Living Your Truth within a Meaningful Community: An LGBTQ+ Inclusive Service

LGBTQIA+ members of the congregation reflected on their personal experiences, challenged us to meaningfully engage with what our individual orientations and gender identities mean within a community, and celebrated the power of truly embracing our differences.

Dr. François S. Clemmons & Kate Gridley performed Down by the Riverside

and John Barstow led us in singing We Are a Gentle Angry People   Verses 1. Gentle, angry people  2. Justice seeking people  3. Gay and straight together  NEW: Folks of many genders  6. Gentle, loving people

Time for All Ages was led by Xavier Fuentes-George & Liam Battjes Greenwood

Margy Levine Young read Ritual Correcting of the Second Source

and Liam Battjes Greenwood  read Room for All, from Just Love by Scott Stabile    

Jordan Young gave the sermon Meaningful Community  (text below)               

Ollie Cultrara offered closing words A Prayer for My Queer and Trans Siblings  by Jess Reynolds from Love Like Thunder

Sermon – Personal Truth & Meaningful Community – Jordan Young at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society – 1/5/2020

Let me preface this sermon with a disclaimer about what it is not.  This is not gender identity 101 or gender anything 101. This is not 101 at all.  CVUUS doesn’t feel like a 101 kind of place. If you don’t know what cis means, if gender non-binary and gender non-conforming and gender-queer are equally obscure to you, if the distinctions between sex and gender and gender expression and gender attribution and romantic and sexual attraction don’t make sense, and if agender and asexual and greysexual and demisexual sound like word soup, then I especially invite you not to tune out.  But this sermon isn’t going to define any of those terms.  

I mean, I could do that, but it would be a lecture, not a sermon.  If you want some reference material, there’s a hand-out by the sanctuary door to the foyer.  It’s not a list of definitions, but it does set up a framework for talking about the nuances of maleness and femaleness, masculinity and femininity, and gender performance.   And there are a number of us who would be happy to talk more at coffee hour.  

What I intend to do, what I hope to do, is to make the case that for your own spiritual growth and commitment to love and justice, you need to become familiar with the language of gender, just as you have become familiar with the languages of racial justice, of feminism, and of the other awakenings that call upon us to see our fellow humans not through the lenses that society has created for them, but through the identities that they have claimed for themselves. 

So this is gender 201 … or maybe 301.  It’s about an intentional purposeful awareness of the deep ways in which gender is embedded in our institutions, our society, and yes, in CVUUS, and why this awareness is indispensable if we wish to create the community CVUUS aspires to. 

Let’s start with why an old white guy  – a cis queer non-binary gender-non-conforming old white guy – is doing a sermon about “living your truth within a meaningful community” in the context of gender?  And why is that worth bringing up?  

It’s worth bringing up because the work we’re talking about – navigating the interfaces between personal identity, our interactions with one another, and CVUUS as a community – is work that is based in identity.  

Let’s spend a minute on that thought: what does it mean for work to be based in identity?  My experience of Unitarian Universalism from high school onwards has been that our “teaching” from the pulpit has traditionally been much more about the content of the message than the identity of the messenger.  What many of us have come to learn over the past several years as we critically examine ourselves, the institutions that we love (like CVUUS), and the broader institutions of our society, is that the identity of the messenger cannot be separated from message.  The messages that I see and shape to share with you are created from my experience as a cis-het-old-white-guy. They are couched in terms that are familiar to me. They speak to the things that I have seen and experienced. And that my vision and experience are inseparable from who I am, who people think I am, their reactions to me, and the friction among those things.

Now everyone here does not share that identity and only a minority of you share all the pieces of that identity – you heterosexual old white guys know who you are, and if you don’t know if you’re cis, then you probably are.  And there are people here who do not appear to share that identity, yet in their own experience they share many aspects of it. And similarly, there are people who do appear to share that identity, yet in their own experience, they do not.

So here is one thing you can do in pursuit of meaningful community: be open to the fact that the apparent diversity among your fellows in community at CVUUS may not be a great as you think — you may have more in common than it appears.  By the same token, be mindful that the homogeneity – the lack of diversity – that you see may not reflect a homogeneity of experience; almost all of us have hidden aspects of our identity that aren’t apparent. Let’s just say for simplicity that what you see is not necessarily what you get.

Because when you assume that what you see is what you get, you erase important parts of the identities of the people you’re talking to.  What does “erasing identity” mean? It means assuming that we are all the same – that there’s nothing significantly different about the life experiences of a person who is gay or a person who is lesbian or a person who is trans or a person who is non-binary (or for that matter a person who is african american or a person who is treated as female) – that there’s nothing significantly different about their life experiences from the experiences of a person who is perceived of as white and male.  

So there are two pieces to that: the identity piece and the perception piece.  There will always be parts of my identity that are not visible to you. Here’s one example: Depending on how you define “hispanic,” I either qualify or I don’t.  One side of my family does not speak English as their first language – they’re Brazilian. I have discovered that there are parts of my early childhood experience that I share with children of Mexican parents. Yet the government’s guidance as to whether Brazilians should check the “Hispanic” box is really ambiguous. When I’m filling out a form, and I get to the box that says “Hispanic,” there’s no check box for “Sort of” or “Not in the way you think.”  In fact, there’s only one check box: “Hispanic” – because if you’re “normal,” you don’t check the “Hispanic” box – most people don’t. It’s only if you’re “different” that you check that box.  

