The Congregational Consulting Group blog has a new post by David Brubaker titled “Social Movements and Congregational Responses”:
“Congregations [in the U.S.] often experience conflict in response to social movements in the world around them. Since World War II, movements regarding civil rights, the war in Vietnam, the ordination of women, and human sexuality—each vitally important in its own right—also have raised challenges inside congregations, forcing leaders to address internal questions of power and culture.”
Brubaker gives a brief overview of four external social movements that had a big effect on U.S. congregations: the Civil Rights Movement; the movement against the Vietnam War; the movement to ordain women; and the LGBTQ+ rights movement. I’d like to take a look at Unitarian Universalist (UU) response to each of these movements.
We Unitarian Universalists like to think that we were on the “right side” (i.e., the progressive side) of each of these movements, but that’s not true. We don’t often tell this part of our history, but if you talk with older Unitarian Universalist (UUs) — or if you’re old enough to remember these movements yourself — you know that we had a very mixed record for all these movements.
Civil Rights Movement
We like to tell ourselves the story that we were early and unified and vigorous supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. There is little evidence that was true.
Here are a few things I’ve come across recently on the topic of religion and LGBTQ+ issues:
1. A statement signed by some 300 prominent Muslim scholars and clerics titled “Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam” interprets the Quran as asserting that “God explicitly condemns sexual relations with the same sex”; and further, that “as a general rule, Islam strictly prohibits medical procedures intended to change the sex of healthy individuals, regardless of whether such procedures are termed gender ‘affirming’ or ‘confirming.'” While acknowledging that there are Muslims who interpret the Quran as fully supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, these Muslim scholars and clerics say that public schools should not force their Muslim children to hear any messages that support what they call “LGBTQ ideology.” These Muslim scholars and clerics join many conservative/evangelical Christians, many Orthodox Jews, and many other religious subgroups in saying that their religion does not affirm LGBTQ+ rights.
“Our findings suggest that the relationships LGBTQ+ people have with religion are more complicated than most media headlines portray. Many LGBTQ+ people are religious… 36% of participants report a religious affiliation; about the same percentage say they attend religious services at least once a year…. A full 80% of survey respondents were raised religious. Of those who no longer identify religiously, nearly 1 in 3 say they nonetheless continue to feel a connection to their religious heritage.”
Let’s hope this preliminary survey eventually leads to published research on this topic.
“As a scholar of Judaism and gender, I find that people across the political spectrum often assume religion must be inherently conservative and unchanging when it comes to sex and gender. They imagine that religions have always embraced a world in which there are only men and women. But for Judaism – and for many other religious traditions, too – history shows that’s just not true.”
My favorite part of this essay is when Imhoff points to interpretations by ancient rabbis, found in the Jewish Midrash, where Genesis 1:27 is interpreted to mean that the first human created by God was both male and female — not exactly what we today would call transgender, but definitely a human who did not have binary gender.
According to Religion News Service, a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that young adults who are LGBTQ+ are likely to have no religious affiliation: “According to the report, LGBTQ Americans are more likely to have no religious affiliation (50%) than Americans in general (26%).”
No surprise there, given how hostile many religious groups still are to LGBTQ+ people. But what did surprise me is that nearly a quarter of young adults in the U.S. report that they are LGBTQ+ — way up from previous generations:
“PRRI’s researchers found that about 10% of Americans overall — almost half (46%) of them under the age of 30 — identify as LGBTQ: 3% as gay or lesbian, 4% as bisexual and 2% as something else. Nearly one-quarter of Americans under 30 identify as LGBTQ (23%).”
So of course young adults are going to stay away from organizations that signal fear, loathing, and hostility towards LGBTQ+ people. Why go someplace where either you or your friends are not welcome?
I’ve been looking — for quite a while now — for a teaching resource of some kind that shows how some Christians and some Christian groups do in fact support persons of non-binary gender.
The anti-LGBTQ+ Christians are loud and vocal, and they dominate both media and the popular imagination. But I know there are plenty of progressive Christians who feel their religion is fully compatible with being LGBTQIA+. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in our society, most people think it’s a zero-sum game, so the loudest group gets to take charge of the discourse. In addition, as is so often the case in our religiously illiterate society, everyone seems to assume that all religions are monolithic; everyone assumes that one Christian group gets to represent all Christian groups everywhere, ignoring the fact that Christianity has tremendous internal diversity.
As a religious educator, I’ve long tried to teach people both about Christianity’s internal diversity, and about how some Christians are fully supportive of LGBTQIA people. But in a the context of our zero-sum-game, religiously-illiterate society, I haven’t had much success. I kept thinking: If only I had some great teaching resource that showed how some Christians do not have a binary understanding of gender.
So I was pleased to discover this video, which profiles several interesting non-binary Christians. The interviewer, Grace Selmer Baldridge, happen to be a non-binary Christian, which I think makes this video especially powerful. I could wish that Grace Baldridge had been able to interview some non-white non-binary Christians, but aside from that weakness, the interviewees are diverse in their gender identity, in their age, in their expression of their Christianity.
This video may not work well as a teaching resource for those Unitarian Universalists who suffer from anti-Christian bias. Nevertheless, I’m thinking this video could be a great teaching tool for showing both the internal diversity of Christianity, and showing how some Christians believe their religion calls them to a non-binary understanding of gender.
