Keynote Address given by Meg Riley
UURMaPA Fall Conference, 2019
Note that this is not a word-for-word transcription of Meg’s address. We recommend watching the video in addition to reading this document.
I want to start with gratitude to UURMaPA for doing this, for caring about this history; to all of the people who went before me, who made my life possible; and for the people who are coming after, who are leading places I can’t even imagine. So I’m just highly aware of gratitude.
I’m also really aware that today is the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and the Supreme Court is hearing a case that has profound implications for all of this work; we can’t begin to imagine what this new court might do. We can’t imagine, yet we’ve been there, so I have been incredibly lucky to get to do the work that I’ve done and live the life that I’ve lived and I want to share a little bit about it. I’ll be naming a lot of other people, and it’s not to name drop. I want to be clear. It’s that this work is done by so many people, including when I look out into this room — so many of you could be up here giving a talk. And I hope if I don’t name you or if I do, that what I say will remind you of stories that you want to put into the history.
Because I want to say that on this issue, we have changed history. On so many issues we’re involved with, we’re not the dog, we’re the tail; but on this one, without us, I am convinced history would be different for the entire nation. And we don’t tell our stories. I was looking at Wikipedia; we didn’t even go to Wikipedia and insert what we’ve done, much less write books about it. So I’m really excited that UURMaPA is filming and writing, and that this material is being gathered.
As Phyllis said, we are the keepers of the memories and I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to lose my own, much less the ones I haven’t heard yet. So anyway, after Jay Deacon was in the office, Scott Alexander was there for a couple of years; I tend to follow him. (He moved on to CLF, it’s a path.) But while Scott was there, he created with Bobby Harro the Welcoming Congregation curriculum so that I arrived just in time to have that curriculum already. And when I came in, it was the Office of Lesbian and Gay concerns. We added “bisexual” while I was there; Keith added “transgender,” though I hired Barb Greve who had a lot to do with that.
But anyway, history is always shifting and it continues to. I went from the Youth Office, where I’d been the Youth Programs Director at the UUA. And partly I went because it was a half time job and I wanted a half time job, because community ministry had just been invented and I had finished seminary years before, but I didn’t want to be a parish minister. But when community ministry came, I said, “That’s what I am. What is it?”
I knew that I wanted to finally get ordained, so I needed to do a CPE and some other things. So I was half time doing the GLBT Office or, at the time, the LG Office. (It had changed from “Affairs” to “Concerns” because people were concerned about affairs.)
The other half of the time, I was an intern at Church of the United Community in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which was a Black Liberation theology congregation that Graylan and Betty Ellis Hagler had started. By the time I got there, Graylan was the solo minister there. It was quite an awakening for me about all kinds of things, particularly my whiteness and racism, and AIDS was there hugely in that community. And so was homophobia there quite a bit.
So I was in these worlds and I also, at the UUA, had gotten involved with the racial and cultural diversity work that Mel Hoover was doing with about 15 different job titles. And so for me, always this “intersectionality” word, which we didn’t have yet, was just how I lived into this work and how it made sense to me.
I want to say that I went to the Youth Office from Minnesota where there were no gay or lesbian ministers that I ever knew about, except there was Lucy Hitchcock in North Dakota who I heard about far away. (It’s so good to see you here!) But while I was there and after I’d applied and been accepted, but hadn’t moved yet, Arlington Street Church called Kim Crawford Harvie to that historic pulpit and it reverberated across the nation. I remember when Susan Milnor said to Terry Sweetser, “Oh my God, did you hear this?” It was huge news, because at that time, most GLBT folks, if they got placed at all, were placed through the Extension Department. They were not called. So a shout-out to Chuck Gaines, who really did a lot of work to make that happen.
When I went to the Gay Lesbian Office, the first thing that I did — coming out of Religious Education, the way that we worked on curriculum then was to get people from every district to come to agree to be trainers of that curriculum back home — was to put together a training for everybody to come together — in a Catholic retreat center, of course — near Boston. And I made sure that all of the teams leading that were racially mixed, gender mixed, sexual orientation mixed.
Of course the reps from each district were not so mixed. The trainers of trainers were racially diverse, but it was all white trainers who came in. But at least the training held, again, those elements of intersectionality.
So Jacqui James, who was then doing Beyond Categorical Thinking, asked me to start helping her lead those trainings. I know that people like Tony Larsen had been out in congregations talking about hiring Gay and Lesbian ministers, and people like Mark Belletini were serving congregations. And so this was going on, but I was starting to meet with congregations to consider would they possibly think of hiring somebody who was queer. What that curriculum did, which was smart, was to say, “What are your concerns? Okay, what do you think other people might be concerned about?” And there’s where the whole list would come, right? “Me, I’ve got no concerns, but other people…” We would just generate those lists about all kinds of issues: ability, race, gender. At the time, women was still kind of a thing, unbelievably enough.
