Friday, June 13, 2014

Reflections on Marriage and Clinton

Terry Gross's interview of Hillary Clinton on NPR is getting some press, because of a length exchange in which Terry Gross pressed Hillary Clinton for an answer as to whether or not she had "evolved" on the issue of same-sex marriage, or whether she had been in favor of it much longer, but didn't take a stand for political reasons.  After several exchanges, the picture emerged of an evolving perspective on Clinton's part. 

Clinton said:
Were there activists who were ahead of their time?  Well that was true in every human rights and civil rights movement, but the vast majority of Americans were just waking up to this issue and beginning to think about it, and grasp it for the first time, and think about their neighbor down the street who deserved to have the same rights as they did, or their son, or their daughter. It has been an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms social, political, and legal transformation and we ought to celebrate that instead of plowing old ground when in fact a lot of people, the vast majority of people, have been moving forward.  
And then a bit later she said:
“I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don’t think you did either. This was an incredible new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay right movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others about the rightness of that position. When I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”

Hillary's painting the picture of a world where only the most vocal and "front lines" of advocates were for marriage equality in 1996 made me think, as another heterosexual female, "When did I decide same-sex marriage should be legal?"  I wasn't, by any means, a "front line" advocate on any issue in 1996.  How does my own timeline compare to hers on this issue?

Now, I'm quite a bit younger than Hillary Clinton, so I think I came later to this issue in terms of dates than I would have as an older adult who might have been thinking about the issue a decade before me.  But truly, I can't remember not believing in same-sex marriage.  I can, however, remember a time when I probably hadn't thought about it at all.  I know it was an issue I never even thought about in high school.  I wasn't even really aware of the gay rights movement, as far as I can remember, until I got to college.  The first time I can remember arguing with someone about LGBT rights was with my friends in about fall of 1990 -- my junior year in college -- when I had my first couple of close friends who were out as bisexual.  But I don't really remember any discussions we were having on marriage specifically.  I was more focused on AIDS awareness and domestic violence as the issues I was working on. 

Bill Clinton's first term was the second presidential election I got to vote for as an adult.  He was elected just after I finished college.  At that time, some of my friends weren't "out" yet, and I didn't have many LGBT friends that I knew of, only a couple. 

After college, I took a couple of years off from school, and was not terribly active in any social justice causes during those years, although I do remember that my mother was starting to get involved in LGBT advocacy.  My mother, for the record, is just slightly older than Hillary Clinton.  Their college years overlap. My mother and I talked about it a lot during the next couple of years, as I entered graduate school.  My mother was in seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and involved in a GLSEN group there.  She was vocal enough about LGBT rights, including ordination, that her local Methodist church refused to endorse her for the ministry, and her ministerial career was stalled.  (I'll explain some other time how it is that my mom was a Methodist seminarian at this point, but who raised me UU.)  In graduate school, my number of LGBT friends increased dramatically, and I remember being more strongly an LBGT advocate, to the point where my Dad, as I remember it, sat me down to assure me that if I was a lesbian they would still love me. During that time, I remember I attended my congregation's Welcoming Congregation workshops and was a strong supporter of that process.

DOMA was signed by Bill Clinton in September 1996, which was the same fall I entered seminary.  I can't remember if it was before then or at that point, when I was close to getting engaged myself and also considering performing weddings, that I started to believe so strongly in same-sex marriage.  It's the same with LGBT rights in general -- I can't remember not supporting them, and I can't remember when the issue first came to mind for me, but I'm pretty sure I supported it the instant it occurred to me that it was something to support.  But I do know by the time I entered Meadville Lombard in 1996, I was solidly in favor of same-sex marriage, but hadn't done any real advocacy work on the issue.  By the time Peter and I got married in 1999, we personally spent a lot of time discussing whether we ought to get married at all with same-sex marriage not legal.  I performed my first same-sex marriage during my internship in the spring of 2000, and my second that summer while doing summer ministry in Rockford, IL.  So you could say that from my first being aware of the issue of gay rights until the time I performed my first same-sex marriage, a dozen years had passed, during which I had evolved from awareness to advocacy to direct involvement. 

By 2002, newly in the ministry, I was writing articles, sermons, and taking stands on same-sex marriage, as well as doing direct lobbying on the issue.  In 2003, I stopped signing licenses in Massachusetts until same-sex marriage was legalized there.  That year I performed the wedding of a friend who hadn't been out to me (or anyone) when we were college roommates a dozen years before.  And in 2004, when we got marriage equality in Massachusetts, I happily performed many ceremonies before moving to Michigan, where we promptly banned marriage equality that fall.  When Obama was elected in 2008, I wasn't a fan at him at first, for two reasons.  One was that he wasn't in favor of same-sex marriage, and the other was that I thought his healthcare plan didn't go far enough.  Of course, Hillary Clinton wasn't in favor of same-sex marriage, either, yet.  But some candidates did -- Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.  Edwards was saying during the campaign that he was "conflicted" while his wife publicly said she supported it.  Hilary was perhaps the most hampered from coyly suggesting support, tied as she was to her husband's passing of DOMA.  After he was in office, Obama began "evolving" (2010) on the issue. 

