MIND lunch, June 8, 2012
Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. It is a privilege for me to be here today. I use the word “privilege” intentionally, because so many gay people haven’t been invited to stand up and tell their story.
Too many Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people are still so silenced and isolated. So many, too many still feel condemned and unloved and unwelcome in houses of worship.
You know, I’m sure, that the rate of attempted suicide among GLBT youth is four times greater than that of their heterosexual peers. For many years, nearly every message gay people receive about their sexual orientation, particularly in church, was negative. So every word of support or action for inclusiveness carries with it the possibility to save lives. When we send a different message… one that is positive and affirming – we are literally saving lives….
When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the River Falls, WI UMC. I was born and raised in the United Church of Christ (irony noted). But I had started going to the UMC when I was in college. I like the Methodists. I like the way they cared for and nurtured me. I liked their understanding of grace and of baptism. I liked their open communion table. I liked their long history of theological openness and their emphasis on social justice. I liked that I didn’t have to leave my brain or my experience at the door when I walked inside.
I liked John Wesley and his devotion to the poor and the outcast. I liked that he spent all of his life’s capital preaching the Gospel in all the wrong places to all the wrong people.
It was official. I was in love with the United Methodist Church.
Some years after I joined the church, my pastor offered a new 34-week Bible study program. There were 12 of us in the class, like little disciples. During those 34-weeks, two really important things happened. I began to discern a call to ordained ministry … and I began to fall in love with the woman sitting next to me in class.
When people tell me that Disciple Bible Study changed their lives, I’ll be like, “Yeah. … me too.) At the end of February, Val and I celebrated our 17th anniversary.
My love for Val and my love for the church were inseparable; one sprang directly from the other. Both were life-giving and sustaining, grounded in a deep sense of faithfulness and loyalty. To have abandoned either love would have meant silencing the movement of the Spirit in our lives.
When I began pastoral ministry, I naively thought I would be able to live a compartmentalized life and keep my gay-self hidden. “How hard could it be,” I asked myself?
The answer came quickly — “Incredibly hard.” I was in pastoral ministry for 8 years and in all of those 8 years, I felt pulled, almost in two – torn between the Church I love and the Val I love.
Living divided forced me to keep myself at a distance from my parishioners and my colleagues. I dreaded sitting down with new congregants because I knew they would ask me if I were married. And even though I was, I was supposed to say I wasn’t – and every time I did that, I felt like I betrayed Val.
I often tell the story about one gathering, in particular. Our time together was just beginning and the retreat leader wanted us to get acquainted with each other. We were simply supposed to introduce ourselves to the person next to us and ask a couple questions about each others’ lives. For closeted people, this can be terrifying. So immediately I’m having a minor panic attack.
Before I can get a word out of my mouth, my conversation partner turns to me and says, “Amy, tell me about the most important thing in your life.” I wanted to tell him about Val and the love and life we share, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell him about her children whom we were raising together, but I couldn’t. So I talked about my cat. Now aside from looking profoundly superficial – the most pathetic part was that I didn’t have a cat.
My life and my loves had been reduced to telling make-believe stories about a cat I didn’t have.
Val and I now have three cats and we can tell lots of cat stories with great authenticity.
I have a friend named Dawn who is an Annishaanabe Indian from the Bad River Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. Last Sunday she became the first Native American in the Wisconsin Annual Conference to be ordained an Elder. Dawn and I get a kick out of comparing our mutual oppressions.
A racist world continues to exploit her and her people. In order to succeed in the dominant culture they are often required to give up their true selves and pretend to be something they were not. They have been forced to surrender their deep sense of identity – their spirituality, their mother tongue, their rightful place in the world. Dawn’s native identity is regarded by white culture not as blessing, but as burden.
A heterosexist church does the same to me and my people. The church is willing to take from us our gifts, our talents, our time, our service, our money all the while pretending we don’t exist. GLBT can succeed in this culture as long as we surrender our deep sense of self and pretend to be something we are not. In the United Methodist Church, my native sexuality is seen as a liability which either needs to be fixed or denied. That’s a kind of colonialism, too.
My friend Dawn is very Anglo looking. People wonder why she doesn’t just allow herself to pass as white. People wonder why I need to be so out. A closeted clergy friend of mine once asked me if I’d like to switch my conference membership to her annual conference – she had done well there, made a way, reaped the benefits – maybe I could, too. As we began talking about this possibility, she said, to me, “Well, how out do you need to be?” “Out, out, all the way, I said.” “Then that probably won’t work.”