So when I got to Boston, Gene Navias was my boss… finally openly gay. And when we did the training for the Welcoming Congregation, the leaders met to tell their stories. And I still remember his story. He drew a picture of all of the therapy that he’d been to and all of the therapists who had told him how he could not be gay. And the one that I remember most is “Marry an ugly woman. She’ll be grateful.” I was so glad he got to tell his story and be listened to.
I took the office kind of thinking that the radical part of my life would be Roxbury and this would be kind of more curriculum stuff that I came to do. But immediately I started getting these calls from the field that were just way over my head. A health teacher in Kansas was fired for mentioning safe sex, about AIDS. She was fired from her job. And right then in Oregon, Ballot Measure 9 and in Colorado Amendment 2 were on the horizon. Ballot Measure 9 was this horrific, very extreme measure; it talked about homosexuality, bestiality. It was to put that language into the State Constitution, this super hateful amendment. Amendment 2 in Colorado was kind of Homophobia Light, just no rights, but it didn’t really trash people. So I started getting these calls about them, and I heard that First Church Portland had put a big red ribbon around themselves and declared themselves a Hate Free Zone. Marilyn Sewell said that it was the GLBT youth who met in the church who suggested that to her. She was a brand new minister. And she said, of course.
And I didn’t know what to say to anybody. I just was like, “Whoa, this is awful.” I remember a woman named Peggy McComb just calling me sobbing saying, “We’re under assault. What are you going to do?” And I said, “Cry with you.” I mean, I just had no idea how to help. Ballot Measure 9 failed, barely, in Oregon. Amendment 2 passed in Colorado. And in Oregon it failed by, like, 1%, despite the fact that everyone of both political parties, anybody with any kind of power, said “This is a bad idea.” It still got 49% of the vote, almost.
Right after the election, I went to the NGLTF, the National Gay Lesbian Task Force. They have an annual meeting called Creating Change. So I went to that because they had spoken out about the Iraq war. Frankly, I found a lot of gay politics very white, middle-class-centered in a way that left me very bored. And when NGLTF spoke out about the Iraq war, they were trashed. “What does that have to do with us? How dare you?”
But I was like, “Maybe I’m interested in you. Who are you?” And so the woman who was then the director, Urvashi Vaid, had come to Boston and convened religious people because she had realized “religion seems to be a thing here. I don’t know what to do about it.” I remember Jay, I saw you there; just a few of us went to talk to her about religion.
So I went to NGLTF and first of all, Urvashi Vaid read a letter that began this way, “Dear NGLTF Creating Change Conference: Hilary and I…,” and it was from Bill Clinton, and we wept because we had just lived through George Bush, who never talked about AIDS, or acknowledged gay people, as people around us were dying. He never would mention it. And Clinton, if you’ll recall, ran on a very pro-gay platform, which didn’t go so well for him when he got into office, but he at least had intentions of things like gays in the military and other things that weren’t very well executed.
So I remember just thinking, “Oh my gosh, it’s a new day here.” And I learned about this thing called the Religious Right, which I’d never heard of. I grew up UU; I certainly grew up with what I learned in seminary to call Christofascism, but it was all individual, “You’re going to hell” kind of. It wasn’t organized politically at all.
I had two main teachers, Suzanne Pharr and Scott Nakagawa, who had just come from Oregon working on Ballot Measure 9. They’d worked with a group that they’d created with the American Friends Service Committee called People of Faith Against Bigotry, that the UUs were very, very active in. And Suzanne’s line, which became my mantra and remains one, is “Sexism, racism and homophobia: unite the right and divide the left.”
So at this conference I kind of felt like a right wing infiltrator because I just kind of looked like I looked. In gay circles, I’m kind of the church lady and in church circles, I’m the radical sometimes. It’s an interesting life. So I was kind of uncomfortable with some of the radical language and the people who were there. I didn’t know what to do with the whole thing. And I met this other guy who looked kind of ill at ease in this polyester suit and it turned out to be Mel White, who is the televangelist who came out and who had written Jerry Falwell’s autobiography. I met amazing people there. It’s where I met Elias Farajaje who later became Ibrahim Farajaje, and I left there with relationships to really take me into the next steps.
We watched a movie there called “The Gay Agenda,” which it turned out had been distributed in churches around Oregon and Colorado. (How many of you saw it? I know some of you did, because I made you watch it over the years.) It was this horrible screed showing leather floats in Pride Parades and saying “This is what all gay people want to do to your children.” And it was just this hateful, hateful thing. It was being used to terrorize church people, like “Jesus isn’t going to come to the world if these people do that; you need to change it.”
