Monday, February 15, 2010

First Comes Love, Then Comes Justice: Re-Imagining Love and Marriage

Well I have not met my goal of posting weekly, but here is my sermon from Sunday. The text I used is an excerpt from Our Passion for Justice by Carter Heyward.

I have to say as I begin this sermon that this is not an easy sermon to bring to you. Not because I don’t have plenty to say on the topic – I have more than enough to say. It is because I stand before you as a queer person, in a same-sex relationship for the last 16 years, who is legally married although that marriage is not recognized in the state of Virginia or by the federal government. It is almost too personal, too close to home. Yet I hope this sermon is not a typical support of same-sex marriage, making the case that queer people and queer couples are just like everyone else and therefore deserving of their civil rights. It is my hope that I will raise some questions I don’t see being addressed in our current discourse on marriage or our popular culture’s notions of marriage.

I use the word queer for myself and to talk about the wide and diverse world of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. It is not a word that is universally accepted and used. I use it because it allows me to have my identity not limited to one particular box, one particular identity. I use it as a member of this wide and diverse community, knowing that there is not universal agreement as to its usage.

Love and marriage are of course on our minds – how could they not be for today is Valentine’s Day. Screaming from television, radio, stores, and restaurants – everywhere we are hearing about love – hearts, chocolates, red, and pink are everywhere. Then we also have the anti-Valentine’s celebration – mostly marking break-ups and betrayals, the loss of love, the absence of love, the horror of being single and alone on this particular holiday when the world seems to be made up of happy couples. Yet what is wrong with this picture? I am not just talking about the over-commercialization and another opportunity to entice people acquire more stuff – there is a good sermon there but that is not today’s sermon. I am talking about what is wrong with this message that we are all embarking on Noah’s Ark two by two. One may ask what is so horrible and awful about being single? Most of us rationally thinking about it would say that there is nothing horrible or awful about being single. Yet our culture’s obsession with coupleness often sends the message that it is better to be in a relationship – any relationship – than to be single. Experience may teach some of us the falseness of that belief – for experience can teach that it is better to be alone than in a bad relationship. Not to mention of course, how that belief that any relationship, even a bad one, is preferable to being single, contributes to people remaining in abusive and dysfunctional relationships. It continues to give the false impression that choosing to be single is to choose to be alone.

Our current cultural mores teach that the hardest part about love and marriage is finding that one perfect person. Once of course the person is found, the perfect wedding day will commence and they ride off into the sunset perfectly happy and content. It is all about the courtship, the beginning of new love. Nothing about what happens after the cake is eaten, the last notes of music from the band have faded away, friends and families have gone home and the couple is left to figure out how to spend the rest of their days in wedded bliss.

Those of us who have been in a long-term relationship know that the real work, the hardest part is how to remain in one’s relationship after the initial bloom of romance fades. As one blogger recently put it, there is no Hallmark card that says “I love you so much that I will endure you” and yet much of long-term committed relationships is learning to endure the other. Learning to hang in there when it might be easier to walk way; learning to stay even when my personal needs for intimacy, connection and support are not being met – that is the work of long-term committed relationships, because even in the happiest, the most healthy of relationships there will be times when one or both will not be getting all or even some of their needs for intimacy, connection and support met. Marriage requires commitment and some hard work. Yet this commitment and hard work has its own joy and reward – one not often seen in the movies, television, or books. Leo Tolstoy in one of his novellas, has his character describe this joy and reward this way “That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation for a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.” Commitment and endurance have their own joy and happiness that is often quieter and less visible than the exhilaration and giddiness of new love.

Our common messages about marriage and this extends into our work for marriage equality is that marriage and romantic love are the best and primary ways to meet our need for connection and intimacy, secondly, that it is up to individuals to find their one true love and figure out how to make it work and finally that community, including faith community are only tangential to the success of those relationships working. Love and marriage are individual rights and choices and the community has little or no role there. If a marriage succeeds or fails it is the sole fault or responsibility of the couple. I want to challenge these assumptions and say that our work for marriage equality, could if we gave it a chance, provide an opportunity for us to re-imagine love and marriage. As Carter Heyward says in our reading, love is not just a sentimental feeling, that love makes justice, makes righteousness. This notion is sorely lacking in our current cultural messages about marriage. I also want to say it is missing from our faith communities – including our liberal Unitarian Universalist faith communities.

