becoming sexually healthy. November 12, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Becoming Sexually Healthy
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 10, 2013
Let’s talk about sex. In our society, we show it, sell it, display it, do it but we don’t seem to talk about it with each other very much. At least not in depth. The urgent need for this type of conversation was brought home for me recently. I was at a workshop with other religious professionals, and we were listening to a presentation by the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute – a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Haffner is a Unitarian Universalist minister herself, and has dedicated her life to helping individuals and institutions move toward sexual health.
She started by asking us to brainstorm ways that sexuality intersects with the lives of our congregants. Within just a few minutes, the list stretched across numerous sheets of newsprint: marriage, childbirth, people discovering or exploring their sexual orientation or their gender identity, miscarriages, abortion, reproductive justice, early sexuality, lack of sexual desire, parents of intersex children, people exploring a kink identity, infertility issues, assisted reproduction, impotence, frigidity, different sexual expectations in relationship, polyamorous families, dating after a long-term relationship, stalking, sexual abuse, rape, rape culture and how that affects our children, pornography addiction, sexting, and so much more.
It was a great way to start a workshop because it became apparent, very quickly, that issues around sexuality touch on some of the most important aspects of our lives as human beings. And it brought home to me the importance of talking about sex and sexuality from the pulpit, because to not talk about it is to ignore a crucial part of what it means to be a human being, what it means to search for that which has meaning (which we often find in our relationships with others,) and what it means to live knowing we will all eventually die. And these are the very issues that, as a minister, I am called to address!
Sexual health is just as important as physical health, mental health, and spiritual health. In her book A Time To Build: Creating Sexually Healthy Faith Communities, Haffner reminds us that “Our religious traditions affirm that sexuality is a divinely bestowed blessing for the purposes of expressing love, generating new life, and providing companionship and pleasure…[Our religious traditions] celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality…They teach that it is in our relationships with others that we understand God’s love for us, and it is in our experience of our sexuality that we come closest to being revealed to others.”
This is a positive affirmation of our human sexuality which, unfortunately, stands in stark contrast to the cultural messages about sex and sexuality that we receive. All around us, we see bodies portrayed as commodities, used to sell everything from soda to cars, from jeans to kitchen appliances. You can hardly turn on the television without coming across a show that either uses sex as a joke or contains steamy heterosexual sex scenes. Monica Nickelsburg, a production assistant at the online magazine “The Week” recently pointed out that “sexual violence is incredibly prevalent in primetime; it is the central premise of shows like Law and Order SVU and CSI, which week after week churn out episodes focused on rape, abduction, and violence against children. Meanwhile, the CW’s Gossip Girl and NBC’s Friday Night Lights, both geared toward teens, have jarring attempted rape scenes.”
But not “everything goes” on primetime. Gay and lesbian love scenes are still rare. And there are very, very few transgender characters. The rules are not really consistent and showcase the inherent sexism and bias between men and women’s sexuality. A recent show received quite a bit of attention for editing out a female masturbation scene but allowing, in its place, a very graphic sex scene between an older, powerful male character and younger female character. Nickelsburg observed “While not advocating for more censorship, such inconsistent and illogical methodology telegraphs to viewers that rape, sex between adults and minors, and violence are less obscene than a harmless scene depicting an activity most teens are probably already familiar with.”
Then there is the issue of porn. A pornography addiction website asserts that “Children are becoming addicted to pornography at startling rates. Most children view their first pornographic image online at the age of 11, and by the time they are 17, about 80 percent of them have watched pornographic videos online.” This is leading not only to an increase in pornography addiction but also to the normalization of pornographic sex acts. Young people are getting their ideas about what sex is “supposed” to be like – not from their parents, not from their schools sex educations programs (which are often nonexistant,) but from porn, either directly through their own viewing or indirectly through their peers who are watching it.
And lest we think that this is the extent our our ill health around about sex and sexuality in this country, let me me share some more sobering statistics from A Time to Build:
- With ¾ of a million teenage women becoming pregnant each year, the United States teen pregnancy rate is almost 3x that of Germany and France, despite the similar age of sexual debut;
- There are approximately 19 million new sexually transmitted infections (STI) each year – almost half of them among young people 15-24 years old. 65 million Americans have at least one viral STI, most commonly genital herpes;
- Since the AIDS epidemic began, more than half a million people with AIDS have died, and more than 18,000 still die each year. More than a million people live with HIV infection in the United States, but one in five are unaware of their infection;
- 85% of LGBT teens report being verbally harassed, 40% report being physically harassed, and nearly 20% report being physically assaulted at school due to their sexual orientation;
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience child sexual abuse before age 18;
- 1 in 6 women has been or will be a victim of attempted or completed rape. The numbers for male victims are hard to come by due to the extreme stigmatism, but indications are that at least 3% of men have experienced an attempted or completed rape.
We are not a sexually healthy country. Not by a long shot.
As Unitarian Universalists, we like to think of ourselves as generally counter-cultural but in truth we often have a hard time creating sexually healthy congregations. Many of our congregations, including this one, went through the Welcoming Congregation program years ago, but haven’t revisited it. Also, it is not uncommon for our congregations to treat sexuality education like an immunization – we give it to our children once when they are in middle-school and then pat ourselves on the back for being so progressive. I have been pleased with how important sexuality education is here at First Unitarian Church – we offer the full range of Our Whole Lives (OWL) programming to our children (our 4th and 5th graders are in OWL right now!!) and, for what I believe is the first time, we are going to be offering the Adult OWL class starting next month.
These are important steps towards being a sexually healthy congregation. But there is much more that we can do. There are three foundational steps that I would like to see us take as individuals and as a congregation – foundational steps that can help guide us onto the road towards a becoming more sexually healthy.
First, we can make sure we are using the correct terminology when we are talking about issues of identity.
We cannot be welcoming to people if we are not clear about the differences between biology and gender expression, between sexual orientation and gender identity. Our alphabet soup of BGLTIQQAA (bi-sexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual and allies) is unwieldy and lumps all sorts of identities in together. The European convention of SO-GI (sexual orientation and gender identity) does better, but is still lacking. Thankfully, there is a lovely graphic that can help us understand this terminology.
Biological or natal sex refers to the type of genitalia a child is born with. For a long time, many assumed there were two sexes: male or female. However, western science has recently begun to understand a third option, intersex, meaning that a child has both male and female biological characteristics.
Sexual orientation refers to who we are sexually and romantically attracted to. This is who we love. The Kinsey Scale is the most common way of understanding sexual orientation, with 0 being purely attracted to the opposite sex and 6 being purely attracted to the same sex. Most people, however, fall somewhere in-between. A “3” on the Kinsey scale used to be called bi-sexual, but with our expanded understanding of sex and gender, it is starting to be referred to as pansexual or ambisexual.
Gender identity is how we think of ourselves as either male, female, or 3rd gender or gender-queer. When a person’s gender identity and biological sex are not the same, the individual may identify as transsexual or as another transgender category.
A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect his or her gender identity.
Media portrayals often only show the polar ends of these identities, leaving the middle lacking in representation. That means people in the middle often don’t see themselves represented in the media, and this can make them feel like they don’t exist or are somehow not ok. If we want to be truly welcoming to people across the broad spectrums of biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, we will become fluent in the language of identity.
To be a sexually healthy individual or congregation, we also should educate ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy. There have been quite a few really interesting developments, and there is a lot of misinformation out there! And contrary to what many of us might think, we really don’t know everything. For instance, Rev. Haffner shared with us that contrary to how many people usually feel, everyone is not actually having hotter, better, and more frequent sex than you are (except in the media)! In fact, there is such a wide range of normal that the term is virtually useless. As an example, take an average American heterosexual married couple. They generally have sex 57 times a year for between 15-20 minutes at a time. However, 10% of these couples never have sex. And 33% of them have sex more than once per week.
For longterm couples of any sexual orientation, sex is a recommitment ritual. It is a way to declare “We are more than co-parents – more than business partners.” The biggest sexual problem people have in long term relationships is not attraction, it is anger and boredom, which can lead to lack of desire to engage in the recommitment ritual.
There has also been quite a bit of discovery on the differences between men and women in regards to desire and arousal. Men experience the desire for sex before they experience physical arousal. Since men were used as the norm against which to measure all things, this was assumed to be true of women as well. However, a recent study of female sexuality produced a startling discovery. University of British Columbia psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, M.D., discovered in interviews with hundreds of women that for many women desire is not the cause of lovemaking, but rather, its result. “Women,” Basson explains, “often begin sexual experiences feeling sexually neutral.” But as things heat up, so do they, and they eventually experience desire.
To be sexually healthy as an individual and as a congregation, we need to continue to educate ourselves about sexuality. I highly recommend the Adult OWL course coming up in December – don’t worry, you don’t have to share intimate details in the class!
A third foundational thing we can do to be sexually healthy is to advocate and practice new ways of talking about sex. In particular, moving from a baseball metaphor for sex to a pizza metaphor.
In baseball, Al Vernacchio says in this wonderful TED talk, there is a pitcher who performs a sex acts, and a catcher, who receives a sex act. A “home run” usually refers to penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) with an orgasm for the guy (not necessarily the woman). If you “strike out,” you don’t get any. If you are “warming the bench,” you are either a virgin or someone who is not in the game due to age, ability or skill-set. A “glove” is a condom, a “switch-hitter” refers to someone who is bisexual, and gay and lesbian people are “playing for the other team.” You can only play baseball when it is in season, and there are certain times where you are expected to play whether you want to or not, such as at prom or on your wedding night. And baseball is competitive – you are not playing with each other, you playing against each other: one person is on offense, the other is on defense.
