Friday, January 31, 2014

St. Aelred's Day Homily

The following homily was offered by Province IV Coordinator Bruce Garner on Saturday, January 11 as Integrity Palm Beach observed the Feast of St. Aelred at St. Andrew's: Lake Worth.

The Feast of St. Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx

We have heard the words of the readings for this evening many many times.

Integrity Province IV Coordinator Bruce
with Exec. Director Vivian Taylorat Atlanta Pride in 2013
The reading from Ruth is read at countless weddings ….and of course now for the blessing of same gender relationships as well. Despite whatever baggage these words may have collected over the years, the message is still very clear: commitment… commitment to someone you love and who presumably loves you. They are the hallmark words of devotion to another with whom one has some form of relationship.

Holy Women, Holy Men has added a reading from Philippians, the closing words from the Philippians passage sum up the directions that precede them: Look not to your own interests but to the interests of others….again with those with whom there is a relationship.

Then we hear the familiar words in Mark about the two great commandments we have been given……both grounded in love…..unconditional love. "'Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.'"

We highlight the importance of this passage by including part of it in our General Confession as we confess that "we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves."

This passage poses the second "trick question" to Jesus found in this chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The previous trick question was posed by some of the Sadducees a few verses earlier.

It asks whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection after she had married and survived the deaths of seven brothers, being passed as property to each in succession.

Jesus condemns the Sadducees for their hypocrisy in asking a question about a concept in which they had no belief, i.e., resurrection. And of course he is clear in telling them how wrong they are.

Window at St. Andrew's Church, Lake Worth
home parish of Integrity Palm Beach
PHOTO CREDIT: Christian Paolino
So now the Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus again. They are looking for a way around something clearly already know. They want Jesus to say something for which they can condemn him. They are looking for a "gotcha moment." They do not get their "gotcha moment."

They immediately realize that Jesus has provided an absolutely correct response to their question, a response that is familiar to all of them.

What do these readings say to us? Do they speak differently to those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender….LGBT…..the sexual orientation alphabet!

Are we as clear as Jesus in understanding that there are no exceptions or qualifications to loving God or loving our neighbor?

Our love of God, perhaps even our faith is put to the test when we find ourselves facing someone who is completely and totally not lovable from any reasonable perspective we can discern. Yet we are called to love and love without exception or qualification. We are called to love as we have been loved and as we are loved:. God hates nothing that God has made. God IS love.

As my rector is constantly reminding us: We are made by love for love. For God is love….and so we have been created… by love for love.

We may not be so good at following a portion of that Scriptural passage cited by Jesus: It’s the portion about loving ourselves. That’s the condition and the caveat by which we are to love others: as we love ourselves. The question is: Do we really love ourselves?

For most who choose to follow Jesus, loving themselves is probably not all that big an issue. But what about us? What about those of us, who because of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, have heard a constant message about how UN-lovable we are?

How can we love our neighbor or even God when we have problems loving ourselves…..loving the creature that God made?

We live in a part of the United States and a province of the Episcopal Church where we are probably more likely to hear about how un-lovable we are to both God and other people. That atmosphere has an impact on us. It may be subtle. It may be blatant. We might not even realize how it affects us. We do allow many of the negative messages we hear about LGBT people to enter our consciousness and our sub-consciousness. We believe more of the trash talk than most of us realize or are willing to admit.

Some of the responsibility for the ongoing negative messages rests upon those of us who are LGBT. That is in no way a statement that we deserve such treatment or that others should be allowed to treat us differently.

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. Who knows that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? How "out" are you to your family, friends, and most importantly your faith community.

In that light: How many folks would make negative comments about someone’s sexual orientation if they realized that someone in their immediate circle was one of those they treated less than a full and equal child of God? We are not marked in some way to identify our sexual orientation. A person of color usually cannot hide her/his race or ethnicity. An LGBT person can hide in plain sight. How often have we made disparaging remarks about some person or group not realizing that one of "them" was standing among us?

Several years ago during my working career, I engaged in the design, built out and inspection process of offices for the Social Security Administration. I was involved in space planning, layout, design and lease administration.

I had been on the site of a large project, here in Florida actually, for an entire week. During an informal conversation with several of the construction trades and the property owner, that same property owner told a fag joke…with me standing there. I didn’t say anything at the time, trying to be as consummate a professional as I could be. At the closing inspection when just the two of us were there, I quietly looked at him and said: The next time you tell a fag joke in a group of people, you might want to make sure there isn’t a fag standing there. After nearly choking, he looked at me and acknowledged that he had seen fire flash in my eyes when he had told the joke. He knew he had crossed a line. I wasn’t nasty or rude to the man, but I did use the event as a teaching moment. Being able to pass for straight does have its advantages. Educational opportunities come about for us all the time if we choose to use them. Of course it was also helpful for me to stand a head taller than the dude and out weigh him by some 30 pounds! Being a big old faggot sometimes has advantages!!

