June 25th, 1996. Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a dramatic moment. John Buehrens, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, addressed the delegates as we began to debate a General Resolution affirming same-sex marriage. He invited every gay and lesbian couple among the 2000 or so delegates to the stage. While the delegates applauded, scores did so, many of my friends and colleagues among them. The resolution passed overwhelmingly. We were the first denomination to openly support the right of same-sex marriage.
That act was only the culmination of a long process of denominational affirmation of homosexuality. In 1970 a resolution was passed affirming the rights of gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals, calling for educational programs and nondiscriminatory hiring by the Association.
In 1971 the UUA published the About Your Sexuality program for junior high students and their parents that dealt with homosexuality frankly and honestly. We experienced some controversy in our own ranks and were pilloried by those of more conservative persuasion.
The next year we produced an award-winning audiovisual study program, The Invisible Minority, foretelling changing views of homosexuality and the emergence of the gay rights movement.
An Office of Gay and Lesbian Concerns was established in 1975 with a lesbian as its first director. That was followed in 1977 with a condemnation of bigotry against gays and lesbians, focused on singer Anita Bryant who later recanted. In 1980 we called for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in our ministry. Our Association went on record as supporting same-sex services of union and the right of our ministers to conduct them in 1984. 1989 saw creation of The Welcoming Congregation program through which Unitarian Universalists could examine their individual and collective attitudes and practices toward homosexuals. Ours is a "welcoming congregation", and we have incorporated our welcome to all persons in our church by-laws. The 1996 resolution on same-sex marriage was in that prophetic tradition.
All this is based on our fundamental principles - honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our commitment to compassion, equity and justice and our acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
And it is in keeping with our prophetic social action tradition - as, for example, the first denomination to ordain women ministers.
Lest you think it has been easy, let me assure you that while we are among the most liberal of religious groups, we are human beings with all the anxieties, biases, and concerns that go with the territory. It has not been without struggle, soul-searching, and risk-taking. Democracy is no easy process for wrestling with so controversial and complex an issue as homosexuality.
I present myself as exhibit number one. I grew up not far from here - a product of rural, conservative, upstate New York. In junior and senior high school I heard all those awful jokes about "fags" and "queers" and "homos" - nor did I lift my voice to challenge such dehumanization or to question the hostility implicit in those labels. I well remember how one of my male teachers - a beloved biology teacher - was dismissed for sexually abusing boys on his farm outside of town - simply feeding my own prejudice that gay was not good.
Only in theological school did I address this issue from an ethical perspective. I really did not know who among my friends was gay or lesbian or bi-sexual and who was not. "Coming out" was not much done in the 50's and 60's. Homosexuality was more a subject matter than a real moral issue.
But there was movement in me - slow, painfully slow growth. I moved from thinking homosexuality was a sin, to understanding it as a sickness, to viewing it as a variant life style, to affirming it as a a positive alternative way of being in the world. And now I stand before you to explain why I support same-sex marriage. As Anais Ninn once put it, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Simply put, I have changed.The most profound influence in my own development is illustrated in one of my favorite Down East stories from the State of Maine. A farmer there was once asked if he believed in infant baptism. "Believe in it," he exclaimed, "why I've seen it done!"
Despite all my intellectual research, I confess that my experience in knowing gay and lesbian and bi-sexual people is what has most powerfully changed my mind and heart. And while I have done only three ceremonies of holy union - the term used for same sex marriage without legal standing - I have observed many of my homosexual parishioners living lives of loving commitment.
There are, of course, many arguments against same-sex marriage. It is said that it will dilute the meaning of marriage. But I have a hard time thinking how recognizing same-sex love legally will affect my feeling toward my wife or our heterosexual marriage. It may even be helpful, making me appreciate where love is all the more because same-sex love must confront both the personal and the institutionalized prejudice of society.
The hypocrisy of this argument comes clear to me in a cartoon of a man and a woman sitting in a restaurant locked in a semi-embrace with wine glasses raised on high, a bottle of champagne on ice nearby . He says to her, "Same-sex marriage would destroy the institutions of marriage and the family!... She asks, "...and what does your wife say?" And then I read about former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers who admitted he was a "hypocrite" to rescind a job offer to a lesbian who intended to marry her partner. It seems that while Attorney General he was carrying on an adulterous affair (adultery is illegal in his state)." Some will say that legalizing same-sex marriage will only institutionalize sexual perversity. Well, what is sexual perversity? It is a relationship where love is not - where one person exploits or abuses another - where the other becomes a means to an end rather than an end in him or herself. That is sexual perversity.
