#BlessingNotBurden: It takes less than a minute to show trans youth you care.

20376153_10101716547347198_4481381192885927197_nToo many trans/genderqueer/non-binary kids woke up today in a world where their president called them a “burden” and “distraction”. These kids are already at a higher risk for suicide, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because they have to live in a broken and hateful world. It takes real courage to live through that day after day, and hope can feel hard to find.

If you are trans/genderqueer/non-binary, etc. I ask you to consider joining me in something. Take a picture of yourself and tag it #blessingnotburden and upload it to social media. Spread a little hope today.

***Allies, if you’d like to participate, please consider writing “You are a blessing, not a burden” on a piece of paper. Take a picture of yourself holding the sign and post it with the same hashtag, please.***

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Atticus and Me

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” the summer between 8th and 9th grade. It was a hot, Southern summer and my mom and I went into a bookstore to look for some indoor reading. She bought me the book, and I took it home and devoured it.

I was transformed, both in a moral and literary sense. I would never forget the idea that standing up for the right thing, even when you know you are going to lose, is noble.  And, in no small part due to that book, I became an English major. (I had entered college as a pre-law student, but once I realized that I couldn’t be Atticus Finch, I gave that up.) Even today, when I’m asked to list my favorite novels, Harper Lee’s book is on the shortlist.

We even have a cat named “Atticus”.

So when I heard about “Go Set a Watchman”, a sort of sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, being released I was ecstatic. But this weekend, when the first chapter was released, my heart ached a bit. Because, as it turns out, Atticus Finch might not be such a good guy after all.

The New York Times, in reviewing the book, writes, “Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?””

In other words, Atticus is more like the racist uncle no one likes to talk about than the crusader for civil rights that my 13 year-old self imagined.

“Honey, can we change the cat’s name?” (The answer to that was, “no”.)

As I’ve sat with it, though, I wonder if a legion of Atticus Finch fans having to come to terms with his racism isn’t the best possible thing for us all.

I’m wondering that during a season in which Americans are wrestling with what contemporary racism looks like. And I’m wrestling with that myself as a person who tries my best to be an ally in the fight against racism. Because the reality is that all of us, even the best intentioned of white allies, need to wrestle with the racism inside our ourselves.

In college I began to be involved in anti-discrimination work, and I learned an incredibly important but difficult truth: we all wrestle with unlearning our prejudices.

I may not have grown up in Atticus Finch’s Alabama, but I did grow up in the South not so many decades after the Civil Rights Act. In the 4th grade I colored a Confederate flag handout in class, oblivious to how wrong that seemed until I got into my New Hampshire-native mother’s station wagon waving it at the end of the school day.

In high school I watched as a classmate drew a large Confederate flag on the chalkboard, complete with “the South will rise again”, and waited patiently for our African-American math teacher to arrive so he could see his reaction. And in high school I realized that though it was exactly five miles from the end of my driveway to the place where Zora Neale Hurston wrote, no one had ever asked us to read, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

Like it or not, I am formed by that. That is what I learned. And that is what I have now tried for years to unlearn.

My guess is that Atticus Finch, fictional as he is, learned his racism too. I do not say that to excuse it; it is never acceptable. But I say that to say that racism is a social disease, one that spreads easily and infects us long before we realize we are sick. And one to which, sadly, many choose not to admit that they may have been exposed.

One that Atticus Finch carried. Even if he did the right thing sometimes. Even if, for so many of us, he was our adolescent hero.

But in the end, Atticus Finch was not Dr. King, or Bayard Rustin, or Rosa Parks, or Medgar Evers. That’s okay because that’s not the role of an ally anyway. An ally is not a hero. An ally is a supporter.

Instead, Atticus was the character who inspired many of us atticus-finchin our younger years to try to do what was right. He made us take a hard look at ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we could be courageous. Perhaps his greatest legacy as a character, with all that has now been revealed and with all that our country now faces, would be for all of us to be willing to take a good, hard, honest look at our hearts once again.

Atticus, I don’t need you to be my hero anymore. But I still need to learn from you. I need to learn that even the allies we idolize are not without their flaws. And even the best allies have so much to learn, and so much to unlearn. Including me.

Why I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture to a red equal sign.

521352_10100262115894488_1545846164_nLast week many of my friends changed their profile pictures on Facebook. I did too. With the Supreme Court’s hearing of two cases related to marriage equality, Facebook went red in support of the end of DOMA and Prop 8.

My profile picture was red. But, it wasn’t the red equal sign. And as I watched friends from high school, college, and the church world change theirs to the red equal sign, I felt deeply conflicted.

I certainly support marriage equality. My wife and I married last fall, so DOMA directly affects us. But I don’t support the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that was behind the red equal signs. Most who changed their profile pictures didn’t know that they were advertising for any particular organization. They just thought that they were supporting equality, which is indeed noble. But the reality is that with every change of a profile picture to the red equal sign, HRC, an organization that many LGBTQ people have trouble supporting, was getting free advertising. And with it, the impression that the HRC somehow spoke for all LGBT people was spread.

