Monthly Archives: November 2013

Better Than Marriage: Family

For the past two weeks, I’ve been naming the challenges with focusing the struggle for gay rights within the church on the issue of marriage. Today, I propose a new, more inclusive way to discuss embracing people of all sexualities: family.

Note: This post is the third in a series on the need for more inclusive language and a broader focus within the Reconciling Ministries movement for queer inclusion in the United Methodist Church. It arises from a series of conversations with other activists in the movement, and from my seminary coursework on social changeThe first post is here. The second is here.

Language about family values is already well-loved in the church, and has been unfortunately co-opted by those who define it too narrowly as “a married man and woman and their children.” If we look back to the life of Jesus, his ministry calls us to define family more broadly, and embrace all we meet as our siblings. Look at Mark 3:31-35, where Jesus refuses to place biological family over the family of God.

We have the chance to affirm, loudly and clearly, that families come in all shapes and sizes. Especially now, when ministers are facing trial for refusing to treat their own children as second-class citizens, we must not lose sight of the power of family, or let “family values” be defined to exclude us and our experiences.

It is important that we be clear when we talk about family that we are defining it this broadly, but we do not need to always be specific. Here are some subtle ways we can make it clear that the family of God includes everyone:

Marriage is not the only way to form a family. We all have family members who are related to us in different ways. Some share a biological connection. Some have become our family members through marriage or adoption. We also speak of having a church family, where the membership rites bind us to one another. It is easy to extend this metaphor to other relationships of great care, especially in a time when many people live far away from their biological family and build strong networks of friendship to support one another. Acknowledging these relationships as family makes us all stronger and more secure.

A family doesn’t mean a household. Instead of limiting the term to the parents and children who live together, we must remember that our families stretch beyond the people we live with. This allows us to celebrate the important relationships people have with one another that are not marriage, and once again to build better support networks.

A family can be any age and contain any number of people. Too much of the focus in the marriage debate has been on the biological function of a man and woman having a child. As many rightly point out, there are many heterosexual couples who either cannot or do not wish to have children. This does not delegitimize their marriages. Similarly, a family does not require that any specific person be present. There are families without mothers, families without fathers, families without sisters or brothers. Some families are full of young children, and some are full of old people. Some are tiny and some are large. All are valuable and important.

Families can be chosen. Queer community has always been good at redefining bonds of kinship, as many of us have had difficult or impossible relationships with our families of origin. This is a strength that queer culture can bring back to the broader church. People of all kinds of sexuality grow up in unhealthy families, and should not feel forced to stay connected to abusive or harmful relationships simply because of a bond of blood. While we can love and hope for healing for everyone, we know that boundaries are important, and we should open the ability to choose the people who are most loving and most supportive as one’s family. 

Families can stay connected in spite of disagreement. As our church struggles to find a way through our conflicting definitions of family, we must reaffirm our wish to stay in relationship with one another. This is the hardest part for me; and I think the burden here is on those who seek to set boundaries around the family. We must make a table that is open to all, and that often means not talking about what the other does that we find distasteful. There are spaces and ways to disagree respectfully, and many families struggle to learn those skills. Perhaps just as some families turn to therapy, we as a church family need to seek outside assistance to learn to love and support one another through our conflicts.

Language of family is open to people of all genders, all sexual orientations, and all relationship styles. As Christians especially, we are called to build families that transcend old, broken systems. 

Every family has strengths, and every family has weaknesses. As one family in Christ, we are called to support and care for one another.

Those are family values I can get behind.

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Why not Marriage?

Last week, I wrote about feeling marginalized within a Reconciling (and broader gay-rights) movement increasingly focused on marriage. This week, I want to expand on the problems with this single-issue focus. 

 
Note: This post is the second in a series on the need for more inclusive language and a broader focus within the Reconciling Ministries movement for queer inclusion in the United Methodist Church. It arises from a series of conversations with other activists in the movement, and from my seminary coursework on social change. The first post is here.
 
Again, I want to reiterate how much in favor of marriage I am for those who want it. I was raised by parents who have a fantastic marriage, I have dozens of friends whose lives are deeply enriched by their marriages, and I am honored and excited every time I get to share in a celebration of marriage with anyone, straight or queer. I want only to emphasize that marriage is one of a myriad of choices that can lead to a rich, full life and a strong, stable family. For those who want it, we should remove all barriers and celebrate. But we need to equally celebrate those who make other choices.
 
Ultimately, this is a question of framing. Those of us involved in social change movements do not come by our language on accident, but make deliberate choices in how we will make our case to others we come in contact with, both informally and formally. The Frameworks Institute has some great resources if you want more background. As an active leader in the Reconciling movement for the past 3 years, I’ve mostly been impressed with the way the movement has formally presented itself. 
 
Especially leading up to General Conference 2012, the Love Your Neighbor branding was exactly the kind of broad frame that allowed us to form strong coalitions with many justice organizations. Everyone is our neighbor, and everyone deserves care, respect and love. This is a basic teaching of Christianity. There is no person Christ permits us to exclude from the neighbor relationship, most especially not because of their apparent sins or shortcomings.
 
