A reflection by Carole Tenbrink, 16 March 2014 - Audio available
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Rev. James Lewis Stoll was a Unitarian minister from the western US. He lived 1936 – 1994. I’d not known about him before, and once I came across him, recently, I wondered why I’d not heard of him before. I wonder how many here know about him and his bravery? I ask because he deserves to be better remembered today, especially by Unitarians.
This Unitarian, Rev. James Lewis Stoll was the first North American minister to publicly declare he was gay. It was in 1969; actually it was just a few months after the Stonewall uprising in NYC, (the first big gay protest in the US), when he stood up at a conference in Colorado and said it straight out…‘I’m gay, I won’t hide it anymore. I’m not ashamed of it anymore.’ (I’ll tell you that story more fully in a moment.)
His actions undoubtedly, made it easier for others in the ministry who followed after him. His influence inside the UU community and in the broader society was considerable; that’s why I’d like to tell you about him today.
I want to emphasize what tremendous courage it took him in 1969, to stand up for what was deepest in him. He took considerable risks that evening, not knowing…
- How would the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Dept. of Ministry react?
- Would he have his fellowship revoked? What other repercussions might he suffer?
- Would the conference organizers or the Student Religious Liberals get in trouble?
- Was it illegal in Colorado to be an avowed homosexual?
- What could the effect be on Jim’s family and friends?
So what was the effect of his action? Considerable. And in a positive direction. First of all, the UU Association took no action against him. And over the years, it has done much good.
- The very next year, in 1970, at the UU Association’s annual meeting, Stoll spearheaded the passing of a resolution condemning discrimination against homosexual persons and urging work to end it.
- Ten years later, in 1980 UU passed further resolutions to include employment issues, and to assist gay and bisexual religious leaders.
- In 1984, it affirmed the practice of conducting services of union for gays… and later, 1996, vowed to support full marriage equality.
- Over the years, it’s passed more resolutions to affirm the rights of transgender persons, to improve employment practices, educational efforts, congregational life, military life, AIDs, sexual education in schools, and so on…
Besides what he did inside the UU itself, Stoll became one of main activists who helped forge the established process for LGBT inclusion in so many other denominations. He also became a social activist in the broader gay rights movement, writing articles and preaching sermons on the issue. He founded a counseling centre in San Francisco for gays & lesbians. He became president of the S. F. American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990’s. He worked as a substance abuse counselor at S.F. General Hospital, and started a hospice in Maui, Hawaii.
All of this followed from that one action Stoll took that fateful day… to stand up and act. This, we know, is how social movements start and evolve. Who said it… never underestimate the power of one person… So, what exactly did Stoll say that fateful day? I’d like to read a direct account for you from his colleague and friend, Leland Bond Upson, to give you a palpable sense of that moment. This was at the Congress of Student Religious Liberals, comprised of about 100 CA and Am UU students. Stoll was one of the adult advisors. Before taking this action, he had sought the advice of six trusted friends. Here’s how it went down that evening…
“On the second or third night of the conference’… “after dinner, Jim got up to speak. He told us that he’d been doing a lot of hard thinking that summer. Jim told us he could no longer live a lie. He’d been hiding his nature — his true self — from everyone except his closest friends. ‘If the revolution we’re in means anything,’ he said, ‘it means we have the right to be ourselves, without shame or fear.'
“Then he told us he was gay, and had always been gay, and it wasn’t a choice, and he wasn’t ashamed anymore and that he wasn’t going to hide it anymore, and from now on he was going to be himself in public. After he concluded, there was a dead silence, then a couple of the young women went up and hugged him, followed by general congratulations. The few who did not approve kept their peace.” ’
I, for one, take a lot to heart from his brave example. First, it makes me proud to be a Unitarian, proud that a Unitarian minister was the first to take this stand.
