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.

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.