Back in the 1990’s the rainbow flag, a general, inclusive symbol of LGBTQ equality not owned by any one organization, gradually gave way to a new symbol: a blue square with a yellow equal sign in the middle. The Human Rights Campaign created this new symbol and would only distribute it through their own channels (often after donations). Some LGBT bookstores tried to copy the logo to sell in their own stores, and were swiftly rebuffed.

And so, the HRC became the purveyors of the equal sign. And if you go to an HRC Action Center, like the one that now occupies Harvey Milk’s old store in San Francisco, you can buy anything from a t-shirt to a frisbee to a dog bowl (generally made in a place with poor labor practices) with an equal sign plastered on the side. So, you pay to advertise for the HRC. Meanwhile, the HRC uses the money to pay executive staff and get buildings like this: http://www.hrc.org/the-hrc-story/our-building

But more importantly, many in the community have long had reservations about HRC’s actions. Trans advocates in particular have had trouble with the HRC’s mixed messages on trans inclusion, especially around ENDA. (Google “HRC” and “trans” for more.) People of color have also leveled valid concerns, as have undocumented persons. After a rally to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, LGBT veterans complained about their treatment by the HRC. And, the HRC dinner in honor of Goldman Sachs last year showed a tone-deafness about the real economic crisis that rubbed many the wrong way.

The end of my own support for HRC came in 2011. I first encountered HRC as a Congressional intern in 1994, back when they were called the “Human Rights Campaign Fund”. Through the years I tried to remain supportive knowing that no organization is perfect. I had a few HRC shirts and I even bought my parents a membership a few years back.

But in the summer of 2011 I went to Albany, New York for a week to watch what was happening with the marriage equality bill. HRC was there too. And I was less than impressed. Doubtless much was happening behind the scenes, but what I saw on the surface convinced me that my money would be better spent in other places. There were many great volunteers working with HRC, and I’m not saying anything negative about any of them. But I just didn’t see any real leadership from the paid staff.

They didn’t know how to use the volunteers that they had. They didn’t know how to use the clergy and others who came to advocate for marriage equality. They didn’t work well with the grassroots groups who had done a lot of the prep work needed to push for a vote (and they talked down to them at points). And they asked those who were protesting in favor of marriage equality to sound less “angry”.

(When I wrote my reflections about this down and posted it online, I received a testy email from an HRC senior staff member. I also received an email from a staffer in the NY Legislature who said it was spot on and that the HRC had almost botched the vote, in part because they didn’t use some of the resources that were offered to them. When a few activists decided not to take orders from the HRC anymore, “went rogue” and started to visit legislators on their own they had actually managed to change more minds than the HRC.)

After that, I just decided to support other organizations. It’s like the old saying: When someone shows you who they are, believe them. It’s not that I hate the HRC. I just refuse to advertise for them any longer since so many I care about have been hurt or offended by their policies. Now I support groups like the Trevor Project and organizations that are closer to home and capable of doing local good.

So, when I see those red equal signs, knowing that most who are posting them don’t realize that they are posting something created by HRC, I just want to tell people what they are supporting. If they still want to use them, that is by all means their right. But, they should first know what that symbol brings up for some of us who are LGBTQ. Because part of being a responsible part of the movement, LGBTQ and ally alike, is listening to the voices at the margins, and deciding with whom you will stand.

(Just a note…here’s the latest concern. It’s worth noting that HRC originally denied this happened: http://www.towleroad.com/2013/04/quiphrc.html )

How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.

When Pride is Not a Sin: The Season of Ending Gay Shame

In 10th grade my history teacher insisted we memorize the Seven Deadly Sins for an exam. Unlike most of the other things I tried to remember at age 14, years later I can still list them all: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth.

In high school I thought those sins must have come from some sort of Biblical list. Years later I found out that the development of a listing of the Seven Deadly Sins was actually a gradual, fairly random, process across centuries of Christian thought. Like all traditions handed down through the centuries, they have taken on a life of their own and, for many, become an accepted, unquestioned part of Christian tradition. We caution those who are “too prideful”, labeling their actions un-Christian.

It was the Seven Deadly Sins that made the budding theologian in me question my first gay pride parade at age 18. I wasn’t questioning the morality of LGBTQ people and their relationships. I was questioning the claiming of “pride”, a sin that, if Christian tradition is to be believed, is the root of all destruction.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins pride has sometimes been called the worst. It is often seen as the root of the six other deadly sins. Even the 20th Century mainline theologian Paul Tillich, sometimes criticized as “too liberal” by conservative Christians, wrote that pride was the occasion for all sin. As I queued up for my first march in a pride parade I wondered, “Shouldn’t we find another name for this? Solidarity, maybe? Celebration? Something not on a “sin” list?”

