A World of Closet Doors
I can’t quite remember the exact day, but in the second week of April in the year 2000, roughly ten students at my high school in the suburbs of Chicago filed into school, dressed entirely in black, and they wouldn’t say a single word the entire day. They came from various cliques in the high school.
A couple geeks, popular students, crunchy granola kids, and general misfits. I was one of them. We only knew each other a little and had no connection outside of a shared after school group and the moment before us. We recognized each other in the hallways, in each others classes, and during lunch.
We’d smile at one another in encouragement as we passed in the halls and go about our day. Upon entering each class we’d hand a small slip of paper to the teacher and to anyone else that asked why we weren’t talking. The rules were simple: Don’t talk and hand over a slip when someone asked why.
That April of 2000 was the first time my high school engaged in the observance of the National Day of Silence. A day every April where people across the country stayed silent, mostly in schools, to protest the bullying experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students. The reactions were mixed.
We got bible quotes thrown our way, some people were surprised, some shocked at our bravery or our stupidity — the opinions varied, but generally people just had more questions to which we were not allowed to answer at that time. A few people would try to get us to break our silence. Sad to say in the year 2000 this was considered a radical act.
We talked for months leading up to this how we might face bullying, mockery, or even physical harm. But we decided it was worth the risk. All throughout we had one teacher that was willing to join us that day. He printed out the slips of paper for us, provided a safe haven for us to check in if we needed to throughout the day and year after year throughout high school he was there to support us if students decided to do this.
By the time I graduated two years later — more and more people participated and it was an expected and, perhaps, welcome event each year. At that time, I was convinced that I was doing this as an ally for LGBT students. But the following fall in October as our gay/straight alliance student group figured we should take the leap and do something to mark National Coming Out Day, I realized that I was doing this for myself as well.
So that day, October 11th 2000, as we decorated the hallways with rainbow flags, I came out to my friends there in the hallway. I had already done a test run over the internet with my best friends and it went well the night before. And it went well again.
As is the case with high school kids, even with your best of friends, information spread and suddenly I was known as one of the few in the school that was daring enough to make it known in the year 2000 that, yes, I was an LGBT American. From that day forward there were comments.
I was one of the lucky ones in that I never experienced physical threat but some people did avoid me. The good news is that the year 2000 was a year in which so many things began to change and had I not joined in silence with that small handful of students six months earlier, I may not have had the courage to be honest with my peers.
Of course Unitarian Universalism helped but peer relationships and one inspiring teacher go a long way. I dare not imagine what could have happened had I not found support in my faith and in my friends. Even with a moderately progressive family it was still not easy to embark upon coming out in that setting.
Chicago Democrats can still be quite socially conservative — especially if they are South Siders. And while I’m not here to pick apart their politics, it was the culture I was a part of. So to have the influence of Unitarian Universalism, UU friends, and allies at school — I find myself counting my many blessings as an LGBT youth and wishing that all those lives we honored by being silent, in our black clothes, with our slips of paper — were not lives that needed to be memorialized but were instead lives that were still with us.
This is why the Day of Silence in April and today, National Coming Out Day are so crucial. They gave hope to me and surely give hope to many. They allow not just LGBT persons to come out but also their allies. They allow us to talk about what it means to be human and celebrate sexuality in its diversity and to provide safety to those who are in distress and in need of support.
I am thankful indeed and I know my own sense of belonging is owed to those experiences. I was welcomed both in my school and in my church. Eventually, my family was on board as well.
Here in this congregation you’ve done a significant amount of work on being a welcoming congregation. It is an admirable and worthwhile endeavor. I remember the pride and joy of the church I grew up in when they became a welcoming congregation. They handed out ribbons, put rainbow flags everywhere, and it was a significant moment.
I would hope it was as such here as well. But being designated as welcoming, while admirable, does not mean the work is done. Being welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is an ongoing education. It involves raising awareness, educating ourselves and others, being on the side of love, and checking in every now and then to see how we are doing.
One of the great dangers of progressive movements is that we find ourselves tempted to rest on our laurels and think the work is done. We may think that because we are mentally right with progressive religious causes that that is all we need. I don’t want to rain on anyones parade, but that is not enough.
As a covenantal religion, Unitarian Universalism is all about the shared visions and promises that we make with one another on a daily basis. By making these promises we are also committing to the knowledge that we will fail sometimes. We will break our covenants.