Second, I’m indebted to his efforts and those of all the other gay activists. They made it possible for me to come out in a much more accepting society. And, I had the Unitarian religious community to welcome me. I marvel at how much changed in 30 years, from 1970 – 2000 when I started coming out. The gay movement changed everything for gay people. E.g. I knew a guy who, in his 50s, left a heterosexual marriage in the late 1980s to live his true gay self. He said…. had the gay movement happened 10 plus years later, he never would have come out. And if it had happened 10+ years earlier, he never would have been in a heterosexual marriage.
Third, of all, Stoll reminds me that standing up in whatever small ways one can for what’s deep within is almost always worth it.
Fourth, it makes me pause humbly to confess that right about the time Stoll was leading the effort in UU to accept gays, I was in a situation of condoning efforts to ‘treat’ a young gay man, to help him to ‘overcome’ his urges. I was a psychiatric nurse at the Allan Memorial Institute. It wasn’t performing electric shock or engaging in other invasive practices, but I recall, I was leading an ongoing therapy group this young man attended. I can still feel how acutely tortured he seemed inside himself and lament that I did not counter the prevailing attitude. Whenever I think of him, my heart aches, and I hope he found his way to more enlightened support that we were offering him. I mention this, not only by way of confession, but to say that I know something about where prejudice comes from - from ignorance, from non-exposure, from inherited and unquestioned social attitudes.
And lastly, I’m moved by Stoll, because he is in the tradition of, one could say, ‘the wounded healer’ - a person who, in spite of personal foibles and limitations, stands up anyway to offer one’s true self as a force for good in the world. His actions helped many become comfortable and healthy in their orientation, even while he himself still carried weaknesses within him. As his good friend, Bond-Epson, put it, (to paraphrase) Jim died in 1994, at age 58, a pretty young man. He died not of AIDS, but of worn out heart and lungs; that is, he was never able to lose much weight or stop smoking. When it was known he was dying, a stream of friends came to say good-bye from the ACLU, from inner-city social services, from drug treatment centres, from the ministry & others. Despite all his matchmaking and helping so many people, Jim never had for long the all-embracing love he longed for.
What further actions are needed in the social and sexual revolution around gender equality? Lots. Certainly, bullying needs to stop; too many LGBTQ teens have died, been murdered or killed themselves. Gay acceptance in religions is far from universal. Persons in any faith, religious, spiritual tradition need to feel accepted and affirmed as equals. We know, for example, that in a recent address, the Pope condemned efforts to achieve marriage equality for gays. We know that in many countries simply being gay is punishable by imprisonment or even death. (We’ve had the recently examples of what’s still happening in countries like Uganda and Russia).
Our western societies are moving slowly outside of the ‘presumed heterosexual’ mindset. It gives a gay person a momentary feeling of ‘invisibility’ when these assumptions come across. (At such moments I stop & then think… oh, right, people just automatically assume my partner is a guy, or I’ll wear a dress to the wedding…etc. We get used to these little moments). But overall, they remind us that society is still struggling to loosen the assumed binary, male female roles to move forward to learn how to exercise tolerance and compassion with greater gender variety.
Have you noticed how the terms for genders keep expanding? E.g. first, the terms were lesbian and gay, then we added bisexual (people who can be attracted to either sex), then we added trans (those transitioned from one gender identity to another), then we added queer (a term hard to explain simply but can relate to those who in any way challenge the gender status quo) and recently we’ve added intersex, (those persons born with physical characteristics of both sexes.)
By the way, as an aside, I hope if you’ve not yet read the novel, ‘Annabelle’, by Kathleen Winters, that you will. It’s a story about an intersex baby born to a Labrador couple, born with some characteristics of both a boy and a girl. The child is raised as a boy but longs to express his girly side. The book is one of this year’s Canada Reads finalists. This year’s theme - books that can change Canada in ways we need to grow. I can guarantee you, ‘Annabelle’ will pretty much blow your mind open from its binary habits!
Intersex gendered persons, in particular, need to be better understood. Until recently, I thought it was very rare; that’s not true. Also, an intersex baby is still most often assigned a sex at birth by the doctor and/or parents, given no chance to grow and see what gender identity emerges.