Baseball also has strict rules. You have to hit the ball and then run the bases in order. You can’t just go running into right field. And if you get to second base and decide you like it there, you can’t just hang out there. In baseball, you play to win, scoring as many runs as you can. There is always a winner, and always a loser. And there is no communicating: everyone knows rules, take their position and plays the game. Vernacchio says that this model is sexist, heterosexist, competitive, goal-directed, and, he says, it cannot result in young people or adults developing healthy sexuality.
Pizza, however, is universally understood and most people associate it with a positive experience. You have pizza when you are hungry for it. It starts with an internal sense or desire, so there is some sense of control. You might decide you are hungry but know it is not a great time to eat. You can eat pizza by yourself and be perfectly content, no matter wht the television stations seem to think. When you eat pizza with someone, you are not competing but are instead hoping that it will be a satisfying experience for everyone involved. You talk about it with whomever is joining you: what do you feel like? Pepperoni? Mushrooms? Vernacchio points out that even if you have had pizza with someone for a very long time, you still communicate: So, do you want the usual? Or something more spicy and adventurous?
Pizza is all about what we feel like – there are a million different topping combinations, and a million ways to eat it. You can eat it in the standard way, or roll it up or eat the crust first. There is no wrong way. And with pizza, there is no winner and no loser. We eat until we are satisfied and we get to decide when that is. Vernacchio says that the pizza metaphor leads to a way of understanding sexuality that is inclusive, cooperative, communicative, internally controlled, invites exploration and aims for satisfaction. Much better than baseball!
And much healthier, which is the goal. So here are three are some foundational steps towards a countercultural model of sexual health in our congregations and in our individual lives: becoming fluent in the language of identity, educating ourselves about sex and recent developments in the science of sex and intimacy, and starting to use a more inclusive metaphor when we talk about sex. Once we take these steps, we can begin the rest of the journey towards sexual health. As we make the journey as a congregation, both the Religious Institute and the Unitarian Universalist Association have some wonderful tools that can help us.
The Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing says: “Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality….the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships…All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. ”
May we work to make this the reality in our own lives, in our congregations, and in our culture. For sexuality is, indeed, a crucial part of what it means to be human. Blessed Be.
Reproductive Justice November 6, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
On November 2, 2013, I spoke at the Kentucky Road Rally for Reproductive Rights. Here is what I said.
There is hardly an area of human life that clergy don’t see our interactions with people. We are on the front line when it comes to questions of how to have children, how not to be pregnant, and how to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. Because these are some of the meaning-of-life questions that people struggle with. And these are also the questions fundamental to reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice recognizes that all people and communities should have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and wholeness. Rather than just telling the government to “butt-out,” reproductive justice asserts that government must have a central role in eliminating the myriad social inequalities that are related to reproductive oppressions.
Reproductive justice is why we are gathered here at the rally today. In Kentucky, year after year there are proposals that continue to go before the legislature that would seek to limit a person’s access to comprehensive sexuality eduction, seek to limit a person’s access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare, including contraception and abortion, and seek to deny critical family support. Many of those seeking to further these reproductive oppressions claim that they do so on the basis of their religious tradition, or because their faith calls them to do so. This leads many politicians and voters to a severe misunderstanding that to be a person of faith means to fit into a particular, narrow box. But that is just not the case.
Many, many people of faith support reproductive justice. Many of us even find it to be a core principle of our faith. This does not mean supporters of reproductive justice agree with each other all of the time – we don’t. Even within a specific faith tradition, we often disagree on particulars. But this disagreement is healthy because it encourages further discussion and exploration. What is not healthy, what is not just, is when one particular religious perspective gets written into law. When this happens, it removes a person’s ability to make choices according to his or her religious beliefs and conscience. When one particular, narrow religious perspective gets written into law, it denies the reality that there are other faith perspectives that are crying for wholeness and justice.
Such is the case with sexuality education. Many people of faith DO support comprehensive, science-based sex education. In some of our traditions, we are taught that we are made in the image of God. We celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We believe “all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.”* When we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity, we participate in a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.
And it is important that we understand this gift! This means supporting science-based sexuality education programs that are age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful. “Programs that teach abstinence exclusively and withhold information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention fail our young people.”* Sexuality education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame.
“Our culture too often models sexuality without responsibility, and many adolescents are left on their own to struggle through these conflicting sexual messages. It is with adult guidance and comprehensive information and education about sexuality that young people are able to make responsible decisions; education that includes what consent means and who can give it, that includes abstinence, contraception, and STD prevention.” This type of education gives a person the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives.
People of faith also support access to the full range of pregnancy-related healthcare services, including contraception and abortion. The decision about becoming a parent is one of the biggest decisions a person will make. And yet a small group of religious conservatives want to limit and restrict access to healthcare services that would best help someone make the decision about whether or not they want to parent. Contraception and abortion are viewed by this faction not as health care services, but as part of their narrow religious agenda.
It is unacceptable for our laws to willingly and consistently single out women, particularly low-income women, specifically for the purposes to denying access to healthcare. And this is the situation right now with lack of access to contraception and abortion. By making it harder for a woman in need to access these services, by making her take time off not just one day but also for a medically unnecessary ultrasound, by allowing doctors and pharmacies to put limits on what healthcare treatment, services, and pharmaceuticals they provide, the government is putting up barriers that are unjust and unfair.
As people of faith, we understand compassion to be at the core of our relationships with one another. We may have different personal and religious beliefs about abortion, and still agree to respect a woman’s right to make decisions according to her own beliefs, according to her own conscience.**
As people of faith, we believe that the ability to make informed, moral choices is a sacred part of what it means to be human. To respect a person means to give them accurate information they need to make a meaningful, moral decision about whether and how to parent.
As people of faith, we also support healthy families. We believe that each person has inherent worth and dignity. For some of us, this comes as having been created in the image of God. For others, it comes to us by virtue of simply being human. Because of this, we are called to create a world where every individual and every family can have access to what they need to thrive. It is the seat of hypocrisy for lawmakers to deny access to contraception and abortion and then further penalize families by cutting access to childcare and other supportive services. When food stamp programs are cut, children go to school hungry and then some wonder why they can’t learn. When parents don’t have access to reliable, affordable childcare, they are often forced to take unpaid time off to care for children, furthering the cycle of poverty. A family also deserves access to decent, affordable housing. There is a direct link between the stability of a child’s home situation and how well they do in school. When we deny a child food, childcare, or stable housing, how can we expect that child to thrive? How can we expect that family to thrive?
Families deserve better. In the United States, it is the role of government, not to impose one set of religious views on everyone, but to protect each person’s rights, each family’s rights.
Legislators, please: listen to your constituents. All of them. Reproductive justice is a complex issue that requires a complex response. Families deserve better than passing one narrow religious perspective as law. And doing so is unethical and unjust. It does not recognize the moral agency of your constituents who find themselves faced with these difficult, life-changing decisions every day. It is not acceptable when one group has it’s views written into law such that other people are denied the ability to make their own moral decisions. Our laws and policies should protect the rights and abilities of each person to make decisions according to their own beliefs and conscience.
To those of you out there who perhaps feel alone in the struggle for reproductive justice, know that you are not! There are many, many of us who find that our faith encourages us to have a deep concern about perennial legislative failures to mandate science-based sexuality education and child care services, and are concerned about the equally predictable efforts to block access to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception. To those who feel alone, you are not, and your voice matters. People of faith support reproductive justice!
We rally today as people from across Kentucky, from various faith traditions ranging from atheist to evangelical, from pagan to Pentecostal, from unaffiliated to Unitarian Universalist, but in common we have a vision of a Kentucky where all people and all communities have the social, spiritual, economic and political means to experience the sacred gift of sexuality with health and with wholeness. May it be so.
Please note: Due to the nature of this speech, I did not attribute my quotes as well as I normally would have. The following are specifically quoted:
* Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexuality Education
** Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision
Other inspiration came from the following sources, which I highly recommend you check out:
Women in Science. October 15, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Women in Science.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 13, 2013.
You may want to download the pdf of the presentation that goes along with this sermon. Slides are referenced in the sermon below by their numbers.
A fierce unrest seethed at Ada Lovelace’s core – an unrest that drove her to excel in a field in which she, being female, was not supposed to excel. She is often referred to as “the first computer programmer” and, in fact, the Ada programming language of the 1970s and 80s was intentionally named after Ada Lovelace. This week, on October 15, we will be celebrating Ada Lovelace Day [IMAGE 1], which is a day about sharing stories of inspiring women in the STEM fields (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM fields.
There are a lot of women, today and historically, whose stories inspire. Women like Ada Lovelace. Women like:
- Unitarian Maria Mitchell [IMAGE 2], who was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer, and who discovered a comet.
- And Emily Warren Roebling, [IMAGE 3] who was in charge of the day to day construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
- And Marie Curie, [IMAGE 4] who discovered two elements, and in 1903 was the first women to win a Nobel Prize, and then in 1911 was the first person ever to win a second Nobel.
- And Rosalind Franklin, [IMAGE 5] in the mid-20th century, who made the first X-ray images of DNA.
- And Dian Fossey, [IMAGE 6] a zoologist who extensively studied gorilla groups in Rwanda over a period of 18 years.