Years later in seminary I though more about the “sin” of pride. I was reading Tillich and responses to his work. I was also taking Greek, a requisite for ordination. The wonderful thing about learning Greek was that it allowed seminarians to go back to the original sources of Christian thought, the Scriptures, and read them as they were first written. It made us go deeper and learn the contexts of the traditions we held onto hundreds of years later.

I learned that what the Seven Deadly Sins calls “pride” is actually more correctly “hubris”. In Greek the word for hubris has less to do with feeling good about one’s self, and more to do with shaming another through abuse and violence. Hubris is arrogance brought about by the shaming and victimization of another. It is, rightfully, named as sinful.

Applied today to the status of LGBTQ people in this country, hubris is not demonstrated in the pride parades held across the country each June. It’s not in the waving of a rainbow flag or marching with a banner. It’s nowhere to be found in the crowds gathered to proclaim their pride in who they are and in those whom they love.

Instead it’s here:

It’s in the pastor who preached in North Carolina that gays and lesbians should be rounded up, placed inside an electrified fence, and held until death.

It’s in the parents who taught their child to sing a hateful song about LGBTQ people at a Maryland church that included the words, “ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven” and then broadcast it, complete with the cheers of their fellow parishioners.

And it’s in the clergy who condemn committed LGBTQ relationships as they hide the sins of other clergy against children. Or who preach a Gospel of hate that encourages the bullies who force LGBTQ kids to the point they feel life has no hope.

These are sins. And they are deadly.

Paul Tillich’s insistence that pride was the root of all sin was later challenged by a growing field of women who were theologians. They pointed out to Tillich that for those who have been traditionally oppressed, pride is not an occasion for sin. Instead, the absence of pride, the failure to see one’s self as a good creation of God, was the real occasion for sin. The shame that kept one from doing the things God was calling them to do became sinful.

I want to be careful there to not label those who are mired in the shame created by an often homophobic world as sinners. They are not. Rather, the culture that creates that shame in young people growing up LGBTQ is, and that must be changed. A culture whose hubris comes from making LGBTQ people second-class citizens, who makes criminal in some states the very mention of the word “gay” in the classroom, who allows so-called reparative therapy practitioners to keep their licenses, is a sinful one because it is a soul-destroying one. It must be challenged. It must be changed.

And this is how LGBTQ people and their allies change it: they claim their pride. They claim it in parades. They claim it in front of wedding officiants. They claim it in the face of bullies. And they claim it on everyday that God has given to them.

43 years ago this month, at a bar called Stonewall, a group of LGBTQ people who were being attacked claimed it. After years of systemic degradation, violence, and victimization at the hands of hubris, they refused to live in shame anymore. That’s why each June we who are LGBTQ gather in their honor, and in memory of them and of everyone else who has ever stood up and refused to be ashamed anymore.

It is a good act. It is a holy act. And it is an act of faith. An act of claiming the life and the future that God has created for us. And when one is trying to live into the calling God has given them to live, and to resist those who would deny that calling, it can never be called a sin.

Opening Devotional for the Vermont State House, April 6, 2012

Friday, August 6th, was LGBTQA Advocacy Day at the Vermont State House. It was also the 20th anniversary of the passage of Vermont’s first civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. As part of the celebration, I was honored to be asked to give the opening devotional to the House:

Good morning.

This week is Holy Week in my tradition, the Christian faith, which means for clergy it’s the busiest time of the year. We never seem to run out of things to do this week, and it can feel like one’s work is never done.

I imagine it feels like that to those of you who work here in the State House too. Particularly when you’re in session. And I’d imagine that you rarely have a day when someone doesn’t want a minute of your time.

And today gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Vermonters and their allies have come to ask for that time. They’ve come to tell their stories to you.

Now I believe stories are sacred. And I believe God is there in everyone’s story. So when I listen to someone’s story I take it as an opportunity to listen to see what God has done in them, and in the world.

I’ve learned a lot about God and faith by listening to the life stories of LGBT people. I’ve learned what it is to trust the love of God over the fear of the unknown. I’ve learned about telling the truth about who you are, even when it’s unpopular, because the truth will set you free. And I’ve learned about the capacity to be resilient in the face of rejection, condemnation, and bullying.

I believe those stories are testimonies of faith. Far better testimonies than anything I could say up here this morning. And so I invite you to open your ears, and your hearts, and listen for the voice of the divine in the testimonies you hear today.

There’s a motto we who are Vermonters know. It’s our state motto, “Freedom and unity.” To me it means that we are free to be who we are, and that we respect the freedom of others to be who they are as well. And it also means that no matter who we are, whatever our differences of belief and opinion, we are called to be united in community.

Unity doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens when we open our hearts to one another, respect one another, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Your neighbors are here today. And they have stories to share. As we prepare to open our hearts up to the holy in one another, will you pray with me please?

Good and gracious God, we give you thanks for being a part of all of our stories. We give you thanks for the ways we meet you both in our own stories, and those of our neighbors. Bless us today as we seek to live as a people who embrace both freedom and unity. Bless us as we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. And bless all Vermonters, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. God, bless the work of this body, and God bless Vermont. Amen.