ALL of who you are is sacred.
ALL of who you are is welcome.
~ UUA Welcoming Congregation
READING from “Transgender Warriors
“Are you a boy or are you a girl?”
I’ve heard that question my whole life. The answer is not so simple, since there are no pronouns in the English language as complex as I am, and I do not want to simplify myself in order to neatly fit into one or the other. There are millions more like me in the United States alone….
Living struggles accelerate changes in language. I heard language evolve during the 1960s, when I came out into the drag bars of western New York and southern Ontario. At that time, the only words used to describe us cut and seared—yelled at us from the window of a screeching car, filled with potential bashers. There were no words that we’d go out of the way to use that made us feel good about ourselves.
When we first heard the word “gay”, some of my friends vehemently opposed the word on the grounds that it made us sound happy. “No one will ever use ‘gay’,” my friends assured me, each offering an alternative word, none of which took root. I learned that language can’t be ordered individually, as if from a Sears catalog. It is forged collectively, in the fiery heat of struggle.
SERMON Widening Our Welcome Rev. Maddie Sifantus
There is much we can learn from the late Leslie Feinberg who wrote the now classic book, Transgender Warriors in 1996 and which those of us doing Welcoming Congregation work devoured upon its release, trying to make sense of this piece of the widening of our welcome. Feinberg described herself as “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist.” Now there’s a combo. How would one choose a pronoun?
Various proposals for use of non-standard pronouns have been introduced since at least the Nineteenth Century. Ten years of “living struggles” later, Feinberg stated in a 2006 interview that her preferred pronouns varied depending on context:
“For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian—referring to me as ‘she/her’ is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as ‘he’ would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir’ because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as ‘he/him’ honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as ‘she/her’ does.” Phew. It is all very complicated, especially for those of us who want to widen our welcome—who want to honor ALL persons. For isn’t that what we want as UUs? Or isn’t that what we CLAIM we want?
Today is Part Two of a theme I began this past November with a service I shared with the AIDS quilt project, “The Wider Welcome.” On that inspiring morning, large sections of the AIDS quilts made in memory of those from Ventura County who had died from AIDS were displayed in our Sanctuary and the Parish Hall. Representatives of the AIDS Quilt Project, husbands Neil and Keith Coffman-Gray joined me in the pulpit. Jerry was my Pulpit Host that day as well.
In my homily that morning, I briefly reflected on my experiences of my early days on my path to understanding the experiences of my Lesbian and Gay fellow travelers in my home faith community and beyond; this was before I went to seminary but was doing youth work with the middle school and high school students in my congregation. I had been aware of gay rights from my days in college, along with all the rights movements bubbling on campus along with the anti-war movement. But I hadn’t thought it touched me. I now suspect that a couple of the suicides among my network in my young adult years were related to issues of their coming to terms with gender identity or sexual orientation. But it was some experiences after becoming a UU in the 80s and claiming the Seven Principles with the fervor of a new convert that had me delving more into the area of understanding and supporting my Lesbian and Gay friends and neighbors and facilitating my congregation to sign on to exploring the Welcoming Congregation program when it was still being field tested. My November homily is on the website if you want to read more about some of the experiences which opened my eyes.
But another reason I was reflecting that day, when our service was entitled “The Wider Welcome”, was on the history of THIS congregation becoming a Welcoming Congregation in light of the fact that it is now time for us to renew our status. I wondered what your process was and how it went. Those of you who walk in the front door on a Sunday morning walk right by the plaque that announces our official status as a Welcoming Congregation. Those newer among you might wonder what that even is, a Welcoming Congregation. Don’t we welcome everyone? To remind you:
“The Welcoming Congregation Program was officially launched in 1990 to address widespread homophobia and the exclusion of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people within Unitarian Universalism, and religion writ large. In hopes of fully living into our UU beliefs and principles, namely ‘Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,’ the Welcoming Congregations program was instituted. Since then, the UUA has approved more than 800 congregations, including ours, as official Welcoming Congregations.”
In talking with Jerry, John Robles, Kate English and others, I learned the path in our congregation was a process, as it has been in all of our congregations; it was not necessarily a slam dunk. It takes time for folks to move along the continuum of understanding of others’ experiences. I know it did for me. And I am probably still on the continuum. When we fit, or think we do, in the so-called mainstream, it can be hard to see all the other varieties of human expression, the lack of inclusion, the lack of welcome, the “othering”. And we are widening our welcome for all, we are also widening the welcome for all parts of ourselves.