In the end, I think if Clinton is accurate in saying that "When I was ready to say what I said, I said it," then she was very late to the game in terms of opening her mind.  She announced her support of same-sex marriage in 2013 at the point where fully half the people in polls were saying they did, too.  She didn't evolve with the second lines or even third lines of supporters.  She didn't evolve when progressives and mainstream liberals were evolving.  Her support came after most liberals, half the moderates, and some conservatives were supporting it.  To put it in perspective, the month Clinton announced her support for same-sex marriage we had the first Republican U.S. senator announcing support, too, and by the end of that spring, we had three Republican U.S. senators.  But at this point, is it more respectable for her to say she waited to announce her support for political reasons, which she denies, or to have evolved so slow?  

What I can say, is I wasn't a front-liner on this issue.  And as woman legally married to a man, I wasn't called into this issue by my own necessity.  But I had been performing same-sex weddings for over a dozen years by the time Hillary Clinton decided she could support the idea.  From my perspective, she was about a decade late of where I would have hoped a national leader would be.  And so I'm rather happy Terry Gross pushed her on the issue and brought it into the national spotlight. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shadow Children and Taking a Stand

-- Some spoilers herein -- 

My daughter's teacher told me of some books she's been reading to my daughter's class this year -- Among the Hidden and Among the Impostors from the "Shadow Children" series by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  The stories are dystopian futures for youth readers, not unlike The Hunger Games or  Divergent, but for a slightly younger audience.  In Haddix's Shadow Children books, third children are illegal in this post-famine totalitarian state.  The first two books follow the story of Luke, a third child.  In the first book, he's in hiding in his family home.  In the second, he's at a school under a fake ID. 

What struck me, when reading these books, is that the main character, Luke, fails to act.  Unlike many science fiction and fantasy books where the main character becomes the central character in the struggle for justice or freedom, Luke, at least in these two books, does not.  In the first book, he's invited by his friend Jen to join in a rally for freedom and rights for third children.  Luke is afraid, and does not go.  In the second book, children are banding together, sharing their real names and starting to organize for another stand for justice.  Luke hangs back, and doesn't admit to also being a third child.  I haven't read all the books, and it's possible he becomes more of a leader in future books, but in the first two he's not even a follower -- he stands out of the action entirely in the first book, and in the second only really acts when attacked, and then in self-preservation, not in a call for more justice.

How strange, I thought, to read the story of someone who doesn't take up the fight, who waits it out in fear.  It's a story of how many, even most, of us react in times of fear and persecution.  But it's not usually the subject of a novel, which usually focuses in on the savior character -- the Ender, the Katniss, the Luke Skywalker hero figure. 

The world relies on the Jens to get out there and make a stand and lead the rally, but the world is full of Lukes, who hang back out of fear, and protect themselves.  And that's okay, especially for children, and especially for those for whom it is most dangerous to speak out. 

As a faith leader, I think often about what stands I'm willing to fight for, and to what extent.  There are ministers in our movement who were arrested in Phoenix for a stand they took against immigration policies and the inhumane "Tent City" there.  With a young child at home, I'm not anxious to risk imprisonment, although I respect greatly those who are. 

In other ways, perhaps I risk a great deal, putting my name out there in the media on controversial issues.  And maybe I'm only willing to do that when I disregard the risk as minimal.  There is violence that happens along and along against liberals who take public stands, but so far I've never encountered any.

The cause of justice has a lot of room for a lot of different levels of action.  Not everyone needs to be Martin Luther King, Jr.  There are a lot of degrees of action one can take.  I've appreciated in some protests I've been at, that there's been material distributed that essentially asked people to go different places and do different actions based on how willing they were to be in the front line, and how willing to be arrested.  Sometimes there are different roles prescribed for faith leaders, and sometimes separate areas for those willing and prepared to speak to the media.  There are different roles that are helpful and available in social action -- we need people to write letters, and we need people to talk to the media, and we need people to network with friends, and we need people to sometimes risk arrest and retribution. 