So I watched that film and I met these people and I got really excited about what the UUA could do. On the plane on the way home, I’d never done it before, but I called Bill Schulz and I said, “When I come back, I need to meet with the Leadership Council. There’s something going on that the UUA needs to address.” And I think he was so stunned that he said, “Come next week.” So I did. I showed the movie and I said “This is what’s going on in the world. This is the kind of assault that’s on my people, and we’re the people to stop this.”
That year I’d finished at The Church of the United Community. I spent my extra time, at Political Research Associates, which was a think tank about the right wing. So I went in and I read their whole library about gay stuff because I just felt like the logic was so circular. Like “We hate them because they’re gay. It’s because they’re gay that we hate them.” And I was like, “What’s underneath this?” And so I read and read and read. I read a book called Dare to Discipline by a guy named James Dobson, who is a child psychologist who ended up founding Focus on the Family. And this is the paragraph where the religious educator in me just woke up. He said, “If little Johnny disobeys, give him a timeout. But if little Johnny defies your authority, you must hurt little Johnny, hurt him, hurt him badly, and then comfort him. Because if little Johnny is not afraid of you, little Johnny will never know God.”
What? What a sadomasochistic version of God, right? And in the original version, which got taken out later, he describes his mother’s abuse of him. And I just thought, “Oh my God, this is a deeply twisted theology that goes against everything of Universalism.” Once I saw that, it just crystallized for me that spiritually, we were the right people to be responding to this. Plus, as I started going out and about, there were groups like Dignity and Integrity; everybody had their groups, but nobody but us had a denominational position like we had. Part of the reason that the connections I made at Creating Change lasted, is that people could find me and call me. I had an office, and other people were just doing this in their spare time on top of other jobs. Or if they were Protestant clergy, they had to be completely closeted.
And — probably you have experienced this, too — so many talented Presbyterians, Methodists and other people over the years have come to me distraught about “If I’m found out, I’ll be fired.” And some of them have come our way after trials and other things and some of the Methodists are still struggling with it. The struggle has at least gotten very visible and out front.
But anyway, because I was kind of the only religious person around who could legit call myself Rev. by now and put on a collar, I started getting asked by all these people from the People for the American Way and the ACLU and other groups to come and stand next to them and speak about how this was not actually a religious thing. This was a political thing going on. And the image that I used was that it was like buying a plywood table with a veneer of maple on top, that the veneer was Christianity, but that the substance of it was pure politics and… that’s a different talk. So I was kind of Typhoid Mary at parties around that time, because at that time I still thought we could stop this scourge from happening. And I couldn’t talk about much else because I urgently wanted to stop it. I’ve since changed my mind about being able to stop it. But things go in all kinds of directions.
I wanted to mention that in 1993 there was another March on Washington. Again, thousands of Unitarian Universalists came; All Souls church was packed. There were literally people at the windows trying to just look in. Kim Crawford Harvie preached, it was great music; it was an amazing service. And the UUA Board all suspended their business in Boston and came to the march. When it was announced that they were there, they got a standing ovation, and I just watched it go through their bodies like, “This really matters to people.” I just watched them, because applause went on, it went on and they just, their bodies shifted like “Us doing this, it’s a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”
So that was just a wonderful moment. Natalie Gulbrandsen was the Moderator. She wore this powder blue suit. She said, “I always wear a suit to demonstrations to show respect.” She had white hair and white sneakers and this powder blue suit. Deb Weiner, who was then in the Office of Information, had made these sashes. I don’t know why. So we all kind of looked like suffragettes; we had these sashes that said GLBT Equality, with these little flags we were holding. And the march itself, as I recall… I don’t remember that we ever actually started marching. It was one of those things where you just stood around and waited to march for hours. But as we stood around, so many people came by and thanked us for being there and said, “Oh, the Unitarians! If I ever went to church…”
And it was a big deal because I have to say — and all of the older queer people in the room will know this — religious was really not a good thing to be. I mean, religion really was the enemy. I remember I got invited to all kinds of places that were way over my head, including drafting the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which I know nothing about… drafting a bill. But at the time when they were trying to pass that federally (which still hasn’t passed), I was the religious person in the room and the Catholics had said, if you give us a complete religious exemption from it, we won’t oppose it. And the gay people in the room were furious at me, “the man,” representing the Catholic church, “That’s horrible.” And I said, “I know it’s horrible.” “Well how can you do that?”
