Rev. Adele Smith-Penniman talks about her journey in Unitarian Universalism over the past 50 years. Li discusses this journey in the context of her parish ministry, sexuality, race and class.
Rev. Dr. Adele Smith-Penniman
I have always found it easier to navigate my lesbian identity in Unitarian Universalist circles than I have race and class. I suspect there are many reasons. First, when I was ordained in 1982 — I was in a heterosexual marriage. Even later when I was divorced and out, my three children acted as a cloak for those who wished to look no further. Secondly, most of my ministry has been in the community — working primarily with women — rather than in the parish. Lastly and probably most significant, most UUs are either Q themselves or have deep friendships and kinship with Q people. However, most European Americans do not intimately know, do not share co-equal relationships with, People of Color or less affluent citizens. At best there is ignorance; at worse insidious racism and classism.
In this essay I use “li” as a neutral gender pronoun. It comes from Haitian Kreyol. As an adult my father immigrated from Haiti and I am fortunate to have visited my ancestral land on three occasions. In honor of my lineage and in celebration of the many ways we lift up our beauty, I will sometimes substitute li for they/she/he and them/her/him. While I deeply respect calling people as they choose, they/them can set off alarm bells: I cringe when those of greater privilege refer to others as “them.”
I was living in New York City in 1970 when the second wave of feminism was officially launched with a march down Fifth Avenue, the first major women’s march since suffrage. Racism was/is blatant in the movement. So many white women did not/do not recognize their role in disempowering and marginalizing other people. Too often European-Americans, particularly those of privilege, narrow their understanding of “women,” excluding the gifts, challenges, and cultures of those with different abilities, economic resources and hues. And at their great loss, some UUs continue to dismiss the religious beliefs that sustain many in times of tumult. We all are diminished when our reference points become smaller and smaller.
Fortunately, during my years in the New York and beyond, the African American womanist movement, joined by Latinx, Asian and indigenous sisters has been alive and well, a well spring in times of drought. I was blessed to move in circles which included Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Barbara Smith and so many other wise, radical women. Some formed the National Black Feminist Organization because NOW, ofttimes deaf to our concerns, seemed part of the problem. NBFO became a haven that stretched my mind and heart and raised my fist high. Yes, the tensions among lesbian, bi-, and straight women played out, sometimes without resolution. However, I remain thankful that my NBFO consciousness group talked openly about those divisions. They encouraged me to embrace fluidity: at that time I was adamantly women-identified but not out. In public school and college there had been occasions I acknowledged my attraction to women, but it was not until New York, in womanist circles, that I inhaled our strength and beauty.
I resonate with “womanist” over “feminist,” a distinction Alice Walker develops in In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden.
- From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
- Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
- Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself.
- Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
While I do not expect all UUs to understand my preference for womanist, I have noticed a shift in the association toward greater Q awareness. The path is now less steep for lesbians and gays. However, I fear we have yet to fully embrace the gifts among the trans community. In this the 21st century, trans ministers know too well the challenges awaiting. Are those days behind us when a congregation wouldn’t hire li because, in the search committee’s words, it would “confuse” the children? Another friend was unable to find a placement with a living wage and by the end of each month would have to use the local food pantry. Today ostracism may be more subtle but are there still relics who avert eyes or even turn backs when trans colleagues approach?
Transitioning from community to parish ministry I remember well being met at my car as I approached one church for a final interview. The search committee chair uttered, “We have to talk!” Uncertain what ghost from the past had been unearthed, I was dismayed. It turned out that I had included in my candidating packet an article I had published, the bio of which read “lesbian mother of three.” I actually experienced relief, assured I could navigate this aspect of my identity (unlike the labels assigned to my ethnicity, class and disability). Nevertheless, I was dismayed that a progressive UU congregation would still see orientation problematic. Fast forward to a second church. An elder I visited told me that she had counseled the previous minister not to tell anyone that li was a lesbian. More difficult to hear from a different parishioner was the homophobic line — “why do they have to flaunt it.”
Since retirement I regularly preach at a local UU church. Often my partner attends and is always welcome. Months back I took delight in co-leading a Rainbow Sunday service with a parishioner who is gay. Even though neither of us softened the pain that mingles with beauty in the Q community, it was so joyous to openly embrace the many ways to be human and loving. Below are the words I shared on that Sunday.
BEAUTY AND PAIN; PRIDE AND POWER
I was the high school nerd who biked to school, wore oxfords and never dated. Yes, there were the secret crushes on Peter, on Linda, and my admiration of so many famous women — the writers, activists, scientists — who dared never marry. But I never gave gender/sexual identity much thought. I married and I continue to maintain a friendship with my ex. We have three amazing children and I now have a wonderful woman partner. I suspect in some ways my trajectory mirrors yours, no matter whether Q or straight or gender nonconforming: we move from phobia to celebration.