- And Mae Carol Jemison, [IMAGE 7] a physician and NASA astronaut who became the first black woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992.
- And Elizabeth Blackburn, [IMAGE 8] a biological researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the telomere, and was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
And so many more. The list goes on. [IMAGE 9] In fact, the list is large enough that one is left to wonder why we don’t hear more about these women, and then, with even more puzzlement, to wonder why there aren’t more women in the STEM fields today.
Because there still aren’t that many. If we took all the physics professors in the United States today and put them in one room, only 14 percent would be women. When we look at all the physics Ph. D’s that are awarded each year in the United States, only 1/5th (20%) go to women. And of those that go to women, only HALF of them are American women, the rest were raised in other countries.
The percentage of women in the Computer Science field [IMAGE 10] peaked in the 80s and has been declining ever since, hovering around 25%. Fewer than 20% of people studying engineering in college are women. The outlier is medicine, where 47% of the people in med-schools are women, but if you dig deeper into the data, you will find women concentrated in particular fields of medicine, with the more specialized, elite and more highly paid fields are still dominated by men.
Now, let me be quite clear that I have a horse in this race, four of them actually, and these horses come with a particular pedigree. My father is an electrical engineer. My mother was a registered nurse (which technically isn’t STEM but feels pretty darn close to me). They raised their kids to believe that they could be and do whatever they wanted to. My sister and I both attended one of the top public high schools in the country in Fairfax County, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. [IMAGE 11] When I attended there, the ratio of boys to girls was around 2 or 3 to 1. In my 9th grade biology/geometry block course, there were 3 girls and at least 17 boys.
My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, and I briefly enrolled in a Masters in Computer Science program before seminary. Being in seminary and in ministry has been an odd experience for me, because for Unitarian Universalists, there are more women ministers now than men. But I digress.
My family’s experience in the STEM fields goes even further: My sister is a pediatric epileptologist who has done extensive medical research, my brother has both undergrad and graduate degrees in computer science, my spouse was a math major who is now a computer programmer. The horses I personally have in this race are two daughters and two nieces. So this is a topic with which matters to me personally.
But it would matter to me even without these girls in my life. And it should matter to all of us. Because if we are only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available, then what are we missing out on??? What might we be capable of today if we were not unintentionally excluding half the population from participating in STEM fields? If the cure for cancer is in some little girls head, will we be able to find it?
Bill Gates [IMAGE 12], founder of Microsoft, tells a story about speaking in Saudi Arabia around 2007. He found himself in a segregated audience: 80% were men, and they were sitting on the left side of the auditorium; the remaining 20% were women, sitting on the right, all of whom were covered in black cloaks and veils. At some point, during the question and answer session, a man asked if it was realistic for Saudi Arabia to become one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010. “Well,” responded Gates, “if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”
Now, we can sit in superiority, thinking how much better off we are than Saudi Arabia, but when we look at the gender disparity in STEM fields, the numbers tell us we really aren’t! [IMAGE 13] In Computer Science, in Engineering, in Physics and beyond, we are hovering at only 24% of the professionals being women – just slightly better the same percentage as were in that auditorium in Saudi Arabia six years ago.
And the bad news does not end there. Last week, the NY Times ran an article by Eileen Pollack entitled “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” The article (which is very readable and I highly recommend) quotes a Yale study from last year, in which professors at six major research institutions were presented with two imaginary applicants, and the only thing different was their name: John, or Jennifer. [IMAGE 14] It turned out the the professors were “significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s.” The age of the hiring professor did not seem to matter. Nor, surprisingly, did the gender – women professors were just as likely to prefer the male applicant.
Those of us who were watching the interwebs this Spring are probably not be surprised. Just seven months ago, in March, the popular science blogger [IMAGE 15] “I f*ing love science” (who also maintains the less offensively named “Science is Awesome” site) was asking folks to follow her on twitter, when some folks finally made the connection that OMG, “I f*ing love science” was a woman! The internet exploded in shock, and many of the comments explicitly sexist. As the blogger herself, Elise Andrew, shares “It’s a sad day when a woman being funny and interested in science is considered newsworthy.”
Just as racism is far from being dead, so is sexism alive and kicking. And both can be found in some surprising places. But as unbalanced as things are now, all hope is not lost. We are starting to understand some of the reasons behind this disparity, and as we do, we learn ways to work to counteract it. Because if we are only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available, what are we missing out on? There are 5 particular issues – and ways to address them – that I want to talk about today.
First, according to Heidi Grant Halvorson in her article “The Trouble with Bright Girls, “part of the issue is how we talk to girls, versus how we talk to boys. “In elementary school, girls and boys perform equally well in math and science. But by the time they reach high school, when those subjects begin to seem more difficult to students of both sexes, the numbers diverge.” Why is this? Well, a study from the 1980s found that when bright, intelligent girls, [IMAGE 16a] where given something to learn that was difficult or complex, they were quick to give up – “and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” Boys, on the other hand, looked at the difficult material as something to conquer [IMAGE 16b], and they were more likely to try even harder, energized by the challenge. Why was this the case? Young girls, when learning something new, are given feedback about how “good” they are, and told how smart or how clever they are, or praised for being a good student. “This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.” Whereas boys, who often have a harder time sitting still for school in those early years, get feedback like “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” or “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder but girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart.”
We see how this plays out later, when the girls are in high school. Eileen Pollack writes that “Boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counselors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” So we need to put up a fight to encourage our girls to stick with it, to not drop the course.
[IMAGE 17] And when girls struggle, we sometimes blame it on their gender, whereas with boys we do not. That just isn’t true! There is no biological difference between the ability of males and females to understand math and science – but there IS a difference in how they are treated. In fact, according to Pollack, girls who attend girls STEM classes or all-girls schools don’t struggle nearly as much as girls in gender-diverse classrooms.
So we can begin to change how we talk to girls about their abilities, and help them to see that there is value to be had at working hard on something and getting a reward from the effort.
A second issue isthe gender disparity found in toys. If you have been down the toy aisle recently, you know what I am talking about. There is a definite difference in toys that are marketed to GIRLS and toys that are marketed to BOYS. And rarely is there anything that is marketed to kids in general. In the girls aisle, there are the usual suspects, like Bratz dolls and Monster High dolls. Barbie, by comparison, is relatively enlightened – in 2010 that Mattel released Computer Engineer Barbie [IMAGE 18] and she is pretty darn hard to find these days.
The gendrifiction of toys has even expanded to things like LEGOs. Take a look at how the marketing of LEGOs has changed in the last 30 years. Here is an ad [IMAGE 19] for Legos from 1981. Heck, this almost could have been me. And here is what an ad for LEGOs for girls looks like today [IMAGE 20]. Quite a difference!! And the differences extend beyond marketing. Last summer, out of 112 lego figures, 91 were male and 21 were female. [IMAGE 21] One online blogger points out that “With the honourable exception of the Surgeon and the Zookeeper, the female characters are a collection of stereotypes that would make Jeremy Clarkson blush. They include ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Hula Girl’, ‘Kimono Girl’ and ‘Viking Woman’” Thankfully, the newest series, which just came out in the last month or so, includes a minifigure of a female lab technician. [IMAGE 22] But there is still a long way to go to catch up, and really, this made the news!!
Of course, simply putting faces with makeup on them in more diverse vocations is not going to be enough, because a third issue we have to face and address is that, whether through nature or nurture, boys and girls often care about different things. Girls tend to be more relational, and boys tend to really be into things that blow up. This awareness is the brilliance behind a new toy that was very well funded on kick-starter: Goldieblox. [IMAGE 23] These are engineering toys, designed “to inspire the next generation of female engineers.” Sure, pastel colors are a part of the package, but so is a story line. The girls create engineering feats as a part of a narrative – they get sucked into the story and creating, and then are inspired to new acts of creation as well.
Like anyone, girls learn better with examples that they relate to, that they care about. This is also the logic behind Danica McKellar’s series of math books. Most people are familiar with McKellar as “Winnie Cooper” on the TV Show “The Wonder Years” but she also is a graduate from UCLA with a degree in Math, AND is one of the authors of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem in mathematical physics. Her books have titles like “Math Doesn’t Suck,” [IMAGE 24] “Kiss my Math” and “Girls get Curves” (about geometry). Her approach is partly to use problems that involve things like best friends, beads and Barbies rather than involving speeding trains and baseballs.
McKellar also addresses a fourth issue that prevents girls from continuing in STEM fields: image. The Big Bang Theory [IMAGE 25] is one of the most popular shows on TV right now. Some folks think this is a good thing – it brings geekdom more into the realm of normal and acceptable. Besides, they point out, doesn’t Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy) actually have a Ph.D. in neuroscience? But as Eileen Pollack asked in the NY Times article last week, “what remotely normal young person would want to enter a field populated by misfits like Sheldon, Howard and Raj? And what remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?” Especially when Amy isn’t even in half the promotional material?
This was one of the reasons why Iron Man 3 has become one of my favorite movies. Not to give away any spoilers, but the writers intentionally wrote in some strong women characters who turn long-entrenched stereotypes on their heads. One of them is Maya Hansen[IMAGE 26], a a gifted Biologist who specializes in nano-technology and is an old friend of Tony Stark. She is brilliant, single, does not need a man to complete her, and the entire movie would not exist without her story. And, she has a lego figure! [IMAGE 27]
The last reason, and piece of the solution that I want to address this morning is that girls (and young women) need to see that a career in the STEM fields is not only possible, but can be quite fulfilling. That though there may be challenges, they are often more than worth it. This means helping girls & young women who show an interest in math, science and technology to find relatable mentors they can talk to about their struggles. This one issue, more than anything else, makes me wish I had stayed in the computer field – so that I could be a mentor to girls & young women who show an interest and enthusiasm for these important areas of study. If you know of a girl or a young woman with STEM interests, help connect her to a woman who might be able to mentor her. Not to put you all on the spot, but would the women who are in science, technology, engineering or mathematical fields please stand for a moment? Note: A large number of women, from their 20s to their 90s, stood and were applauded!