Church was God, was evil, was mean and was oppressive. So it was being willing, in a way, to be in spaces in ways that were uncomfortable for sure. But also I think a lot of people, after they got through the anger, would be like, “I left my church because it was so horrible. But I’m really spiritual…”, and now I look at the leadership of all kinds in our movement and I see how much longing there was.
There were some amazing allies that I met. I wanted to mention Jimmy Creech, a straight Methodist guy who got kicked out for supporting gay people, but wouldn’t stop. In 1993, we also had GA in Charlotte; it’s the infamous Jefferson Ball year. But less famous, any time we were meeting in a state where sodomy was against the law, we had responses to it. So we had Mandy Carter, who lived in North Carolina, and Elias/Ibrahim Farajaje came down from DC, and we had a big rally about that; it was really strong. That’s where I met Jimmy Creech. And whenever you went out into this world, you just met such amazing people, that to me was what kept me going.
So I convinced Bill Schultz that I needed to be in DC a lot more than I was, and that the job should be full time. So he let me start traveling every week. I wanted to move, but he said “Do what the Senators do, travel back and forth.” So I did.
I had met Deanna Duby at the training for Welcoming Congregation, she was a UU-lay person that worked at People for the American Way. I often stayed with her and her partner, Carol Bruce. And because she worked at People for the American Way, she got me into all these places, she opened the door for me at a whole lot of places. They had monthly meetings about the Religious Right where people from all the impacted groups met together. There were so many of them — teachers, retired people, all these different groups of people who were impacted. So I started getting involved in issues about which some of the white gay men kept saying, “What does that have to do with gay stuff?” And so at one point I had a sign on my door: “THIS IS NOT THE OFFICE OF GAY WHITE MEN CONCERNS.” I was just really mad about it because, “Child care, what does that have to do with gay rights?”
Anyway, in 1994 there were all these ballot initiatives spawned by what happened in Oregon and Colorado. That’s what’s usually happening with these, they are get-out-the-vote initiatives is what they are. And so in 1994, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Maine, all had these ballot initiatives. (Washington actually didn’t, but they thought they would.) So I went out to meet with the PNWD ministers and I told them about what was going on. I remember Peter Raible said, “The UUA doesn’t care what we do. I learned this years ago. They don’t really care if we want to do something, we need to do it now. Let’s raise money. I’ll raise a thousand dollars myself. We need to hire organizers here.”
And by the time that meeting ended, they’d committed to raising $7,500, so they could hire part time organizers in those three states (two of whom ended up becoming ministers.) So then I was working with those folks. They had hate-free Sundays; they had red ribbons around all the churches in those areas, the UU churches and anyone else who would do it, which was mostly the UU churches. But I’ll tell you, I remember driving through rural Oregon and coming into Corvallis and seeing this big red ribbon around the church and it felt so good! It just felt like a sanctuary, that public declaration. And so people were doing work in the churches around this, getting out into the community. A lot of people, wherever they were, were supporting interfaith coalitions to start organizing.
I remember John Weston was in Kansas City at the time and he told me, “UUs shouldn’t be visible in this because it is Christian language being used. It needed to be Christians saying ‘that’s not Christianity,’ right?” He said, “I’m the secretary. I stay away in the back,” but he was clearly the moving force in his local organization fighting the Christian Right, and he was often supporting UCC folks, who ended up speaking up a lot. It needed to be Christians saying, “That’s not Christianity you’re talking about.” I mean, if you look, they never, ever mention Jesus ever, the Religious Right, ever.
So in 1994, the Interfaith Alliance started and Denny Davidoff, our Moderator, got on it and they were iffy on gay stuff. They didn’t want to take it on because it was controversial. I went to a meeting in DC in 1993 after the votes in Oregon and Colorado. And I remember the strategy of the gay groups was to get 51% of the vote, to vote it down, right? So what do you do? You go to the cities, you ignore the rural areas completely. You pay attention to the people who are your likely voters statistically. And I understand that that’s what electoral politics is. I remember that’s where I met Donna Redwing, who had been an organizer in Portland, and she said that the rural communities are so divided and there’s no healing going on there; we won the vote, but what was broken is still so broken there. And I remember just bonding with her because we both said, “We don’t just want 51%, we really want to bring everybody into this.” And that’s what it felt like to me to be a person of faith doing this work, as opposed to a political organizer trying to get 51% of the vote (though I have no problem with 51% of the vote, don’t get me wrong, those people have to do that.) But I think we’re doing something different. We are paying attention to people, not just to numbers.
