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When the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) conceived, created, and promoted a sexuality education program for youth, the project had no parallel in contemporary secular or religious education. Here's what happened.
In the mid-1960s, the United States experienced liberation movements in rapid succession, including a "sexual revolution." Unitarian Universalist parents from around the country sought advice from their religious educators about their how to communicate with their teenagers about sexuality. Some contacted the UUA's Division of Education in search of positive, accurate, and affirming curricula addressing human sexuality. The 1967 Fall conference program of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) featured deryck calderwood, Associate Professor of Health Education at New York University and a noted sexuality researcher. At this conference, the idea of developing a UU sexuality curriculum emerged. Hugo Hollerorth, at the time the UUA's director of curriculum, reviewed existing sexuality education materials. He found a complete lack of materials that supported the "conviction that sex is a positive and enriching force in life, that some expression of it is normal and to be expected at all age levels, and that there is no one right norm of sexual behavior for all people." With the full support of religious educators, the UUA took on a mission to address this issue. engaging calderwood to develop what would become a the groundbreaking curriculum, About Your Sexuality (AYS).
Informed by the basic principles of sex as positive and enriching and young people as possessing a right to accurate information, AYS included explicit portrayals of human anatomy, masturbation, and both heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking. Presented as still photographs in a series of filmstrips, these visuals meant to be educational, were controversial. As the AYS sessions were made available to congregations for field testing and word spread about the contents, the District Attorney of Brookfield, Wisconsin charged that the photographs violated the obscenity statutes of the State of Wisconsin. (The case, essentially about whether the state could interfere in the affairs of a local church, was tied up in court processes for a time; ultimately the actions ceased when a new District Attorney was elected.) Even religious educators and parents within the UUA were divided about the materials' appropriateness. Some questioned the age at which youth should view such explicit visuals, and how much detailed information should be presented.
About Your Sexuality also used a new, four-part educational model that moved beyond previous Unitarian Universalist efforts in its level of interactivity and integration with values. The new model (1) encouraged youth to raise personal questions, (2) offered accurate information, (3) connected information with values, and (4) encouraged ways of expressing those values in life. Over the years, the curriculum was occasionally supplemented or updated with emerging information about homosexuality, HIV and AIDS, date rape, reproductive rights, and sexual abuse. A few congregations adapted the material for older youth and adults. The materials were also used beyond Unitarian Universalist congregations, including in other religious and secular educational settings.
In 1999-2000, AYS was replaced by a new sexuality education series for children, youth, and adults called Our whole Lives, developed jointly by the UUA and the United Church of Christ. At the same time, explicitly religious companion resources—Sexuality and our Faith—were published.
Unitarian Universalist comprehensive sexuality education curricula are widely used in liberal religious and in secular settings, and have had a huge positive impact on the lives of thousands of young people and adults for more than four decades.
(Leader: Pause and invite participants to name the Unitarian Universalist Principles and/or values embodied in the actions described.)
It was not a match made in heaven—the executive branch of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, and a small, religiously-affiliated publishing house. But sometimes circumstances, and people, bring together unlikely sparring parties. Here's what happened.
In 1971, secret material that related to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the so-called "Pentagon Papers," was made public by Daniel Ellsworth, a former consultant to the Department of Defense. Excerpts published in the New York Times and the Washington Post revealed the government's duplicity in involving the United States in the war and manipulating the public to support the war's course. The public was outraged. The Nixon Administration enjoined the newspapers to halt publication, and, though the Supreme Court decided in favor of the freedom to publish this material, no publisher would agree to publish the full, 7,000-page document.
That is, until Alaska Senator and Unitarian Universalist Mike Gravel brought the prospect to Beacon Press, the nonprofit independent book publisher founded in 1854 as the press of the American Unitarian Association (by then, UUA). Gravel had entered the Pentagon Papers into the public record in Congress, and he was further determined to make the full transcript available to the public. The UUA and Beacon Press agreed that a full release of the complete record was necessary as a demonstration of the democratic process and an affirmation of the right to freedom of the press.
As soon as the FBI learned Beacon Press had agreed to publish the five volumes of materials, the agency swept in, demanding to see the UUA's financial records to determine who supported the publication. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Beacon Press was not immune from prosecution (though Mike Gravel was, as a U.S. Senator). But the Justice Department dropped the case as Nixon's troubles around Watergate deepened and diverted the country's attention.