Astrophysicist Meg Urry [IMAGE 28] earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, completed a postdoctorate at M.I.T.’s center for space research and served on the faculty of the Hubble space telescope before being hired in 2001 as a full professor by Yale. She points out that “If society needs a certain number of scientists and you can look for those scientists only among the males of the population, you are going to have to go much farther toward the bottom of the barrel than if you also can search among the females in the population, especially the females who are at the top of their barrel.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we understand our personal experience to be a source of truth. And we believe our own individual searches for truth and meaning become deeper, more responsible, and more enlightened when diverse people with varied life experiences come together to share with one another. How much truth and understanding are we losing by only utilizing half the brainpower and talent available? With problems the size of many that our world faces right now, we cannot begin to solve them without our best and brightest, which means not leaving out half the population. In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, let us imagine, and work for, a future where the fields of science, technology, engineering and math welcome all to the table. [IMAGE 29]
Is belief the enemy of faith? September 19, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
Belief is the enemy of faith. That is the title and main point of a recent article in the UU World by UUA President Peter Morales. And this idea has touched off quite a discussion in the UU Blog-o-sphere, with folks like Rev. Erik, Tom Schade, and (my favorite response) Kim Hampton weighing in.
As I think about what each of these wise folks had written, I have come to a conclusion: this is a false dichotomy. Belief and faith are not opposites. They are in tension with one another, though. So if one is not the opposite of another, if one is not the enemy of the other, then where does this tension come from?
I think the answer is humility. As I understand it, the difference between belief and faith is the level of humility or arrogance with which I hold an idea.
Let me explain. My grandmother was a devout Christian. When I came out to her as agnostic at best, neo-pagany at worst (in her opinion), it was quite startling to her. On the one hand, she believed in God and in the Bible. On the other hand, she knew that I was a good person. She had faith that God would see into my heart and determine that I would be in heaven with her when she died. She still believed in that particular type of God that judges and determines our worthiness for heaven or hell, but she had faith that this God would not love me any less than she did. She held her belief with conviction – some might even say with arrogance. She held her faith humbly.
We believe a lot of things, and we usually take these for granted as “how the world works” – at least until they are proven wrong. But we hold faith much more tenuously. Again, referring to my grandmother, she shared with me once that her faith and her doubts were like butterflies flitting around her. Problems came when they stopped moving and landed on her, when either solidified and became belief.
So is belief the enemy of faith? I don’t think so. I think pride and arrogance are the enemy of faith. I think we each go about each day with a whole lot of beliefs, and a whole lot of things we have faith in. And this is fine, for the most part.
I think that what separates faith from belief is a sense of humility, a sense that “I might not be entirely right on this, but I sure do hope so.” And humility is not something we Unitarian Universalists do very well. But I have faith that we can learn.
Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington September 3, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington
by First Unitarian Church 2013 MoW Participants
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 1, 2013
Gathering Music “Hush”
We gather this morning in the struggle to find and make worth and meaning.
We stand in the shadow of history, of a national event that our faith and our country have taken as a foundational moment in our history but which, at the time, was looked at by many with contempt.
We stand, looking backwards, reinterpreting the Dream that a wise man shared, a Dream that our country would make good on its promise of freedom and justice for all. A dream that has yet to be realized, no matter how much esteem in which we hold it.
We stand, looking ahead, wondering if the progress made will continue or if it has been stymied. Wondering if the new legislative and economic systems will disenfranchise and oppress or will empower and liberate.
We stand, at this very moment, listening to the stories around us, listening to that which calls our names and calls us to be a part of the force for love, for good, for justice.
Hush. Listen. Let us worship.
Opening Hymn “We Shall Not Be Moved”
Reflection: The Rev. Dawn Cooley
Fifty years ago, over 100,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. Over the past week, there have been many events celebrating this momentous occasion. Last weekend, 10 First U’rs boarded busses for the long trip to DC to join with the National Action to Realize the Dream rally and march. It was a trip like no other.
One of the highlights of the weekend, for me, were the speakers. It was encouraging to hear Attorney General Eric Holder say that he will work to ensure that “every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote” and to “ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law” with a goal that “every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us.”
I was inspired, too, by Medgar Ever’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams. She spoke about how she had been unable to attend the march in 1963 because her husband had just been assassinated in their front yard a few weeks earlier. Her inability to attend, she said, was a wound that had not healed after all these years – not until President Obama asked her to do the invocation at his inauguration earlier this year. She was the first woman and the first lay person to do so.
But my favorite speaker was Rep. John Lewis. He had been the youngest speaker in 1963. His story shows how far we have come: to go from being overrun as he tried to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday in 1965, to being a Congress person from Georgia since 1987. Last week, in his speech, he shared a liberal theology, when he said: “Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.”
And he shared an enlightened, progressive view of the necessity of justice for everyone when he said:
“The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights…So it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight — we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house — not just the American house, but the the world house.”
Indeed, it was inspiring. Let’s hear now from some of the other participants and what some of their favorite moments were.
While slow to decide on this trip and with numerous practical reasons for NOT going, something kept tugging at me and finally I knew I HAD to go. The opportunity to share this historical experience with my daughter and granddaughter added to the significance. I was 15 and living overseas on an Air Force base when the first March on Washington took place.
Some old friends had expressed concern for our safety while participating in this rally and march. They were envisioning a protest while I envisioned a show of support–taking a stand for those who had marched before and for all that we still hoped to accomplish. Before the trip I had been experiencing a lot of discouragement about our political state but from the moment I began joining others assembling on the Mall, I became infused with a sense of love and harmony and HOPE. I loved the fact that thousands of us, black and white, male and female, young and old mingled and conversed with love and respect.
Inspired by this march, I plan to find positive ways to share my hope and enthusiasm with others.
I have regretted not being part of the March on Washington in 1963 all my adult life. I was 16 years old, entering my senior year in high school; and it never occurred to me to even try to join it. While my consciousness was being raised about horrors of segregation, I still didn’t understand how the civil rights struggle affected me.
As I grew up, I learned to appreciate the impact of that event. When I read the announcement about going to this March in the Sunday bulletin, I recognized a second chance when I saw it and didn’t let it pass me by again.
After the end of official march, we had free time before we met our bus for the return trip. Kris Philipps and I ended up sitting outside at a tavern. Our t-shirts attracted the attention of a young woman who we soon realized was a troubled woman searching for some peace and stability in her life. She wanted to know what the saying on our shirts meant and what do UU’s believe. And so, we did some evangelizing right there and encouraged her to check out All Souls Church in DC.
On our way back to the bus, another young woman approached us because she was intrigued by the message on our shirts. Like the first woman, she began talking about her job and family. There was something about our shirts that made us so accessible. People felt comfortable approaching us, and these encounters happened all day. I really believe that those shirts drew us into the spirit of the march because the message of love creates connections everywhere; and we were marching to witness for brother and sisterhood of all of us.
I really liked the sense of community at the March. It was really community-ish. I think my favorite part, or one of them, was when a woman named Grandma Betty came up to us when she saw a bunch of “love” shirts and had us sign her shirt for her grandson who couldn’t be there because he had to work. She definitely opened up to us and it was definitely different becuase it is not every day that a woman who doesn’t know you comes up to you and asks you to sign her shirt and then tells you a lot about her. It was like “Wow!” Before she left, I have her a big hug. To my surprise she hugged me back. Then, after the march, there was a woman with a “Free Hugs” sign. She got a hug from me, too. Obviously, I had to hug her becuase she had pink hair. I normally don’t like hugging people but I kind of wish I could have hugged everyone there.
Reflection: Linette & Jay
Linette: I had a list of reasons as long as my arm why I couldn’t possibly go to the March. I am just too busy. But when Rev. Dawn said SHE was making the time to go gave me pause. It started to become possible in my mind. After a conversation with Jay, it started to sound possible for us both to go.
Jay: We could make it work. It was important. Before we knew it, we were boarding busses from Louisville with more than 80 other people on an inspiring journey. Marching and talking with people on the Mall was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.
Linette: All along the way, the love was palpable.It reminded me of this poem by Reinhold Neibuhr:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
~~From The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
Jay: We are indeed saved by love. We feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience that love on such a grand scale, and we are so very pleased to have been there with a group from First U.
Linette: Now, when I reflect on the experience, I realize that my initial reluctance to go on the trip, the long list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly do it, reflects my personal inertia. I haven’t been active in social justice causes in the community since our son was born. I had reasoned that I was just too busy. But the March has inspired me to pause and reconsider. Now, I will be seeking out new ways to live my convictions, and I would love to partner with some of you all on that journey!
The most memorable moment for me was meeting the 3 women from NJ, one of them was from the 1.7 sq mile town where I spent my junior and senior high school years. Her daughter is a sophomore at the high school, where I graduated in 1967.
Back then, I didn’t know there was such a thing as Unitarian. My parents didn’t approve of my college friends: those thinking, social justice hippies. Then my family moved to Louisville in ’69.
