Friday, June 19, 2009

Why We Still Need Hate Crimes Laws

The most difficult sermon I ever preached was on October 11, 1998. I had been invited to preach at the National Coming-Out Day service at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I was excited about this "guest" gig, and Sharilyn and I had driven through beautiful fall foliage to get from Boston to Hanover.

That same weekend, we learned of a horrific event in Wyoming. A gay college student named Matthew Shepard had been mortally wounded and left to die in the middle of ranch country. I could not encourage fine young people of the Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance to be out and proud without at the same time acknowledging the impact of this crime across the country.

I re-read this sermon last May in preparation for a meeting in Washington, D.C., and realized that my interior struggle to preach it was a testimony to what makes "hate crimes" different. Anti-queer, anti-African American, anti-immigrant, anti-woman or anti-Semitic violence affects more people than the immediate victim. Such violence is intended to underscore, and does underscore, underlying patterns of dominance. It is intended to terrorize and intimidate others in the "target" groups. It can't be tolerated if we are to remain a free society.

So, here is the sermon. Please feel free to use (with attribution) if you find it helpful.

(c) 2009 Joan M. Saniuk. All Rights Reserved.

Shout It From the Housetops!

A sermon preached at Dartmouth College, Lebanon, NH,

For National Coming-Out Day

October 11, 1998

The Rev. Joan M. Saniuk

Year C, Fellowship Sunday: Luke 12: 1-9


I had planned to talk to you this morning about coming-out as a process of spiritual growth. I’m still going to do that, but there’s a weight on my heart that I need to deal with first. It’s a weight that comes from Laramie, Wyoming... and from that place deep inside me where fear and doubt still sometimes live.

When I was invited to preach for this occasion, some weeks ago, I told Rev. King that I would like to reflect on the passage we heard from the Christian Scriptures. It’s sobering to hear those words today, in light of the news about a vicious attack on a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard. We heard Jesus teach his students to boldly proclaim what they have learned -- to take what had previously been secret and shout it from the housetops! And to never be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul. We don’t like to think about those times when our faith will be put to that extreme test. We don’t want to feel the horror, the fear, when one of our own is attacked -- a friend, a classmate, a colleague, a sweetheart, a mate... or the fear that wonders, might it have been me instead? And today, to see one of our beloved young people attacked and left for dead, I feel another kind of grief, that asks if maybe what we’ve been doing for so long is a mistake. I am a minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination that, last Tuesday, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary as a church in the Christian tradition, devoted to outreach to the lesbian and gay, bi and transgendered communities, proclaiming the message that our Creator made us this way and loves us. For thirty years we have been encouraging people to come out, to claim their sexual orientation -- whether gay, lesbian, or straight -- as a gift from the Creator, to be used with love and respect, to be shared in a just and ethical way. We have encouraged queer people to give themselves permission to express their sexuality in loving, committed relationships, and to never be ashamed of them. We treat the commitment ceremonies of same-gender couples as seriously as we would treat a marriage; for in our experience and, in our faith, in God’s eyes, that is exactly what they are. We have claimed this freedom and this blessing in the name of a loving Deity, and have encouraged people to live into this freedom by living openly as lesbians and gay men. So when someone is attacked for being queer, the fear within asks: is it a mistake to be so open? Is it worth the cost?

When fear asks that question, Faith says: it isn’t worth it to live any other way. And Hope says: it is never, ever, a mistake to live our truth. I remember what it was like to be a young woman student in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was taken for granted that a woman who walked alone at night might be subject to a physical attack. A woman who was subjected to a sexual assault would frequently find herself blamed for doing something to “provoke” or “invite” the attack -- as outrageous as that sounds. It was taken for granted that it was not safe for a woman to act on her own. And I remember when that changed... when women refused to act like victims any more. I remember, and I am grateful for, the women who worked and agitated and got sexual assault crisis centers started, and began violence prevention programs. It didn’t stop all the violence, but a generation later, their work has clearly changed our world. It has changed the expectations of our society. Violence against women is no longer considered inevitable, or tolerable. And so it must be, in the next generation, with violence against people because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or different in any other way. In the long run, it is always right and it is always worth it: to live boldly, and to live without fear.

So: shout it from the housetops! We’re here, we’re queer or queer-allies, and we’re proud! Tell the truth! One of the marks of a spiritually advanced being is the desire to seek the truth, and the ability to always tell the truth. And to tell it with deep love, with conviction, and without fear. And that, I think, is most of the purpose of the National Coming-Out Day. To make conscious opportunities to speak our truth.