After General Conference, the Love Your Neighbor campaign came to an end (mostly with legislative disappointments and further hurt). At our most recent convocation, we inaugurated a new, more activist campaign to replace Love Your Neighbor’s legislative focus: the Campaign for Biblical Obedience. This campaign encourages clergy to defy the Discipline in order to follow their pastoral calling and the Bible, and perform weddings for any and all parishioners they deem worthy. It is through this campaign that Bishop Talbert has recently come under fire for performing a same-sex wedding, and it is from this campaign that the 50 clergy came together at my church last week to marry Rick and Bill. 
 
I was ambivalent at best about the debut of the Biblical Obedience campaign at convocation. Especially among the younger cohort of Reconciling activists, many of us came into this struggle for reasons other than settling down in a marriage. The first clue that I and my people may be underrepresented in the movement came during an opening plenary. In an exercise designed to highlight the many identities that intersect in our movement, a speaker had us stand as words that described us flashed on the screen. Racial identities, class markers, adoption status, history of abuse; we silently brought so many pieces of our history into the room. And then a slide that said non-conformist flashed on the screen, and, in a room of some 200, fewer than 10 people stood. I was one of them, and I immediately knew that I was dealing with a very different movement than I thought.
 
In my world, to conform is to buy into the structures of privilege and oppression that trap all of us. To conform is to say “it’s too broken, I can’t fix it, let me at least keep my head down and get mine.” There are days I do that. There are days the fight is too hard, and I take my privilege and step away. I am not proud of those days, and I am trying to reduce them. When I sit in a room of people who are ostensibly working for radical change, I expect they’ll feel the same. It scares me that so many think conforming is acceptable. Moderation is not a prophetic goal. Moderate goals will be achieved when we are forced to compromise, but the love Jesus calls us to is radical and extreme. It does not conform.
 
Because the gay rights movement encompasses so many concerns (just watch that ever-expanding acronym) we need to be especially careful about our frame. I am aware, as the exercise at convocation showed me, that many in the Reconciling movement live in fairly normative communities and don’t often interact with queer folks other than those in lifelong marriage-style same-sex partnerships, or those who are seeking such a partnership. When we only envision our movement as for long-term same-sex couples, though, we marginalize a great many people who are also beloved children of God. To name a few:
 
  1. The single, whether queer or straight. In churches where clergy are permitted to be married, there is often a strong pressure on pastors to have a spouse and children. Even in those places where clergy are celibate, laypeople are expected to marry and reproduce. This pressure tends to make the un-coupled feel that they are less than human; how often do we talk about falling in love as finding one’s “other half” or “being made whole”? This is simply not true. It is exciting to find a person with whom you want to share your life, but a partner is not a prerequisite to being a full and valuable member of the Body of Christ. Similarly, queer people do not become queer only when in a same-sex relationship. Every person’s sexuality is an essential and beautiful part of their identity regardless of how much or little sex they are currently having.
  2. Bisexuals, and others who are attracted to multiple genders. Many queer people are attracted to people with genders across the spectrum. This often results in relationships that are legally heterosexual (i.e. one person’s paperwork identifies them as male and the other as female, regardless of their actual gender identity) but still very queer. To pretend that queer couples who can get legally married, both in all 50 states and under the Book of Discipline, are somehow less in need of our work for inclusion erases personal sexual identity and makes sexuality dependent on being in a relationship.
  3. Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming people. Like bisexuals, trans* and gender non-conforming folks may find themselves in queer relationships that appear heterosexual, or may in fact identify as heterosexual. Just because trans* people can be ordained in the Methodist church (provided they are not also gay) does not mean their fight for a place at the table is over. People who are not cisgender have a whole host of needs and concerns about inclusion that have nothing to do with who they choose to enter a relationship with.
  4. People who choose relationship styles other than marriage. I’m not talking only about non-monogamy here (although that is included). Even among the monogamous, there are an increasing number of people who choose to have romantic relationships that do not include marriage. Some people prefer to live alone, or to have a high degree of autonomy, or simply wish to devote more time to pursuits other than a marriage-style romantic relationship. These people still love and are loved, but our churches currently tell them their relationships are not legitimate and should be kept as a shameful secret until they stand before the altar together.
  5. The Asexual or Aromantic. Some people’s sexual orientation involves not having sex at all! As much as we in the marriage movement try to deflect attention from the gay sex involved in gay marriage, sex is an important part of most of these marriages. Some asexual people still want to form a marriage-style partnership, some prefer not to. Asexuality is part of God’s creation and should be celebrated along with other sexualities, and asexuals should have the chance to express this part of their identity in our churches as well.
If we hope to have a truly inclusive church, we must consider these perspectives along with those of married people. In my next post, I will look for a way to talk about marriage that continues to make space for these groups and others.

