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Going to the chapel

by Rev. John P. Manwell
Service at UUCSS on April 10, 2005


Our UU churches have become magnets for folks in the lesbian-gay-bi-trans (or lbgt) community who are looking for a spiritual home, or just a place where they can be married and welcomed. Early in our time in Baltimore, a decade ago, a wonderful gay couple, new members of the church, asked us to marry them. It was a big wedding, at the church, with lots of church members in attendance, and happily, family as well -- this is so often not the case. But I still remember the sadness I felt when one of the men told us that though he was "out" at the church, he had to stay in the closet in the workplace. Could not have his partner’s picture on his desk, or wear his ring. Could not take leave for a honeymoon, and had to wait until official travel took him to the place where they wanted to go. And this would be true even today. You see, he was in the Army.

My wife and co-minister, Phyllis Hubbell has spoken of another such experience. "Talk about transformative moments," she says, "I have never forgotten their story. I hadn’t gotten married until I was 48. I remember how excited I was. Everyone knew I was getting married. I even joked that we should play the Hallelujah Chorus as our recessional. We talked about the wedding to our family. We talked about it to our friends. We talked about it with our parishioners. We showed off our personally designed rings, and shared our honeymoon plans. Getting married had been a wonderful time for me. It hurt my heart to hear these two very much in love women share their problems."

Between us, we married more than a dozen straight couples last year, and have a dozen more lined up for this year. People cry at the weddings. Happy tears. Often they give expensive gifts, throw extravagant parties. Everyone loves to see other people fall in love. Churches bless the happy couples. Unless the couple happens to be of the same sex.

We also married a half-dozen same-sex couples. They, too, were very much in love. But a lot of these weddings are small, sometimes just a handful -- and very often with only a few family members, or none at all. They are joyous occasions. But often the couple can’t share their joy very widely.

For same-sex couples, even if they are "out," getting married may raise a whole host of new issues. Coming out isn’t a one-time thing. A couple may have come out to friends their own age, but not to their families. They may have come out to a brother or sister, but not to their parents. Immediate family may know, but not their Southern Baptist aunt or Roman Catholic grandfather. Employers may be the last to be told. Even though we finally have a non-discrimination law in Maryland, coming out can still be risky.

I think especially of two women who, after years of estrangement from organized religion, found a welcoming home in our congregation and have become quite active. They’ve been together for many years, but last year as the opportunity to marry with the blessing of the state began to open, they decided to go to Canada to get married. It was a joyous occasion. One of our colleagues officiated. But planning for it, and for the reception which they wanted to have back in Baltimore, was anything but joyous. They have graciously allowed us to share their experience. Family, one wrote, was the great terrifying specter:

Twenty-five years ago, when I told my parents and my brother I was a lesbian, my mother withdrew, then wept and said if I told anyone, they would have to move to another city because of the shame. She begged me not to tell the rest of the family (grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins). I honored that request (probably out of cowardice, fearing they would respond as she had). Some have probably figured it out, but it is never spoken of.

My father, grandmothers, and some of the aunts and uncles have died. But I still have a few aunts and uncles and cousins and children of cousins whom I would surely invite to my wedding if I were marrying a man. So now the questions are:

  • Do I try to guess which ones would be accepting and invite only them to the wedding? (possibly alienating others for whom I have guessed wrong)
  • Do I invite everyone and wait for the shit to hit the fan?
  • Do I invite none, and go on living in the closet as far as extended family family is concerned?

The worst part is that the anxiety about all this--the fear of fallout--puts a damper on all the conversations we start to have about wedding plans, conversations that should be full of excitement and joy.

Of course, not being able to share with [my mother] some of the most important joys in my life makes me very sad.

Her partner faced similar issues. She had come out, years before, to her sister, who disapproved and urged her not to tell their parents. She had honored this request, out of fear of losing her relationship with them. Over the years, they have welcomed her partner – but only as a friend, not the way they welcomed her former husband, as family. In family gatherings, she says, "we just never say the ‘L’ word." Now her parents are old. She loves them and doesn’t want to hurt them. Yet she also loves her partner – and she wants to be who she is. She sees no way out of this dilemma.

Tensions like these lead many lgbt folk to acquiesce in their families’ insistence on treating their partners as casual friends or roommates. It’s the price of staying in relationship with family they love.

Children face our culture’s homophobia in their growing-up years, as they are struggling with who they are. Even if they don’t hear it from their parents, they hear the scorn of their peers in words like "fag" and "queer" long before they know what they mean. It can take years of spiritual work and therapy to throw off the internalized condemnation which results.

It’s important for all of us, gay or straight, to learn who we are, to honor and claim it, and to go through life with pride. But for lgbt folk, it’s not only painful to come out initially to family and friends, it can continue to be painful year after year as they look for housing, and worry about getting and keeping a job.

Suppose they want to get married, or even to have their relationship blessed by a church, though the state won’t recognize it. They can’t just "go to the chapel." They risk being told by the chaplain of that chapel that they are damned to hell. Calling an unknown minister becomes an act of courage. I remember the phone call to the church from a woman who very hesitantly asked, "Is it true that you will marry two women?" She sounded ready to hang up if I gave her the wrong answer. We receive many such calls.