I want to introduce myself by speaking a little of my truth. I have been an out lesbian for four and a half years. When I was in college, I didn’t have a clue. Or, more precisely, I had a clue that I loved women; but I was also very religious, and I had been taught that homosexuality was wrong. So while I did my best to be liberal, kind, just and “understanding” to those of my friends who were gay and who were out, I couldn’t imagine using that word of myself. Even when I joined the Metropolitan Community Church, at the invitation of a gay friend, I found that it affirmed me as a woman and that it had answers to a lot of my questions about my friends who had AIDS. But I still couldn’t use the word “lesbian” of myself. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994, when I had already begun the process for ordination, that I realized I was in love with a very special woman. In order to enjoy and explore that love, I would have to make certain changes in my life. I was terrified. But I did it. Shortly after my 40th birthday, I came out as a lesbian. Most of my social network survived. My job as a college professor was absolutely safe, and my colleagues were completely supportive. I remember walking down the halls two years later during a class break, and seeing that one of the English classes was watching the “Ellen” coming-out episode. I felt like crying -- it was so moving to see my life on the screen (except thinner, funnier, and blonder.) (I also felt like ditching my statistics class to watch it with them... but this sort of thing is frowned upon when you’re the teacher.)

I have the love of a wonderful spouse and partner, and I have the integrity of knowing that who I am on the inside is also who I am on the outside: and that makes it all worthwhile.

So: Shout it from the housetops. Because... Silence kills the soul!

The Afro-Caribbean and lesbian writer Audre Lorde, when first facing the possibility of having a terminal illness, wrote, “Priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.” It isn’t the silence of listening, to understand another person... or the silence of contemplation and prayer, that is regrettable. It’s the silence that we choose to keep about our experiences because we’re not sure it’s safe to break the silence. One of the most powerful lessons of my life came from my experience as a friend of a person with HIV disease, and from my experiences in ministry to people with HIV and AIDS. The most healing thing that I found, for dealing with my friend’s HIV diagnosis, was a support group where I could talk about my fears and anxieties with other friends and family members of people with AIDS. Because I broke my silence, and because they did, I found out that I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t alone. But until that time that I found that group, the burden of not having any one to talk to was making me crazy.

The silences that we do not break will eat us up and kill us, if we let them. For each person who comes out and suffers bodily injury, I am convinced there are many more who do not break their silence, and who suffer the loss of their souls. One of the truly brilliant minds of the twentieth century, a pioneer in computer science, was a gay man who had the misfortune of living in a time when he could not live openly and still do the work that he loved. Alan Turing’s work in designing mechanical computing machines was critical to the English war effort in World War II. And yet in the anti-communist and anti-homosexual hysteria of the 1950’s, the secret work that Turing had done during the war was not generally known, and it could not protect him. When he was found out, tried, and convicted for being a homosexual, Turing accepted a “chemical treatment” to keep from going to prison. He received injections of hormones that were designed to “cure” him of being gay. They didn’t work then, just as they don’t work now. In June of 1954, finding himself unable to live with integrity and unwilling to live in humiliation, Alan Turing tragically took his own life. We’ve come so far since then. But let us never forget what the past teaches us. Our silences will surely kill the soul, if not the body as well.

So shout it from the housetops! And remember why we’re shouting. We don’t come out into a vacuum. We come out into a new reality that we participate in creating. A reality that is a safer, more loving, more respectful place to tell all our individual truths, no matter how impossible that may seem.

All over New England, and all throughout this country, that new reality is being created by groups like the Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance, and Gay/Straight Alliances at many other schools and colleges. Your work is incredibly important. There will continue to be opposition. Don’t’ let intimidate you, but let it strengthen your resolve to hold our school, our community, our religious institutions, our nation and our world accountable to respect our lives, too. It is a small planet, too small for hate. Yet the hate cannot be ended unless good people take a stand to declare it unacceptable.

You may never know the impact of your actions. Thirty years ago, on October 6, 1968, Troy Perry made a decision to preach God’s love for queer people to twelve folks who answered an ad and showed up in his living room. That decision attracted more people, and soon attracted people in other cities who wanted to do the same thing. It created a group in Boston in 1972. It created a federation of local churches that now, 30 years later, has over 42K members in 19 countries and has touched countless others. Today that first congregation, MCC Los Angeles, holds four services each Sunday -- one in Spanish -- in its building on Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of the gay neighborhood of West Hollywood. We -- all of you, all of us, all of our allies -- are creating a new reality! Like Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew, we can dare to repeat the words of the prophet Isaiah and accept, for ourselves, the task of creating justice: The spirit of the Holy One is upon me, because the Holy One has anointed, has selected, me. Has selected us. To bring good news to the humble. To heal the broken-hearted. To proclaim freedom to captives and release to those in prison; to proclaim a year of Divine favor and blessing.

We are the messengers and we are the message. Know the blessing of who you are in your truest self. Honor that self in each other and don’t ever, ever tolerate hate. Our faith, our love, and our hope are making a safer world. So may it be, and so it is. Amen.

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