I was born in Appalachian East Tennessee. My father is from Connecticut. My mother is also from Tennessee. The first place I remember living was a small town in Connecticut. When I was 8, we moved to Kentucky. I joke I am the product of a mixed marriage. My father was from a blue state and my mother was from a red state.
In my time at the UUA I’ve now been to every state (not to mention 8 of 10 Canadian provinces). I am gay, white, mostly able-bodied though diabetic with a touch of arthritis, male, and 56. I am all of these stories and more.
I have been through our divided nation several times. I’ve heard many stories.
So the other night, as I was waiting to watch the new Star Trek episode, I caught a piece of 60 Minutes, where Oprah held a focus group of 14 people from Western Michigan. It was called “Divided.” It is well worth watching.
Seven of the people voted for Trump. Seven of the people voted for Clinton. And Oprah was there to see if there was still a great divide in our country.
Even with people who discover they like each other.
I was struck by one woman who told her story about health care, and her migraines, and how health care had saved her life. She had a noticeable impact on many of the folks who supported Trump’s desire to end “Obamacare.”
It made me wish later, that when Oprah shared Trump’s tweet about trans folks being banned from the military, what that conversation about the ban would have been like had a transgender veteran been in the room (no one identified as such)—or better yet five very different transgender veterans. Several people were insisting that people chose to be transgender (though one of the Trump’s supporters said people were born gay and black—which given what people used to say about gay people was a small sign of progress.)
One of the first things I noticed was the number of times a man spoke over a woman, or spoke first when a question was asked. And I also noticed how infrequently the African-Americans spoke. I allowed for the possibility that editing may have had something to do with this. I wondered if this was a bias on my count, so I decided to count. So I watch the segment three more times.
The group was 14 people, 7 men and 7 women. 11 White folks (6 men, 5 women), 2 African-American (1 man, 1 woman), 1 Asian-American (woman).
The men spoke 38 times (58.5%) and the women spoke (41.5%). The white people spoke 56 times (86%), the African-Americans spoke 5 times (8%), the Asian-American woman spoke 4 times (6%).
The group was 50% men, 50% women, 79% White, 21% people of color.
I again wondered how the conversation would have been with 3 white people and 11 people of color, and 4 men, 4 women, and 6 people who identified as non-binary or even trans men and trans women.
In our Unitarian Universalist faith, we like to believe we’ve “gotten it”—that we’re better than this.
Listening and paying attention are spiritual practices. They are also acts of justice.
There was a time when I saw the number of queer people in our congregation on the rise. Now it’s on the decline. We think we’ve done that. “We’re welcoming.” “Sexual orientation doesn’t matter any more. We have marriage equality.” “Anyone can come here.”
Yet, I wonder. Are we listening? Are we paying attention?
This is a time and age for deep listening, being in community, and respect. Do we notice who is speaking? Do we notice who is and is not in the room? Are we waiting to speak or are we paying attention?
To paraphrase Ghandi, “We must be the change we wish for the world.” We must notice who speaks, who is in the room, whom we listen to, what people say. We must notice who isn’t in the room and needs to be.
I don’t think Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harvey Milk, and Leslie Feinberg ever thought they’d say, “all is well and we’re done.” I don’t think they ever thought discrimination and bias and oppression would end in their lifetimes. And they kept working. They kept telling stories, kept organizing, listening, paying attention, and staying committed to the hope that if they kept it, the world might become a better place.
So should we. I believe our future will be determined by how well we do these things too, starting with the spiritual practices of listening and paying attention--if we can honor the stories of others and our own stories. And noticing whose stories are not in the room and that we need to hear.
We cannot let up. Or we will always be divided.