I suspect that by book four, Luke will be much more involved in actively fighting for the rights for third children, but so far I've enjoyed the story of one who hung back from action, who watched it from the sidelines.  Sometimes it's okay to stand in the shadows, too. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

This Religion Will Break Your Heart

It's something I learned in seminary -- I went to one of our two UU theological schools, Meadville Lombard, and attended the other one, Starr King, for one semester.  When you're at a school full of people who want to dedicate their lives to serving our religion, your heart will be broken.  Something will go wrong or toxic or just plain hurtful, and it'll hurt all the more because it happened in a place of love and trust and faith.

It happens again and again in our churches and in our ministry, for congregants and ministers both.  A congregation will behave badly as a system, and congregation members will leave, hearts broken, from pain that the institution they loved could behave so badly.  Ministers will behave badly, too, and people will leave, hearts broken.  And people will stay, hearts broken.

For ministers, we will see colleagues we know and love behave badly.  We will see a friend leave the ministry, forced out by their own misconduct, and our hearts will break.  We will also see friends we love forced out of the ministry for reasons we can't understand, and our hearts will break. 

If you stay in this faith long enough, your heart will be broken.  Somebody you loved and trusted in this faith will do something you think is so hurtful and incomprehensible, so wrong-headed, that it will break your heart.  Or something will be decided that you just can't agree with, and it will break your heart.  And then, if you stay long enough, it will happen again and again. 

That person who has broken your heart still has inherent worth and dignity; they are still worthy of love.

That system that has broken your heart still has important work and worth to our movement.

This faith that you love still is a vehicle for greater love and justice in this world.

Carry on.  Love on.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Swallowing the Rape Whistle

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep I had a dream -- that sort of dream where you're not really completely asleep, but you're not driving the dream with your conscious mind anymore.  I dreamed I swallowed a whistle.  I jerked myself back to full consciousness, and tried falling asleep again, and it happened again.  I swallowed a whistle.  For a few minutes I couldn't shake my brain from bringing this whistle image to me again and again.

How strange as a dream it seemed, but I knew right away what it meant.  I knew, with the first dreaming moment, this wasn't just any whistle that was getting stuck in my craw.  This was a rape whistle.  And it wasn't just any rape whistle.  It was the one given to me when I went to seminary.  That was part of the introduction to Chicago, as I remember it, at Meadville Lombard: Welcome to Chicago.  You're in an area that may be more dangerous than you're used to.  Don't walk alone at night.  Here's a rape whistle.

Dreaming of swallowing the rape whistle was a dream with an instantly clear message to me: we have to stop swallowing the idea as a society that the answer to violence against women is to tell women to protect themselves.

It's a message I've heard for decades, and a message that I've helped share, really, and incorporated into the way I lived my life.  I remember my roommate in at the University of Michigan telling me one night when I was going to be walking somewhere at night, "Put on your bitch face, and carry your keys."  She meant carry your keys like a weapon.  (Funny thing, this is now at least sometimes called "Wolverine keys" but because of the X-Men character, not because we Michigan Wolverines did it.)
And I did.  I put on my most confident, I-know-where-I'm-going-and-I'm-tough-don't-mess-with-me bitch face, and I carried my keys like Wolverine. 

And then, years later, I carried that rape whistle with me everywhere I went for years until it rusted off my key chain.  Think about what that means: it's not uncommon for women in this country to carry with them, at all times when not at home, a symbol of violence against women and their own vulnerability to such. 

During my college years there were annual "Take Back the Night" rallies.  I attended some.  But this way of dealing with violence against women was a fringe thing, a feminist thing. So while we yelled "Take Back the Night," we still walked home in groups.

In college at the University of Michigan I was part of a team called SafeWalk.  We volunteered our time for a few hours a week every week, and went to the library where were dispatched, in teams of two, to go anywhere within a mile or so of campus and walk people, mostly women, from wherever they were to wherever they were going. ( It's interesting to see that at some point the University officially incorporated the service into the U, and now they provide rides up to 3 am, which was later than we could go, because the library closed at 2, so we didn't have our dispatching station after that hour.)  The idea back then was that no person at U of M would have to walk alone at night if they weren't comfortable doing so.  It was a good service.  I'm glad I did it.

But it wasn't the solution. 

I'm not saying to just walk alone at night, to just forgo the escort and the whistle and the Wolverine keys.  I'm saying that for decades we've been telling women this was the normal way of life -- the world is violent, protect yourself.  And what we need to be saying is: We need to change the world.  This is not okay.

It's so good and bad all at once to hear everyone talking about the rape culture, about #yesallwomen, about violence and misogyny.  Good, of course, because our society is talking about it.  Bad, because this is still the way it is.  Bad because this year my congregation had a former member killed in an act of domestic violence, and so it's timely for us to be hearing about this in the culture, but we're also perhaps still grieving and raw to some degree, and so it's a hard time to be talking about it.

But maybe, just maybe, the time has finally come where we can, as a society, stop swallowing the rape whistle and start to really take back the night.