Gobin Stair, the director of Beacon Press at the time, reflected on the link between the UUA's stand and the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon as President, noting that the Pentagon Papers helped to change public thinking about the actions of the Administration:
(It was a) watershed event in the denomination's history and a high point in Beacon's fulfilling its role as a public pulpit for proclaiming Unitarian Universalist principles.
The Civil Rights Movements in the United States have had enormous implications for individuals and communities. They have also brought great challenges to institutions, whether public or private, secular or religious. For a religious body to involve itself in movements for civil rights takes courage, integrity, and commitment. Most recently, the right of same-sex couples who seek to marry and raise families with the full rights and protections of the law has been a focus of the UUA's public witness and social justice work. But there has been a long road leading to this very public advocacy. Here's how it happened.
In 1967, the Unitarian Universalist Committee on Goals conducted a survey of the beliefs and attitudes of individual Unitarian Universalists. The results were eye-opening: Seven and seven-tenths percent of those responding believed that homosexuality should be discouraged by law; 80.2 percent that it should be discouraged by education, not law; 12 percent that it should not be discouraged by law or education; and only .1 percent that it should be encouraged. These findings offered an opportunity for introspection, education, and dialogue that eventually launched within the UUA an intentional commitment to fight negative attitudes and institutional practices that harmed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Within five years of the study, the UUA published the About Your Sexuality curriculum, including explicit, positive understandings of homosexuality, and The Invisible Minority, an adult religious education curriculum about homosexuality. The UUA Office of Gay Affairs (later the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns) was established and funded in 1973 by General Assembly resolution. Resolutions concerning gay and lesbian issues routinely became part of the UUA General Assembly's business. Even so, the 1984 General Assembly resolution affirming the practice of UUA clergy who performed services of union between same-sex couples stands out as a significant moment. The General Assembly that adopted that resolution could not have anticipated the controversies that would play out in the coming decades as religious denominations, state legislatures, courts, Congress, and even the Executive Branch of the national government hotly debated the rights of same-sex couples. The text of the 1984 resolution barely hints at its import:
Whereas, the Unitarian Universalist Association has repeatedly taken stands to affirm the rights of gay and lesbian persons over the past decade; and whereas legal marriages are currently denied gay and lesbian couples by state and provincial governments of North America; and whereas, freedom of the pulpit is a historic tradition in Unitarian Universalist societies; be it resolved: that the 1984 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association: Affirms the growing practice of some of its ministers of conducting services of union of gay and lesbian couples and urges member societies to support their ministers in this important aspect of our movement's ministry to the gay and lesbian community ...
Over the following years, the Association's advocacy created the Welcoming Congregation program, a voluntary program for congregations that seek to become more exclusive toward Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people; worked to protect the rights of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS; and opposed the Boy Scouts of America's policy of discrimination against gay (and atheist) scouts and leaders. Advocacy took various forms in response to individual state laws, which varied widely, and the policies of federal agencies. Within a single year UUA advocacy included efforts as varied as a public protest against "crime against nature" laws in one state and support for acceptance of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the U.S. military.
In 1996, the UUA Board of Trustees passed a resolution in support of same-sex marriage, followed in the same year by a General Assembly Resolution in Support of the Right to Marry for Same-Sex Couples. These resolutions came during national controversies about the State of Hawaii's decision to legally recognize same-sex marriages.
The resolutions proved invaluable in guiding the UUA's later support for marriage rights—rather than the less inclusive civil unions offered by some states—as a component of full equality. Perhaps the culminating moment came in May, 2004 when UUA President Reverend William Sinkford officiated at the legal marriage of Hillary and Julie Goodridge, the successful lead plaintiffs in Goodrich v. Massachusetts Department of Health, the case which established full and legal marriage in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—the first decision of its kind in the United States by a final appellate court. Since that shining moment, the UUA has continued to "Stand on the Side of Love" in states across the country as the issue goes from court to legislature to voters to governors, and sometimes back again. On Valentine's Day 2005, Unitarian Universalist children, youth, and adults in California made Valentines for their governor, urging him to support equal marriage. Unitarian Universalists have participated in protests and vigils, lawsuits, letter-writing, phone calls, testimony before law-makers and other organized actions state by state and initiative by initiative in support of equal marriage. As proudly proclaimed by the 12-by-20-foot banner outside the east wall of the UUA's headquarters, at 25 Beacon Street in Boston—clearly visible to its neighbor, the Massachusetts State House—the denomination has pursued a fiercely public and determined path to a goal, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right."
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Last updated on Thursday, October 10, 2013.
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