The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



Something truly wonderful happened toward the end of last year. There was a strong bipartisan vote to end the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rule in the American military. The rule, oppressive as it was, started out as an improvement. Sexual orientation could not be investigated, and as long as people stayed fully closeted they would not be discharged. That really was better than it had been, but it still wasn’t very good. People still had to carefully guard themselves from being outed if they wanted to stay in the service, and if they were the discharge still happened. Now people who are openly gay can serve and cannot be discharged for that reason. What a huge advance! And that’s not the only good thing that happened on that front. Quietly, with no fanfare, sexual orientation was added to list of those protected against bullying in Collier County public schools. It is a huge advance, but it is not the end of the story and it is not the end of discrimination.  Not only are homo­sexuals still discriminated against in matters of association, employment, housing and other matters, but that discrimination is sometimes jus­tified in the minds of other­wise liberal people for reasons that I try very hard to understand.  It may be that these are people who do not see the necessity for being “out”, who say that what others do in their bedrooms is no one’s business but their own (which is, of course, perfectly true) and feel resentment when it becomes a matter of conflict in public policy rather than just being ignored. Many people, even some of those we know and love, think that not just the bedroom but the closet is the best place for issues of sexuality.

Shortly before I was called to this congregation it did the work of preparation to vote to be designated a “Welcoming Congregation.” The final discussion and vote happened the same week that I was called. It was interesting, illuminating, and just as I would have expected such a discussion and vote to go in one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations. There are issues that are bound to arise. I have them myself. For example, the name of the program: the Welcoming Congregation. I have suggested to the individual in charge of administering the welcoming congregation program at the Association headquarters that at least half of the resistance to it could be eliminated by simply changing its name. I wasn’t here, but can any of you tell me that the first negative comment you heard was not, “But we’re already welcoming!” That was true, too. We had already amazed the community by coming out in force to support a ruling that would ban discrimination against gays at the school board. There were already active, popular gays and lesbians as an integral part of the congregation. Besides (and I’ll bet this was the next argument) why should welcoming exclusively pertain to sexual orientation issues? Are we not also morally obligated to respect and welcome others who suffer discrimination, such as black people, those of Spanish-speaking background, Asians….  And of course we are, and of course we are not perfect in our welcoming, so some programs dealing with those issues might not come amiss. I understand those feelings. Once I found myself feeling really angry when I was asked by someone from another UU church if my former congregation in New Orleans was a “Welcoming Congregation” and I had to say no, even though one of the well-liked and well-accepted newer members was a transsexual in the process of going from Chuck to Charlotte.  Its bylaws specifically prohibited discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. It was indeed a welcoming congregation, as this one was, just not officially designated as such because it hadn’t gone through the official program. It couldn’t claim the capital letters.

For some of us congregational polity wonks that is another issue that we have to deal with. I am by personal conviction and professional obligation as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association dedicated to the autonomy of the individual congregations in our movement. The center of power is and must remain in the congregations rather than in the headquarters at 25 Beacon St. in Boston. The issue was raised again for me when I found my hackles rising when the Director of Staff Finances sent out an email explaining how our congregation could achieve designation as a “Fair Compensation Congregation”, which we have since done. Now no one is more dedicated to fair compensation for church staff than I am (for obvious reasons) but to think that desire for such an official designation could be a motivation — even an added motivation — for treating people fairly deeply offends me. If there were any way to discover the answer to this, I would wager that if those two issues had not been relevant, the issue of defining what welcoming means and that of who has the right to define us, instead of nine negative votes, the resolution publicly to welcome gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders would have received three or four nays at most.

All that being said — and those are questions that should not be lightly dismissed — it is my opinion that our congregations still need such a program. The emotions surrounding that issue are so strong, that it is hard to see beyond the simple question of our willingness to discriminate against our fellow human beings. For us, whatever society may say, the answer must be no. It even has to be no to avoiding the issue, to keeping it in the closet. Those of us who don’t have to deal with the issue cannot, without a real relationship with someone who does, really understand the pain of not allowing your sexual orientation to be open. Because of the widely accepted discrimination against them, most ho­mosexuals have opted for invisibility.  They try very hard to hide their sexual orientation and usually succeed quite well.  You can’t tell by looking and after all, we don't ask people for that information, as we may un­der some conditions ask their age or even their ethnic background, and it cer­tainly doesn't show.  The assumption we make is that anyone you meet is heterosex­ual. People whose sexual orientation is strictly homosexual make up at least 10% of the population of the world.  The percentage doesn't seem to change, whatever the acceptance or nonaccep­tance of homosexuality in a particular culture.  It was 10% at the time of the ancient Greeks in which some considered it the most admirable form of love; and it is 10% today when it is at least one of the least respectable — if not the least.  Homosexuals are in all age ranges and ethnic groups, all educational levels, all shapes and sizes.  Having what appear to be feminine mannerisms is not an indication of male homo­sexuality, and being tomboyish is not a sign of lesbianism.  One of my friends and colleagues, a (male) minister, carried a purse, moved with feline grace, crocheted or knitted during board meetings and was heterosexual, though not exclusively so.  One of my fellow chaplains at Morgan Memorial in Boston when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education was extremely macho, including mus­cles and beard, and announced his sexual orientation by wearing a large but­ton that said, “How dare you assume that I'm hetero­sexual?”