After the march, Nancy & I went to get a cool drink, and got into an inspiring discussion with a woman at another table.
When I talk about my thoughts and attitudes about life with other people, it helps me figure out what it is I think about things. This conversation reminded me of who I am.
Please open your hymnals to #457 and join me in reading my favorite poem, by Unitarian minister, the Rev. Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Before going to the March on Washington, I had been thinking intensely about what it means to take action and to live an active life. Much of this has to do with turning 20 just two weeks before the trip and the opportunities of hope and possibility that I have for my adult life. Looking back at my teenage years spent at this church, I believe that I certainly achieved tools not only to live a full, meaningful life of my own, but also to facilitate change for a better world.
At the march, I was inspired by the message of the civil rights activist, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to stand firm in the face of injustice, which is an endeavor that must be taken by the youth of today. This demonstration offered a new spark of hope for me, that Martin Luther King’s dream for the unity of humankind can and will be realized.
I am well aware that I cannot do it alone. Indeed, knowing that some generous soul (probably from our church) had paid for me to go, has deepened my conviction that we must work together for peace. To this person, I say thank you and please know that your donation will not be in vain, as I have gained the inspiration to act.
I went to the Washington March with other members of the NAACP. My reasons forgoing were that I had missed the one in 1963, although I was old enough and teaching at Shawnee Jr. High School, in West Louisville. Last week, I went in honor of all those who went before and to support those who fought and continue to fight for justice in this country.
On this trip, someone asked me if I thought the trip would change me. I didn’t really think it would since I’ve been involved in civil rights a long time. But it did. The speakers at the rally stressed our responsibility to secure needed services and quality education for low-income children. I felt like they were speaking directly to me because recently, the JCPS School Board failed to raise the property tax adequately to fund programs for disadvantaged children. I’ve known we should be questioning that decision, but I hadn’t done anything.
Rev. Al Sharpton had us chant, “Celebrate”, which we were doing, and then “agitate.” He and others fired me up to return to agitating for adequate education funding for the neediest children in Louisville. I needed to be on that trip.
Of course I knew about the “I Have a Dream” speech – or at least that little piece we have all heard often – but it wasn’t real. And then *I* was on the bus and *I* was hearing people’s stories and *I* was standing with thousands of people I don’t know, just as people did fifty years ago. I felt the energy and the certainty that we HAVE to grow equality and justice for everyone. I stood with people who were in that spot in 1963 and with people who weren’t even thought of in 1963, and all of us were together because we believe in the same cause. That speech and the determination it represents still inspires.
What matters most about that speech and about this anniversary is not that it caused a bunch of really different people to go to Washington, but that it can cause all of us to come back home and take action for real change. I loved being there and feeling that energy and excitement, but if I don’t step up now and do something, then it was just a long bus trip and a big crowd of people on a sunny day.
Before this weekend, it was a great speech. But now *I* have a dream, too, and I’m ready to get to work.
Call to Action: The Rev. Dawn Cooley
Thank you, all of you, for participating and for sharing your stories this morning. It was, indeed, an inspiring experience. One that gives us hope, that renews our dreams of the beloved community. But if all we did was march and then come home and go about our daily lives, in our separate worlds and neighborhoods, in our separate schools and jobs and struggles, then this experience becomes not transformative, but only a great memory.
Instead, we who went are inspired to act. To get involved. To work to be part of the solution instead of, even by inertia or passivity, being part of the problem. How can we do that? And how can those of you who were not there, but who wish to work to create the beloved community jumpstart your work for justice? I want to end with 6 easy ways that any of us can act for justice, whether you went on the march in 1963, 2013, or not at all.
1. I encourage us all to engage in the soul searching that President Obama asked us all to do in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict. While the verdict may have been legal, do you think justice was served? If you do not understand why so many in the black community were upset, start a conversation with someone who does understand. Look at how dangerous, unfairly applied, and hypocritical “Stand your ground” laws really are.
2. If you are unfamiliar with them, educate yourself about the concerns of the local black community. An easy way to do so here in town is to listen to AM 1350 on Saturdays, when it is all talk-shows. Particularly listen to the 3:30 show presented by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. And pickup a copy of the Louisville Defender, a newspaper by and for the local black community.
3. At lunch today, have a conversation about what it means that this congregation is located in a zip code that is 66% African-American. And what does it mean that this is one of the poorest urban zip codes in the country? And how might that affect our mission? Rather than simply accepting that old adage that Sunday 11am is the most segregated hour in the United States, start a conversation about why there are not more people of color, or more neighborhood people, at this church. If you think that we just would not appeal to such a population, go back to number 1 and engage in some of soul-searching that President Obama encourages – because, as we saw in response to our “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, our message is one that has great appeal to someone looking for a place where love is practiced and where we focus on salvation in this lifetime.
4. Get some friends together to go on the Anne Braden Institute’s Civil Rights Driving Tour of Louisville, and then go on the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center Environmental Justice Tour. Come back after those and talk about why there is so much overlap between the two tours. It truly is astounding. As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:
It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard…Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against…the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.
5. In Kentucky, in the next legislative session in January, work hard for the restoration of the right to vote for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. The KY ACLU says “Kentucky is one of only two states in the country that permanently disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions, barring over 180,000 individuals from voting—two-thirds of whom have fully served their sentence….The rate of disenfranchisement among African-American’s in Kentucky is the nation’s second highest. One in four African-American adults is barred from voting, leaving many communities with severely limited political power.” Work to overcome the new jim crow that is created by the mass incarceration of African-American people by working to restore voting rights.
6. If people perceive you to be white, use your white privilege in a positive way. Start with paying attention and seeing the benefits you get: at the grocery store, when you are pulled over by the police, at the doctor’s office, in a department store. I saw a powerful video clip last week about how a woman who looked white had no questions asked when she went to write a check at a grocery store she was visiting, but right behind her a black woman who had been patronizing the store for years was stopped, her id was checked, and her name was looked up on the “bad check” list. It wasn’t on there. The black woman was humiliated. But the white-looking woman used her privilege to go back and ask “Why are you doing this?” She challenged the status quo. Pay attention and use your privilege in positive ways.
So there you have it. Six easy things that we can do to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, to work to create the beloved community with peace and justice for all. And there are hundreds more. We cannot be complacent. We must be on our way.
I’m on my way – are you on your way?
Closing Hymn “I’m on my way”
As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
This is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Let us never give up, never lose hope, until the beloved community is more than just a dream and is instead, the lived reality of all.
Lift ANY voice and sing…please!! August 27, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Along with several folks from my congregation, I attended the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this past weekend. It was a weekend that had some inspirational moments, some challenging moments, some peaceful moments. But in the entire experience, one thing was strikingly missing: song.
Group singing was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement of 50 years ago. It united people, strengthened their courage and resolve, inspired them. Martin Luther King said ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle…They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”
Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “I’m On My Way” turned a mass of individuals into a united force – a nonviolent force to be reckoned with. They conveyed meaning and helped people stand strong against violence. They provided a sound-track that brought forth emotion, united it in shared purpose, and directed it outward.
So I was expecting lots of singing this weekend: on the bus, in-between speakers, along the march route. I was ready to lose my voice – looking forward to it even. However, during the 40+ hours I was gone, there was only one song that I heard started (during the march) and it was barely picked up by surrounding participants. The few times I tried to start something, I was met with silence. Why was there virtually no singing? I wondered. As I have had a chance to reflect, three possibilities come to mind.
First, the program of the rally did not seem to pay attention to the flow of energy of those in attendance. It went from one speaker, to another, to another. There were no breaks to reflect or process what the previous speaker had just said. Perhaps the organizers were so concerned about getting more speakers into the time that they felt they had to remove any singing. (Disclaimer: I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 10:30 – there might have been some singing before then that I am unaware of). So singing was not built-into the program of the rally. But lack of attention from the rally leadership would not prohibit singing during the march.
That leads to a second possibility: social media. Along the march route, I saw thousands of us raising our cell-phones to take pictures and video of the march itself. It must have been endlessly facebooked, tweeted, instagramed and more. On the one hand, social media has been used to connect people to make big things happen – like the Arab Spring. On the other hand, when I am documenting an event in social media, I remove myself from being present in the event. Perhaps with more documenters than participants, there was not a lot of energy to unite in song.
Third, I think the diversity of the march may have been a factor. Bear with me as I parse this out. I don’t have the data to back this up, but it felt like there were a lot more white people at this march than there probably had been in 1963. Which, in many ways, is great! But where does one learn to sing and learn the power of song? Church. And fewer and fewer white people (particularly liberal white people) are going to church, whereas black church attendance remains high. The increase in unchurched white participation may have been a factor – group singing is not a common language anymore.
As I said above, there were some inspirational moments, challenging moments, and peaceful moments. What there were not were transcendent moments – those moments that come when I feel I am a part of something much vaster, much more powerful than myself. Group singing can facilitate such moments, and its absence at the 50th Anniversary March was felt.
Why I’m going to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington August 20, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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My 12 year old daughter and I will be joining the Kentucky Mobilization to attend the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this weekend. Some folks have asked why I am going. Besides the answer of “I wasn’t alive 50 years ago to attend the first one!” here are the top 10 reasons you could not keep me away:
1. Because at my kids’ schools, there are very few African American kids in the advanced program (GT) which speaks to many, many interconnecting issues – not one of which is actually related to how intelligent a child is.
2. Because many white people didn’t understand why African Americans were so devastated by what happened to Trayvon Martin.
