Lullabies for Our Children, Ourselves (sermon)

February 12, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

 

When my little ones were little, I would sing as part of our bedtime routine. One of the songs was The Ballad of Erica Levine by the late Bob Blue. I loved Erica’s sense of self, her understanding of gender roles, how she owned her body – how she understood romantic partnership as mutual and inherently egalitarian and I wanted to pass all that onto my children.

I also sang a song that later turned up in our teal hymnal:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

Written by then-Fred Small, now UU minister Fred Small, the official title of this song is “Everything Possible”. At the end of long days, exhausting days, tricky days, delightful days as an only parent, I sang those lyrics so achingly to them, wanting to convey the depth and breadth not only of my love, but my faith-infused, unconditional acceptance:

There are girls who grow up strong and bold
There are boys quiet and kind
Some race on ahead, some follow behind
Some go in their own way and time
Some women love women, some men love men
Some raise children, some never do
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.

You’ve likely noticed that human expression exists along a wide array of everything possible continuums. And while this is true and natural, our human brain, with its need for meaning-making and its limitations, cuts these up into categories. We end up forgeting that how we socially construct the world is not how the natural world actually exists. From this, ensues inequity and invisibility.

Take human sexuality and gender identity. Only recently on the long arc of human history, have we integrated that sexual orientation exists along a continuum, such as that described by the seven-point Kinsey scale, with one side as exclusive homosexual attraction and the other as exclusive heterosexual attraction.

It turns out that something like this is true for gender as well: there are not just two genders, not two “opposite genders.” Remember, gender is a social and cultural signifier, where as “sex” – as in male and female – are biological markers (though, it turns out that there are more than two sexes, too).

None of this is new, nor is it a concept reserved to a single culture or region of the world. In cultures around the globe, from ancient times ‘til now, there has been the presence of individuals and communities that acknowledge, and sometimes even honor, gender identities beyond the binary system with which our society seems so enamored.

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Sometimes, no matter how knowledgeable or compassionate or hip we might consider ourselves, we find ourselves outside the loop. This is especially true given the acceleration of cultural change. For some of us, while we have integrated the sexual orientation continuum into our own lives, we just might not yet be so aware of the brave, not-really-new world of non-binary gender identity.   But it’s time for us as a congregation to get inside the loop.

Last week, the Membership Committee rolled out new name tags – thank you to all for your work on this project. With these new name tags we can now know each others’ names without putting small holes in our clothing each week. Praise small mercies.

With these name tags, we have been invited to make a meaningful gesture of inclusivity and justice by writing in the pronouns by which we choose to be known. Just how is this gesture of writing pronouns on a name tag an act of justice and inclusivity, you might ask?

Perhaps your mind is saying – I don’t get this gender or personal pronoun thing – isn’t it obvious what gender I am? Or perhaps your mind is saying – what’s the big deal: aren’t we all humans? Or maybe there’s a little corner of your heart in touch with an inner grammar enforcement officer who is offended by the modern use of “they” for a single person.

Notice what is arising in you. Defensiveness. Curiosity. It’s all okay. But let us follow the sage advice I heard once and try to live my life by: “It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s just not okay to stay that way.”

To help us, we are fortunate because we have OWL. No, not the nocturnal bird known for its big eyes. But OWL: Our Whole Lives, the sexuality education curriculum that we developed in partnership with the United Church of Christ (UCC). It is a science-based curriculum predicated on the belief that we are better humans when we are equipped with knowledge about all aspects of sexuality, not just reproduction, and certainly not just abstinence.

For several years, I taught OWL to 6th graders in the congregation where I raised my kids. I have also been trained in OWL for adults – yes, there is an OWL class for adults – in fact for all ages from Kindergarten through adulthood including in development a version for those in their later decades.

In addition to what I learned in those trainings, I have spent the last few years learning from my older daughter, who is transgender. Add to that listening to colleagues and friends – typically ones younger than myself — my heart has swelled in the best of ways. I will also say that my mind has sometimes been blown, always for the better, but not without some accompanying confusion and awareness of my own limitations which is always humbling and rarely pleasant.

I have learned that there are folks for whom neither male nor female describes their experience. Sometimes they feel like they are some of both, or neither. For some, rather than male or female, the term “genderqueer” or “genderfluid” feels closer to their truth.

While this might be unfamiliar to you, what is of primary importance is honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person by following that person’s lead as to how they want to be called. Follow what their name tag says. And if the name tag isn’t filled out, we can practice not assuming the person’s gender just based on what we think they look like. It’s hard to do, and I’ll be in the trenches with you, but it’s good practice.

