(This is just an exercise and sermon. "Respectacles" refers to the pipe cleaner glasses I distributed for our story -- Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola. These high tech goggles help us to focus on respect in interactions.)
Rather than a reading, I’d like you to get out the little sticky notes and pen or pencil you got with your order of service. On each paper, write down a word or phrase you might use to describe yourself. You’ve got about two minutes…. Ok, take another twenty seconds to finish up…
Congratulations. You’ve created a set of labels for yourself. Me, I identify as White, Unitarian Universalist, Glee fan, homeowner, cook, Polish, friend, educator, writer, parent.
Now I’d like you to sort your sticky notes -- which have been true your whole life? And which are more recent? For example, I have been white and Polish my whole life. It’s more recently that I’ve been a homeowner and a fan of the show Glee.
-What do you let others know and what do you keep private? What do you hide or even deny when asked? Obviously, I’m up here in front of y’all so I chose examples I am comfortable sharing. But sometimes what you can let people know changes...Sure, I can proclaim that I am Polish, but when my grandma Furmanski married my English grandpa seventy years ago, she had to hide that piece of her identity.
Ok – which of these could you change tomorrow if you wanted to? Which are unchanging? Which could change without your control?
-I could decide to hate Glee. My race is not going to change. And well, we all know that a hurricane or a foreclosure could take my home away… or I could decide to sell it all and become a nomad.
Take a minute or two to turn to the person next to you and share what you feel comfortable sharing – of your personal labels or how you sort them.
When we did this exercise, I asked only for descriptors you give yourself. Real life is far messier – other people are more than happy to label us. Sometimes those labels are accurate—whether a person owns them yet or not. Sometimes they’re an awful lot to live up to. And sometimes they are excruciatingly painful.
That, my friends, is the hell that is junior and senior high school.
Back before I even knew what Unitarian Universalism was, I taught middle school. One of my human development mentors explained that, “What in the younger years is written in pencil, by the end of adolescence will be written in permanent marker.” From ages 12 to 25, there’s a lot of testing and trying on – what fits? What can be pared away? What makes me… me? Adolescence is one big anxiety attack of What will I write on my nametag?
And sometimes anxiety gets to be too much. Each year, about 5000 Americans between 12 and 25 kill themselves. And we know that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning teens commit suicide at three times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts. The ratio for suicide attempts is even higher. Those statistics have been relatively stable over the last three decades.
But suddenly this last month it has become a major news story. We were given names and ages and locations and photos of at least nine young men who killed themselves – these nine struggled – either with their sexual orientation or with bullying – most with both.
Eighty-five percent of LGBTQ teens say that in the last year they’ve been verbally abused at school and forty percent have been physically harassed. Nearly twenty percent report physical assault at school. Nearly two-thirds report that they feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. And LGBTQ teens are four times more likely to run away than their heterosexual peers.
We read these stories and our hearts break. We’re frustrated and angry that schools aren’t doing more to protect these children, that families aren’t accepting enough or loving enough or just don’t know what their children struggle with every day.
A few weeks ago sex columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project for LGBTQ adults to send in their stories – an immediate way to connect with teens, to be able to say “I know it sucks right now, but here’s how my life has gotten better since the hell of my teen years.” Soon after, the Make it Better project was launched with suggestions of things to do NOW to make these teens’ lives better. Some schools and legislatures are re-examining their policies around bullying and support for all children. So some change is underway… but what steps are we called to take as Unitarian Universalists?
Here’s where my big ol’ history and theology sermon would come in handy, but I know the Texans play at noon, so here’s the quick summary – 19th century Unitarian William Ellery Channing channeled by current Unitarian Universalist minister Rebecca Parker --
We are neither depraved nor damned. The divine is in all of us and we are all saved – but we have a role in both uncovering the divine and the blessing of the world. We are responsible not only for the full unfolding of our own souls, but in removing any social structures which keep others from reaching their potentials.
So – we need to add another label to your identity. Think for a moment -- When you were a child, what superhero did you want to be? Did you have your favorite comic book character, or did you choose a power and a costume all your own? Did you ever jump off the roof to see if you could fly? Or were you content with your meek alter-ego?
Each of us has a hero inside of us. Some, like Superman and WonderWoman, are born with special gifts. Others, like Batman, use our cunning and integrity and an impressive array of technology. Some of us, like Spiderman, are forever transformed by life experience – and choose to use those powers for good.