Our work for marriage equality is predicated on the notion that same-sex couples are just like heterosexual couples – that gay and lesbian couples just want the same things we all want – to be happily married – so let us open up civil marriage – and please note how clear we are that we are talking about civil marriage – to same sex couples – not to everyone but to same-sex couples. Now on the one hand there is nothing wrong with this. It makes good politics, it makes good bumper stickers like “Civil marriage is a Civil Right”. But I also find it flawed and problematic.

For one thing it does nothing to challenge the inherent heterosexism in our culture or its obsession with coupleness as the primary and best means for meeting our relationship needs. Is it really? Is marriage truly the best way to meet to our needs for intimacy, sharing, support? We put a lot of pressure on our romantic relationships and I think that is why so many of them end. They just can’t support all the pressure we put on them – they are supposed to meet our needs for a best friend, someone to hang out with, someone to help pay the bills, live with, run a household with, raise children with, lover, partner, companion. Whew..I am tired just thinking about it.

What if we removed some of this pressure from our romantic relationships? What if we encouraged and modeled networks of relationships? That people had not just spouses but friends and communities. What if our faith communities became places that met some of these needs and supported life-partners as they worked to be partners and lovers who are building lives, homes and families? Our faith communities could become antidotes to isolation, antidotes to having to do it all on one’s own.

Heterosexism, is the ism in our society that demands that we all conform to heterosexual norms - opposite sex marriage, appropriate gender roles for men and women and valuing the nuclear family over all other family structures. It is often hidden and unseen – much like racism and sexism. It is not the fault of any one individual – it is a system. It is a system that permeates into the personal aspects of our lives on a nearly daily basis. How many forms do you fill out that ask if you are married or single? Every time I encounter a form that asks me if I am married or single I have to stop and think about my answer. Who is asking? Am I “allowed” to say that I am married? When am I allowed to claim that identity? When can’t I? Simply granting me a civil marriage license has not ended the regular reminder that my relationship, my family is less than the idealized heterosexual nuclear family.

Yet our current debate over marriage equality does very little to disrupt notions of heterosexism Our current marriage equality movement only asks that same sex couples be allowed to participate more fully in the heteronormative culture by granting civil marriage rights to same sex couples. Now don’t get me wrong these rights are important and numerous. Over 1100 federal benefits and rights and another 300 or so state rights and benefits are tied to heterosexual marriage. 1400! That is not some small amount. Yet no where in our discussion do we ask the question why are there over 1100 federal benefits and 300 state benefits tied to opposite sex marriage. Why do we extend these rights to married couples – why not everyone including single people?

The marriage equality movement argues that lesbian and gay couples are just like and just want what everyone wants – heteronormative marriage. Really? Is that really all queer people and queer couples want? If the scope of our vision is only to have marriage equality, then our vision is too small. It is not truly just. For a system that grants 1400 rights to people because they are married means that those rights and benefits are not available to those who are not married – queer or straight. It continues to privilege one form of family over all other forms.

I also am deeply trouble that our marriage equality debate has been limited to civil marriage. Again this is a political strategy – the polls tell us it will play well with that average Jane or Joe out there who is ambivalent about this notion of extending heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples. Don’t bring religion into it! And we as a faith community, as a religion have been bought into this hook, line and sinker. I expect more. For my religious community, my liberal religious community – all of you and other Unitarian Universalists around the country have said – you are welcome here – you are seen here. Yet the best we can fight for is civil marriage? Let me tell you, I was married for twelve years before I had any civil marriage. My marriage is not more “real” now because I have a civil marriage license than before. We have been blessed with religious communities that have blessed and supported our relationship throughout our years together. If we are going to fight for marriage equality – than we must claim our place as people of faith who bless and sanctify the relationships of same-sex couples and families. We must claim our religious voice!

