Love in the Open
It was the first year of my first settled position as a minister that I heard of the well-known playwright and novelist whom I shall call Joan Wood. She was a member of my church on Long Island. She was very ill with a malignant brain tumor. During the next several months, I visited Joan in her home. I got to know her and her beloved life companion, Robin. I also got to know many of their friends, most of them members of the gay community in New York City and eastern Long Island. And I learned that they weren’t just friends; they were family.
And that’s really all I want to talk about today. Family. Not homosexuality, not sexual preference, not sexual orientation, not gay or lesbian “lifestyle.” Family. Love. Something every human being on this earth yearns for. I don’t know why it is that somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the human population prefers to establish family bonds by loving members of their own gender, and I don’t really care why. They do, that’s all. It’s been that way for thousands of years.
Back to Joan and Robin. When Joan died in February of that first year of my ministry, she was distinguished enough for her death to receive some attention from the media. Her obituary included a long list of literary honors and awards. Then at the end it said, “She leaves her mother, Clara, of Florida, and two brothers, Harry and Bill.” Period. It had mentioned earlier that she had shared a house with her long-time companion and manager, Robin Andover. How long? Fourteen years. And had Joan not died at the age of 45, they would have been together much longer.
Long-time companion. House-mates. Survived by her mother, who for most of her adult life had disowned her, and by her brothers, whom I do not remember even meeting. Robin and Jere and Nancy and Paula and Bill...and countless others who were at Joan’s side throughout months of incredible suffering.
As Robin and I planned the funeral, I said “O.K. What do you want to be called?” I knew that Robin did not use the term married to describe their relationship, and I told her I didn’t really like the term lover because I associated it with extramarital affairs. Didn’t seem to describe the relationship. I suggested “companion.” “That sounds like someone hired to take care of an invalid,” said Robin. Neither term seemed adequate, so we finally settled on “beloved companion.” The awkwardness around language underscored the awkwardness we all encounter as we confront attitudes, including our own, about loving relationships between women and women, or between men and men.
A journalist who interviewed Robin began her article this way: “‘At Joan’s funeral there were an awful lot of straight people,’ recalls Robin Andover of the service for Joan Wood. When the playwright died of a brain tumor last February, the townspeople of their little Long Island village showed up without regard to their sexual preference. ‘There were the people who owned the hardware store and the laundromat, all the small town folks whom Joan and I had educated. We both believed in gently being ourselves and thereby teaching people.’”
After I conducted that service, by the way, the mail started coming in. Letters from members of the gay and lesbian community who said that they had never before experienced in a church the sense of dignity that they felt at that service. I have never received so many letters of gratitude from strangers. Most of them enclosed generous contributions to the church. They wanted to say thank you for the open recognition of love and commitment between two women. They had learned to expect judgment and rejection from churches. And a good many of them joined the Universalist Church of Southold, which has about ten to fifteen percent gay and lesbian membership. That’s probably about what most churches have, but the difference there was that most of that ten to fifteen percent were openly gay. They didn’t make a big deal of it; they just didn’t hide it.
One of Joan’s friends, Kayla, joined the church immediately, and became active. She was an actor, and she enjoyed working with the children on special projects. She remarked on one occasion that it was nice to be in a church where parents didn’t snatch their children away when she walked into a room. Quite the contrary, Kayla was and is one of the most loved and respected leaders in the congregation. So when she and Karen came to me and said they would like to plan a union ceremony in the church, I rejoiced with them and we started planning. I think that was after the U.U.A. had passed a resolution at the General Assembly in support of ministers who performed union ceremonies for gay couples. It is an expression of the principles of our faith—principles that begin with affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
As I always do when I perform a wedding ceremony for members of the congregation, I put an announcement in the newsletter. I was not prepared for what happened at the next Board meeting. One Board member, who was also chair of the canvass, said that we were going to lose a lot of money because of this, and why didn’t I ask for the Board’s permission before doing the service? Another Board member said that he understood why I would do the service, but why did I have to announce it in the newsletter, which went out to the public? The rest of the Board members, most of whom had been at the ceremony and the reception, supported me. We didn’t lose money, in spite of the fact that the Canvass Chair lowered his pledge.
Kayla and Karen, by the way, commuted out to Southold from New York City—about a hundred miles—every weekend. Eventually, they decided to give up their jobs in the city and move out to the east end. Kayla just told me a few days ago that, even though there was a very close gay community on the east end, it was not the community that stirred the decision to move. It was the church community, where they experienced a sense of extended family grounded in the principles of faith. When I left that congregation and moved to Maryland, they elected Kayla as the chair of the committee that would conduct the search for their next minister.
I have taken this much time talking about these people in that church on Long Island because it is a way of saying how it can be. I could stand here all day and say how it isn’t. I could rant and rave about how it ought to be. And I will rant and rave just a little. But mainly, what I want to say is that homophobia is curable. Not someone else’s homophobia, but mine, yours.
Now for the ranting and raving. Because what really upsets me is that so many people carry an incredible burden of secrecy.
And so many people carry the burden of secrecy in their own families. And the most tragic thing happens when they can no longer carry that burden and their own families reject them. No, I take that back. The most tragic part is when one keeps that burden and never knows whether others will accept or reject them.
And why? Why should it have to be this way? What is this fear about? What is there to fear?
Have you seen any of the articles in your local or national press, perhaps one about a lesbian couple planning their wedding? What was your response? There it was—love in the open. Not sex in the open. Love in the open. Sure, plenty of homosexuals have sex without love, just like many heterosexuals have sex without love. But that isn’t what I am talking about today. I am talking about love. Family. And who among us wants to have to hide the affection we have for someone?
I know of one such article that prompted several letters to the editor. My favorite is this one: “Many parents in this county are working tirelessly to shield our children from the influence of these kinds of perversions. ... As a Christian I feel nothing but love and concern for all homosexuals, but I cannot sit by while the media continues trying to drum up public acceptance of this practice.” Another letter made its appeal for traditional family values, saying, “You could more tastefully encourage and inform our youth of the importance of commitment and family by choosing a more popular and realistic couple’s way of life.”
Traditional family values!
More families have been destroyed by rejection of gay members than by exposure to gay love.
More families have been made dysfunctional by secrecy than by openness.
More families have been taught to hate by the example of bigotry than by the example of acceptance.
Robin Andover spoke of how she and Joan educated the people of their own town. She said, “We both believed in gently being ourselves and thereby teaching people.”
Each of us is in a position to be a part of the educating process, too. First, by recognizing our prejudices, our discomforts, our fears. And then by asking ourselves, “Do I recognize that at least ten percent of our members are gay?” Do you assume that a couples group will be all heterosexual couples? Do you tend to seat people boy-girl, boy-girl around the table? If someone you know and like had a “spouse,” as one of my gay colleagues calls the man with whom he shares his life, would you invite them to dinner? Does this sermon topic make you feel uncomfortable? Maybe so. But that’s not the problem. The problem is when you can’t even say that it makes you uncomfortable.
May our voices be heard—in Sacramento, in Washington, in Santa Barbara, [Local place names can be substituted] and in our congregational life in support of family values—family values, not just for men and women who choose to love each other, but for women who love women, and for men who love men.