What are your powers? What help do you need to develop your reflexes and utility belt? How can we fill your spirit with courage and hope so you can set aside your meek alter-ego and go out to bless the world? THIS, my friends, is work for a faith community. As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams stated, church is where we go to practice being fully human.
This Coming Out Day, come out as a hero. Come out as an ally to LGBTQ youth who need to know that they have worth and they are worthy of love.
This sounds sort of big and scary, but we can break it down into practical items. First – things you can do personally – not necessarily in this building, but as a reflection of your Unitarian Universalist principles and ideals.
**Start by caring for yourself and your own family – if you see signs of depression, get help. If you see the warning signs of suicide – GET HELP RIGHT NOW. Talk to your children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews -- not just about being bullied, but about being the bully. Just because they are intelligent children and you’re teaching them great values, well… do not assume they will always do the right thing. Spend lots and lots of time with them – working on a project, riding in the car, watching movies – whatever… to open a space where they can tell you their struggles.
** Learn more about LGBTQ issues – what do all these letters mean? How do your own life experiences around sexuality shape your understanding? What do you still need to learn?
**Reflect on your own experiences with bullying, whether you were the bully or the bullied. What did it teach you? How have you changed and been changed?
**Wear your respectacles – not necessarily the pipe cleaners, but use the lens of our principles to look at the world and see where behaviors don’t quite measure up – your own and others’. “That’s so gay/lame/retarded” If you’re looking for ideas, comedienne Wanda Sykes has a great Public Service Announcement on this one.
**Speak out – share what you know, call people on disrespectful behavior, educate. In real life AND social media, baby.
– Let me tell you – Facebook is a great tool for this. Monday morning I got the link from Debra Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, asking anyone with access to a pulpit to abandon their planned Sunday sermon and instead do something about LGBT youth and adults. By 11am Tuesday, this congregation’s worship committee had enthusiastically agreed to the change and I had a new sermon title. That afternoon, I stopped at my library for some research and found a great little display in the teen area – books on coming out, bullying, and suicide prevention. I posted about it, again, on Facebook and an acquaintance from high school liked it – sent a message to me and some librarians… and by Saturday my hometown library, 1300 miles away, posted pictures of their brand new display for another group of teens and allies to access.
**Love out loud – whatever you do, do it from a place of love. It is easy to offer love to the bullied, to those who are obviously suffering. But we all need love – even when we have done lousy and scary stuff. And keep in mind as you speak out -- People don’t listen to strident. They listen to reasonable loving energy.
**Do we have anybody here today who works in the schools? Well, you’ve got some extra steps as you’re living in the war zone. Speak out speak out speak out. If you feel uncomfortable, do something to work through it. And love every single one of those kiddos, even the twerps. You might also look into the resources of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network on creating safe spaces for all youth.
Ok, enough about individuals -- what is The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston County, as a community of faith doing? Now, I work for one small congregation and am a member of another - I understand that small congregations cannot do everything.
So you need to be strategic – how can you be a voice in Galveston County and beyond? What do you need to learn to be effective allies? What energy can you as a congregation (not just interested individuals) lend to other organizations already doing the work?
As a relative stranger to your congregation, I do not know what you’re already doing. But I can make some suggestions that will help both the people in these seats and the people who need to find you –
**Become a Welcoming Congregation. This program of the Unitarian Universalist Association will educate the congregation and take you through some tough conversations – to prepare you to be truly welcoming to your LGBTQ visitors AND in your life between Sundays. This program generally takes nine to eighteen months and other congregations would be happy to help you get started.
**Participate in the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign – the mission is to harness love’s power to stop oppression – whether it is LGBT issues or immigration or any other civil rights growing edge.
**Consider offering comprehensive sexuality education. We call it OWL – Our Whole Lives. Imagine offering the saving message of “We know that we are all sexual beings, from the day we are born to the day we die. You are loved just the way you are. We want to help you to make informed decisions to stay safe and to live out your best values in the world – even when raging hormones are involved.”
**See what organizations already exist in your community – heck, I bet members of this congregation are already working with them. Do your schools or homeless shelters or health clinics have needs that you can fill without burning out? How can you share energies? And hey – how will you be present in the upcoming Galveston Pride parade?
A Unitarian Universalist recently told me that “we aren’t in the soul saving business.” He meant, of course, that we don’t do the born again thing, but I may have given him my teacher look. And I stated, “Unitarian Universalism saves souls every day.”
Let me say that again. Unitarian Universalism saves souls. Every Day.
And the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Galveston County is a part of that. I look forward to hearing what you start – I bet it will be something exciting and nurturing and world-changing.