Dawn was told by a member of the Wisconsin Board of Ordained Ministry that she was too Indian. I’ve been told I am too gay. My life and Dawn’s life would be much easier if we weren’t so damn proud of who we are.
Dawn said to me one day, “The only difference between you and me is that nowadays everyone wants to be a little bit Indian. Nobody wants to be a little bit gay.”
As is always true, the emotional and spiritual repercussions of colonization on the colonized are devastating. The United Methodist Church required me to hide, to fudge, to mask my truth. And eventually, the amount of lying I had to do in order to preserve my calling and my credentials began to harm my soul and psyche in ways I was afraid I would ever be able to repair.
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” – and neither could I. The only way I knew to save my life was to choose to live divided no more. I decided I would no longer collude with a system that required me to be split in two. I decided I would no longer lie to protect the church or myself.
What I finally realized was that I loved myself too much to deny my truth. I loved Val too much to always put her in second or third or fourth place – or to pretend like she didn’t even exist. And I knew that God loved us both too much to want us to live dis-integrated and torn apart lives.
The more I began to tell my truth, the more the church began to reject me. Seven years ago, I was told by my District Superintendent that I was unappointable for parish ministry. Val and I lost our parsonage, my salary, my health insurance and future contributions to my pension plan.
Sue Monk Kidd said, “The truth may set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
My truth-telling also meant that when Carrie and Carolyn called me to do their wedding. I did it and I reported that I had done it. It is interesting to me that not one single person has ever asked me why I did Carrie and Carolyn’s wedding. But lots and lots have asked me why I didn’t lie about doing it.
My decision to officiate at Carrie and Carolyn’s wedding got me a lot of invitations to meetings with church authorities. And eventually, it got me an invitation to a church trial.
But instead of talking about what has happened, I would rather talk with you tonight about those obstacles which I believe are standing in the way of us making more progress toward equality.
What I’ve learned from my time in justice work is that many Progressives suffer from a debilitating disease called Niceomania. Niceomania is the irrational and delusional belief that systems of oppression will miraculously crumble if we are just nice enough.
Remember: This is an illness. Common symptoms include excessive placating, extreme innocuousness, and an insuppressible desire to be non-confrontational.
Currently, the only known cure for the disease is audacity.
Systemic injustice is a great big turning wheel with momentum and energy all its own. And our job is to boldly, bravely jab a stick into the spokes of that wheel and stop its spinning – if even for a moment. And we can’t always do this and be nice at the same time.
I do not understand how people who follow Jesus have come to the conclusion that the first rule of discipleship is to be nice. This is the guy who turned over tables and confronted powers and principalities. He ignored religious rules which restricted the grace of God. He embarrassed his mother. He enraged church authorities because his was such an unrepentant law breaker.
Hiding behind some imaginary, lukewarm notion of what it means to be Christian does an injustice to the justice-work Jesus lived and died doing. Jesus knew that real death lies not in taking risks, but in taking the path of least resistance.
A friend of mine from Nashville called the other day to see if I get the Good New Magazine. She said my picture was in the current issue like four times. If the fundasexuals are mad at me, I know I’m doing something right. (Fundasexuals are defined as a reactive, combative brand of religious fundamentalism that preoccupies itself with sexuality.)
Remember, Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He didn’t say we shouldn’t have enemies.
It has now been 40 years since anti-gay language started being put into the Book of Discipline. Over those 40 years we have done many things to try to change that language. But, a lot of them have revolved around being obedient while trying to change legislation and around telling our stories.
Now please hear me, I am so grateful for those who came before me and who took risks. It is on their shoulders that I stand. I would not be the person I am, nor would I be benefitting from the progress which has been made, but for their courageous leading.
But even as we are grateful, we must also realize that the strategies and tactics which have brought us this far, are not going to be the tactics that will get us the rest of the way.
Our faith calls us to risk and to be brave, to prod and protest, to defy and dissent – even in the face of all the external and internal accounting ledgers which tell us we ought to be cautious and prudent and nice.
Another obstacle which I believe stifles progress lies in the poor job we have done distinguishing discrimination from prejudice. Prejudice means a preconceived judgment, adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or sufficient knowledge. Discrimination, however, means to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit.
While it is certainly possible for prejudices to be transformed into acceptance, such transformation frequently takes a great deal of time and is often facilitated by personal experience, education, a new revelation from God, or a combination of these and many others things. As such, requiring minority groups to change the prejudices of the majority before equal access and treatment can be granted is an incredible burden and an impossible feat which is paramount to works-righteousness.
