately killed him. It was our being in a strange town, thousands of miles away from our families and support system that led us to this church. UUCB was there for me as a widow and was in part responsible for my meeting and developing a relationship with Tommy, the man I have shared my life with for the last ten years.
I started out with a question – Why Me? The answer to that one is because I’m a gay man, a minority even in a welcoming congregation. What makes me gay? I suppose at least in part it’s that I came out. Coming out is a difficult and painful process for some. For me, it was relatively easy. The hardest part was admitting to myself I was gay as it just didn’t fit the ideal life I had sketched out for myself as an adolescent. One which included wife, children and a white picket fence. Once I made peace with myself and moved on to telling friends and family, there were no serious issues. Pretty much everyone gave a variation on ‘we’ve known for years and were just waiting for you to say something’ response. My parents and family offered unconditional love. They just worried that I was going to find life far harder than what they wished for a son or a brother. It’s been harder than necessary due to the rule that every LGBT person who’s open learns rapidly. You have to be twice as good as the next guy to get half the credit. I’m lucky I have my family. A friend and colleague of mine who recently came out was disowned. He recently ran into his mother when they both pulled into the gas station at the same time to fill up. She refused to acknowledge his existence.
Gay is a label that society has given me, not one I chose for myself. I have a lot of other labels that have been pasted on over the years that I think of first when I think of my self identity: son, student, writer, partner, doctor, healer, performer but the one that sticks and trumps all the others is the gay one. It becomes an adjective that modifies all of the others. I hear myself referred to as the ‘gay doctor’ all the time but no one has ever called me the ‘son doctor’ or the ‘writer doctor’. I think this is something that every LGBT person who is out and open knows. It’s just the way things are. In the eyes of the world, your sexual identity will color everything you are and do, whether it’s a part of your life that involves gender, love, sex or not. Labels are convenient, but destructive. They perpetuate stereotypes and lazy thinking. What labels do you have? Ones bestowed because of a surname or a skin color? We all carry the UU label which in the deep south is majorly misunderstood.
Who’s gay? Here are brief biographies of several men I know, and I am using men because I know more of them than women, not because I’m trying to be sexist. The first is a Jesuit priest. He has lived quietly with a man in domestic partnership for decades. They have never physically touched each other except accidentally in day to day living and he would be offended at being considered gay despite the very real and valuable relationship that obviously exists. Friends have learned to accommodate the relationship but never, ever to mention its existence. The second is a prominent Birmingham citizen whose name most of you would recognize. He has been married for decades to a woman but seems to spend most of his spare time chasing young men in their twenties. Even though I was in my mid thirties when I moved to town, I was warned about him and, sure enough, within three weeks the pass was made. The third is a man who married his high school sweetheart. He always felt something was missing and, one night on a business trip after too much to drink, he began a relationship with his male business partner. That relationship foundered as did, eventually, his marriage. He then began to date men and is now in a committed relationship with one, but remains on good terms with his wife (they have not divorced) and children. The fourth is a man who came out in high school, dated men through college until he met the right one and eventually married his long term partner in a large wedding with all the trappings. Society is likely to tag all four of these men with the gay label as if they were one size fits all, kind of like something on sale on the table in front of the dollar store, despite vastly different patterns of expressing their sexual selves.
As a culture, we tend to conflate the very different concepts of sexual identity: gender identity (whether we conceive of ourselves as male or female), sexual preference (the types of individuals we prefer to have intimate relationships with) and sexual orientation (the way in which our brains are wired to experience sexual attraction)into a nebulous whole which can then be split in a dichotomous way – straight or gay (with perhaps a little bit of a fudge factor for bisexuality). This is a cultural construct and this is pretty much Post World War II American culture speaking. In the late forties and fifties, millions of returning GIs came back to find a world with burgeoning equality for women and minorities due to the domestic needs of World War II. This could not be allowed to continue and there then came a time of reassertion of white male privilege and domination. Women went back to the kitchen, racial minorities were taught their place and pretty much erased from popular culture, and any man who dared to challenge masculine norms of sexuality was, at best, suspect and probably communist. However, that genie was already out of the bottle and within a generation, the women’s movement, the modern civil rights movement and the gay rights movement all came into their own. The reassertion of white heterosexual male privilege happens routinely. Another example comes from the late seventies when disco, a musical world dominated by women, African Americans and homosexuals, had to be eliminated from pop culture in favor of more masculine musical genres.
This dichotomy of straight/gay, based solely on sexual acts, is a modern invention. Before then, there were certainly people of all sexualities, but, at least in American culture, you were classified solely on the behaviors you presented to the public. Only an effeminate man, especially one who deliberately cultivated an effete style, would have been considered homosexual by most people in the 1920s and 30s. Those who acted within the usual gender expression norms were more or less given a pass. Confirmed bachelors were just fine, as long as their private lives and private behaviors stayed that – private. And women living together were considered normal. No one thought anything of two maiden ladies living together and supporting each other; people were just sorry they were never lucky enough to have found the right man. Modern culture, with its need for instant infotainment and its celebrity/paparazzi engine makes it difficult to divest of this notion of people being defined solely by behavior. I don’t think I believe this myself. I think Gore Vidal, in his writings, got it right. He wrote that there are no such thing as gay or straight people. There are only people. And those people, depending on all sorts of social, cultural and biological factors, choose to engage in certain acts, with somewhat infinite variety. Our human need to categorize does grave disservice by introducing the either/or rather than allowing all of the possible shadings of the rainbow to peacefully coexist.