If the name tag says, they/their/theirs, this is a singular pronoun and recognized as such by most everyone under the age of thirty. Even the American Dialect Society, in 2015, chose the singular pronoun “they” as their Word of the Year, recognizing “its emerging use as a singular pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

And to continue being clear about terminology, and shifting cultural norms, gender identity is different than being or becoming transgender. You probably already know this, so I apologize if this is stating the obvious, I’ll say that transgender is when a person knows themselves to be a different gender than the body into which they were born – for instance, when a person is born into a male body and assumed by those around them to be a man, but in fact she knows herself to be a woman.

I count this community as fortunate that we have had congregants who are out as transgender because I think it makes this a richer, more vibrant place. We are fortunate to have families who listen closely to what their children are saying about their own gender, rather than making assumptions or following tradition. We have families here who are at the forefront of this cultural shift that upends the gender binary, as well as honors those who bravely, valiantly tell us that their experience of who they are doesn’t match either their external genitalia or the preconceived cultural norms around gender that are constricting.

Here is my question for us: how can we be the spiritual community they need us to be? How can we be the religious congregation we need us to be in order to live into our values and our faith that grounds itself in holy inclusivity? How can we be the religious congregation that the local community and the wider world needs us to be because there are people out there who are not loved as whole, not loved as holy, and they are counting on us?

Why should you – especially if this is outside your comfort zone — why should you do this? Why do this, if it upends your world in deeply fundamental ways?

My answer, selfishly, is because I am asking you to. Because, truly, I need you to.

Alone, I cannot create a world where, like the hymns says, “everything possible” is, in fact, possible for my child. Despite my very best efforts and the loving power of my heart, I cannot create a welcoming future for my daughter – for either one of them – to be the wholest person she knows herself to be – without help, without a whole wide community of people to bring it into being.

I need you. My child needs you. Children in this congregation need you – whether they are still growing or already adults. And your child – or grandchild, or great grand — no matter their gender identity – needs you, too.

Especially now when we speculate about what might be in store for public education in the coming years, ours must be a refuge of love and inclusivity, of honoring people for their whole selves, of providing science-based, culturally relevant responses when they come seeking information, or are filled with longing because they do not see themselves reflected in their textbooks or in media and still they refuse to conform.

It is important to remember that when we are quiet on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, even if our hearts are full of love and acceptance, our children and youth who are watching us fill in that silence with what the rest of the world is saying and think that is what we are thinking and believing.

Perhaps you remember what it was like when this congregation became a Welcoming Congregation. Even for UU congregations, it is rarely an easy process. Some folks chose to grow, learning anew, and others chose to leave, not seeing themselves in the direction the congregation was intentionally choosing – the fear often being that it would become “a gay church,” when in fact, you were trying to live into your values of being a loving, inclusive, welcoming congregation. I am so thankful that you all made that decision back in 2004.

I have been curious about this. Our Welcoming status is not particularly visible. We have a little sign just inside the entrance that most people just walk past and never notice. We do host a gay AA meeting — we can be proud of this. We do not fly a rainbow flag inside the building, or outside – even though the sign on Tices Lane would lend itself rather fabulously.

Our pews could be filled with people who, when we say our Bond of Union and get to the part that says, “his or her own,” – an important win in the days when “he” was used as the so-called universal pronoun – recognize that this is not as inclusive as it is used to be.

Our congregation could have – should have, needs to have — more people trained as OWL teachers so that we can ensure that our children and their parents know that we are fully informed. The Religious Education program is looking to have two more people receive training to be able to help with our 7-9th grade OWL class next year. If you are interested, please talk to Jillian right away. And I’m always happy to go on and on about teaching OWL: some of the most powerful – I would call them “holy” — moments I spent at my home congregation were when I was teaching OWL.

And for those of us who have the privilege of being born into the body that matches our experience of gender, we can become more comfortable, more practiced at offering our chosen personal pronouns – like I do at the bottom of all my emails, like on our name tags — as an act of compassion and solidarity with those for whom their sense of wholeness depends upon it and who should not be left on their own.

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This is what I know: our children are watching. Other people’s children are watching. And some of them are paying close attention as to whether we will be a source of something even bigger than welcome: a source of hope, a lifeline, a connection to sanity and wholeness.

Our children – yours and mine, whether you raised them in your home or are part of raising them in this congregation – are watching and learning about the kind of inclusive, loving future we are creating for and with them.

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

May it be so.

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