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UU ministers speak out in support of gay teens

Unitarian Universalists use sermons, letters, and YouTube videos to confront bullying.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.18.10

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red roses

Roses at Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland, Maine, memorialize six young men who recently committed suicide because of anti-gay harassment at school. (Betsy Parsons)

The sermon that the Rev. Fred Hammond preached to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on October 10 and the six red roses that the Rev. Myke Johnson set in front of her congregation in Portland, Maine, on the same day are just two of the ways that UU congregations have responded to a recent rash of suicides of young men, victims of school-based anti-gay harassment.*

The recent deaths of at least six high school and college-age men captured the public’s attention primarily because of the death of Tyler Clementi, who jumped from a bridge September 22 after his Rutgers University roommate surreptitiously recorded his sexual encounter with another man and streamed it on the internet.

UU ministers may be more aware than most of the dangers of gay bullying. Some endured it themselves. In his sermon at Tuscaloosa, Hammond shared his own experience as a seventh grader who was tormented daily because he carried his books “like a girl.” Only after he finally broke down in tears and a teacher and a counselor became aware of the bullying and intervened did his life improve.

Hammond said he shared his story not only to let people know that bullying is not new, but that a critical part of surviving it is having supportive people in one’s life. “A big part of my story is that I did have people who intervened. That’s a part of what needs to happen for youth today.” He said the youth group at his congregation includes many youth from the community at large, including several who are gay.

“One of the things that I hope comes out of my talking about this is increased support for our youth group here,” he said. “It provides a place of haven for these teens. Alabama is not a friendly state for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. When I talk with teens and hear that their families are against them for being who they are it means our youth group needs to be even more of a place of safety.”

The Rev. Lisa Kemper, serving as a chaplain resident at York Hospital in York, Pa., made a two-and-a-half-minute YouTube video with her partner, United Church of Christ minister the Rev. Dr. Janet Parker.* “We are here to tell you that it does get better,” said Kemper on the video. “I can tell you there was a time in my life when I never could have imagined that I would be partnered, that I could be ordained, that I would be accepted in my community for all of who I am as a lesbian.”

Several members of the BuxMont UU Fellowship in Warrington, Pa., participated in a vigil last week against bullying. The vigil was organized by Doylestown Pride, working with youth and volunteers from the Rainbow Room, gathering places for GLBT youth sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Bucks County.

Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in supporting GLBT teens, the Rev. Dan Schatz, BuxMont minister, told UU World. “One of the reasons our congregations are so important is that they are safe spaces for these youth. We do more than just tolerate different sexual identities. We celebrate diversity. Unitarian Universalists are among the few denominations who can speak pretty much unequivocally in support of GLBT teens.”

Schatz said he is hoping to partner with others, including some who attended the vigil, to form a county-wide GLBT advocacy group and eventually introduce a nondiscrimination ordinance covering Bucks County. “It won’t happen quickly, but it’s important to do.”

When the Rev. Myke Johnson, at Allen Avenue UU Church in Portland, Maine, heard about the suicides she wanted to do something. Before the service on October 3 she lined up roses for some of the recent deaths and read off the names of the deceased. “When I heard about these deaths I was broken-hearted and felt a need to surround these young people with love in some way and also those people in our congregation who I knew would be feeling the pain. Roses seemed appropriate to convey the beauty and fragility of these lives.”

The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, a UU minister and executive director of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice, sent a letter October 4 to 2,200 religious leaders in a dozen denominations, urging them to take up the issue of GLBT suicides. In “An Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Gay Youth Suicides: It’s Time to Act Out Loud,” she noted that October 11 was National Coming Out Day, a day that encourages gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to publicly state who they are. Haffner wrote, “Most all of us have teens and young adults who are gay or lesbian in our congregations, many who are suffering in silence and are at risk. What if next weekend all of us told them from our pulpits how heartbroken we are by Tyler Clementi’s suicide and that we want to make sure that no young person in our community would ever feel such despair?”

Haffner’s letter was reprinted by the Washington Post on October 4 and referenced in the New York Times on October 8. Contacted on October 12, she said she’d received more than a dozen notes from ministers saying they had changed their sermon topic in order to preach about gay bullying or had decided to preach on bullying for the first time.

“I think people are paying attention to this issue in a new way,” she said. “For us UUs this is not a new topic, but we need to continue to challenge ourselves to do a better job. In many cases we are still not addressing the needs of the full spectrum of GLBT youth and young adults.”

The Rev. Paul Boothby of First Unitarian Church in Lynchburg, Va., helped organize a “solidarity service” October 10 at First Christian Church for GLBT people and those who support them.

The service included Methodist, Episcopal, Jewish, and other participants. “It was effectively interfaith,” said Boothby, who lit a chalice for those who had lost their lives “because society could not accept them as they were.” The First Unitarian choir sang “Standing on the Side of Love.” Said Boothby, “We had close to 200 people, which, for Lynchburg, we thought was quite significant.”

First Unitarian hosts a monthly “Spectrum Café” social evening for GLBT youth and allies. “Most who come are from outside the congregation,” said Boothby. “It’s a social opportunity in a town where there are few of those for sexual minorities.”

Lynchburg Director of Religious Education Rina Shere said the church will be addressing bullying through its “Our Whole Lives” sexuality education program this fall and will be involving parents as well. “Our students are always combating these issues. It’s important that youth and adults know how to respond when bullying occurs in front of them.” A book group at church will be reading The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso. The congregation is also bringing in Donna Sequiera, the Thomas Jefferson District’s social justice coordinator, for a workshop on bullying.

The Rev. Theresa Novak of the UU Church of Ogden, Utah, organized a march in Ogden on October 9 in response to anti-gay statements by an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She told the Standard-Examiner newspaper that she was afraid that young people would use the official’s words to be less tolerant of those who are different and that bullying would increase. “I am particularly afraid for the young people who may have heard his message and perhaps even decide to take their own lives as a result.” About 200 people marched.

The Rev. Kit Ketcham used the publicity about the deaths as a teaching moment when she talked with the youth group at the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island in Freeland, Wash. She said she found that “some of these kids had been brave enough to stick up for a bullied kid, and that’s what I think the key is. If peers exert the pressure, that’s a powerful deterrent. Parents and staff shouldn’t overlook the bullying and should respond whenever they see it, but kids are the strongest force against it, if we can help them have that courage.”

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Correction 10.18.10: In an earlier version of the story, we said that all of the young men dying by suicide were gay. We have since learned that not all of them identified as gay. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.We also mistakenly said that the Rev. Lisa Kemper was consulting minister at the UU Church of Loudoun in Leesburg, Va. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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