Why should Unitarian congregations seek to provide an explicit and warm welcome for members who aren’t heterosexual? After all, Unitarians are liberal, aren’t we? And dedicated to social justice too. Isn’t the need for this kind of special treatment for groups a thing of the past in an era of same-sex marriage and transgender characters on Coronation Street?
Here’s the good news: the need for such groups is less now than it ever has been, thanks to the big change in social attitudes in the last decade or two. And yes, Unitarians do have a very positive record on LGBTQI rights issues (that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex). Ann Peart’s elevation to become President of the General Assembly is a further welcome sign. It’s even the case that some heterosexual members of our movement have left other churches because they could not agree with the anti-gay – to use a shorthand – prejudice that they saw there.
But even in Unitarianism, that’s not the whole story. Some congregations can actively make LGBTQIA people feel unwelcome; sins of commission such as making anti-gay remarks. Others do so more by what might be called sins of omission. Heterosexual family life is often taken as the norm, the convention; heterosexual, conventionally-gendered life paths are also often simply assumed to be universal. This is what’s known as heterosexism – it’s not the active hatred of, or prejudice against, LGBTQIA people that characterises homophobia, but it can be similarly corrosive in its very familiarity: drip, drip, drip, not slap bang, but still as an LGBTQIA person, there you are again – on the margins.
In many ways, and perhaps for most of the time, this doesn’t matter too much, particularly if congregations are otherwise enjoyable and nourishing. But for some LGBTQIA people, overtly identifying themselves as such in a congregation is a step too far – something to be kept private, or something that can be disclosed only once a feeling of absolute security has been reached. Your congregation may very well have more LGBTQIA members than you think. And where congregations are not actively welcoming, heterosexism can be very problematic for LGBTQIA people who want to find a spiritual home in our movement.
For many, ‘coming out’ – recognising and accepting one’s non-heterosexual orientation – is a difficult process. It is also not something you can do just once; whenever you meet a new person or join a new group, there has to be a moment of decision: do you tell them or not? Moreover, coming out is always a consciousness-shaping decision, which often influences the way LGBTQIA people respond to their spirituality. Many of us have been confronted with a choice by our original faith communities – you can either be Baptist/Catholic/Hindu, or you can be gay, but you can’t be both. Others of us were for years utterly turned off religion by the inability of so many religious communities to accept our sexual orientation/identity. Even the Dalai Lama – hero to so many – is not exactly leading the charge for acceptance of ‘the gays’. So for LGBTQIA people, Unitarianism is a particularly precious refuge, and one in which I hope all Unitarians will help us to share.
What, concretely, can congregations do to be welcoming of LGBTQIA people? Below you will find various ideas about how to do this, as well as different degrees of welcome which congregations may feel able to provide – some of the suggestions are more political/outreach than spiritual or focused on congregational life. But all congregations could do small things such as posting a rainbow flag on their websites/notice boards to show LGBTQIA people they can find a spiritual home there. Another easy-to-do suggestion is for service leaders overtly to mention LGBTQIA lives and issues in their services, regularly: nothing feels more like inclusion than actively being included! Providing a link to the website of Rainbow, the Unitarian LGBTQIA group from your congregation’s home page is another easy suggestion.
Many LGBTQIA people have found a spiritual home and refuge in Unitarianism, and many more would do so if they were aware of the possibilities it can present. Please make sure that any LGBTQIA person who enters your congregation can grasp that opportunity.
- Make sure your whole congregation shares the aim of being a welcoming congregation. If not, hold a discussion about Unitarian values. Don’t assume that people are just being homophobic. Point out that being inclusive will send a signal to the whole community, not just LGBTQIA people, that we are progressive
- Ask existing LGBTQIA members what changes they would like to see
- Hang an LGBTQIA rainbow flag out of the front of your church
- Invite a LGBTQIA speaker to lead or take part in a service
- Make sure your membership pack specifies that you are an inclusive church, and includes a copy of the Where we stand leaflet
- Have a group session before membership services explaining and exploring your inclusive ethos
- Do a service debunking the “clobber texts” (the verses in the Bible that conservatives have claimed condemn homosexuality) and pointing out that Unitarians were pioneers of Biblical criticism and approach the Bible critically and reflectively. Nevertheless it is still good to show that the “clobber texts” are not references to homosexuality, because many liberal people reject the Bible for this reason.
- Do a service on same-sex love in the Bible (e.g. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi).
- Do a service on same-sex love in other traditions (Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit is an excellent resource for this)
- Do a service on LGBTQIA spirituality in various traditions
- Link to the Rainbow website
- Register for same-sex weddings
- Do a service about the history of Unitarian inclusion (the leaflet, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches gives details)
- Celebrate IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia & Transphobia)
- Get in touch with your local Pride organisers and let them know you welcome LGBT people
- Place an advert in local gay listings
- Offer a service at your local Pride event
- Offer to do a talk on liberal & inclusive religion to your local university’s student LGBT group. Invite them to come to your church.
- Run a stall at your local Pride event
- Do services on famous Unitarian LGBTs, e.g. Dudley Cave
- Advertise your same-sex weddings
- Celebrate Bridge of Light (LGBTQIA spirituality festival)
- Host an LGBTQIA spirituality group / engagement group
- Run an LGBTQIA teen support group (NB you will need CRB checks for working with children)
- Hold an inclusive weddings fair
- Make a video for the It Gets Better Project and the UK Unitarian channel on YouTube
- Make sure your church video and website reflects your inclusive stance
- There are some excellent resources on being a welcoming congregation for LGBT people on the UUA's Welcoming Congregations section.
LGBT Teen resources
- The Trevor Project - a nonprofit endeavour established to promote acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, and to aid in suicide prevention among that group.
- We are the youth - photographic journalism project chronicling the individual stories of queer youth in the United States
LGBT Spirituality resources
- Introduction to Queer Theory by David Gauntlett
- Androgyne: The Union of Opposites Within (An Internet Study)
- Spirit Matters IV:Ten Queer Spiritual Roles by Tom Moon
- White Crane Journal - gay spirituality, wisdom, culture
- White Crane blog - gay spirituality, wisdom, culture
- Jesus in Love - a network of people and websites that affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender spirituality.