My Journey From Homophobia

A sermon by Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove (Last preached at Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD, January 8, 2006)

QUOTE: My own parents made no conscious attempt to teach me rigid sex roles, yet both they and I lived in the heterosexual box that was far larger, and more deeply formative, than either they or their children could realize. —Carter Heyward, Episcopal priest and feminist theologian

CHORUS from Everything Possible (by Fred Small):
You can be anybody you want to be; you can love whomever you will. You can travel any country where your heart leads, and know I will love you still. You can live by yourself; you can gather friends around; you can choose one special one. And the only measure of your words and your deeds Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

SERMON: My Journey From Homophobia — Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove

It doesn’t feel like a particularly dramatic story, my movement away from the homophobia of younger years, but I appreciate where it’s taken me, and maybe the telling can be helpful to others. It does have everything to do with Unitarian Universalism and our collective religious path in this direction.

Of course, my journey may not be a dramatic evolution for me because I am thoroughly one of the majority types in our land: a tall, white, hetero, EuroAmerican male. There’s been a red carpet of privilege laid out in front of me, which I may have rejected and avoided in some ways, but it’s still there, allowing me a kind of security I now know just isn’t part of life for many others.

But with or without a dramatic odyssey, I think I’ve become increasingly open to the diversity of possibilities on the gender continuum, affirming them all, even as I sometimes struggle to keep up with the appropriate “best practices,” if you will.

And I am certainly aware that there are far too many folks who look a lot like me who have not yet moved many inches at all in an inclusive direction, who even aggressively hold onto narrow values and give them expression in ways that demean and deny the humanity of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender persons. I would name such behavior as evil.

It can be outright evil—insidious, vicious, bigoted, obvious. And it can be subtle evil, even without any intention to offend—behavior born of near-sighted fear or inexperience that nonetheless oppresses. It all adds up to noxious fumes inhaled daily by LGBT persons in America, with even a pungent whiff sometimes here in our congregation. And it hurts. So we are called to do what we can to alter such conditions and improve the odds for a culture and world which affirm the right of all people to self-determination in matters of conscience and identity.

There are numerous kinds of oppressions in our culture—probably in most cultures—all of which deserve scrutiny and reform. Throughout the progressive religious history of Unitarian Universalism, this been one of our calling cards: scrutiny and reform. We activate our human reasoning abilities and set about “piercing evil’s new disguises,” as described by hymnodist Brian Wren [#23, Bring Many Names]. That said, our religious forebears have also dragged their feet too frequently, distressingly so.

For it is true, evil abides and evolves. Yes, it hides anew in contemporary cloaks and it can also be exposed anew with growing intention, awareness and conviction. There is, even in the face of continuing harshness, a steady stream of heartening advances that provide great hope, as does the fact that I—a tall, white, hetero, EuroAmerican male— have traveled the distance I have in my own posture. Once classically homophobic, and still with my own continuing weaknesses, I am now proud to at least be considered an ally of LGBT persons.

But don’t take my word for this. I was happily surprised by the UU congregation I first served in the Seattle suburbs, when, at the end of my decade with them, I was publicly presented with a clear glass plaque by one of the leaders of the Welcoming Congregation Committee there. In etched lettering, it declares me “an honorary gay man.” I felt like saying, “I am not worthy!” But I was very honored.

I’m not as conscious about this realm as I’d like to be, but I’m actively trying to find a new equilibrium around gender assumptions, so that I can honor the authentic journeys of all people, including those who don’t fit into the mainstream.

Speaking of the mainstream, I was raised in it—in a New Jersey suburb during the 1950s and 60s. I attended the full scope of a single Unitarian church school there and as a teenager, I was impacted by many of that era’s ambitious socio-political campaigns, often led by people from my congregation. None of them, however, addressed the dominant heterosexism that unconsciously pervaded my life. (Hetereosexism is “beliefs and practices based on heterosexuality as the only acceptable and healthy sexual orientation” [from the Welcoming Congregation Handbook].) As is true with many biases, I grew up homophobic without really knowing anything about it.

It was not gays, per se, as much as the possibility of gayness that got my attention early on. I had virtually zero experience with any gender diversity—at least that I was aware of —but I recall participating in various adolescent schoolyard remarks aimed not just at boys of allegedly dubious maleness, but at any boy who could be targeted for any reason. A fierce questioning of his sexuality was designed to diminish him, or get a rise out of him, or establish us as better because we were able to dominate.

I understood this sad process because, as a gangly and decidedly un-streetwise kid, I was also regularly targeted myself. Until 6th grade I lived in a pretty rough neighborhood and I tried to learn a lesson many boys still learn: that the best way to avoid being abused was to abuse others first. It was not in my nature, however, and it clashed with the values I was taught in church school, so I was pretty bad at it, and remained mostly on the receiving end of bullies. But along the way I certainly internalized a hostility to “gayness” and fostered a persistent fear of being associated therewith, even well into high school.

Not only was this widespread homophobic behavior accepted by nearby adults, it was encouraged and modeled by them, especially gym teachers—who may also suffer from unfair stereotyping, but in my experience they contributed a lot to the harsh, homophobic atmosphere of the schoolyard. In retrospect it seems so primitive, but it still goes on. The evil abides. And it hurts.