To whet your appetite, here are some quotes from the video:
“We just have to be honest that using the pronoun ‘he’ for God is a habit, but it has no theological justification.” — Dr. Lizzie Berne DeGear, independent scholar
“When I imagine a trans child coming to understand, ‘I might be a girl in this boy body,’ I’m like, ‘Thank you, God, the child is becoming aware of who they really are.’…. God creates out of love. God creates love out of love. We who are in the image of God are all awesome. So when I’m talking to you, I’m learning a little more about God. Because you’re in God’s image. And when you’re talking to me, the same is true.” — Rev. Dr. Jacqueline J. Lewis, senior minister, Middle Collegiate Church
“As a church, we said: We’re publicly going to affirm the LGBTQIA community. We don’t have to be uniform in that belief right away, we can question it, we can disagree, but this is the stance our church is going to take from here on out.… We lost lots of people. We lost thousands of dollars. And it was such a good move. We can sit here and be comfortable, and say OK, the money’s still rolling in and there’s a lot of people coming through my doors, and we can feel good about that. But when there’s literally people out there who are told that they’re not loved, people whose families are disowning them for this, we need to step up and become safe spaces.” — Jonathan Williams, former lead pastor, Forefront Church, Brooklyn, and son of a trans woman
“We really feel that the only way we can combat that negativity [about LGBTQIA people] is with people of faith standing up and saying: No, this is actually not in alignment with how we understand our faith, that you can be Christian and trans, and you can be Christian and gay, and that they’re not mutually exclusive.” — Jamie Brusesehof, mother of a trans child
“My confrontation with my internalized racial unrest, along with a growing awareness of my authentic gender identity, has been prompted, in part, by two socio-political shifts: 1) the escalating tensions belying the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and 2) the increased visibility of transgender individuals in a myriad of public spaces. Increasingly, I feel an urgency to be forthcoming about my true identity in an era where transparency is not just encouraged; it is demanded. In spite of presenting as outwardly black and male — by and large I view myself as white and female….”
Gladden/Greenberg writes about an intersectional identity that I hadn’t thought about before. They describe tensions in their life that I wouldn’t have thought about. At the same time, claiming a transracial identity in the U.S. today may not seem possible, given the way we understand race in our society. But a 2014 article in Georgetown Law Journal by Camille Gear Rich, Gould School of Law at USC, titled “Elective Race: Recognizing Race Discrimination in the Era of Racial Self-Identification”, referred to in Tuvel’s blog post, may help to think further about the question of transracial identities. In this article, Rich writes:
“[W]e are in a key moment of discursive and ideological transition, an era in which the model of elective race is ascending, poised to become one of the dominant frameworks for understanding race in the United States. Because we are in a period of transition, many Americans still are wedded to fairly traditional attitudes about race. For these Americans, race is still an objective, easily ascertainable fact determined by the process of involuntary racial ascription — how one’s physical traits are racially categorized by third parties. The elective-race framework will challenge these Americans to recognize other ways in which people experience race, including acts of voluntary affiliation as well as selective and conditional affiliations.”
Rich acknowledges that this new elective model of race poses distinct challenges: “The elective-race framework rejects claims about the obdurate, all-encompassing nature of white privilege and the need for racial passing” (p. 1506). Rich isn’t denying that white privilege is real, but at the same time different individuals may navigate white privilege in different ways. Rich also points out that “neither lay understandings nor institutional understandings of elective race are fully developed”; I’m finding Rich’s article to be an excellent resource as I develop my own understanding of elective race.
Given that a significant number of people — let’s say, a growing number of people — accept the evolving concept of elective race, it should be no surprise to find people who identify as living at the intersection of transracial and transgender identities. I imagine that will be a difficult intersection at which to live. I wonder how Unitarian Universalism (and other religions, for that matter) will respond to the persons living at that intersection.
As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.
The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)
Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:
“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)
While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.
The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.
Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:
“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China,E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)
There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.
We’re all hearing a great deal about how the 1963 March on Washington featured Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve been thinking about jobs and LGBTQ rights.
With Labor Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about how it was billed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Shannon sent me a link to the Organizing Manual (you can view it online here) — and the Organizing Manual contained this passage about jobs and labor:
“Why We March
“We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.
“That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.
“Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.
“Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …
“The Southern Democrats came to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”
That’s something to think about on this Labor Day weekend. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we think we have in the last fifty years — with the salaries of the CEOs rising, and the middle class disappearing, these days many white workers are also entering semi-slavery….
And then one of the two names listed on the front page of the Organizing Manual is that of Bayard Rustin. He was crucial to making the March on Washington become a reality. But because he was openly gay, the others who were in charge felt they had to keep Rustin in the background. At least we’ve made some progress in the area of LGBTQ rights; today, they might even have let Rustin speak, or at least show his face on the speaker’s platform [but see Erp’s correction to this statement in the comments below].
The sexual revolution has both direct and indirect effects on Unitarian Universalism. Persons who were part of Unitarian Universalism experienced the sexual revolution in their personal lives, the work place, etc., and these experiences indirectly affected Unitarian Universalism; since experiences are not peculiar to Unitarian Universalists, strictly speaking they do not relate to the history of the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism.
When I think about those aspects of the sexual revolution that most directly affected Unitarian Universalism, I think of the following, in no particular order: sexuality education, sexual experimentation, LGBTQ rights, theological stances, feminism and the Women and Religion movement, marriage and divorce. Each of these aspects of the sexual revolution had a direct impact on local congregations and the denomination as a whole, as well as on individual Unitarian Universalists.
For each of these aspects of the sexual revolution, I have tried to brainstorm a list of where we might find relevant documents dating from the era 1965-1985.
For all these topic areas, Unitarian Universalist periodicals from that era that should be reviewed for relevant materials, and the two official denominational periodicals, UU Register-Leader (to 1970) and UU World (1970 on), are of primary importance. Independent publications which may contain relevant material include First Day’s Record, published by and for clergy, and Unitarian Universalist Voice. Congregational newsletters may also have relevant information; since there are probably tens of thousands of such documents, a researcher can only sift through a small portion of them.