On Marriage

The church I used to call home is having a wedding today. Two people I love a lot are getting married, in a state where it’s still not legal for them to, in a denomination that still insists that their love is an abomination.
I’m not there. I want to be so bad. People certainly expect me there, wonder why I’m not. Rick and Bill would so love to share this day with me.
Note: This post is the first in a series on the need for more inclusive language and a broader focus within the Reconciling Ministries Movement of the United Methodist Church. It arises from a series of conversations with other activists in the movement, and from my seminary coursework on social change.
But I can’t. It hurts too much. Three months ago, two weeks before I was slated to preach, I got called into the pastor’s office and told that, because I am openly polyamorous and there had been some questions about my “lifestyle,” I needed to take a break from the pulpit. A few weeks later, when tempers had cooled and I had a more in-depth discussion with the chief complainant, I was told that there was no barrier to me continuing to be an active part of the church, but that continued pulpit ministry didn’t make sense. I was asked why I hadn’t formed deeper relationships with members of the congregation, in the very same conversation where I was told that I probably shouldn’t really be talking about my family so much, because some things are too personal.
When I expressed how hurt and excluded I felt, there was surprise. No one had though that this conflict would break my trust and make it even harder for me to feel at home there.
I don’t want to blame any of these people for failing to know how to welcome me. Polyamory is just barely starting to appear on the public radar, and, after all, this is a denomination still struggling to welcome monogamous gay folks. I understand that there is an arc of justice and acceptance, and that I and my family are still villainized by the mainstream. I understand that change is slow and that ignorance and misunderstanding are not malice.
But it’s hard to always self-advocate, and especially hard when the folks who are telling you your presence is questionable are from the “all means all” “draw the circle wider still” crowd. Sometimes it hurts to stay engaged, and I need to retreat.
I love weddings. I love ritual, and I love celebration, and I love when two people love each other so much and want to share that love with their community. I love love. I want to be able to celebrate love with everyone, and most especially with people I love. But it’s so hard when it’s lopsided. It’s so hard to stand by and applaud their public declarations of love when I’m not even supposed to talk about mine in relative privacy.
There’s this tendency in the movement for gay rights, like all movements, to most praise our members who most resemble the privileged. The ideal heterosexuals are married and monogamous, and so, as we try to prove that gay people should also be loved and accepted, many in the movement have decided to emphasize that gay relationships, too, are all about monogamous, lifelong marriage.
I can’t count the number of church debates I’ve sat in, listening to this or that person tell about how she and her partner do the dishes and mow the lawn, or how he and his husband play with their children, or any number of other ways to prove that love is love is love, and the way we show our love is by setting up a household with one other person until one of us dies.
We can’t keep making this argument. The fact that dozens of clergy are assembling to perform a gay wedding today doesn’t speak only to their bravery or a triumph of justice. It also tells us that this win is within our grasp. I don’t want to minimize the amount of work still to be done, or the importance of this, not just abstractly, but for real lives, lives like Rick and Bill’s.
But our frame is too small. When we say “gay rights are human rights” and get up to tell the stories about gay love, and they all come out talking about falling in love with one person and buying a house and staring into the sunset from matching rocking chairs, we exclude so many loves. Straight loves, queer loves, loves that still dare not speak their names. We exclude people who don’t define themselves by their love for another, for any number of reasons. There are so many ways to love others, and love God, and love oneself, that don’t involve marriage. Letting marriage be the crux of our argument will hurt us down the line.
It might take 3 more years, or it might take 20, but we’re going to have a church that lets folks of any gender marry each other. We’re going to throw a big party, and it’s going to be a beautiful day. And when we wake up, we’re going to find that the work isn’t done. Someone else is going to knock on our church door and ask to come in and challenge our understanding of what a God-loving life looks like.
The movement to get our churches to embrace gay couples can stay small and focused on just this one kind of love, or it can frame the conversation more broadly, so that the next group of former sinners can stand on the foundation that’s already been laid. At the very least, we can claim it is no sin to be gay without heaping extra condemnation on those who are more marginalized.
When activists give in to the baiting of the right and insist that gay marriage isn’t a slippery slope into polygamy, because monogamy is still an essential tenet of Christian morality, they are drawing a firm line that excludes me and my family. When the movement insists that gay people can also serve in ministry, as long as they express their sexuality in a monogamous marriage-style partnership, I hear the message that my gifts and my call are still illegitimate. No one has to say anything directly. The basic structure of the argument makes it clear.
This is not about making myself feel at home somewhere. I have a lot of supportive, loving people in my life, and count myself a part of multiple amazing communities. This is about building a stronger movement, winning rights while giving the next generation of activists something to work with. I don’t want a group to come along in 50 years and have to start from scratch about monogamy, because we couldn’t dream big enough today while we fought for marginalized sexual identities.
Over the next few posts, I am going to explore the ways the case for gay marriage has been framed. I’m going to look at its relation to the broader Reconciling movement. I will bring up some of the other ways the movement as it stands excludes not only the non-monogamous, but many types of non-conforming people. In the end, I hope to propose a way of talking about gay rights that leaves space for the less normative among us.