Thanks to the dominant readings of the Bible in modern times, condemnation of homosexuality has become deeply embedded in our culture. The Bible hasn’t always been read this way -- go read the masterful scholarship of the late John Boswell -- but this has been a common interpretation in recent centuries. Conservatives still seize upon several biblical provisions -- some of them obscure, none of them from Jesus -- to claim that homosexual sex is a sin. Somehow they’re not bothered by all the other things condemned as sin, in some of the same places in the Bible – things that might apply to them as heterosexuals, like the condemnation of divorce. Sometimes they claim that the homosexual orientation itself, even when it’s celibate, is still an illness. Rome has taken that position, and some conservative Protestants go so far as to claim that it can and should be "cured" through what they call "reparative" or "reorientation" therapy, though it seldom works and is ethically dubious.

Many of us have had to struggle with this interpretation even if we haven’t grown up with the Bible. For many years it affected me, even as a lifelong Unitarian. They’ve become so much a part of the culture in which we live, that we can’t imagine any other way of understanding these "texts of terror." Yet if we actually look at the Bible seriously, we would never rely on these obscure texts to condemn our homosexual friends, simply for being who God made them to be -- especially when Jesus himself said absolutely nothing about homosexuality, but a great deal about loving our neighbors.

The Bible is a collection of many books, written not by the finger of God but by the hands of human beings, across many centuries in times far different than our own. They may be divinely inspired, but must read as a whole, and with the tools of scholarship as well as faith. As our Unitarian forebear, William Ellery Channing, declared from our Baltimore pulpit, "We profess not to know a book which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible." We look to it not as a sexual moral code, but as a library. Its books, when read together, reveal the core values of Judaism and of Christianity, summed up in the great commandment of love of God and neighbor. As UUs, we may differ in our theology, but I think all of us long to be "the church of the open door." That is, after all, how we ourselves came through our doors.

Our door has not always been as wide open as our theology demands. But through struggle and prayer, we have continually broadened our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not ask, whom must we love? We ask instead, how can we learn to love all people?

That’s why we do same sex weddings, as well as heterosexual ones. All the couples we work with are committed to one another, and serious about entering into a faithful and lasting marriage. They often place families at the center of their lives, before money, power, or success. This is just as true for our same-sex couples as for the others, though they face more daunting obstacles. It is one of the greatest privileges of ministry to stand in solidarity with people who love one another in the face of condemnation. To bless them and wish them well.

We who consider ourselves straight can ease their path in many ways. Let’s look at some of these ways. We can come out to our friends and families about our support for same-sex marriage. We can let them know that our church stands behind us, that our God is a loving God, that our faith is an inclusive one.

We can join our lgbt brothers and sisters in honoring national "coming out" day, on the second Sunday in October each year, as we stand in solidarity with them in acknowledging the pain our society’s homophobia causes for them in "coming out" as who they are.

We can stand with them, as well, in the legislative and judicial arenas. A thousand or so folks gathered on Valentine’s Day this year, in Thurgood Marshall Plaza, in the shadow of the state houses. The crowd were both gay and straight, and included close to a hundred Unitarian Universalists. We were there to lobby against demands to write discrimination into our state’s constitution, and underscore it in existing law that already limits marriage to heterosexual couples. We also wanted to urge that same-sex partners have the right to visit each other in the hospital, and be recognized as spouses in making medical decisions. It was a poignant occasion because, as all of us knew, a similar number of other folk had gathered in the same spot, just two weeks before, to push for discrimination. Yet it was also festive and joyous, a celebration of our moral values. This kind of public support is one more way in which we who are heterosexual can support our lgbt brothers and sisters. And it works. The anti-marriage bills have gone nowhere in this session, and the Senate has passed the medical decision-making bills we have supported. We’ll know the final outcome this week.

Of course, our opponents are afraid that the Maryland courts might follow those of Massachusetts in recognizing that limiting marriage to heterosexuals violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Already, one of our own church members, in Baltimore, and his partner, are parties with eight other same-sex couples in a lawsuit filed last year, with ACLU support, seeking just such a declaration. We as ministers, along with our congregation, will be joining with many others in a "friend of the court" brief in support of these couples. We’re looking for still more signers. This is another way we can show our solidarity.

In the end, we as liberals are called to stand up and say, out loud and with passion, that ours is a faith that stands on the side of love. Let us join in our public witness, in Annapolis and in Washington, on the Internet and in letters, banners and posters, side by side with our lgbt friends, just as we worship side by side.

It may be a long and sometimes lonely struggle. But someday, employers will send wedding gifts to all their workers, and even the Army will open its rolls. Someday families will rejoice for the happiness of all their children. Someday, priests and rabbis, imams and ministers, will joyfully celebrate sacred vows taken by all who love. When that day comes, all houses of worship will truly be chapels of love and we can all sing:

Going to the chapel
And we're gonna get married
Going to the chapel
And we're gonna get married

Gee I really love you
And we're gonna get married
Going to the chapel of love