And this comes back to how we as liberal religious people have bought into society’s notions of what marriage is and should be. Oh we will host, bless and officiate at wedding ceremonies for same-sex and opposite sex couples. We pride ourselves on our long history of doing so – and yes that is something to be proud of. But rarely do we teach people in our faith community what a healthy relationship is or looks like, how to sustain in the long run and what role faith may have in their relationship. Carter Heyward tells us that we are not automatic lovers of anything – ourselves, others, God. We must chose to love and to chose and to chose wisely means there are things to learn about love. Don’t we as a religious community have an obligation to teach about love?

How do we learn to love? Most of us learn through the models around us – our parents, grandparents, other family members, maybe family friends. We learn to love by being loved. We also learn to love through the images we see in the movies, television, music and books. Yet if all we have is our narrow circle for models – and that circle has become even more narrow – we may not learn the hard work of commitment. We live in a time of intense separation of the generations. Many of our children are growing up far away from extended families, our community and social networks are weak. Our faith communities are one of the last centers of multigenerational community – one of the last places where elders, middle age, young adults, youth and children mingle. Yet we must make intentional choice to be multigenerational – to resist mimicking the generational segregation so prevalent in society. So that younger couples can learn from older ones; so that our children and youth can see single people, couples and all sorts of families coming together to worship, to play, to learn and explore.

Carter Heyward tells us that to love is to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. It is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family.” What if a question for all couples is how will your love, your life together help heal a broken world? What if we put justice into the mix? How would that reframe our notions of love and marriage – if marriage was as much about justice as it is about love? Now I am not proposing that we add more thing to the list our marriages are meant to carry – but how does it reframe marriage if justice is brought into the mix?

Well for one thing we cannot make justice on our own – justice making is community work. We all need to know that we are not in it alone – couples and families need to know they are not it in alone. Queer people and couples in particular, need to know that they are not alone – for in too many cases – families, friends and religious community vanishes when one utters the words “I am queer; I am gay; I am lesbian; I am bisexual; I am transgender.” One of the gifts of the queer community is how it has created its own structures, organizations and families to support those who have lost so much by coming out. What does the queer community have to teach about what makes a family? What do the same sex couples in our community have to teach us about how to create new models for intimacy?

As people of faith I call upon us to ask to the question what is marriage for? Who is it for? What if marriage was not the only way of creating a family? Again what about single people? What about those who have no interest in marrying? What about those who live together in long-term relationships but never marry – is their relationship less then? What might they have to teach us? What does it mean for us as a religious community to bless and affirm marriage? Does our obligation end once the couple is off to the reception and have left our doors? Is there something more? What about those who want to form a family with more than two adults and some children? What about blended families who chose to live together? What about multiple generations in one household? Or families that chose to live together communally? What do these households have to teach us about commitment, marriage and family? What about couples who do not have children? Does justice demand that some of these federal and state benefits be extended to families beyond the nuclear family?

To make love is to make justice Carter Heyward tells us. To make justice is to participate in the healing of a broken world. Our congregation and other Unitarian Univeralists have said that we are “Standing on the Side of Love.” To stand on the side of love is to stand for justice and heal a broken world. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is not just about securing civil marriage for same sex couples but rather to stand for justice for all sorts of families who face injustice. It is to stand for immigrant families facing deportation and separation. To stand on the side of love means our vision has to be bigger. We have to re-imagine love and marriage for our own time. We need to expand our notion of who or what is a family.

To stand on the side of love is to stand with queer people – people who do not fit into our normative notions of gender – who defy the gender binary. It is to stand with queer youth who make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless youth population. It is to stand with homeless families in our community who cannot on their own secure a safe and warm home for themselves and enough food to eat. It is to demand an end to favoring heteronormative marriage over all other types of relationships. It is time for love that goes beyond chocolate and hearts – but rather opens each of us to the suffering of the world and to do what we can to heal it.