My essential education away from this oppressive posturing corresponds in time with the advent of UU General Assembly Resolutions affirming the dignity of gays and lesbians. (The first such declaration came in 1970, a year after I graduated from high school.) In my young adulthood, and primarily in UU camp and youth conference settings, I heard of and watched a considerably different attitude than I had learned in school. I was unaware of the UU Resolution, per se, but the inclusive philosophy it announced was demonstrated by a growing number of people around me.

I was not directly attached to a congregation during most of my young adulthood (a sadly familiar situation), so UUism for me was camps and conferences, mostly in the Northeast. In these vibrant communities I worked with and became close to people who were—gasp!—gay, lesbian, and bisexual. Often our relationship was well under way before I discovered that their orientation was different than I had assumed.

At first when this would happen—my “discovery”—I was taken aback and hesitant. But being a good homebred UU, I applied my well-taught reasoning ability and concluded that it just wasn’t anything that should change our friendship, or lessen my respect for their work. I gradually came to understand that there were all kinds of gays and lesbians, quite reflective of the vast variety in the rest of us. Eventually I figured out that assuming anyone was heterosexual was a very limiting mistake.

But Reasoning is not Behaving. I could make internal philosophical adjustments fine; it was a more daunting task to change my own deeply conditioned and stereotypical responses. I may be rarely surprised anymore to learn of another’s different gender identity, but I still find myself assuming most people I meet are heterosexual, even when there may be no real evidence one way or the other.

And actually, it isn’t “one way or the other,” anyway. There is a broad gender continuum, with lots of possible locations for people to be in order to be fully themselves. This realm of realization—that there are more than two genders, for instance—has been a large leap for me, and I’m sure I still don’t have it all down. But I’m trying and I feel like I’m growing in the right direction, at least, which is important.

Because I want to be more a part of the solution than the problem. And if the problem is oppression of sexual minorities, part of the solution is for individuals like me to foster an appreciative inclusivity that supports all people to be fully themselves without fear of rejection because of their identity.

I attribute my relative advances in this direction to two general activities. One is my willing openness to consider the perspective of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender persons. I’ve tried to read about and listen to their stories and their teachings. The courageous people who have stepped up and spoken out have my great respect, not to mention gratitude.

I remember some years back, when I was finally ready to approach the transgender concept, I did some reading, okay, but I didn’t want it to be just an academic study. So at our large, annual UU General Assembly gatherings each June, I looked for and attended all the workshops I could find that addressed transgender issues, especially panels that featured testimonials, and this was extremely helpful.

But perhaps my most powerful personal experience was early in 1997, when (spouse and co-minister) Barbara and I were on sabbatical and teaching a practicum class at Starr King School for (UU) Ministry (my alma mater in Berkeley, CA). Halfway through the course, one of the less effective students in the class, who would often be late and unresponsive, declared that she was now a he and asked the Starr King community for support, which came readily.

We noticed right away that he instantly transformed into an A student, essentially going quickly to the head of the class. His participation and comments and written work were suddenly excellent, and we came to understand that the change in gender allowed him to be so much more fully who he was that he could relax and concentrate better. Without the inner conflict draining “her,” he was able to bring his natural skills to the fore.

Then I learned another important thing or two during the year we spent in Colorado as interim ministers. A male-to-female transsexual was on the search committee that brought us to that congregation and she was very willing to tell about her experiences and struggles. She saw her role as an educator, a spokesperson who could help others understand that culture and its issues. She was generous and gracious in helping us know a lot more about what life was like for her and her friends—such as painful rejection by family, difficulty getting and keeping decent jobs, the importance of others in the transgender community, and the great sadnesses therein.

Largely because of her impact on us, we decided to host a December holiday party for the relatively small, but significant transgender community active at or connected to the church, many of whom had no family with whom to celebrate the season. She helped invite folks and we made sure a board member was also present, since, as interim ministers, we were not going to be around there more than that year. At one point we asked those who came to tell us some of their stories and for a couple hours, amid egg nog and evergreens, our living room throbbed with very stirring narratives.

But one of their transsexual friends who was also active in the congregation would not come, and we discovered she had a very different attitude than the educator from our search committee. This was a woman who came to church every Sunday and yet worked as a man elsewhere in the city during the week. Each identity was separate and she didn’t want to talk about it at all. She just wanted to be related to at church as a woman, which she was.

So a very important lesson was driven home to me—again. Much as I had already come to know that gay and lesbian people were just as varied in their attitudes and stories as any other set of people, so was there great diversity within the transgender community. And I realized I should question or at least test my assumptions at almost every turn.

This sounds, now, rather elementary: people are different, even in minority groups—duh! But until I had some actual relationships, first with gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and then with transsexuals, it was not very real to me. Once I knew faces and stories and heard first hand about the trials and joys of these diverse and challenging paths, I had to change. I had to add more inclusive behaviors that were coherent with what I now could integrate into my own experience.

