Names and language matter.
Sometimes we may take our words more lightly. We may deny that they matter as much as they do, but the hurts we carry, the discrimination we or others may face remind us that most vividly that beyond words, we matter, people matter. We matter in all our complexity, diversity, difficulty and in whatever way we express our identities.
There’s a celebration and parade march in Washington D.C. this weekend.Some are calling it “national pride day”, even though the current administration there has not deemed it necessary or appropriate to say the words. We used to call these June celebrations “Gay Pride”, and that one word stood for a whole complex universe of people and sexual orientations. When more and more people came out of their various closets and we celebrated a wider diversity of inclusion and acceptance – we added more words to this “Pride” designation. Over the years the rainbow has expanded… and the letters “Pride” includes are many. We’ve become increasingly comfortable saying “LGBT”, and maybe even adding “AQQI” . Yet sometimes I wonder, as acceptance has grown, and “being gay” became part of the cultural “norm” – is that enough? What is Pride about now?
After marriage equality became law in so many states, when the Defense of Marriage Act – DOMA – was nullified, and we see same-sex couples and families of every kind presented in advertising, from Cheerios to IKEA to Macy’s… do we really still need this? Sadly, yes, we do. Despite all those gains, there is an increase in legislation that allows businesses to refuse services to LGBT people
based on religious beliefs. And ridiculous so-called “bathroom bills” that deny a person’s dignity and safety in their most intimate needs. We see LGBT discrimination intensifying in the highest echelons of government in this country.
And even as more religious instructions open their hearts and doors wider, still the elevation last year of Karen Oliveto to bishop was ruled (by the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council) to be in violation of church law, because she is married to another woman.
This just a year after dozens of Methodist clergy members took a stand for equality in the hope that their church will re-evaluate discriminatory policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
So as long as hateful laws get proposed and passed and enforced,
we will still need this time each June to remind us of how far we’ve come. Unitarian Universalist and other religious denominations and congregations that have adopted and proclaimed “welcoming” and “open and affirming” or other inclusive designations discover this, year after year. “Pride” does matter, our actions matter and must live up to our good words. There is still much left for us to do.
The identities described by those alphabets in front of the word “Pride” – LGBTQQIA – they name our tribes.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Queer, Intersex. Asexual… And these tribes, these identity groups are incredibly important as people look to live their lives, in safety and not in isolation. They remind us that it matters… words matter, identities matter, acceptance matters. They define us over and against something – the “normal” identity of heterosexual. These labels also can prove to be limiting… sometimes pitting one group against another. They’ve been used to define who legitimately belongs and who doesn’t. As we continue discovering how vast and deep the expressions of human sexuality are, it seems we are each so much more than that one identity.
And yes, it matters – our words matter.
Take for instance the word “queer”… Queer is often taken to mean “odd” or unusual. And it is a word that has a sullied history as an epithet, a means of inflicting emotional hurt or a rallying cry for abuse. But like an equally lightening-attracting “N-word”, it is something the oppressed community has reclaimed and reframed. It is heard in the halls of academia and seminary – queer studies, queer theory, queer theology. Queer is more than just “gay” or homosexual terminology.
Think of queer as an umbrella term. It can encompass that role or identity continuum that all of us human beings ride on. It means more than sexual or affectional orientation. It includes gender and gender-expression, as well. It includes anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms with respect to gender or sexuality.
This, therefore, could include the person who highly values
queer theory concepts and would rather not identify with any particular label, and it includes the gender fluid bisexual, the gender fluid heterosexual, the questioning LGBT person, and the person who just doesn’t feel like they quite fit in to societal norms -someone comfortable as an outsider – and wants to bond with a community over that.
Queer is an inclusive name – not a label or limit. It gives us the space to recognize one another. To be spacious to hold a multitude of identities in our community…to name and recognize each person, honor each individual’s worth and dignity, to know ourselves and let ourselves be known. To know one another – and to see one another. How grand it would be for every person to be born with that freedom to choose, or not… to find their way of loving and living without being scrutinized by others who want to put them in some kind of box, some kind of conformity.
Queer gets us out of the binary box – male-female, boy-girl. Queer makes room for more – more people, more expressions. What if we didn’t have to say, one way or the other? What if who you love or how you wish to express yourself in appearance or attitude didn’t matter?
What if “who” you are was more important than the “what” you are?
I don’t expect everyone is comfortable with both the expression and the idea of gender-queer fluidity. Yet as Miranda says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!”