So (kind of like Phyllis ended up in charge of this), because I said on the Creating Change evaluation that there really needs to be more focus on religion, since religion is who is organizing against the gay community, the next year I was in charge of a day- long Religion Institute at the Creating Change conference. It was a bunch of different panels of people that I’d met, and one of them was on “Homophobia in the Black Church.” I invited people who spoke; I think Ibrahim facilitated that one, but it was a really good conversation.
That was especially important because after that “Gay Agenda” movie kind of spent, its… I was going to say wad, but that might not be the right word… they had a new movie called “Gay Rights, Special Rights.” It was made by white groups with money, but it featured Black clergy differentiating civil rights for Blacks from civil rights for gays. And it was all about how “This is intrinsic, that is not intrinsic. These people deserve rights, these people don’t deserve rights. This is a real right, this is a special right.” That was the new jargon being used. So it’s especially important to be organizing in that fracture. There’s a guy named Tim McDonald who was a Baptist minister down in Georgia who did a whole lot of great organizing.
I helped to start a new organization called Equal Partners in Faith, which was specifically to link homophobia, racism, sexism, all of it. We hired Mandy Carter as our organizer, and we got national media when the Promise Keepers came to town in 1997 with their Million Man March. Nobody would speak up about it because that would look anti-religious, because their talking point number one was, “We are not a political organization; we’re religious.” So if that’s the number one talking point, it’s really hard to say anything… except they were a political organization, and especially an anti-gay one. They were conversion kind of people.
So I ended up putting on my collar and doing all this national media, which I was really unprepared for because they had this huge media machine and you know media, they always want another voice. So I was on all these shows and it went pretty well, considering… We had a media consultant who was trying to help me, but it was a weird time. I had just adopted a kid and I’m riding limousines around and it was just odd. We were like a water skier on the back of their yacht, riding their publicity machine.
But anyway, Equal Partners was housed at the UUA Washington office. By then I had moved over (actually quite a while ago) to being the Washington Office Director, but still holding this portfolio. Keith was in the GLBT office and he was really focusing on working with congregations, which is his deep love, as you know. So we were doing complimentary work.
I was doing the Washington office in kind of a grassrootsy way, less legislation because that wasn’t what I was good at. And Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1997. And that was a really interesting time because the Democrats, two to one, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. I mean, Defense of Marriage was not a mainstream issue at all. In fact, when we went to meetings on it, the only people in the room were the ACLU, People for the American Way, occasionally an MCC minister, and me.
I mean nobody cared. Did you hear me name that gay rights groups in the room? They weren’t in the room. They were actually, “Let’s just leave marriage over there. It’s too radical. We don’t want to talk about it.” In fact, Hilary Goodridge can tell you, they got called to Washington and chewed out for doing marriage equality by the Human Rights Campaign, whose name I will name as somebody who is my nemesis sometimes.
During the break, Diane Miller said that she and Debra Pope-Lance were talking and saying, in a church this felt like it was kind of the edge of a little bit of something, but it was never this kind of ongoing center, the way it was in my life, from the position I was in. How good it is to hear that all those little bits of something add up to something so big. And the image that I had is when there’s a cake, and you just cut off a sliver, and then you cut off another sliver and then you cut… those little slivers add up, and pretty soon you had a piece of cake, right? I mean that even though it was a lot of little bits, it really was a compelling whole.
So I want to talk about marriage equality, and I think there could be a whole book about Unitarian Universalists in the struggle for marriage equality. It says on the timeline that Ernie Pipes and Harry Schofield started doing ceremonies for same sex couples, same gender couples, back in the fifties. I asked on “The Book of Face” to see if anybody had more stories than that. (And instead we had kind of an argument about whether this picture was Harry Schofield or not, but that’s social media.) But I didn’t get any new stories. But if you have them, my question was really, who was the first person you knew who was doing this? And a lot of it was going on for a long time.
In 1984, we see on the timeline that the General Assembly passed a resolution supporting ministers who did this. That was 1984. Those are the times that you just heard about from Jay when the Bangor paper was saying “he deserved to be murdered.” I think we’re coming out on an edge. A lot connected individual freedom and our commitment to individuals. And so I really wondered when it turned to marriage, which is really about something systemic, how that would go, because the Welcoming Congregation was really prejudice reduction, right? It was about including people in your bylaws and things like that, but it really wasn’t about systemic oppression.
And people have asked me for years, or did back then a lot, why don’t we do racism the way we do the Welcoming Congregation? Because racism is a collective experience, and to individualize takes away the power of the systems that uphold it. So I really wondered when we turned from individual prejudice reduction to challenging an institution like marriage, how it would go.
