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.