To do that was to take a serious risk.  Too often those who admit their minority sexual orientation are rejected or shunned by friends and even family. I had a friend whom I had known for some years who “came out” when he was about sixty years old. We were friends, but not especially close ones. He was much older than I and we didn’t live near one another, or see one another often. A couple of years after he had revealed his sexual orientation he was at General Assembly with his partner. When he introduced him to me he described me as one of his kindest, most supportive friends. I was pleased but surprised. His sincerity was patent, but I could think of nothing at all that I had ever done for him. I could think of things that he had done for me, but nothing at all that I had ever done for him. Then it finally struck me. What I had done really was nothing at all. I had treated him after his coming out in exactly the same way as I had treated him before. It was so small, so unimportant to me, so vast to him..

Many people would prefer that the whole issue go away, and that was the attitude of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.  They know intellec­tually that homosexuals have the same inherent worth as heterosexuals, and that discrimination against them is wrong, but they think it can be fixed by sweeping it farther under the rug.  They say, quite truly, “Another person's sexual orientation is none of my business.  I don't ask if a person is hetero­sexual, and I don't ask if he or she is homo­sexual either.  Why do we have to make an issue of it?”  It simply is not that easy.  We don't ask, but we assume that people are heterosexual, and that assumption can hurt. If you haven’t experienced it you cannot know the pain, the continued repression of such a vital part of oneself. No, it’s not the whole of anyone. One’s sexuality is only a part of anyone, and yet it pervades everything that we are. To always have to be on the alert to hide it, never to be able to relax, to be one’s true self — I can only imagine what that must be like, but I know that to be in a place and among people who accept you as you really are must offer one of the greatest gifts that we can give.

There is another reason, and perhaps the most important of all, that gays and lesbians must not be required to stay closeted. Sexuality is so important an aspect of any person that to remain unaware of it precludes true friendship. You can be an acquaintance, a most friendly acquaintance, but not a friend if so vital a matter is not shared. Your friend cannot offer their whole selves to you and you cannot wholly understand them. My friend from Morgan Memorial could not truly be our friend until after the day that he declared himself. We could not understand his distancing himself from us until that day. It transformed us. How much easier, how much less painful it would have been if he could have come in the first day trusting that we would accept him as he was.

Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of every liberation movement in this country: blacks, women and even gays.  When gay libera­tion became an issue we rushed to open an Office of Gay and Lesbian Con­cerns at Beacon St. We have affirmative action pro­grams for settling gay ministers in our pulpits, and many gays and lesbians have found us a haven of acceptance — most of the time. However, even the most seemingly toler­ant of us liberals sometimes have a weak spot in our liberalism regarding gays and lesbians.  When the reformist organization called UU Ad­vance was formed, though it was ostensibly to help us base our social action on firm theologi­cal grounds, its precipitating event was our of­ficial acceptance of homosexuals as equal and oppressed human be­ings.

When the question of Gay and Lesbian Services of Union was on the parish poll, though many people voted for it, it was rejected.  It got more votes than many that were ac­cepted, but it also got more negative votes than any other by a huge percentage.  It was put on the agenda at General Assembly as a busi­ness resolution proposed by the Board of Trustees and passed handily, though with pas­sionate if small opposition.  Some of the oppo­sition was based less on personal intoler­ance than concern for our public image, and in that they had some validity in their arguments.  That was the only thing the General Assembly had done for years that the national media seemed to find worth publicizing.

All that was a long time ago, now, but the battle isn’t over. We still have those among us who share the common prejudice. We have many more who, rejecting discrimination, still do not understand the importance of allowing people to be honest about who they are.

Shortly after the publicity surrounding our support for gay and lesbian services of union I received a phone call at the New London church.  The woman asked, “What kind of church is this?”  I often get that kind of ques­tion, so I took it literally, trying to explain what kind of church we were.  She said, “Well, but is it true that you perform homosexual marriages?”  Yes, I said, though as yet they are not legal.  In fact, I think I probably performed the first one ever in that town. “What kind of church is this,” she re­peated.  “The Bible says it's wrong.”  I reminded her, of course, that I had already told her that the Bible was only one source among many for our religious search, and we did not consider it inerrant, but her question was im­portant.

What kind of church is this?   It's not perfect.  We have our irrational fears and prejudices, too, and our inadvertent stereotyping.  However, we also search for knowledge and understand­ing and we truly believe that all people, whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation deserve equal respect and oppor­tunity — even the opportunity to express pub­licly, just as heterosexuals always, if inadvertently do, their sexual identity. We strive to overcome the fears and prejudices that we share and we get better at it all the time.  We join battle with the forces of oppression even when they are within our­selves.  May it ever be so.