Monday, April 20, 2009

A Faithful Existence

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the April 19, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

When I told my partner Emily that today’s topic was “A Faithful Existence,” she got a kind of faraway, glassy look in her eyes. She was polite enough to keep any “yes,, that’s interesting” comments to herself. But we’ve been married a long time, and I knew something was up.

The concept of “faith” didn’t speak to her because it seemed too wrapped up in a belief in god. Or more specifically, a distinct kind of monotheistic deity with distinct ideas about how we should be living our lives. For those of us who find divinity everywhere, sitting through a service like that is a recipe for boredom at best or alienation at worst.

Certainly the word “faith” has become a loaded term. People of faith, faith-based initiatives, faith communities...on my best days, the images that pop to mind start with my friend Matt, a devout Catholic who leads an interfaith worker’s rights organization, has run for office as a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, and is my exemplar of a truly feminist man. On my less-than-best days, though, those phrases about faith conjure images of people waving Yes on Prop 8 signs, screaming outside Planned Parenthood clinics, and protesting at funerals.

But faith is larger than religion. The truth is, each of us already lives a faithful existence, in ways large and small. Without even thinking about it, we take a lot on faith every day. In this moment alone, I assume that my internal organs are going about their business, my house still stands, and gravity will continue to operate. Often this faith is grounded in reason – especially that thing about gravity – but trust, expectations, and past experience all play big roles as well.

It’s an act of faith to go to bed at night and assume we’ll wake up the next morning. This isn’t something people with terminal illnesses can take for granted – maybe making their leap of faith that much bigger.

It’s a tremendous act of faith to become a parent. How will I know what to do? What happens if I lose my job? What if my child turns into a person I love but don’t like? There’s so much that’s unknowable, and the stakes are enormously high. Yet here we are, nearly 7 billion people later.

I think the biggest act of faith, though, is believing that we can find meaning in life. It’s a profoundly human tendency that transcends religion. We look for signs and omens. We cross our fingers and make wishes on stars. We ask for guidance, from the universe or the directions or our higher power or our best selves or from god or the goddess. We sit here on Sunday mornings. When times are tough or tragedy strikes, when the inexplicable and wholly irrational occurs, still we ask, “Why?”

When I was a junior in high school, I lived in Germany as an exchange student. The scholarship I’d won to get there allowed me to escape the torment I experienced at home and at school. That year abroad literally saved my sanity.

About eight months into my stay, a major existential crisis hit. I was a 16-year old desperately needing to make some kind of sense out of everything that had happened to me. One Saturday, as I sat by the river that formed the valley where my host family lived, looking up at the mountains of the Black Forest, I kept repeating, “What does it all mean? Why are we here?” with tears streaming down my face.

Much to my surprise, I got an answer. As though whispered in the back of my head, I heard, “For the beauty of it.”

Well, figuring out the meaning of life is heady stuff for a 16-year old. I tried to share this new insight with my host mother when I got home that afternoon and discovered for the first time that not everyone contemplates the meaning of life all the time. (This news came as quite a shock.) I tried sharing it with friends at school, but I couldn’t seem to convey the depth of my experience by the river. And while I’ve come to think of life’s beauty more in the sense of poetry rather than some neat and pretty package, at the time I struggled to reconcile what I’d learned with things like famine, violence, poverty, and the crazy-making way mosquitoes buzz your ears in the middle of the night.

But those words whispered to me more than two decades ago have stayed with me. It may not be your answer to why we’re here. It’s not even always my answer. But that long-ago afternoon gives me faith that the yearning for meaning will point me in the right direction to find peace.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Putting Our Money Where Their Mouths Should Be

UPDATE: While the number of states with marriage equality has changed since I first posted this, and other LGBT issues are claiming headlines, the need for greater inclusivity remains (unfortunately). ::sigh::

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With multiple victories for marriage equality in the last week -- including Iowa, Vermont, and Washington, DC -- many LGBT organizations sent out a flurry of emails and press releases about all the progress our movement had made.

Some, like NGLTF, used wonderfully inclusive language, hailing the various events that granted "the freedom to marry to same-sex couples."

Others, like HRC, continued their spotty and inconsistent (and frankly, inaccurate) language expressing excitement for all the "loving, committed lesbian and gay couples" who can now marry. Particularly disappointing is GLAAD, an organization that's supposed to be a watchdog around language for the LGBT community.

What's frustrating is that it isn't difficult to do it right. "Same-sex couple" is both more inclusive and more accurate, because two women in a couple are not always lesbians or in a "lesbian relationship." Ditto for men and "gay." Heck, for that matter, not all different-sex couples are heterosexual. (Depending on the gender identities of the people involved, "same-sex" and "different-sex" may be no more than approximations -- but these terms get closest to the crux of the struggle and are the best we have right now.)

Countless letters and phone calls and personal interactions and educational sessions and explicit non-donations and behind-the-scenes pressure over many, many years have done little to change the institutional culture wherein such exclusive language is acceptable. For whatever reason, too many supposedly LGBT organizations just don't get it -- it's not about throwing the occasional B and T into the mix. It's about standing up for us as integral parts of the queer community, all the time and every time.

This week, my bisexual wife and my bisexual self had had enough. Again.

She suggested and I created "checks" that you can fill out, print, and mail in (see below). It includes a note underneath: "This might have been a real check if you had been more inclusive." They are brought to you by the "bank" of BiPOL, a bisexual political action group.
Bisexual check (single) [PDF, 157k]
A single check, with plenty of room to write a note, if desired

Bisexual check (multiple) [PDF, 179k]
Three bi checks on one page, for efficient printing if you don't need the blank space

Transgender check (single) [PDF, 157k]
As above, but focusing on transgender exclusion

Transgender check (multiple) [PDF, 258k]
As above, but focusing on transgender exclusion

Our goal is to drive home the point that excluding bisexuals and/or transgender people is not only unacceptable, it costs the organization donations.

I should mention that there are many, many LGBT nonprofits out there doing fantastic work on behalf of all of us, and they DESPERATELY need -- and richly deserve -- our support. (In fact, only about 5% of LGBT people give to LGBT causes. We need to do far better.) That's why it's all the more important to let groups like HRC know that we're being strategic with our bi/trans/ally dollars and not rewarding them when they can't even remember to talk about us (much less address our most serious issues).

So download the files, link to them, share them with friends, invest in a few stamps, and demand that the organizations supposedly representing YOUR community do better. In this economy, perhaps we'll have enough leverage to institute lasting change.

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