This week I reread a sermon that John Robles preached in this space in 1999 which he entitled, “The Journey to Freedom”. In it he gives some history of the Gay Rights movement, especially the Stonewall riots in New York which brought Gay Rights out of the closet, so to speak. He reflected: “exactly one month after Stonewall, three to four hundred gays and lesbians gathered at Washington Square and marched to the site of the riots, chanting ‘Gay Power’ and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. The gay revolution-the last revolution of the 1960s-had finally arrived.”
Near the end of his sermon John said this, on that Sunday in 1999:
“The need to fight for one’s personal rights began. The need to shout ‘I am a person, and I count too!’ began. Surprisingly, as our small church and congregation takes steps to become a ‘Welcoming Congregation’, there is dissension in our own religious fellowship. The UU World of February 1997 sported a cover illustration and feature article on gay life and marriages. The following month’s letters section contained much praise of the issue, but most shockingly to me, some letters that were openly defiant and strongly opposed to the gay cause. I read words I didn’t believe a UU could write in a letter, virulent attacks against gay people, in our own ranks. Having grown up in this church, where I always felt supported and loved, and where the individual rights of every person were affirmed, I felt amazement that these feelings could exist within our denomination. This summed up for me the reason why the gay struggle must go on. Not to exist as an in-your-face I’m Here and I’m Queer so get used to it movement, but as an educational movement, a political movement, and above all as a cultural movement… We are people of all creeds, nations and colors…no wonder the emblem of the gay community is a rainbow. We all share the journey, every nation, every color…the journey to freedom.”
As we all know, the journey to freedom continues to be a journey for many. As I said in November, “In recent years, having won the fight for marriage equality in 2015, it had seemed to many as if the work of LGBTQ+ welcome in the UUA had been complete. While many lesbian and gay Unitarian Universalists may have experienced full inclusion, bisexuals continue to struggle for visibility. Likewise, the transgender community is fighting for viability and inclusion in a faith lauded as radically inclusive…. These harsh realities reveal that we are not as “Welcoming” as we think we are.”
Our congregation kicked off its Welcoming Congregation program in 2001, chaired by Jerry Grey, which resulted in the earning of our Welcoming Congregation status. It is now time for us to revisit the Welcoming Congregation and achieve Renewal Status. If you want to think more about this, please join me today in my office as coffee hour winds down. We will look at the Five Pillars of a Welcome Renewal program. As a small congregation, we already do much of what is required to renew our status. We already are a recognized Welcoming Congregation, the First Pillar. We already do about two services at least a year that focus on Welcoming, the second pillar. Do you know that we have a LGBTQ youth group that we host on Friday afternoons, hosted by Kate English and Sandy Gomez from the Family Harmony? Do you remember Kate teaching us about pronouns in a special workshop? I can tell you more about the process we are going through.
In 2019, 20 years after John Robles’ sermon, we want to receive our renewal and we want to be bolder with our Welcome…or look toward Widening Our Welcome, if you will. At least I hope we do. The original Welcoming Congregation focused more on the G and L—Lesbian and Gay folks. The B and T—Bisexual and Transgender—were not much considered back then—perhaps it was thought they were too confusing for folks. And since 1991 other letters have been added—primarily Q, but more. Folks now say LGBTQ+. And then there are all those pronouns. Transgender Unitarian Universalists are still struggling to find community in UU congregations. Bisexual UUs suffer from invisibility, while asexual, intersex and polyamorous communities are wrestling with a progressive faith that does not privilege their truth. As a denomination, we are called into a deeper commitment to ensure that we are living into the Welcome we boldly proclaim.
One way we can do that is educate ourselves. This morning I want to tell you briefly about a recent report which was released, “Experiences of Trans Unitarian Universalists” which is a report on a 2018 Survey of Trans UUs. In spring 2018, TRUUsT and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Multicultural Ministries office conducted a survey of trans Unitarian Universalists. The results provide unprecedented insights into who trans UUs are and their experiences within Unitarian Universalism. TRUUsT is an acronym for Trans Religious professional Unitarian Universalists Together.…The experiences of trans people in our congregations have not reflected the values and aspirations of this faith. For the first time, this report provides a snapshot of trans UUs and their experiences in Unitarian Universalism.