And what I saw, and I saw this in the work around the Religious Right too, is that all these things were happening. I was mostly going to communities where something had just happened, because before it happened, people were in denial. And then when the Library Board was taken over or the School Board was taken over by the Religious Right, or suddenly there could be no more art in your community, and people would go, “What’s going on?” And then they’d invite me and somebody to come and talk about it.
So it was hard to believe. You don’t want to believe, you sound paranoid when you say this stuff. So what I saw was that congregations that had done the work of the Welcoming Congregation or Beyond Categorical Thinking or some of the other thinking about homophobia were not immobilized the way that people were who hadn’t done that work. The people who hadn’t done that work couldn’t even have conversations in their church really that worked. But the people who had done the Welcoming Congregation were much better prepared to be out in the community speaking and doing that work. And so I just want to say that all of this work builds on the work that went before. Because it’s all relational. Mark Morrison Reed’s books document how relational justice work is, and we’re challenged by the people that we know and whom we love.
So DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, came in response to a court case in Hawaii, that said there was no compelling reason to not let same sex couples marry. All of these cases were, by the way, based on sex discrimination. There had been a civil unions bill in Vermont, or it was coming along. Who’s from Vermont here? I just want to say, the UUA didn’t support you, didn’t particularly help you at all. I’m really aware of that. We didn’t know what to do. And you were out there in your local communities working hard. I know. And asking for help. (The District helped? Good. I’m glad to hear that.) I look back and I didn’t have a clue what to do. It was like, “Oh, Vermont, we can’t all live there.”
Anyway, so when DOMA came along, which was 1997, I remember the press conference outside the Supreme Court, by the Senate office building where it had just passed and Clinton signed it into law. And it was really awkward for the interfaith partners who were opposed to it. I remember Eleanor Giddings Ivory, whom I loved, who was the Presbyterian Washington office head. Well, the Presbyterians didn’t support services of union. They didn’t let gay people be ministers. So she was saying “DOMA is terrible,” but she didn’t really have grounding in this. Because to say the government shouldn’t do it, but we should be allowed to do it… So we were the only ones there — the Reformed Jews, the UCC and the UUA — who could categorically say, “No. It’s wrong.”
But even so, nobody really wanted to organize around it. I mean, of the Democrats voting, 65 voted against it, 118 voted for it. And Clinton always said that he signed it — later, making up new history — because if he hadn’t, there was a threat of a federal amendment. No, there wasn’t. There was no threat of a federal amendment. That was the climate we were all in. I mean, I remember my beloved Paul Wellstone being anti- marriage equality. It just was the climate of the day.
So a couple of things happened. One, Evan Wolfson, who did the case in Hawaii, has been devoted to marriage equality ever since. Many of you have probably met him in various organizations that he’s worked in; he’s really the patron saint of marriage equality, I think.
Beacon Press started working on a book by EJ Graff called, What is Marriage For? EJ Graff is a friend of Hillary Goodrich. Hillary read the manuscript before it was published, she started to read it as it was being written, and said, “Huh, this seems kind of important actually.” So Hillary and Julie Goodridge started this court case in 2001 about marriage equality. As I said, HRC called them to Washington and said, “Stop, that’s too radical. We need to get the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Don’t touch that.” Luckily they did not listen. And so the Supreme Court in November of 2003, the Judicial Supreme Court of Massachusetts, affirmed it. And the Congress, “the Concon,” (which, coming out of the Youth Office, I thought was funny, but that’s what they call it in Massachusetts), started meeting to try to make a constitutional amendment to void what the court had done.
And the UUA, which was right next to the State House, hung a huge banner right down over. First it said “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right.” So whenever there were demonstrations there would be this banner just hanging there. And I want to shout out to John Hurley and Keith Kron who had that idea. My only thing was that they said, “But there’s no money.” I said, “There’s money!” and got it. So that’s my only contribution.
So there’s this banner hanging there proclaiming the value of marriage equality. And so, the Beacon Hill Historic Society is not a fan of this banner. So the UUA starts getting complaints and they’re pleading religious freedom and they’re these arguments going on. And Michael Herron, who’s the Facilities Manager at the UUA (I love this so much) says, “Well, we’d like take it down, but the person who can do that is on vacation.” And the person came off vacation right after the Concon was done meeting.
And somehow in the midst of that, the banner changed from “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right,” because that language turned out not to work, to “Freedom to Marry,” but I don’t know how that happened. So anyway, the UUA location was really deployed in a wonderful way. And in fact, the Democrats started meeting in the UUA chapel because they were being harassed over in their own building. So they were meeting in the chapel. And in May, 2004, Hilary and Julie were married at the UUA, the day after some other folks were married at midnight at City Hall and places.
