When a Church Comes Out of the Closet
I remember Stonewall in 1969. I wasn't there, at least not physically there. But, I was spiritually there, and I cheered. There were gay friends in my life, and, as a young college professor, I had spent hours with students who were going through the agonies of deciding whether to come out, how, to whom, and when, and most of all, how to come out without rupturing tender family ties. The sexual orientation movement in New York and across the country was out of the closet.
I remember my first UU General Assembly in 1971, in Washington, D. C. I was new to the denomination and was pleasantly surprised to find that all kinds of people were out in the UUA--gays land lesbians, women, blacks, Jewnitarians, UU Buddhists, Humanists, the Psy-Symposium folks who were out as esoterics and new ages folks. I was most intrigued by the outness of gays and lesbians and black UU's and their supporters. We were still in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall and public feelings about those issues were still pretty raw. I took a big round button with the words, "I'm Gay," and wore it through the week. I am sure it confused a few folks, but I knew what I meant. It meant I stood in solidarity. I had discovered that the UUA was coming out of the closet.
I remember when I had been the minister in my first church, Iowa City, Iowa, for just about one year, and local gay and lesbian organizations requested from our board to use the church's social hall for social events. There were strong supporters in the congregation, but there were also very mixed feelings about the request among members of the Board. It created an intensely uncomfortable moment in the church's life. I said to the board, "This is not an issue about gays or lesbians. It's a decision about building use policy. The question is whether a Unitarian Universalist congregation is prepared to discriminate against some renters and not others. That's all I said. It was all I had to say. The board came out of the closet.
When gays and lesbians began their social meetings in our social hall, the church became the talk of the town and our church members were chided by their colleagues at work with such comments as, "We see that you go to that gay church on the corner." That was not easy for members of the congregation in 1972, and some members fell aside, but the church remained solid behind its commitment.
I remember, two years later, when I was still quite new to UU ministry, being invited to serve on the UU Ministerial Fellowship Committee when a young woman, the first openly gay or lesbian candidate ever to seek ministerial status in our denomination, came before the Committee seeking preliminary fellowship. I was strongly in favor of granting the fellow, but I was not sure how my colleagues would vote, and was proud when the committee, fully aware that the moment was historical and auspicious, voted her into fellowship. The UU ministry was opening the door to step out of it's long-closed closet.
I remember in 1988, when two of our closest friends, a married couple in their early forties, came to visit us for a weekend and shared with us the news that the male of the couple had come out to his wife and that they would be separating. The four of us spent the weekend in tears and celebration and supported them both in the months and years that followed. In the years that followed, they remained loving friends while the woman trained for ministry, while she found a new love and re-married, and while he found a life partner with whom he has lived now for ten years.
When Vermont passed legislation allowing same sex unions, it was my great honor, with another UU minister, to join them in a civic and religious ceremony of union last May, surrounded by their dear friends and their families. Many of the friends present had played key roles in getting the Vermont legislation through the legislature. We were especially aware of the courage of our friend's family. The five brothers all had been Eagle Scouts together. We knew that some of the brothers and the parents had found it extremely difficult at first to accept our friend's being gay. The pain is not fully healed yet, but the power of love is working its slow and persistent way. Our friends, the newly married couple, had been very out of the close for over a decade, but now they are out in a new way and the state of Vermont is the first state to be partially out of the legal closet. I am a contributing supporter of the Massachusetts Committee for the Right to Marry and I encourage you to consider the same as an expression of your religious principles. There is a long journey ahead, but the doors of the closet are open and, God willing, they will never be closed again in this country.
Today, as we celebrate National Coming Out Day, we remember, that coming out of the closet is not just for individuals. It is also for organizations, and churches should be leading the way. It is no longer acceptable to do what was done for ages, to know that a few members, and a few members' children were secretly gay, to be personally accepting up to a limit, but never to be open about it in public. That may have seemed progressive before Stonewall, but we know better now. I hope that no gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons now would ever consider a congregation that opens its doors but not its heart, opens its membership but stifles some members' voices, accepts their offerings but refuses their identities.
Welcoming Congregation is a way for a congregation to come out, a way of standing tall in the community and saying to our neighbors, we are a church that tries, in every way possible, to embrace people whose sexual orientations are outside of traditional American homophobia. It is a way of saying that whether we are gay or straight, we welcome gays and bisexuals and lesbians and transgender persons into our community, onto our committees, into our groups, and into our pulpits. We do this because they are loved by the Eternal no less than anyone else. We do this because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and because we believe in the acceptance of one another, and the encouragement of one another to spiritual growth in this congregation. For a person or a church, coming out is a courageous, spiritual act, a claiming of the self given by God, a decision to choose and to be who we are because that is the self that God loves and calls us to be.
With the help of our Welcoming Congregation Team, First Parish is opening the door of its closet. We thank you. Even in these days, thirty years after Stonewall, there will be many messages of disapproval from many places in our community. When we are proud of our church, we cannot suppress our joy. We tell our friends and neighbors. Coming out as a congregation is an occasion for such joy. Just as God calls some to come out as gays, and bisexuals, and lesbians, and transgender persons, because that is their God-given identities; just as others of us are called to be their loving friends and families and colleagues; I believe the same Eternal calls us to come out as congregations where they are welcomed and honored without reservation as beloved brothers and sisters in faith. May it be so.