TRUUsT was founded in 2004 by Mr. Barb Greve and Rev. Sean Parker-Dennison. Barb was probably the first Trans person I knew personally since they were the child of the Director of Religious Education of the church in the adjacent town who I worked with when I was doing youth work back in the 80s when they were a teen. Knowing them adds another laying of understanding of the difficulty our talented trans religious professionals have in finding a place and employment in our movement. Barb is a credentialed religious educator and currently co-moderator of the UUA. But it has been far from an easy path for them.
TRUUsT’s mission is to support UU trans religious professionals, advocate for each other and their ministries, and transform Unitarian Universalism and our world. TRUUsT takes a broad view of what it means to be trans and what it means to be a religious professional, in recognition that oppression has too often served as a barrier to trans people accessing traditional paths to credentialed leadership. Members of TRUUsT are genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, two spirit, trans women, trans men, and more, and include credentialed and non-credentialed ministers, religious educators, music directors, youth directors, church administrators, chaplains, and seminarians.
No, our trans religious professionals have not had an easy time of it. But things are changing. From my vantage point sitting on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee which credentials our ministers, the diversity of Candidates appearing before us has increased markedly in the now six years in my tenure. Not only are we MFC members privileged to have training in the latest developments by groups such as TRUUsT, as well as disabled rights activists, anti-racist work and others, but I have seen a number of trans Candidates come through, get fellowshipped and more importantly, go on to get jobs in congregations. One of those is my long-time mentee who I met while I was still adjunct faculty at Andover Newton Theological School back East and who I continue to mentor in their Preliminary Fellowship years. They are serving the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Egg Harbor in a very successful ministry. Here are some words from Dawn, the minister:
My theology understands humanity as simultaneously fragile and resilient, weak and strong, greedy and generous, mean and compassionate. I see the divine spark in the tension between those opposites. I see the divine in the generosity of those who often have the least to give, in kindness offered by those who would arguably have the most reason to be bitter. The divine is like love in this regard: irrational, unexpected, and beautiful.
Widening our welcome is all about love…all about “beloved, let us love one another…and it can be at times “irrational, unexpected, and beautiful.” I look forward to widening our welcome through the Renewal Process to see how the divine in all persons can shine here in our pews and all our activities.
I end our service this morning with a blessing which was shared by the UUA. It came out of LGBTQ+ community of faith and spirit approaching the United Methodist Conference Special Session on human sexuality. Those who signed this blessing represent many traditions, faiths, and spiritual practices, raising their voices for their siblings in the Methodist faith communities and for themselves. We continue to hear these voices, along with all our voices. May we continue to listen and renew our resolve from our First Principle, the “inherent worth and dignity of all human beings” that: “ALL of who you are is sacred. ALL of who you are is welcome.”
Bless all those who love.
Bless all of us queer and lesbian and gay and trans and bi and nonbinary and beyond who lead in the path of spirit whether we are wanted or not, whether we are fearful or brave, whether we are out or not.
Our family has always been called to spiritual leadership and we serve in many ways.
As healers and song leaders, committee chairs and ordained clergy, counselors and prophets.
We preside over communion tables and Shabbat services, at bedsides and weddings and direct actions. We are at births and deaths, leading choirs and capital campaigns. We are everyday people in the pews ready to offer and receive food for our spirits.
May every LGBTQ+ person who doubts that they deserve a spiritual community find a home of spirit and celebration.
May every LGBTQ+ spiritual leader who guides their people with love and skill in the face of homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, know their worth and brilliance.
May every LGBTQ+ leader who withstands the pain and harm of congregations, institutions, and denominations find healing, love and power.
Bless all those who are self-avowed, practicing lovers of justice and liberation.
Bless all those who love.
May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.
May ALL of us know we deserve a spiritual community where we find a home of spirit and celebration. Go in peace. Amen.
 Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors. Beacon Press, ix.
 “The Wider Welcome”, homily by Maddie Sifantus, UUCSP, 11-4-18.
 “The Journey to Freedom”, sermon by John Robles, UUCSP, 1999.
 Sifantus, 11-4-18.
 Dawn Fortune, UUA, Words for Worship