That aspect of myself will never be visible.  My discomfort at being perceived of as male and identifying with masculinity as expressed in our culture was also invisible for most of my life.  As long as I dressed like a man, I could be expected to act like a man (or, to nuance the words, to act masculine). The aspects of my identity that are gender queer did not get expressed, they could not be perceived, they were erased.  

I do not have all the answers.  I do not have a bullet-proof intellectually water-tight argument as to what it means to be a man who doesn’t identify with masculine roles as distinct from a man who doesn’t entirely identify with being a man.  I know I’m more of the latter – a man who doesn’t entirely identify with being a man – than the former – a man who doesn’t identify with masculine roles.

A few years ago, I chose to start presenting in a gender non-conforming way –  to be seen in a way that reflects more of how I feel and interact with the world, and incidentally, to make it easy for the people who see me to figure out that for me, what you see is not necessarily what you get.  I appreciate that CVUUS has been a safe and accepting place to do that.

But I want to challenge you to recognize  that while our acceptance and celebration of diversity are wonderful things, they are not enough.

Much of what follows rests on the assertion that white male people have been centered in our culture, society, and institutions and have had the power, the access to resources, the voice to create the institutions of our culture and the cathedrals of thought and power that surround them.  If that assertion troubles you, then that’s a conversation for another time, and a conversation that connects directly to the work the Unitarian Universalist Association and many others have been doing on white supremacy and racism.  

While writing these words for today, I re-listened to Didi Delgado’s sermon from September 29th on “Direct Reparations to Black Women.”  In it she challenges us to reconceptualize “giving” in ways that decenter the value it provides to the economically privileged donors and centers the experience of people whose lives have been impacted by the institutionalized racism of our culture. 

Similarly, I want to challenge us to reconceptualize CVUUS in a way that decenters binary gender and that centers the experiences of people of all (and no) genders, in pursuit of meaningful community.   From our history, we are all about New England white anglo-saxon protestant traditions, from our intellectual heritage to our governance to our order of service to our relationship to time. What would CVUUS look like if our beloved community reflected the personal truths and the lives of not only all the people who are here, but all the people who could be here, or would be here if they felt not just tolerated, not just celebrated, but if they felt that this community was about them? 

Honestly, I don’t know.  So here’s another thing that today’s service is not going to do: it’s not going to offer a checklist of things you could do as an individual or that CVUUS could do as a community to be a more welcoming congregation.  In their personal testimony back in November, Ollie Cultrara talked eloquently about the difference between the many things CVUUS does and could do to be a welcoming congregation, and they pointed to the distance between that and the community CVUUS aspires to be. To use Ollie’s words, “But as welcoming as it is to have a pride flag outside, rainbow name tags, gender-neutral bathrooms, and pamphlets, I do not yet feel able to bring my whole self to CVUUS.”

Doing those “checklist” things – putting pronoun stickers on name tags or fighting to have non-gendered bathrooms approved by the building inspector – and Reverend Barnaby and some others will be on hand during coffee hour to help with pronouns and nametags – and that’s a wonderful and necessary thing to do, but that and a flag and bathroom signage are not enough.  Instead, we’re feeling our way towards an understanding of what it would take for CVUUS to feel like a queer space — and by that I mean a place where we commit ourselves to an on-going dance among many identities and many centers.  

Can we aspire to be a place where each of us can claim the center when we need it and step aside when others need it?  Can we aspire to be a place where those of us who may have felt entitled to claim the center, probably without even knowing that that is what we were doing, can become mindful of leaving that space for others?  Are those of us who felt most comfortable with the way CVUUS works willing to feel uncomfortable, because now it works in a way that feels most comfortable for someone else? Are we willing to grow in our discomfort?

It feels like a big part of that work, of that growth, is creating a space, a community, that works to free itself from the traditional white male system of power and privilege.  That system is inseparable from the marginalization of queer people along with, in different ways, the marginalization of people of color, of women, of youth, and of others.  

Meaningful community is community where (among other things) everyone feels equally valued for who they are, not in spite of who they are; where the community assumes that you are the way you are, not that you are the way our norms assume you are.

It’s  about a commitment  to question your own assumptions and actions in pursuit of justice and transformation.  This is not so different from the message of Didi Delgado or of those who are motivating us towards racial justice.  Because decentering people like me – old white guys – is the way we create institutions that center people with other identities and experiences.  

It is a matter of being accountable – each of us individually – and collectively one to another.  Not waiting for someone else to hold you accountable, not waiting for someone to speak the ways in which they feel invisible or un-cared for, but to seek out different ways of relating to one another.  And as a rule of thumb, the more privileged you feel in this community (whether it’s by age, gender, race, income, intellect, or time in the community), the greater your opportunity to hold yourself accountable for your privilege.

This is scary.  If it’s not scary, you’re probably not doing it right.  Mia Mingus, a writer, educator and community organizer for disability justice and transformative justice,challenges us this way: “What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, [and] held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be?”

So, what if accountability was something we held as sacred?  What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice  being the kinds of people and souls we want to be?

We invite you to run towards this kind of accountability.