But the Goodridge wedding was the one that all the media came to. It was, and still to this day, it’s the B roll footage you see about marriage equality, of them coming out of 25 in their white Armani suits. John Gibbons had fired a confetti gun, so there’s confetti everywhere. (And that was the beginning of his confetti gun obsession.) I couldn’t be there. It broke my heart because there was an event at the same time in Washington DC, long-planned before we knew the dates, because right until literally the Friday before the wedding, it was in debate whether the weddings were going to be able to happen. I mean, it was being challenged right up to the minute.
And so we were in Washington, DC having a media training with Fred Garcia about how to lobby, and it didn’t hurt us at all that the front page of “The Washington Post,” the day that we were all going on the Hill, had a picture of Hillary and Julie Goodridge coming out of the UUA and the confetti flying. The “Post” had a little free throwaway paper that they just gave out at the subway, and everybody could take those to their senators. And I’ll tell you, Senators who usually sent out their aides, they met with us that day.
I know Ginger, I remember you were there. Anybody else in the room there that weekend? It was pretty exciting. Though I was heartbroken to not be at the wedding.
Actually, the UUA chapel was not big and it was really crowded. Is anyone here who was at the wedding? It was packed. And I guess they did an interview in Bill Sinkford’s office afterwards that Hilary told me she still hasn’t seen to this day.
So as you might guess, that spawned a whole bunch of 2004 anti-gay, get-out-the-vote initiatives. 2004, 2006, 2008. Every two years, gay marriage was a threat. And eventually thirty states passed anti-marriage amendments, most prominently 2008 with California Prop 8. I just want to really shout out to Lindi Ramsden, because at the time religion was so marginalized by the gay community that she was heading up, not just the UU response, but the whole religious response in the State of California. It’s a big place. It’s not Rhode Island I’m talking about.
And it was called, what was it called? “Standing on the Side of Love,” which was a song which we’d used in DC. And Jason Shelton had written the song about marriage equality, after a conversation with Bill Sinkford and John Hurley, but California took that as the whole state religious thing. But they didn’t get money much. I mean, they had very few resources. I think Lindi did really heroic organizing.
And I need to say, there are many failures that I feel bad about in life. But one of the epic fails I think is that when we launched Standing on the Side of Love in 2009, we were focused on immigration and we were working with the Mormons because we could agree with them on immigration. And in DC, no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. You work with who you can work with.
But Standing on the Side of Love with the Mormons who were way behind the passage of Prop 8, we had a shared event about immigration and we never mentioned that we disagreed with the Mormons on marriage equality. I mean I didn’t speak but I didn’t fight for it to be in there. And the people from California were devastated. They spent the whole time, as I have spent and every queer person has spent so much time, wondering if we’re part of the people. Listening carefully to hear if we are included in “the people.” And I just still feel like, Oh, if I could do it over, I would, especially after I lived through a constitutional amendment fight in Minnesota, but mostly I want to shout out for the amazing work that the California UUs did.
Evan Wolfson had this slogan of “failing forward” that meant: could we learn something in each of the failures that could take us to the next one so that we could fail forward? By then I was running something then called Advocacy and Witness Programs. Rob Keithan, who was by then the Washington Office Director, said I spent my time redefining success all the time. I had to, because we were failing a lot. But failing forward, learning what you could learn. Redefining success: Well, how many people wrote a letter, how many people were at the demonstration, how much resistance was there, how were the UUs involved?
So in that time, people started doing a lot of different things. Clergy, as Jay mentioned, a lot of straight clergy started refusing to sign marriage licenses for anyone until they could do it for everyone. That was kind of started by Rhett Baird, who was then in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who got a lot of local media — both positive and negative — about it, believe me. And when I looked him up to make sure I had his name right, I saw that he had been an Unsung Hero of UURMaPA. So that was kind of fun. But a lot of folks started doing that.
Phyllis Hubbell had this idea as a lawyer: could we sue because our freedom of religion is being denied? And she and I went and met with an ACLU lawyer who said, “Please don’t bring up freedom of religion.” And when I look at where that’s gone, I kind of wish we had.
But anyway, people were really, in their own ways, doing what they could do even as these anti-marriage bills passed and passed. And meanwhile, Urvashi Vaid, the aforementioned person from NGLTF, had moved on to something called Arcus Foundation, which funds GLBT rights and Great Apes. So Urvashi started funding the organizers in mainstream denominations, to organize and get equality in them.
I say this stuff because I think people believe, “Oh, attitudes just change.” And I’m with James Luther Adams — they change if we change them. A little money never hurts, and some organizing. People like the Methodists are still struggling. But meanwhile the pro-gay Methodists got a whole lot stronger. And the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, a whole lot of other mainline people who wouldn’t ordain people, wouldn’t marry people, were shifting because of really good organizing that was going on. And so there were just amazing people in all of those movements whom probably some of you know locally.