The bottom line is that I don’t give a horse’s patootie if someone doesn’t like me because I’m gay (prejudice). I cannot, however, abide being treated differently in church and society because I’m gay (discrimination). The “legalization” of discrimination is particularly insidious because it often causes otherwise compassionate people to abandon their own consciences and submit to laws with which they fundamentally disagree.
Unlike prejudice, discrimination can be ended immediately – individually through courageous and conscientious actions which bend toward justice; and systemically through legislation which prohibits categorical discrimination. It can also be ended corporately by groups of people who engage in non-cooperation with unfair policies and practices.
All our noble talk about grace, about open hearts, mind and doors, about God’s inclusive love are just noisy gongs and clanging symbols if they are not joined together with intentional actions meant to dismantle unjust laws.
When will we ever learn that as long as we are unwilling to conjure our own courage, as long as we continue to betray our own deeply held convictions in the face of conflict, as long as we continue to do nothing more than offer deedless words in the context of oppression, as long as we collude with mean-spirited laws, as long as we are content to simply wait until the institution tells us that discrimination is wrong, as long as we self-censor and allow ourselves to be censored by others we will always and forever be the very engine which allows the machinery of oppression and injustice to hum along unhindered.
As a movement, we must focus less on changing every prejudiced heart and focus more on ending discrimination – right now. Not in four years. Now.
And that means as individuals and as small groups, we must be willing to do what General Conference has failed to do. We must become trouble makers. We must step in when we see harm being done, we must interrupt hateful talk and hateful actions. We must never again say these words, “I must uphold the Book of Discipline. This is a coward’s excuse for not doing what is right. We must stop believing that Bishops are ever going to help us. We cannot wait for someone else to save us, we must put our thin skins on the line — put our vulnerable little selves into the struggle and gunk up the works, halt oppression as usual.
Change will only come when we are willing to jeopardize our purses, our power, our prestige, our privilege and our popularity – right now – not someday, not after we retire, not after we’ve hedged our bets, not after risk has been sufficiently minimized, not after the coast is clear. Right now!
During my trial’s 16 month process, I would get asked the same question over and over. The question was, “What are you chances of success?”
My answer was always, “Our chances of success are 100%. Our only goal is to tell the truth and to be faithful. Our chances of being successful are 100%.”
As people of faith, we must live by a different economy. You can bet none of Jesus’ friends stood at the foot of the cross that Good Friday and said, “I think that went well.” You can see the evaluation forms being passed through the crowd. “What went well?” “What would you change for next time? What were the strengths and weakness to the keynote speaker?”
While it might be tempting for some to look at me and to see only the hardships I have endured, I stand here as a witness to tell you not about what I’ve lost but about all that I have gained – my integrity, comfort in my own skin, a deep peace which comes only from having gone through hell and emerged, not in ashes, but whole and fully alive.
My days of living divided, of harboring secrets, of hiding my truth, of telling make believe stories about cats I didn’t have are over. I have already won because my success is not determined by worldly standards – by a verdict at a church trial or by votes at General Conference. My success, and yours, is to be determined only by our willingness to rise up in unrelenting opposition to discrimination and in our willingness to transform our silence and our fears into words and actions.
A bunch of years ago, Val and I were on our way to visit our friends Beth and Jenni in Nashville. Val and I had made it safely all the way from Wisconsin to downtown Nashville before we managed to get lost – and I mean completely lost.
And as we were going in circles, my cell phone rang. It was Beth. Jenni had just called her and said she had this gut feeling that we were lost and she wanted Beth to call us and find out where we were.
I said to Beth, “We are completely lost.”
She said, “Okay, where are you?”
I said, “Completely lost. I don’t know – right now we’re sitting at a stoplight.”
She said, “What intersection are you at?”
And I looked up and saw this sign with an arrow pointing left that said, “Church Street” and a sign with an arrow pointing right that said, “Gay Street.”
I said, “Beth, we are literally at the intersection of Church and Gay.
And through the phone I could hear her yell, “You don’t have to choose!”
It is our persistence, and nothing less, that will help create a world where nobody has to choose between honoring their authentic self, their native sexuality, or being a full and active participant in the United Methodist Church.
There is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” “A shero is no braver than an ordinary woman, but she is braver five minutes longer.”
A better day is coming. This discrimination and oppression will end that is absolutely true – but only if we band together, push aside our worse fears and step, wobbly-kneed into the struggle. It will end because we will be brave five minutes longer than ordinary people. Amen.