This is why it is not enough to just have a covenant of right relations but why every single group that meets in this church should have its own covenant. Every single group should have their own promises that they commit to every time they gather and something they can call each other back to when we are not at our best. Being a welcoming congregation is much like a covenant.
We’ve committed ourselves to being welcoming to LGBT persons, have had extensive discussions around it, and promised one another to go forward with these values. But we will fall short of those promises. We may already have done so. While I have not personally experienced anything as such, I wonder if you have.
How about visitors that are no longer with us? What areas of congregational life may not be as welcoming as they could be to LGBT persons? Asking these questions is not about guilt and not about finding every single detail that could be wrong, it is instead about fostering a culture of continual feedback. How have we done well and how can we do better?
These are questions that renew and revisit our promises, our covenants, with one another. The Unitarian Universalist Association now offers a renewal process for all current welcoming congregations. The process is similar to that of being designated welcoming the first time around but less intense.
But still it requires us to examine our practices, our successes, our growing edges, and commit ourselves to not be welcoming just once but continually. It is an intentional move by the UUA to make it clear that the work of anti-oppression requires renewed investment. There is a place to discuss this more if you feel that it is needed.
While I think it is a wonderful thing I cannot be the one to decide this for a congregation. One way for us to begin to raise our participation in social justice is to begin with our own community. You can let me know, you can let the board of directors know, you can let the congregation know — if this is a passion of you, the people of UUCL, it needs to come from you. It needs to be authentically yours and for you and no one else.
Whether or not this is a thing that will be engaged here, I can guarantee you one thing: if we create a culture here where we regularly check-in with how we are doing in all areas of congregational life and foster continual constructive feedback, the flow of congregational life and the impact of the good work we do will be clearer and seen by many.
The years leading up to 2015 have seen immense strides for the LGBT movement but as evidenced by events here in Kentucky, it’s not over yet. Many counties besides Rowan county across the country are still experiencing difficulty, LGBT youth are still disproportionately at risk for homelessness or suicide, many states still allow employers to fire you based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and for transgender people — their risk of being fired, homeless, in poverty, or being killed, especially transgender women of color, is off the charts.
The risks and challenges faced by LGBT persons are different than those of the year 2000 and they are certainly different than those of many years past. Things have gotten better, but new challenges have arisen. I don’t say these things with the expectation that we will solve them all. But what it does is underline the need to re-engage in our welcoming again and again and again.
Whether or not the UUA has a program to renew our status, it should be something that is automatic for us. It should be a spiritual practice. Catholics pray the rosary, Quakers find the light within, Jews observe their many rituals, Unitarian Universalists renew their covenants. Our covenant to be welcoming to LGBT persons is one of many.
But the central task of any shared covenant in our religious communities is to communicate that people belong and how they belong. Looking back on that National Coming Out Day so many years ago I never expected the day to be a continual reminder of the struggles held within the LGBT movement. There is not just one closet door to navigate but countless closet doors.
Every new encounter with someone is yet another coming out experience, every job interview, every moment in public with a partner, buying a home, singing up for insurance, the mundane and the even more mundane — closet doors are a part of LGBT life — and really, for any oppressed people.
Sometimes it is immensely exhausting and I know the last thing I want to do as a Unitarian Universalist is find closet doors in my faith community. Truth be told we don’t have any closet space in the new building anyway. But what is underlined here is just how crucial it is to renew our covenants — especially those that welcome the oppressed into our midst.
LGBT people should not even consider that rejection is a part of our principles, Black Americans should know that their lives matter in our communities, women shouldn’t find a glass ceiling in our sanctuaries, the differently abled should find accessibility and not deterrents to their participation.
The list, as with so many, goes on. For me, the power of National Coming Out Day is in knowing that there is work to be done but thank goodness there was a space for me to feel safe and supported. But I know there are those who are still being left out.
Who is being left out in our congregation? What covenants do we need to dust off and renew? How can we reaffirm our commitment to LGBT rights and, by extension, the rights of all oppressed peoples in our midst? I have no answer to these questions but I know there is a way forward.
It can begin as simply as acknowledging that we are never done in our work as a covenantal religious tradition but it can extend to all areas of our lives in this community. The next door that is opened is up to you. Blessed Be. Amen.