Overall, the gay movement has opened a veritable Pandora’s’ box of sexualities. Let’s see, so far that’s LBGTQI. I wonder what will be next. I wonder if it’s possible? … that we could reach the day when we can simply say we’re sexual beings and express this part of ourselves in infinitely various ways.
Here’s another interesting question: Is it possible that by being outside the traditional female - male roles, gays of all stripes may in some ways see the world with new eyes? Could some of us have broader, more unconventional, more inclusive views about many things? Be more able to embrace opposites? Is there a spiritual dimension to being gay? Some of us entertain these questions.
It’s true that North American Aboriginal peoples call gays ‘two-spirited’ meaning that we have a share in both female and male worlds. In their cultures, these individuals have often been shamans, spiritual leaders and often have artistic gifts as well. A good friend of mine on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, also told me affectionately with a smile, ’two-spirited people tend to take life a little easier than most of us; they tend to be light-hearted, like to be playful, have fun’. (This sounds like a lot of gay people I know, especially when you get us together.)
Carl Jung noted that gay people tend to have an intense spiritual sensitivity. Others have wondered,since we carry some characteristics of both genders, do we offer a model for the way heterosexual women and men need to be evolving. i.e. women need to develop our ‘stand up strong and act assertively’ side and men need to develop their caring, feeling vulnerable side.
The women’s liberation and gay rights movements are still shifting forward our conceptions of marriage and of sexuality. All this is far from finished. Consider that until the mid-20th century and for millennia before that in most places on earth the main purpose of the institution of marriage was to have and raise children, and to cement community relations. Now, the reason for marriage has changed: we’re also seeking deeper companionship and intimacy. We long for someone to understand us deeply, accept our foibles and support our growth. We need a place to be vulnerable. Societies don’t need marriage anymore primarily to procreate the species; we’re overpopulating the planet. Evolutionarily speaking, we can say that a new purpose for marriage is being born. Put simply, our urgent new need is to enlarge our hearts, to grow our human potential in that direction. Successful intimate bonds require this - that we rub up against each other’s flaws, forcing each other to face repressed parts of ourselves. To be aware of each person’s faults without blame. This kind of successful intimate bond is a tall order; it requires skills we often couldn’t learn from our parents whose marriages were mostly struggling at the end of the former paradigm of what marriage is.
Sexual love catches us at a deep enough place to open us toward change and growth. As writer Alice Walker, (a bisexual person) says " relationships are not ends in themselves. They are meant to make us grow." Or as my favorite relationship guru, Harville Hendrix says, ‘sexual love nudges us toward wholeness. An aware love relationship becomes a spiritual path.' Sexual and emotional connection can come to have the power of a spiritual experience.
Ok, I admit it I’m waxing poetic here. Easy for me to talk; I’m not in the challenges of committed partnership presently. I do remember how very difficult and painful it can be, and I do know we need to learn the skills of how to push/allow ourselves and each other to grow.
I do think we are on the cusp of the possibility of radically changing what committed sexual relationships, generally, can be and do. Perhaps they can begin to ‘make some love’ in the world. And this is what the world most needs.
In these ways, the sexual and gender revolutions are just beginning. Human sexuality IS infinitely various. Like the depths of the ocean, it’s a great deep darkness, a last frontier for us to explore. What else does human sexuality have the power, the potential to become?
Look what a Pandora’s Box Stoll and all the other gay rights and feminist activists have opened! What a delightful mess of sexualities! And look what a person like Stoll was able to do in the world, with his human limitations, he still stood up and made a difference for love and justice. My wish for all of us is that we be able to do the same. Each in our own little ways, no need to be grand on any national or international scale. As Mother Teresa said ‘it’s not how big a thing you do. It’s how much love you put in it.’ And as Cornel West said, ‘Justice is what love looks like in public’.
Luck o the Irish on you this day. Luminous blessings of the full moon…And, please, just do yourselves a favor. Come alive and live your sexuality in whatever way is deepest in you!