I suspect this may be the case with most of us heterosexuals. Relationships make the difference. If one’s conditioned homophobia never gets tested by the presence of a real person who is clearly worthy of inherent dignity, well, then it’s relatively easy to keep it abstract, to stay unaware of complexity, and to hold onto an ideologically hostile or ignorant position.

And as much as it was a stretch for me at first, it was also not all that hard, really, and soon the sexual diversity around me just became less of an issue, although I still always need to stay alert for my own complicities with systemic oppression that continues to poison the cultural environment for my non-hetero friends and neighbors. The least I can do is be an ally.

Which brings me to the second activity that has moved me along on my journey. Many important relationships along with my grounding in UU Principles have encouraged my own articulation against discrimination toward sexual minorities. When opportunities present themselves, I try my best to weigh in on the side of inclusion and safety, although I often still feel pretty weak at it. I think—and hope—I have unlearned the inappropriate conditioning of my childhood and now I see that interrupting evil—obvious or subtle evil —also really matters.

During that one year Barbara and I ministered in Colorado, we dealt with aftermaths from both the hateful murder of Matthew Shepard in nearby Wyoming in the fall, and the Columbine High School shootings in the county next to us in the spring. Proximity to these horrific events brought home to me the great need for more voices of both affirmation and challenge—affirmation of those who don’t fit into mainstream stereotypes, and the challenge of hateful behaviors that demean and sometimes destroy others.

Can we conquer the all-too-human tendency to deny and dismiss what is different? This is the deeper demand suggested by the easily-mouthed platitude, “Let there be peace and let it begin with me.” Just how much can we be at peace with difference, or will we succumb to fearful rejection of what is uncomfortably unfamiliar?

And can we adjust our cultural institutions to reflect a greater peace among diversity? Countering systemic oppression is even trickier than changing interpersonal prejudice. But what an interesting time we’re living in, now the year 2006! Our state of Maryland has its regressive elements, with an obstructive governor, but compared to Virginia, we are positively enlightened.

You may have seen the Dec. 18 2005 Washington Post Magazine cover story about two UU women, Barbara and Tibby, who very visibly moved from Fredericksburg, VA, to Frederick, MD, to avoid the regressive anti-gay legislation underway down there, and so they might be more able to legally tend to each other as they age.  Their story was made into a compelling video, called “Love Story in the Face of Hate.”

Barbara and Tibby may feel safer in Maryland, for the moment, but we’ve also got our own work to do here. One battle is to prevent a new State Constitutional Amendment from enshrining in law discrimination against people like them, who just want to have the legal rights every committed couple deserve. Such exclusive action, often called a “Defense of Marriage Act,” has been successful in 37 other states and right wing forces are aiming at Maryland, too.

A recent letter signed by almost 200 clergy, including us and most UU ministers in this state, is headed to the Maryland General Assembly, expressing strong opposition to any constitutional change that would ban same-sex civil marriage. “We believe that it is morally wrong to place the civil rights of a group of our citizenry up for a popular vote,” the letter says, among other things.

There’s also a lawsuit currently underway in Maryland challenging the exclusive civil marriage system on behalf of nine other couples, in similar fashion to the successful suit that opened up Massachusetts to more kinds of civil unions. The lawsuit here also charges that excluding same-sex couples from civil union violates the state constitution’s guarantees of equality.

There are lots of political dynamics that need our support, in one way or another, from advocacy in Annapolis to interrupting homophobic expression when it rears its ugly head locally. A strong and effective organization called EqualityMaryland [which merged with FreeState Justice in 2016] is the focal point for much productive activism, including an excellent, informative and inspiring website.

There are struggles and setbacks, to be sure, but there is also great reason to think we are the ones at this very moment in history who can help turn things toward the Good and the Just. Did you hear about British Prime Minister Tony Blair congratulating Sir Elton John on his civil union a couple weeks ago? Or that South Africa and Northern Ireland have now also legalized civil unions?

Closer to home, EqualityMaryland reports that “the Majority Leader of the Maryland House, during debate on passage of the gender-inclusive Hate Crimes Law, stated simply that even if there were only one transgender person in Maryland, we would be obligated as a community to stand up and protect that person’s rights. We all deserve to live free and without fear in our homes, workplaces, and the streets of our neighborhoods.” Huzzah to that!

And huzzah to State Delegate Doyle Niemann, UU, who vocally advocated last year for another gender-inclusive bill, the Medical Decision Making Act, which would have made it possible for gay couples to more fully participate in each other’s health care and end-of-life decisions—but it was blocked by Governor Ehrlich, at least for now.

As an ally, I start with myself and then reach out to share my growing perspective and commitment. I do this in hope and faith that the momentum will also grow and our world will change for the better. “Let there be peace and let it begin with me.” I’m on a journey and can’t pretend to be free of heterosexism yet, but I have noticed a freedom from old habits that used to bind up my heart. What matters most, ultimately, is the love we leave behind.

Jaco B. ten Hove

The Rev. Jaco ten Hove is a “home-bred” UU, retiring in 2017 after thirty years of ministry, mostly with spouse and co-minister the Rev. Dr. Barbara Wells ten Hove. They last served Cedars UU Church on Bainbridge Island, WA, from 2008-17, and currently live in Bellingham, WA.