So by the time 2012 rolled around, there were ballot initiatives that were pro-marriage equality in Minnesota, Maine and Washington. And they all passed, by popular vote — PRO marriage equality! Well, in Minnesota, an anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment was defeated by popular vote. In that fight, the UUs were in there, but no longer were we the front; the Lutheran Bishop was fantastic. And in Minnesota, that’s who needs to be up front. But faith-based organizing was not, “Here’s $5,000, go do it.” It was absolutely central to the whole campaign.
And I know that that was true in Maine and Washington too, that we were having values-based conversations with people because out of Prop 8’s failure came script after script after script, trying to figure out how to have the conversations that actually shift people. And what we learned doing that, in something called Deep Canvassing, is that, so often we want to say, “Let’s not talk about values, let’s talk about the Constitution,” or something like that.
But instead, with deep canvassing, you call people and you’d start by asking them a question to figure out where they were. “So if the vote were held today, would you vote for this amendment to limit rights, against it, or you don’t know.” And if people said, “I’m for it, the Bible is clear, I read it. That settles it,” you’d say, “Thank you very much.” That was the end of the conversation.
But if they said, “I think I’m going to vote for it, because… I don’t know, I’m not comfortable with it. I think I’m going to vote for it.” You’d say, “Can I ask you what marriage means to you?” And then it was amazing the conversations you’d actually have. And you could do this on the phone or at someone’s door. Shockingly, people really wanted to talk. No one had ever asked them what marriage meant to them. And they talked about sickness and death and love. And you’d get into these really deep conversations, and only after they’d really shared deeply about what marriage meant to them, then you’d insert this question: “Do you think it might be the same thing for same sex couples?” And then, if you’d had this deeper conversation, two thirds of them would say, “I never thought about that like that before.” And they would move. Two thirds of them would move your way.
I am a deep canvassing zealot. I’ve gone out and worked with a guy in California who does this. I think it is the way forward. If you think about doing this on health care, for instance, I think we could do a lot, because if people are asked to share about health and health care, everyone’s got family and stories to tell.
But anyway, that was going on in Minnesota. I know hundreds of thousands of conversations were going on, and I was facilitating some groups called Conversations With People You Know, which was teaching people how to talk to their own family members, or people they worked with.
Then the last thing that you always had them say to the person who was like, “Yeah, I still don’t know,” was “Can we talk about this again in two weeks?” And in Minnesota, which is ruled by “Minnesota nice,” no matter how much someone might want to say, “No, I never want to talk about this again,” they would have to, by Minnesota law, say, “Sure. Okay.” So then they’d get called back in two weeks and the conversations would go on.
This is my favorite story. There was a woman that I met at a canvass who told the story of someone she’d called; her mom lived up North in Minnesota in a small town, and she kept talking to her and talking to her and the mom was like, “No, no, I don’t like it. I don’t like it.” And finally she said to her mom, “Mom, you said when you got divorced, it was really hard for you.” And her mom said, “It was.” And she said, “Why would you want to make other people’s lives harder than they already are?” And that line… her mother put up a yard sign, talked her neighbor into putting up a yard sign. You just never know what conversation is actually going to shift somebody.
So anyway, I would say, Standing on the Side of Love came out of our success with marriage equality; people used it for marriage equality, but also for other issues. (And I think it’s much better now called Side with Love.) It’s one of the many legacies of this work.
And what you did matters, you may not even have remembered it. I talked about it today. What you did in 1994, what you did in 2004, 2006, when you failed, when the vote didn’t go your way, it all adds up to culture change.
So in 2015, we got to experience this during General Assembly. Remember that the Supreme Court decision came down. Marriage Equality was the law of the land!!! In 1997, after DOMA, John Buehrens was President and he had asked all of the same sex couples who would be married if they could to come forward, or if your partner wasn’t there, come forward. And people were really mad because there was an Action of Immediate Witness about it and they thought he was tilting the ballot box by making a fuss about this particular issue. But of course, it was preplanned at a Public Witness meeting because we were in the room, because those couples were in the room. And in 2015, there we were to celebrate together, to take it into us. Hillary Goodridge was there; I was honored to be asked to speak. I said, I hope that we can take this victory and move towards other victories, towards a time when Black Lives Matter.
And I think now in these times, for me, those victories, I have to hold them in my cells and say, “We did this. We can do it again. It’s possible we can do it about other things we care about. People really can change. And life really can change.” And that’s what I’ve got to say today.