There has been a sea change in American culture in the last few years regarding LGBT issues. In a poll two weeks ago, 72% of American adults stated they felt that gay marriage was inevitable. Such a result would have been unthinkable a decade ago. For the gays and lesbians of my generation, marriage wasn’t considered any sort of realistic goal when we were young. We were busy fighting simply for the right to exist and to be validated as human by our culture. The thought that our unions could be sanctioned in the same way that straight unions are through the institution of marriage was far less important than being declared as non-persons by society or being condemned to death from HIV through governmental ignorance and inaction. Personally, I am still trying to process that I can get married to my partner in 12 states when a decade ago I couldn’t get married at all. Some people have asked me why I don’t. The answer to that is simple. What’s the point of getting married if during the plane ride home, the union will exist and dissolve several times depending on the flight plan. I don’t have a lot of hope for the state of Alabama to recognize a marriage to my partner in the near future and there’s not much point in a marriage that won’t be validated by my community.
I work in a relatively conservative professional field. My branch, being very touchy feely, and looked down upon by the surgeons as something akin to social work, is fairly open and accepting of human beings as human beings. I have had out LGBT colleagues in my group at UAB the whole fifteen years I have been employed there and haven’t had many issues in the work place in regards to my relationship and how I conduct my life. One of the things that I do professionally is medical house calls. Over the last 25 years, I have been in hundreds of homes of the frail and infirm elderly and I have seen a lot of patterns in terms of family living. I’ve been to tar paper shacks in the hollers of West Virginia, suburban McMansions in wealthy California communities and the modest working class homes of the local African American community and, no matter the surroundings, I am always struck by the commonalities of family bonds, the need for us to be with our own, especially in times of adversity and that the outward trappings of wealth and position don’t matter anywhere near as much as what’s in the hearts of the people who reside there. One of the things that happens when doing rural house calls, is long hours in the car with nurses who may be different from you. I have a new nurse I’m working with in Jasper and a few weeks ago, the car conversation turned to gay marriage and, knowing I was gay, she told me she was against gay marriage because she was afraid that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would be against the teachings of her religion and that the government would force her church to have to perform such ceremonies.
I could have been angry. I could have read her the riot act. I could have pouted and played words with friends in the passenger seat all the way to Double Springs. Instead, I gave her my perspective. Marriage is two things. It’s a secular state sanctioned contract which contains rights and responsibilities and which governs such things as property, legitimacy and inheritance. It’s also a sacred covenant between two people before the god of their understanding. Unfortunately, in American jurisprudence over the last three hundred years, the same word, marriage, has been used for both. Because of this, LGBT people cannot have access to the secular and state defined benefits without that particular term being used as that is the word that is used in law. If the civil and the religious had been split with two words several hundred years ago with union for the one and marriage for the other, we wouldn’t be having these arguments. Everyone would just go down to the courthouse and get unioned and then, at another time, get married within the tradition and community that welcomes them. Everyone would have to recognize the union by law but the marriage could be left up to each individual religious tradition. Most LGBT people of my acquaintance have no particular interest in getting married in a church or temple that devalues them for who they are. If you read the transcripts of the Proposition 8 trial in California, the only arguments presented by those opposing gay marriage more or less boiled down to ‘The Bible says it’s wrong’. The opposition is so invested in the word married for its sacred meaning that they cannot see that the battle is actually over the secular institution of the same name.
The label married is important. It opens the door to legal and societal benefits in a way nothing else can do. Most people notice a sea change in how they are treated as a couple or even as individuals once they are officially married. Social supports slide into place to help maintain them as a couple when the times get rough, which they will for everyone eventually. There is an assumption, with marriage, that your family, no matter its actual structure, is a family and not just friends hanging out together. Marriage is perhaps even more important for children. By latest statistics, there are more children being raised by LGBT parents in this country then there are adoptive children being raised in this country. These children are put at immediate disadvantage as their parents cannot marry. For instance, if something happens to the non-biologic partner and the state, like many, does not allow for second parent same gender adoption, there may be difficulties in the surviving parent being able to prove they are a parent and another relative may swoop in and take the children away. DOMA, the defense of marriage act, prevents same gender marriages from being recognized on a federal level keeping the children of such marriages from accessing federal programs and benefits. They may be ineligible for dependent benefits or employment based health insurance policies. Rights of inheritance and property may become convoluted leading to court battles which only end up enriching the legal system.
So where does that leave us? The UU Church of Birmingham in 2013? Most members of this congregation are pro-LGBT. They’ve told me and the other LGBT members of the congregation this over the years. We have a very nice ‘Welcoming Congregation’ sign in the Narthex placed in a none too prominent place. But are we really? Why isn’t the LGBT population of greater Birmingham beating a path to our door? We host PFLAG, parents and friends of lesbians and gays, a support group for those coming to terms with LGBT members of their families and are a home for BAGSLY, the Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight and Lesbian Youth for teens just beginning on their life journey. We don’t, however, have much for active LGBT adults which makes us somewhat invisible to the community at large. UUCB has a proud heritage of being at the forefront of Civil Rights. The injustices visited upon LGBT Alabamians daily should be our concern. Anyone can be fired in the state of Alabama for being LGBT and I know plenty of people to whom that has happened . What have we done to combat that? Should we be silent when local political, social and religious leaders defile our relationships and characters with comparisons to pedophilia or bestiality. The LGBT community is less than 5% of the population. We aren’t strong enough to win the necessary battles on our own. It’s our straight allies that will refuse to remain silent any longer and make equality possible.
Labels are important. The groups we belong to give us those labels. One of the ones that I wear with pride is UU. Make me proud. Stand with me as another person trying to make his way through a crazy and confusing world. I’ve got your back – I’m grateful to you all that you’ve got mine.