Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Peter Morales speaks at a plenary session of the denomination’s General Assembly in Charlotte.
Photo Credit: Nancy Pierce
CHARLOTTE — On June 26, more than 4,000 Unitarian Universalists representing 585 congregations wrapped up their five-day annual General Assembly (GA) reaffirming their commitment to justice for all who are socially and politically disenfranchised, including LGBT people.
Among their conference sessions were workshops in understanding and welcoming transgender people, identifying and counteracting the bullying of LGBT youth and appreciating the many social and political accomplishments of Unitarian Universalism in the denomination’s history of establishing sexual equality within and beyond the walls of its congregations.
“We’re a religious movement that is committed to the acceptance of everyone and the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all people,” said Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Rev. Peter Morales. “And we walk that talk.”
At a session called “50 Years of Sexual Justice,” the Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society, discussed the UUA’s many milestones in promoting women’s rights, abortion and reproductive justice, sexuality education and full LGBT inclusion.
Since the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations 50 years ago, the UUA has come a long way in its own religious education about and acceptance of LGBT people. In 1967, for example, 88 percent of UUs, as they often refer to themselves, thought that homosexuality should be discouraged either by law or education. By 2009, more than 60 percent of all UU societies had gone through congregational training and had committed to being “Welcoming Congregations” that embrace complete inclusion of LGBT members. Furthermore, in 2010, 24 percent of UU ministers publicly identified as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex.
Haffner cited numerous times in which the UUA led or joined other religious groups in calling for wider social and political reforms. For example, in 1970, the UUA was the first denomination to issue a resolution calling for an end to discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. In 1984, it began officially performing gay and lesbian services of union, and in 1996 endorsed marriage equality. In 2006, it opposed a federal anti-gay constitutional amendment on marriage and in 2007 demanded the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
While these accomplishments are a cause for UU pride, permeating the convention was a commitment to ongoing assessment of the denomination’s values and to expansion of its efforts. One of those directions, according to the Rev. Joshua Pawelek, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, in Manchester, Conn., is to “increase focus on the T” in LGBT ministry. He, along with a transgender male, the Rev. Paul Langston-Daley of the Sedona (Ariz.) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Alex Kapitan, Congregational Justice Administrator of the UUA’s Office of Multicultural Growth and Witness (who self-identifies as “trans and gender queer”), conducted an educational workshop called “Crossing Paths: Transgender Welcome and Ministry.”
In addition to helping UUs understand the complexities of sexuality, gender identity and gender expression, the three presenters emphasized the need for church members to be more proactive in calling transgender ministers to serve their congregations and for UUs to oppose transphobia within and beyond their congregations to the same extent that they oppose homophobia.
“The experience of trans people today resembles being out and gay in 1980,” said Pawelek. “People are still on a learning curve about what transgender identity is.”
Often that learning curve is flat. A GA session called “Countering Religious Bullying Aimed at LGBT Youth” highlighted the effects on LGBT children and teens of transphobia and homophobia displayed by their conservative heterosexual peers as well as teachers and school administrators. Psychologist Dr. Donald Hoppe outlined effective strategies for confronting the “spiritual violence” done to LGBT youth through the misuse of religious authority and dogma.
“Never engage in religious discussions of any kind with school personnel,” Hoppe advised. “Quit arguing about ‘what the Bible says.’ You are not going to change their minds and they are not going to change yours.…The issue is bullying, not sexuality.” Hoppe explained that the physical, psychological and spiritual harm being done to LGBT youth makes such violence a civil rights issue in need of immediate address.
Another GA session highlighted the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) campaign, a civil rights effort to mobilize UU congregations to perform peaceful and loving acts of public witness against all social and political injustice, be it based on race, age, ethnicity, physical disability, immigrant status or sexuality. On June 25, more than 500 local clergy, organizations, community members and General Assembly UUs rallied at Marshall Park to demonstrate their opposition to homophobia and transphobia and support of full rights for LGBT people, including marriage. (See related story, “Hundreds attend Uptown faith rally against anti-LGBT amendment.”)
According to SSL Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, “The vast majority of [UU] congregations are constantly striving to create that beloved community where people aren’t just accepted –– they’re actually welcomed into the congregation. We consider ministry to the LGBT community as ministry to our community. The LGBT community is our community. There is no ‘you’ and ‘us.’”
Calling for a special “Justice General Assembly,” the UUA is planning to expand its civil rights efforts at its 2012 convention, to be held in Phoenix, Ariz. In addition to workshops, there will be hands-on projects and various community engagement events.
“The more we get outside of ourselves, the more energy we find,” said Morales, echoing the spirit of his denomination. “We have an enormous capacity as a movement.” : :
info: Learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Association, its Welcoming Congregations program and the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign at uua.org.