It may be a brave new world – and what marvels we who inhabit this world are!How we have adapted and changed and grown
in understanding and acceptance decade by decade. “Queer” is an invitation to even more inclusive and open way of being and thinking and seeing. There’s a whole rainbow of humanity in being queer.
And some might be challenged – even frightened – when the walls separating one category from another become permeable, realizing that differences are fluid. We need the freedom, openness of mind and heart, and community to be comfortable with and welcoming that difference… that queerness. We continue to grow in understanding what that acceptance looks like. And we see this play out in so many ways, notably in the language we use.
Which brings me to our closing hymn – a beloved one composed by Jason Shelton.
A song that has become steeped in meaning for many especially when it comes to celebrating pride and challenging prejudice. It is connected to a moment of great honor and dignity in the life of BuxMont UU Fellowship, when you celebrated the reinstallation of your marriage equality banner. And UUA President Bill Sinkford came and marched with you as the new banner was installed. And you sang, proudly and I’m sure loudly, “Standing on the Side of Love”. And today we will sing that hymn again, but with new words. Words that might feel different, perhaps not as comfortable. But words matter…we are continually evolving, growing into inclusion and a wider welcome.And that can sometimes be awkward or painful. So a little background as to why the words are changed.
For a long time now… perhaps way too long a time, Unitarian Universalists with disabilities and their allies have raised concerns about the song. “Standing on the side of love” is one of those metaphors that makes some people with physical disabilities –
specifically people who have trouble standing or who can’t stand – feel excluded. Of course they understand this is a metaphor, not to be taken literally. Come to think about it, we tend to rely on a lot of metaphors that are body-based, and specifically able-bodies.
Come walk in rain with me…
guide my feet while i run this race…
We honor and fetishize able bodies, extoll fitness, athleticism and strength. And when we use these metaphors over and over again,
without acknowledging that they come from experiences that are not universal… after a while, some people will start to feel excluded.
I know I felt this back in the fall, when I preached a sermon
“We Make the Path by Walking”. But it didn’t hit me until I was in the pulpit and looked out into the congregation, and noticed the diversity of abilities present, and how my continued use of that poetic reference could be excluding some people. So as I went, I kept substituting other words – moving, I think was one of them,
throughout the sermon – wherever it said” walk”. I was trying to find other more inclusive metaphors on the fly, and it wasn’t easy. What that experience, and Shelton’s own struggle, remind us is that at the very least we ought to be able to acknowledge when our words become exclusive and not welcoming.
Questions of language and inclusion are always sure to ruffle feathers, but why? Why is it so hard to let go of words which so clearly cause harm to others? A simple change in words requires that we who resist it let go of some privilege. A small change in words can say “I see you… “ to everyone in the room.
Remember 40 or so years ago, when we began to “de-genderize” the hymnal? The upset in some quarters about removing “men” from the center of all reference? But we did it… and now it is common place.
So whether it’s being anti-ableism, or becoming comfortable with a “queer” identity that breaks us out of that gender-binary, this ongoing process of adapting our language to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible is, indeed, a spiritual practice.
Rev. Jason Shelton was aware of the concerns raised about “Standing on the Side of Love.” He listened openly, and he came to understand what was wrong. There were many conversations, and sharing difficult truths and offering witness to other’s pain.
And it matters that we listen, even if the resolution of that difficulty or hurt is unclear and far off. It matters that we engage, even if it’s uncomfortable. In the end, it may require that we do things differently – we may have to give up beloved lyrics or let go of cherished memories. These are some of the sacrifices we might make for the sake of inclusion, to honor justice and beloved community. To acknowledge everyone in the room in both word and deed.
Rev. Shelton admits that he wasn’t sure exactly how to fix it. He considered substitute words for “Standing”, but he realized they all kept the focus on the physical action required. And the focus of the song is not that activity, but it is Love. As much as he was attached to – and proud of – “Standing on the Side of Love”, love matters more than his lyrics.
The form of the change came to him in the middle of the night:
“Answering the Call of Love.” This word change, he said, is a way of actually embodying the meaning of the song. “What love calls us to do,” he said, “is to be in deeper relationship with one another, to see one another more clearly, to respond to those needs and to let go of our attachments – and God knows I’m attached to those words. But love is more important.”
I invite us to open ourselves to that love when we sing this hymn in a little bit… so hold these words in your heart and mind and when we get there, let us sing out loud!
Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak © June 2017