3. Because I don’t have to have a talk with kids about how to behave when pulled over, or tell them that they should let someone else stand up for them if they are unjustly accused by someone in authority…and no one else should have to have these talks either.
4. Because “more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system [now] than there were enslaved in 1850.” 1 in 3 black men have been or will be incarcerated, the vast majority for nonviolent drug offenses, taking them away from family and also disenfranchising them. They can’t get jobs to support their families, they can’t work – this is a new jim crow.
5. Because more chemical companies and power plants are put into poor communities and communities primarily made up of people of color.
6. Because “legacy” rules like this one at the Fire Department New York and at colleges all over the country continue to give preference to white students whose white parents were involved in the institution even if they are not as capable. Remember, many of these institutions were explicitly racist at some point and did not allow people of color, so continuing the “legacy” program perpetuates a system of racism.
7. Because African Americans receive poorer health care than white americans.
8. Because a black woman won’t get hired as quickly as a white woman and many employers still discriminate based solely on a person’s name.
9. Because as soon as the Voting Rights Act was repealed by SCOTUS, states like TX moved to put in discriminatory voting laws.
10. Because MLK’s Dream has not yet been realized and because I want to be part of the solution.
Environmental Justice, part 2 of 2. August 16, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Or…Connecting the dots.
In the first part of this series, I shared some of the stories from the Energy for Change: Interfaith March and Rally for Clean Energy & Healthy Communities. In this part, I would like to share my own story as to how I became involved in the rally, and why I was on a mission make sure that a particular experience/point-of-view was represented.
First, let me give you my social location. I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-educated 42 year old mother of two kids. I drive a hybrid car and have replaced all our incandescent bulbs with either compact fluorescents or LEDs. We only buy energy star appliances, and our energy consumption is substantially less than average. I compost. My family is a part of the professional class – both my spouse and I have white-collar jobs. We live in a neighborhood that is somewhat socioeconomically diverse, though heavily skewed toward the higher income end. Other than the lack of racial diversity, I love where we live. I am sometimes, frankly, embarrassed by our affluence. Some of it is a product of hard work and the choices we have made, but I am quite aware that I benefit daily from generations of white privilege.
At the core of my theology is my understanding that we are all connected, that no one can be truly free while others are oppressed, and that we have a responsibility to treat one another and our planet with love and respect. I believe that in the beloved community, all people would have access to the privileges I have – and more. We are not there yet. These core understandings were strongly shaped in seminary, as I became exposed to anti-racist, anti-oppression and multicultural teachings. I learned about interlocking systems of oppression (now called intersectionality) and how the disenfranchised and vulnerable are exposed to oppression at multiple levels.
When we moved to Louisville four years ago, I knew I wanted to get to know our adopted home-town. When I saw an article soliciting applicants from all over the area for a new program about the racial and social justice history of Louisville, called the Healing History Academy, I applied and was accepted. I am so grateful for this transformative experience. I learned that Louisville is an extremely segregated town, with the largest number of African Americans in the “West End” – a segment of land that is bordered by the Ohio River. In the West End, the life expectancy is a substantially lower than in other parts of the city (some estimates put it at a full ten years less!). From the Center for Healthy Equity, I learned that there is something wrong when you can categorize someone’s future prospects based on their race or their zip code. From the Metropolitan Housing Coalition I learned that subsidized housing continues to be focused in particular areas of town, and that public transportation keeps getting cut between these areas of town and where the jobs are, perpetuating inequity and disenfranchisement.
I also learned about the history of sit-ins and protests downtown that led to the passage of an accommodations law in 1963 – the first Southern city to pass such a law. I learned about how generations of wealth inequity play out when people try to pull themselves up from poverty to middle class. And so much more. As a part of my final project, I preached a sermon series on my experiences with HHA:
- Feb 5, 2012: Building the Beloved Community: A brief look at the history Black Louisville and First Unitarian’s Church role/response
- Feb 22, 2012: White Privilege, a Barrier to Building the Beloved Community
- Feb 29, 2012: Racial Justice Today
Perhaps it was because I felt directly connected to what I learned. Perhaps it was because I was finally getting both a big picture view and a view of the distinct trees in the forest of racial injustice. For whatever reasons, for the first time in my life I became deeply interested in the real life stories of people who had lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and early 70s. And I was eager to learn more about my faith tradition’s role during this time period. And so I signed up for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.
Even with all the mind and heart opening I had already begun to engage in, I was not prepared for the personal transformation I experienced on this pilgrimage. I was moved and my heart ached at the role that children played, and encouraged by how there was a role for everyone in the movement. I documented much of it in these blog posts:
- Oct 6, 2012: Civil Rights Tour or Pilgrimage?
- Oct 7, 2012: Children
- Oct 8, 2012: This history ain’t over
- Oct 9, 2012: Selma.
- Oct 9, 2012: A role for everyone
- Oct 10, 2012: How things circle back
- Oct 11, 2012: What can emerge when we come together
- Oct 12, 2012: Some amazing women
The dots connected even more once I returned. The Rev. Gerald Durley made the connection for me between environmental justice and civil rights at a Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light event a few weeks later. I blogged about it as more connections were made between civil rights issues, human rights issues, and racial injustice.
During the course of planning for the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly it became apparent that the WV/KY Ministers would have the opportunity to help shape the social justice focus at General Assembly. We knew that we wanted to highlight the damage that the fossil-fuel industry does at every level of the process: from extraction to transportation to burning/consumption. We suspected that General Assembly would never be so close to Appalachia again, so we wanted to make sure to seize the opportunity to introduce people to the rich culture of Appalachia, to make people aware of their own connection to mountain top removal, and of the damage done by the broad form deed (which, incidentally, needs a wikipedia page).
But Louisville, though close to Appalachia, is not a part of it. Even on a clear day, I cannot see the mountains in the distance. And we have our own troubles with coal that I felt needed to be highlighted, particularly after hearing Kathy Little’s story and Eboni Cochran’s story. I became more and more curious about how racism and the environment are linked oppressions.
When the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth had their board meeting in Louisville, we arranged for an environmental justice tour with the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center. I was amazed at how the EJ tour had so much overlap with the Civil Rights Driving Tour that I had gone on with the Healing History Academy (and subsequently have led twice for my church). I should not have been surprised. As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:
It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard. Nationally, 46.3 percent of African Americans and 36.2 percent of Latinos own their homes compared to over two-thirds of the nation as a whole. Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against locally unwanted land uses or LULUs such as the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.
And so it ends up that chemical factories, toxic power plants, and other major polluters end up in black and/or poor communities. Indeed, they know they will meet with less resistance and so these communities are now targeted for such installations.
For many of us who benefit from privileges we have done nothing to earn, it is easy to not pay attention to these dots. It can be difficult to realize that not only does my energy consumption contribute to mountain top removal, it also contributes to a lower quality of life and younger life expectancy for my neighbors up the road. I was compelled to make sure that the connection between the environment, racism, and oppression of the poor (with Louisville as an example) was brought out during the public witness at General Assembly.
Since June, I have found that the dots are still being connected. I realize that I cannot advocate for the environment without advocating against the racism inherent in so many of our policies. These factors influence decisions around healthcare and food access, around urban development, around city budgeting, around factors such as how and where air quality is measured. And much more.
These factors also influence decisions around education. Did you know that, looking at only 5 states, more than 600,000 students attend public schools that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites? Kentucky was not listed but on the EJ tour, I saw at least 2 schools located within such distances of chemical plants. What about the other states? How does this exposure effect a child’s mental and physical health? Also, did you know that 8.8% of Louisville/Jefferson County public school students are homeless? This connects with the lack of affordable housing, which also has a connection to environmental factors (and much more!) And so a picture begins to emerge with all these dots being connected.
This year, I plan to grow and develop my understanding of these various dots. I know that I can not be truly free while my neighbors are oppressed and so will work against oppression at every level. I have a responsibility to treat others and our planet with love and respect – because we are all connected, like the dots in this picture that is emerging.
Environmental Justice, part 1 of 2 August 9, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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One of the largest environmental rallies in Kentucky state history was held at the Belvedere Plaza on Thursday, June 20, 2013. People from around the state joined with Unitarian Universalists from around the country. Together, we went down to the river knowing that it is time for us to build a new way; time to strengthen our demand for clean energy – energy that doesn’t harm our communities through its mining, through its transportation, through its burning or through its waste.
As a part of this rally, several people shared their own stories about how the extraction industry has affected their lives. In addition, one couple was prepared to tell their story but were not able to due in part to time constraints. Here are their stories. In part 2 of this series, coming soon, I will share what led me to participate in the rally and to begin to advocate for environmental justice.
David Miller from Appalachian West Virginia
My name is David Miller, and my family has been in WV a long time. In fact, we don’t really know how long. As far back as anyone can remember, the mountains have been our home. Here generations of my family have lived and worked, died and been buried. And some of those mountains aren’t there anymore. They’ve been blown apart. Decapitated. Ripped open to get at the coal inside that powers America’s electric gluttony.
I said we were buried in those mountains. Were. Many of the old graveyards are gone. Blown away. Where are my ancestors now? How can this happen and no one say anything? But it’s not just the dead we are destroying.
All that mountain goes somewhere. Much of the rubble is bulldozed into nearby valleys and creek beds, destroying them. Some of it is shoveled down into old abandoned mine shafts, where it leaks into the aquifers and into the wells that many families have relied on for generations.
