The Human Rights Campaign Clergy Call on May 22-24, 2011, brought faith leaders from every conceivable belief system together to speak out for LGBT justice. Representing 48 states, we gathered under the colorful stained glass windows of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. in favor of inclusivity. I went as a Spiritual Guide, to represent those of us who are not affiliated with a religion, but believe there is a divine spark within us all. My message was aligned with all of the attendees–straight, queer and allied. There is no gatekeeper to God. We all come from the same loving Source and we must all be free to be who we are.
To start the event off right, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry delivered a rousing keynote address. This rockstar of a political activist and Princeton professor put LGBT rights in the context of history, relating poignantly to slavery and civil rights. Eloquent and inspiring, Harris-Perry garnered a well deserved standing ovation from the packed pews. She set the tone for the next few days, which carried us onward to Capitol Hill. Although the Human Rights Campaign was impeccably organized and the Clergy Call flawlessly executed, the team, led by Sharon Groves, did more than manage a political movement. They fanned the flames of faith and love within each of us, setting our collective spirit ablaze to ignite change.
When I tell my sophisticated friends in San Francisco and surrounding suburbs the real and appalling facts, they stare at me in disbelief. Jaws drop. In 29 states, it is okay to fire someone for whom they love. That’s right, if an employee says, “I’m gay,” it’s legal to answer, “you’re fired” in well over half the states in America. It’s also legal to discriminate against queer identified people in the first place. Not straight? Not hired. Yes, it is blatant discrimination, as throwback as it seems.
My fair-minded friends fire back, “If that’s really true, why doesn’t everyone know about it?” GREAT question. I quote directly from the talking points I was armed with for Capitol Hill: “There is no federal law that consistently protects LGBT individuals from employment discrimination; it remains legal in 29 states to discriminate based on sexual orientation, and in 36 states to do so based on gender identity or expression.” Well-meaning folks unknowingly support the status quo with a dismissive attitude of, “That can’t be right. This is America, land of the free, right?” And so it is that, despite the fact that “Nearly 90% of Americans believe that lesbians and gays should have equal rights in job opportunities,” that is not as yet reflected in the law. One lesbian lobbyist summed it up as she retold the response she received from her congressperson, “This is not my problem.”
But discrimination is our problem, whether we are queer or straight. In the stirring words of self-described “same-gender-loving African American pastor,” Bishop Yvette Flunder, “None of us are free, until all of us are free.” ENDA (The Employment Non-Discrimination Act) is a step in the right direction.
The far-reaching effects of discrimination also have a profound effect on our youth. Not just LGBT youth, but all of our school aged kids. The handsome Hispanic boy that I counseled in an East Palo Alto school was verbally abused and physically assaulted, based on the assumption that he was gay. It was an incorrect assumption, by the way. That means no kid is safe. If we do not get systems in place to protect children against bullying and harassment, then we all have to fear for our childrens’ safety. Do not assume that school faculty will do the right thing. I have heard responses to bullying such as, “Kids will be kids.” The young and innocent victims who are verbally and physically harassed carry those scares into adulthood. Some turn to suicide, like my friend Alfred. We have seen enough funerals brought on by intolerance. It is time to protect our kids–every one of them. The Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act require urgent attention. Our children cannot afford for this to wait.
Although each leader featured was illuminating to hear–from Buddhists to Bishops–I have selected a few highlights to give you an inkling of what had me in tears on the Capitol lawn. Click on the names below to be linked to the youtube clips from the press conference. You will get the message, minus the 90 degree heat.
Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow: “We who are supportive can no longer afford to be silent.”
Rabbi David Saperstein: “This is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue.”
Bishop Yvette Flunder : “The church has been a tail light when it ought to be a headlight.”
As much as I was impressed by the passionate faith leaders who turned out to spearhead the event, the many people with whom I mixed and mingled were equally moving to witness on their mission. To name just a few of those I will not forget: Thank you to Ani Zonneveld, president and co-founder of Muslims For Progressive Values, who added warmth and song to the occasion. Thanks also to young scholar and accomplished countertenor, Mikah Meyer, who reminded us all that the civil rights movement is far from over, clutching his tattered U.S. Constitution. And a shout out to fellow Californian, Todd Ferrell, President of The Evangelical Network, who bravely and persuasively urged our political leaders to engage a peaceful conversation between people of faith who are for and against LGBT equality.
It is true that we are not done fighting for freedom in this country. Yet, at its core, this fight is about peace. Is that why the message seems to fall on deaf ears? Because we are polite and civilized in our delivery? Is it time to make some noise? Or simply to be still enough to hear the inner voice? Equality. Inclusivity. Compassion. Listen to the whisper in your heart. If we all do that, change has to come.