There was/is plenty of discrimination. And painfully we have sometimes perpetuated it. Regardless of how we identify, we have held beliefs we later recognized as distortions, small-minded. At my progressive women’s college the administration divided a group of students, exiling them to different dorms, because the officials thought they were becoming “too close.” It wasn’t that long ago that openly Q Unitarian Universalist seminarians faced hurdles in ordination and placement and that the few who came out as trans were actively shunned. And to this day in too many other religions an out gay or lesbian clergy is an oxymoron. In a recent state primary Rev. Scott Lively– a virulent crusader against gays– ran for governor and received 35.9% of his party’s vote. This in Massachusetts! And these days the U.S. military, at times a step ahead in racial and class inclusivity, is not shy about discriminating against its trans members.
1969 New York City. I was laying on the floor mattress tuned to WBAI Pacifica Radio. They were broadcasting live — minute by minute — the Stonewall Uprising. Li had stood up and shouted, “Enough!” and fought back when police had been called yet again to beat up and arrest the patrons of the gay night club. How radical that a people would name themselves and shout: “We are gay and we are proud! We will not bend down!”
The following year some 50,000 women strong assembled on Fifth Avenue, the first major women’s march since Suffrage was won. A banner stretched across the Avenue proclaiming “Women of the World Unite.” Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and other prominent figures held the sign but not a single person of color! Even Shirley Chisholm– the lawyer and African American activist who garnered my vote for president the first year I was old enough to cast a ballot — was relegated to the second row. (No, Hilary Clinton was not the first woman whose name was on multiple state ballots of a major party — Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith and others preceded her.) Those leading off certainly did not reflect “women of the world,” yet alone we in this country. I walked up to the front, asked no one’s permission and joined in holding the banner. The photo went viral around the world and still appears from time to time. My one moment of fame.
I mention this not to brag or put myself in the limelight but to illustrate the tensions in the women’s and lesbian movements. Barbara Smith, Nellie Wong, Cherrie Moraga, Paula Gunn Allen and so many others remind us that women come in a range of hues, cultures, classes, politics and abilities. One telling book from this period is entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave.
There was conflict, deep conflict, in the women’s movement — racial tensions, class tensions, lesbian/straight tensions. Hard conversations, tears and laughter, and empowerment… It was/is not a smooth path but we were/are inching away from the death-inflicting knives of phobia, invisibility and discrimination toward greater acceptance toward proudly claiming our voice. Two steps forward, one step back. I live in a town, Wendell, with a strong lesbian presence and when marriage equality finally arrived I proudly solemnized the marriage of one couple after another. Twenty-five years ago did we believe this day would come? How many of us now enjoy the freedom in finally coming out of the closet and boldly loving ourselves?
Of all the poets of this era, the late Audre Lorde has been a mentor to many women, to many lesbians. I am so fortunate that my time in New York overlapped with hers, to have known her. “We were never meant to survive” is a refrain in one of her poems, both an indictment of the many strikes against too many lesbians, particularly those of color, and a charge that we can, indeed, make it. It is dangerous to romanticize: Poverty, suicide, discrimination strikes hard in the LBGTQX community, doubly so among our youth. To live each day not knowing when hate, danger, will rear its head….
My younger daughter, Naima Penniman of Climbing Poetree, is a beautifully-out spokenword poet who is able to support herself performing throughout the States and beyond. One of her hard-hitting poems begins with this epigraph: For Shani Baraka and Rayshon Holmes (a.k.a. Ray Ray, a.k.a. Isis), black lesbian lovers who were gunned down… 3 months after Sakia Gunn’s tragic murder (And I must add that Sakia was only 15 when she was killed for being gay.)
Blood on the Sheets (excerpts)
Shani Baraka was killed
on my birthday
her mother’s knees buckled
under the weight
of her feathers
falling like autumn
she clutched the warmth
of her hand
as her body lay silent
Isis, you were
too much woman
for this world
too much man
for this world stole your breath away
punched holes in your dyke body
so they could see the light
you were a constellation
of stars, Shani
too bright for this world
the weight of your name
tatooed on your shoulders
we will not erase it, Isis
no shame, no silence
Shani, you don’t need no
your loving is no condition
no symptom, no sickness
our love needs
it comes easy
like your love, Shani…
made of fire
will not quiet…
your ashes will stick
to our memories
like the swollen face of Emmett Till
extinguished the last thread of doubt
God was waiting on us…
and there, my sisters
won’t you go on loving
won’t you go on loving
go on loving
But Naima has another poem which is equally true. Yes, there is both beauty and pain in the gay, lesbian and trans experience. This poem ends:
we are ready for light
we are ready to live
ready to hold each other
against the rim of existence
cause they who build concrete
against the corners of our hearts
need to feel our resistance
like a million tender blades of grass
cracking sidewalks apart
reminding your runaway child
there is no place that love cannot find you
there is no place
that love cannot find you
that love cannot