Marie shows me pictures of the red liquid that pours from her faucets these days. It stains the sink brown. She says when she first saw the filth come out of her faucet, she thought of the verse from Revelation: “And the rivers turned to blood.” And it’s not a metaphor, when you think about it. In that blood-red cancer-causing brack is all that’s left of my ancestors. Their bones and ashes now mixed with this foulness that passes for water.
My grandfather, my PaPa, told me when I was very small, “Boy, never never NEVER believe anything the boss tells you. The company is NEVER your friend!” He used to tell stories of the many races and ethnic groups in the camps. Immigrants from all over Europe. Ireland, Italy, Hungary. African-Americans. Poor whites. Under the ground, he’d say, “We’re all black,” but above ground all the groups were in separate parts of the camp. They didn’t speak to each other. Papa said it was the company that spread the stories and rumors that kept everyone afraid of each other.
And they still do. They still pit us against each other. MTR (mountain top removal) means companies can make more profit with less labor. The lay-offs have been devastating. But the company convinces these communities that all the layoffs are the fault of environmentalists blocking mining permits, and so fear pits neighbor against neighbor, and as we fight each other the profits keep going up for the bosses.
There is a very popular bumper sticker where I live: “If you hate coal, then live in the dark.” There’s a truth and a lie here. The truth is that literally every time you flip a light switch or charge your smart phone you benefit from what happens in my mountains. You are bound up with the results of MTR just like I am. The company is banking on you not paying attention. Because the lie of the bumper sticker is that without the coal companies, everything would stay in the dark. There are other ways to get power – ways that don’t pit us against each other, don’t pit us against the mountains. Today, here and now, we are turning the light.
Jeff & Sharman Chapman Crane from Appalachian Kentucky
The first sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks…Black Mountain being ravaged…The first shift change at the mine begins.
You take your asthma medicine, maybe your inhaler if the stress triggers an attack. You wake your son, who gets up coughing from the dust, or the smell of the water, or who knows what. You try not to think about long-term consequences.
You dress, start your routine…breakfast, vitamins, exercise. You wash the dishes, then brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad.
You sit down to plan the day…a trip to town, work in the studio, mowing the grass. A college group to tour the gallery later…
You’re startled by the first explosion, which you feel before you hear it. The house shakes, the windows rattle…then the roar of the explosives and the cloud of dust. You remember the four-year old in Virginia, killed by a boulder crashing through his bedroom, or the people injured in Hazard when fly rock came through the roof of the Wal-Mart. You try not to think about it.
You work in the studio, and later you and your son begin the mowing. This time you hear the explosion before you feel it. You run toward the house as the valley fills with dust. Your eyes sting and your mouth and nose fill with grit. You make it inside, close all the doors and windows and wait for the dust to settle. The second shift change begins.
You start to town, passing your best friend’s house, and try not to think of how strained that friendship has become. You start across Pine Mountain, dreading the encounter with trucks loaded with 200,000 pounds of coal, and you hope the driver is not high on oxycontin, or driving too fast, or both. By grace you arrive safely and stop at the courthouse to get car tags. “Would you like a Friends of Coal tag, or maybe a Friends of Coal tee-shirt?” No thanks. Next stop, the bank, where the tellers all wear Coal Mining Our Future tee-shirts. You muse about the irony but keep it to yourself. As you head to Food City you read the sticker on the truck in front of you…”Save a Nation, Kill a President”. In the parking lot a dozen cars with Friends of Coal, Coal Keeps the Lights On, Coal Mining Our Future tags and stickers…then the pick-up with the fully equipped gun rack, and you hope the owner is not crazy enough to enact the message on his bumper “Save a Coal Miner, Shoot a Tree Hugger”.
You cook supper, eat, take a bath, trying not to think about the water. You go to the gallery. Dave Cooper brings a group of 20 students from Ohio and Harvard. You give a tour and tell your story. The students are inspired and think you’re courageous and heroic, but you know better. You do what you can. It’s not enough.
You settle in for the evening, a good book or maybe a video, nothing too serious, because you’re up to your neck in serious.
The night descends. You brush your teeth, trying not to think about why the water is so cloudy and smells so bad. You get into bed. The third shift change begins, miners going to and from work, one way in, one way out. They know who you are, they know where you stand, they know where you live.
You try not to think about it. But you do. You think about the veiled threats, the poisoned water and the contaminated air, your family’s health.
You think about friends…estranged, injured, sick or dead. You think about Black Mountain, the highest in Kentucky, its beauty and vibrancy lost forever. Forever.
When the traffic diminishes a quietness settles over the valley. You begin to drift to sleep, and the last sounds you hear are the machines…the dozers, the end loaders, the massive dump trucks.
Kathy Little from Louisville, KY
I am Kathy Little, a mom and grandmother, and a volunteer Cane Run community organizer with the Sierra Club. Louisville Residents for Power Plant justice encompasses both the Mill Creek and Cane Run communities in southwest Jefferson County. Our land and our water has been and continues to be poisoned by burning coal.
I wanted to briefly talk about impacted communities in Western Kentucky. The strip mines in Utica and Owensboro to name a few. The stories are eerily similar. Everything is compromised. The explosions, the dust, and then the second round of dust dodging the coal trucks down a path of destruction, of the air, water and the health of people in these communities. Much of this coal finds its way up the river to the power plants here in Jefferson County to be mixed in with coal that has been mined through mountaintop removal.
Both the Cane Run and Mill Creek power plants have high hazard ash dams on their campuses. They are 40 years old and according to LG&E it is undetermined whether or not an engineer was involved during construction. They are approximately 36 ft. deep and hold fly and bottom ash. They are close to schools, daycares and local communities. If they breach, our babies die. In the meantime, both spew toxic sludge into the Ohio River.
Clean Air is a basic right, except when you live within 100 yards of one of the oldest and filthiest power plants in the United States. At Cane Run we smell sulfur most days and it literally makes you sick. Fly ash from sludge plant malfunctions, and ash blowing off of a huge dry ash landfill crosses LG&E’s property line and finds its way into our communities. We see it floating in the air, it’s in the inside and outside of our homes it’ss the consistency of talc, and it tastes of sulfur. We clean with ammonia based product to get it off of our furniture. What we worry about most though, is the heavy metal particles that find their way into our children’s lungs.
What is this doing to their bodies in the long and short term – will they die young? Many in our communities suffer from asthma, immune system disorders, and rare cancers. Our local Air Pollution Control District cites and fines the power plant but nothing changes. Our communities are not protected from this environmental injustice. We are human witnesses to the devastation that burning coal brings to nearby communities. I have been fighting this fight for 5 years. Though Cane Run recently announced that they will be transitioning to natural gas 2016, I know that this just moves the problem elsewhere, and someone else’s children and grandchildren will be poisoned. It is not fair.
Eboni Cochran from Louisville, KY
I am Eboni Cochran and I am a member of the faith community here in Louisville. I am also a member of REACT, a group of residents who live near or at the fence line of a cluster of chemical facilities commonly referred to as Rubbertown. There are numerous neighborhoods in West and Southwest Louisville that are adjacent to Rubbertown. I live in one of those. The Chickasaw neighborhood is one with tons of green space, a tree-lined parkway that connects to other parkways, beautiful homes and residents who like most people, care about where they live. There is only one thing that keeps my neighborhood from being top notch. It has nothing to do with crime, it has nothing to do with litter, it has nothing to do with lack of sidewalks. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. It has EVERYTHING to do with Rubbertown. A place that SHOULD be one of exploration for my son is one of restriction based on how bad the air is on any given day. A place where my son SHOULD be able to fish is one tainted with dioxin, commonly referred to as one of the most hazardous substances on Earth. The recent hydrochloric acid spill speaks volume as to how communities surrounding Rubbertown have no clue as to what will happen from day to day.
The chemical facilities that make up Rubbertown bombard our communities with toxic chemicals associated with many diseases and a lowered quality of life. These chemical facilities are some of the top fossil fuel users, many being responsible for some of the worst fossil fuel atrocities. We are being poisoned by chemical companies that demand cheap and dirty energy that in turn is making a huge impact on climate change.
So we cannot look at the issues we all face as separate. We cannot pit the environmentalists against the environmental justice folks. We cannot pit the workers against residents. We MUST come together as one if we are going to protect the land, the animals AND the people. We MUST begin to connect the dots so that our movements can gain more momentum in changing public policy and personal habits. Let’s make a commitment here today that we will do better at connecting the dots by going beyond our comfort zones and reaching out to others who are fighting for what is right.
fairness (nondiscrimination) is fundamental. June 16, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Fairness is Fundamental
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 16, 2013
- the Congregant’s Perspective by Zoe S.
- the Sermon
Thank you, Zoe, for telling us your story and sharing your perspective. And thank you and the other members of the Red Pen, for realizing that there were stories that needed to be told by GLBTQ students at your school.
I am not sure how many of you may remember this, but in the Senior High Youth Service a few weeks ago, Zoe talked about about this congregation and how it has informed her way of thinking and being with people. She also played a song that is hugely popular right now, by the artist Macklemore. The song is called “Same Love” and in the song he talks openly about his support for gay marriage and equality, marking a breakthrough in mainstream hip-hop music. The track was inspired by his gay uncles and gay godfather and is an issue that is personal to him and the other musicians he collaborated with – it is quite powerful.
And it is telling that a such a breakthrough song is so popular right now. It speaks to the fact that 53% of Americans now support same-sex marriage. With the Supreme Court poised to rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it seems as though same-sex marriage will be the law of the land – it is just a matter of time.