But marriage is designed for procreation, it is argued. But what of all those couples who do not procreate, some by choice and some by chance? Are they not married? And what about all those gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people who are parents by a previous heterosexual relationship, or have adopted, or have had children through in vitro fertilization or other means? I believe in same-sex parenting. Why? I've seen it done - and done well. Where love is - there is a family worth supporting.
But marriage will not work for homosexuals, some will say - there is little loyalty there - only serial partners! Those who argue in this way have perhaps not observed the loving and committed same-sex relationships I have seen. And in our time heterosexual marriage is often serial monogamy. If same sex unions are troubled, can we not understand the pressure upon them by a doubting and disbelieving culture?
But what of the tradition of heterosexual marriage? Will this not distort it? The late John Boswell, a Yale historian, has discovered that the Church sanctioned same sex marriage in pre-modern Europe. Long before marriage laws were devised, the very first European church marriages were conducted between men. I hasten to add his thesis is controversial, but does serve to open the mind.
But our culture has come a long way in the past few decades. In 1981 the term "domestic partnerships" was coined. Now those words have become company policy in many of our most progressive companies, including Eastman Kodak and Xerox, as well as the Walt Disney Company - now being boycotted by the Southern Baptist Convention for their presumably pro-homosexual policies.
Persons who declare themselves to be in a committed same-sex relationship now can enjoy the benefits of those who are in conventional heterosexual marriages. Countless municipalities, including the City of Rochester, among many other groups, now have domestic partnership policies, our church among them.
But it is the real life stories that are so powerful, stories emerging from our near neighbor Vermont, stories which indicate progressive policies often release human compassion. The day after three same-sex couples announced their lawsuit claiming discrimination because they could not marry, neighbors came to Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan's door with champagne and a "happy engagement" card. Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham were stopped in their local supermarket by a harried mom who asked if they were the ones she'd seen on the news; when the couple nervously answered yes, the stranger said, "Go for it!"
The Chapel at Harvard University will now be used for same-sex ceremonies according to its African-American and openly gay chaplain, Peter Gomes. But not at Emory University in Atlanta. There, the Board of Trustees of that Methodist institution overruled the president who supported same-sex ceremonies in the chapel. Now, only clergy can make such decisions, and Methodist clergy are bound by their Social Principles not to officiate at such rituals.
In Omaha, Nebraska, The Rev. Jimmy Creech of the prestigious 1900 member United Methodist Church performed a same-sex union last September and is now facing a church trial for his presumed violation of the church law.
I feel fortunate that I have the unequivocal backing of my denomination and, I trust, of this congregation, to celebrate human relationships where love is.
The court system in Hawaii has sent shock waves throughout the nation as their highest court seems poised to validate same-sex marriage. The legislature has granted such couples a wide array of rights, but not yet the right to marry. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a Georgia case on this issue. And Congress, never to be outflanked by events, has passed and the President signed a Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage for us as between one man and one woman. The Act enables states to refuse to recognize such marriages should they become legal. One has to wonder what the Defense of Marriage Act actually defends.
The struggle for full human rights for gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and transgendered people is far from over. While there will be fundamentalists who will say this violates the will and word of God, there will also be those of us who read our bibles quite differently. We will point out that in that holy book there are 12 prohibitions against homosexual behavior, mostly for ritualistic reasons and 300 against heterosexual behavior.
And there will be people of good will among us who will have trouble with this admittedly unconventional concept - people who will have to search their consciences - people who will need to get to know people in same-sex relationship - people who will say changing cultural values are moving just a bit too fast - people who will simply have honesty doubts.
As I have tried to work through my own feelings and values, it is clear to me that the pain of loving relationships rejected by society is too great. People living in long, committed relationships who have no economic rights for mutual support; people not allowed to visit their beloved dying in a hospital because they are not "family"; people whose love is discounted because it does not fit convention pre-conceptions. The pain is too great to be endured or allowed.
Harvey Fierstein's Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy felt the pain as his mother dismissed his feelings of love toward his gay partner - the pain not only of his loss - but the pain of not being understood - not being recognized as a lover and a beloved. Let us never so lose our capacity for empathy that we cannot recognize and celebrate where love is. Where love is - there is holy ground.
My own argument is simple. I believe in same-sex union because I have seen it done. I believe in same-sex marriage because I believe all people in a committed love relationship deserve the same benefits those of us who are heterosexual now enjoy. I believe that where love is - we have a relationship that must be affirmed and supported. Where love is I believe Unitarian Universalism has a responsibility to affirm and support it, even with our own doubts, against all bias.
In the last analysis we are all more human than otherwise. Where love is - is a good place to be. And so, in the words of the harried Mom in a Vermont supermarket, meeting for the first time a lesbian couple seeking same-sex marriage, "Go for it!" Amen.