Coming-Out Still Matters

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie for our animal Blessing service


In the words of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, “coming out and living openly as someone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non-gender conforming is an act of bravery and authenticity that calls for something from straight and thoughtful allies.” This service honors the act of coming out whether it be as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-gender conforming or allied.

The Sermon

Coming-out matters because in doing so, LGBT and non-gender conforming people and their allies magnify the beautiful and colorful tapestry of love in the world. I think of my sister and our journey together since the fall of 1981, when she came out to me, telling me about Cindy, her first love. It was late on the last night before she was to return to her home in Georgia. She waited until my father and brother had gone to bed. I was 20 and I didn’t really know the first thing about coming-out, how brave she was being, and that she trusted me. I just didn’t know. Our family was in a state of transition, my mother had just died, and I was looking for solid ground, so I told my brother, who told my dad. I sat on the sidelines for years as my sister and my dad, battled a war of words wrapped in the cloth of frayed emotions. My dad was convinced that being a lesbian would cost her a successful career, a successful life that he equated with heterosexuality. I was oblivious to my complicity in this painful struggle until years had passed when she finally unleashed her rage for my lack of discretion. Our relationship was so strained, I wasn’t sure if it would survive. But then, Massachusetts started a campaign to legalize same-gender marriage, and the push to get signatures coincided with a work trip she made to Boston. One of my fondest memories is the day we collected signatures at the Marshfield fair. Do you remember those blue cards? We found ourselves in a manger like tent filled with hay and animals. It wasn’t Christmas, but it felt like it. The kids happily petted cows while their parents listened to our stories about human rights, relationships and love. They signed our cards. The fair officials were not happy with us, and they not- so politely escorted us to the gate. As we left my sister and I had a skip in our steps and healing in our hearts. I was grateful for the chance to be an ally, a way to say “I see you now,” a way to say, “I’m sorry,” as way to say, “I care.” As you know within eleven years, 36 states followed MA example, finally culminating in the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision that said the U.S. Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry.

Gail sent me these words in an email a week later:
When I read the headline, my brain said, “The US Supreme Court holds that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to you”. It was the most profound moment of change and acceptance I have ever experienced. It never consciously occurred to me that, deep down; I felt active loss from the withholding of the Constitution from me. I can and have talked about it intellectually, but this was at the core, about identity and acceptance of me as a full human being. I had no idea of the damage that was there, nor of the relief and joy that would follow.

Joy did follow. Last March, I officiated her marriage to Jean, her partner of 13 years in Georgia and it was a big deal down there. At the time, a bill was pending to protect clergy from officiating same sex marriage. She said to all of us gathered on that day that “one great beauty of being in a relationship that isn’t fully recognized by the broader society is the freedom to build a relationship from scratch, with no readily available models or a set of starting expectations.” This she said, “has been priceless in terms of the our bonds, the strength of relationship and the love that has grown between us.” Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision that “in forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they were.” This is true for Gail and Jean, and they inspired Ben and me to challenge our heterosexual model of marriage with all its well-grooved gender assumptions, so that we too became greater together. My sister taught me that coming out is an act of bravery that requires something of straight and cis-genered allies. Coming out as an ally requires you to be comfortable in the discomfort of not knowing what it’s like to be LGBT and non- gender confirming and at the same time continually seeking to understand. Coming out as an ally asks that you take responsibility to change the system of which you are a part. Coming out as an ally means you are willing to be transformed.

Those of you who have been a UU since the 1980’s know what this is like: that the Welcoming Congregation movement engaged our faith community to welcome and build relationships with lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender people that built a coalition that made possible anti-discrimination laws in marriage, work, and housing state by state. A movement that responded then to Anita Bryant and the religious right campaign who used the word “homosexual” and LGBT identities as wedge to build a coalition based on fear. We fought back and reclaimed the word religion to say our religion teaches love not fear, a love that extends a hand to marginalized people. Today, trans people are in the spotlight. Trans identities are being used to build hate. Forty three woman, mostly woman of color have been killed in the US in the last two years, hundreds in Europe and thousands in South America, mostly Brazil.

Activist Shane Claiborne said, “The work of community, love, reconciliation, and restoration is the work we cannot leave up to politicians.” This is the work we are all called to do. Politicians are once again using LGBT identities to build a coalition based on fear and hate to attack civil rights in the workplace, the military, and the schools. The courts are the front-line of defense with the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently upholding that the anti-discrimination clause in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act outlaws anti-gay workplace discrimination. But the recent nomination of Jeff Mateer to become a district judge in Texas points to the vulnerability of the courts. Jeff openly admits discriminating based on sexual orientation and doesn’t seem to think that should disqualify him from the job.

The sad reality is that while court cases are pending, people are dying. We are needed as a people of faith to say no to the violence, to say yes, these are our people, our communities. When Alex Kapitan, a member of TRUUST a UU support group for trans clergy, was asked what could congregations do? He said two things: 1) Become safe places to build relationships, and 2) Stop the rhetoric of hate by engaging politically to influence laws, and policies. Mykal Slack, the only trans UU minister to serve a parish knows how hard parish life can be for trans people. He feels like he carries the weight of all of it, he’s tired and he needs us to engage.

Kapitan says for congregations who did the welcoming program years ago, there is a temptation to think “we’ve done that, been there.’ He says, these congregations tend to wait for the mythical trans person to show up so they can welcome them, forgetting that most likely trans people are already present. We know so much has changed since we became a welcoming congregation. There are new people here now, and many new ways of naming our identities. The most common barrier to be truly welcoming says Alex is that congregations become excited about the possibility of diversity, yet have a difficult time transforming their culture so people with marginalized identities have their needs met. Alex found that newcomers who appear to have the same identities as everyone else except one would fit in. But if a newcomer has multiple marginalized identities, say is a person of color and gay, the chances of fitting in a mainstream congregational culture are slim. What is needed says Alex, is a transformation of culture that comes with understanding the how these identities intersect in the lives of people, to understand experiences and prioritize needs that aren’t your own. A couple of years ago, I was at GA at a workshop that was about 4 blocks from the conference center. A transgender woman, much taller than I, asked me to walk her back so she would be safe. We talked for hours; she was the beginning of my understanding.

Being an ally and a welcoming congregation, is not a noun, it’s a verb. It means looking around constantly and seeing who’s at the table and who is not. It’s asking how can we use this space, our worship, our religious programming, and our policies to welcome and meet the needs of LGBT and non-gender conforming people. Shane, Erika, and the Board is assembling a group of people who are interested in helping to shape this work for all of us. My hope is that you become involved, because we are already raising trans kids, and don’t know it yet. Because we want to raise boys who are sensitive, emotional, and feminist and girls who are independent, strong and fierce. Because we all could use some help understanding how gender has kept us small.

The work of love is our call as a people of faith. Each of is a unique tabernacle of presence that is deeply interfused, interwoven, interconnected and interdependent with everything else. Being seen, accepted and loved for our authentic selves, to know what is holy in me separate and unique, touches whatever it is that is holy you, is the essence of love, of the spirit of life, that stirs in our hearts with compassion and gives our lives the shape of justice. Welcoming, honoring, accepting, all the beautiful ways we are human awakens us to the magnificent tapestry of love always present. Coming-Out is a fierce yes to this tapestry of love, a fierce yes to the truth that every voice is necessary to and infused with the singing of the universe. A fierce yes to the fullness of being human. Let us say say fiercely together, with conviction and commitment, “yes.” Yes, to all the joy.