Much like, years ago, it was just a matter of time that interracial marriage would be legalized. This week celebrated the 46th anniversary of the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision handed down by the Supreme Court. Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, a black woman, in 1958. It was illegal for them to get married in the state of Virginia, so they crossed the border into Washington, DC. However, when returning home they were arrested and charged with interracial marriage and “mixing races.” These charges were punishable by 5 years in prison, but the Lovings pleaded guilty, received suspended sentences, and were ordered to leave the state. Virginia was not for those lovers, apparently. Before her death, Mildred Loving reflected on their Supreme Court case: “I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
Many comparisons are made between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement of the 60s. Before the Loving case was brought to the Supreme Court, there were decades of nonviolent protests, sit-ins, marches, and more – all demanding that people not be discriminated against due to the color of their skin. Just last month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the accommodations law in Louisville. Responding to increasing sit-ins and boycotts by black Louisvillians (mostly teenagers – youth will lead the way, as our banner in the Pride Parade asserted), Louisville became the first city south of the Mason-Dixon Line to pass legislation that required businesses to serve people no matter their race, their country of origin or their religion.
Next year, on July 2, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act. This landmark piece of legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and ended legalized racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.
So three years before Loving v. Virginia passed the Supreme Court and legalized interracial marriage, federal nondiscrimination laws were passed. In fact, in many ways, interracial marriage was hardly a blip on the Civil Rights radar at the time – there were much more urgent issues that needed to be addressed first. EJ Graff points out that “for blacks and for women getting a law guaranteeing the right to work was central to achieving dignity. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they were flatly denied equality on the job; their discrimination centered around the idea of them as people who couldn’t think or do well enough to stand side by side with white men.”
If we continue comparing the Gay Rights movement with the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, then you might assume that the push for rights for GLBTQ people would follow a similar pattern: first nondiscrimination laws, then marriage laws. And in fact, in 2011, the Center for American Progress reported that 9 out of 10 Americans believed that such federal nondiscrimination laws already existed. 74% Americans support such laws. With this much support, it seems like protecting GLBTQ people from discrimination and harassment in their workplaces (at minimum) is a no brainer – so how startling is it that such a federal law does not exist. And in fact only 21 states and Washington, DC have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 16 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. In 2011, 19 states had NO non-discrimination laws protect GLBTQ people at all on their books.
So what is going on here? Almost 40 years ago, in 1974, two Representatives from New York introduced the Equality Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. This act sought to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals and unmarried people in housing, employment and public accommodations. The Equality Act marked the first-ever proposed national legislation that would end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the United States. It did not include transgender people. Regardless, the Equality Act never made it out of committee and was never introduced in the Senate.
Fast-forward to 1994, the first year that ENDA was submitted – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. ENDA would have made it illegal to discriminate against employees based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. It did not have the broader coverage of housing and public accommodations that the Equality Act did. Still, both the House and Senate versions of ENDA died in committee that year and then again in 1995.
In 1996, however, ENDA managed to make it to the floor for a vote in the Senate, only to fail by a maddening one-vote margin. Interestingly enough, that very same day, the House passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as being between one man and one woman.
After 1996 a version of ENDA was introduced in every session of Congress except one.
In 2007, the bill was changed to make it illegal to discriminate not just based on sexual orientation but also on gender identity. But even as limited as it is, ENDA has never passed. Earlier this year, a Representative from Colorado re-introduced an ENDA bill in the House (where it has 172 co-sponsors) and a Senator from Oregon introduced an ENDA bill in the Senate (where it has 48 co-sponsors.) The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) will be holding a hearing on ENDA sometime in July 2013.
So it is strange, indeed, that even though most Americans assume there is, there is not actually any federal non-discrimination legislation protecting GLBTQ people, and meanwhile the Supreme Court is currently deciding on the Defense of Marriage Act. This means that even if the Supreme Court overturns DOMA in just a few days, and even if all 50 states miraculously legalized same-sex marriage, it would still be perfectly legal in most states to fire someone for their sexual orientation, or even kick them out of a restaurant! What is going on here? Why are members and allies of the GLBTQ community pushing marriage rights, when we have not yet achieved basic nondiscrimination rights in the workplace, housing and public accommodations?
EJ Graff helps clarify what is going on, when she writes
“The symbolism behind marriage speaks to the defining feature of gay identity (same-sex love) in a way that workplace discrimination does not…it’s comparatively easy for most lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men to hide our sexual orientation…For us, the far more central denial of our dignity has been our exclusion from the social symbolism and law that have shaped our…family aspirations. Being denied recognition for our passions and our families has been at the heart…of our civil and social exclusion, and therefore our movement. Employment rights have been emotionally secondary to the LGB movement…in the way that the right to marry across races was secondary to the African American civil-rights movement. Being denied that freedom to marry across races lines was an insult, but not the central plank of oppression. But being treated as if none of my loves deserved recognition was absolutely at the core of my exclusion, at least as a lesbian, from full participation in my community.”
So the comparison between African American civil rights and rights for GLBTQ people seems to break down as the issues of marriage equality and non-discrimination laws seem to be reversed in priority. But there is something very misleading in all of this – something that I did not realize until I had it pointed out to me: Every state that has passed civil marriage rights already had nondiscrimination laws on their books. Every one. Each state where same-sex marriage is now legal first made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in their places of work, housing and in public accommodations. Fairness came first.
Interestingly enough, this all came to my attention with the recent passage of Kentucky HB 279, the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” This law states that “Government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion.” There were many, many cries and much agitation from progressives against this act – the key point of the outrage is concern that this law might override the Fairness legislations in cities and towns that had already passed nondiscrimination laws – towns like Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Vicco. Conservatives argued that this would not happen, but a little bit of research shows that this is exactly why this type of legislation is being pushed in states around the country.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, has an entire article from 2011 on how they claim same-sex marriage constitutes a threat to so-called “religious freedom” and that nondiscrimination laws must be stopped before they are passed, or they must be maneuvered around, so that they don’t open the door to same-sex marriage. The Heritage Foundation says that conflicts between same-sex marriage and “religious freedom” will often involve some type of previously adopted nondiscrimination law or policy, and that, as such, nondiscrimination laws can impose burdens on “religious freedom” even in jurisdictions that do not legally recognize same-sex unions as marriages.
I have never used air-quotes so much in a sermon before! I am doing so now, because the “religious freedom” they are talking about is not at all what you and I think of when we talk about religious freedom. Instead, they mean freedom from having to consider other peoples religious or secular positions. This is a group that believes that if their fundamentalist Christian beliefs are not the general law of the land and are not being taught in the schools, then they are being religiously oppressed. As such, they believe that same-sex marriage is a severe threat to their “religious freedom” and that lawmakers should revisit nondiscrimination laws to make sure that these laws adequately protect their fundamentalist ideas. Never mind that no one would be forcing them to officiate or participate in same-sex marriages!
This particular branch of conservative fundamentalism pushes these “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” in an effort to cut off the blood supply to nondiscrimination legislation, in the fear that it will open the door to same-sex marriage.
Currently, both Kentucky and Indiana prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in state employment, but neither state prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in private employment, housing or public accommodations. Many of the advocates of House Bill 279 think this meager protection is too far and that in the case of towns that have comprehensive Fairness legislation, it is way too far. These folks must be particularly concerned, since a recent poll indicates that 83% of Kentuckians support Fairness legislation! And yet we still don’t have a statewide Fairness bill.
And so, bringing it to the level of this particular congregation: Comprehensive Fairness legislation, at federal and state level, is absolutely fundamental. We need to understand that until we pass broader nondiscrimination laws in Kentucky and Indiana that protect everyone from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations, we will almost certainly not be able to obtain civil marriage equality. If we are advocating for marriage equality, but not advocating even harder for comprehensive Fairness legislation, then we have put the cart before the horse and need to turn ourselves around.
I love how this congregation has hung a banner outside for years that says that “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” and I love how you asked me a number of years ago to stop signing marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until gay and lesbian couples had the same legal rights. And I suspect that there are more than a few of us who thought, surely, this type of legislation was already in place. But it is not. In order to make sure we are building our house of equality on solid rock and not on shifting sand where it might collapse, we need to go back to the basics.
The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will be holding a hearing on ENDA sometime next month. There are 22 Senators on the Committee, including Rand Paul from Kentucky. Write them, call them, pester the heck out of them to let them know where you stand on the importance of getting ENDA before the Senate. And then follow the bill and pester the rest of the Senators and Representatives so that this becomes the year ENDA finally passes. ENDA is not enough – but we must start somewhere.
In Kentucky, a state-wide Fairness bill will be introduced, again, in the next legislative session. Again, write, call, pester the heck out of your representatives and let’s get this bill passed! In Indiana, I am not sure what the status is – there does not seem to be quite the push as there is in Kentucky, but that does not mean you can remain silent – just the opposite!
Regardless of which state you live in, let’s show the fundamentalists that what they fear is actually true: that nondiscrimination laws will indeed lead the way to marriage equality, but that this is not something that they need to fear. Let’s show them that just as interracial marriage has not brought this country, or the institution of marriage, to its knees, neither will marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. As Macklemore reminds us,
“We press play
Don’t press pause
Progress, march on!”
Because it is the same love, and no one deserves to be discriminated against, bullied, hurt, fired, denied a job or housing or in anyway be oppressed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Fairness, nondiscrimination, is where we must start.