How much hiding in plain sight do we do in our own faith communities? How much in church?

We have learned over the years that the conversations and the interactions change dramatically when those who share our faith community begin to understand that there really are a substantial number of LGBT folks who love God and worship God the same way as those who are not LGBT. It becomes more difficult to make an issue out of someone we have come to know and love. It becomes more difficult to really want to deny the fullness of our church to those who we see engaging with God the same way we engage with God: through prayer and worship.

It takes courage to be out about who we are as LGBT people, even, if not particularly so in the church. It is not an easy path to walk. I know, I have been there.

From 1993 until about 2009, I found myself as the only openly gay deputy or alternate deputy to General Convention in all 20 dioceses that make up Province IV of our church. Note that I didn’t say I was the only gay person.

I was the only openly gay person. I knew others….and I kept their confidences….including some closeted clergy.

I lost count of the number of times that something about sexual orientation was being discussed at Provincial Synod and I began to hear the usual negative comments about LGBT folks, mostly very inaccurate comments, many ignorant comments and many that were painful to hear.

I began to notice a change in the tenor of the conversations when I quietly walked up to a microphone and gently requested that folks talk with and to me and other LGBT folks and not talk about us……as if we were not present during these conversations. Each time I did that, it was like coming out all over again. There was some degree of nervousness and uncertainty.

But each time it became easier than the last. And each time it proved more than worth the anxiety. It was a rare occasion that I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of love and care after having spoken. I don’t know that my comments always made a difference in the outcome of a vote. I do know that my open presence and honesty about who I was as a child of the living God did change the conversations.

Remember something very important if you remember nothing else: It is much more difficult to demean or dismiss a human face than it is to demean or dismiss an issue. When the issue has a face, the conversation changes. My own personal ministry for many years has been to put the face on the faggot. For when the faggot has a face, he is no longer the faggot, he is the child of God he always was.

Some may not like the terminology, but I believe it is important to name that which causes pain and discrimination or we will never see it end. Such has always been true of any marginalized group of people. No one sitting here this evening is an issue. Each and every one of us is a remarkable child of God, created in God’s image and reflective of the love that God has for all God has created.

The success of ministry with, by and to the LGBT community and conversely the church is a direct result of being open and honest about who we are…..and dealing with the cost and consequences. That is not to say that everyone must be as open as everyone else. I live in a real world. For some of us it is still not safe for us to be who we are. But let me also tell you that the liberation that comes from being open is truly a gift from God! The truth is that LGBT folks have always been part of the church. There is a simple but profound joy that comes from realizing just how much of an extent we have always been there.

The ministry of St. Aelred gave us all a gift. He gave us, through his instructions to his monks, the gift of sharing affection. He encouraged his monks to do something as simple as holding hands, as expressing affection for each other. No where do we find anything suggesting a sexual component in his teachings. We just find something we have allowed to diminish in our society and church: simple affection for each other, affection without further intent or any inappropriate component.

Think about something very simple that we do in church at most of our services: We exchange the peace of Christ with each other. We have the image and model of heterosexual couples engaging in a hug and often a kiss during the exchange of the peace.

What do those of us who are lesbian or gay instinctively do or not do as same gender couples? Do we model the same level of affection and care for each other as those heterosexual couples? Or do we nod, maybe shake hands, or engage in the briefest of hugs. Certainly no one wants to see, nor is it appropriate for those public displays of affection that go too far. But why would we find a need to deny ourselves the same basic and ordinary displays of affection at such an important time as others take for granted?

Now I realize that exchanging the peace remains a moment of truth for many Episcopalians… means we actually have to acknowledge that someone else is in church with us, much less in the pew next to us! Some of us are still the frozen chosen and it has nothing to do with sexual orientation…..or on the other hand maybe it has more to do with that than we might think.

We have also been given another wonderful and precious gift in the Episcopal Church. Do we realize that? Do we share what we have been given?

Think back to the first commandment for a moment. Loving God with our heart and soul and strength is probably not all that difficult or even remarkable. But what about loving God with our minds? What about the idea of actually thinking about God and how we relate to God? How often do we hear even a suggestion in many faith communities that people worship God with their minds?

We, as Episcopalians, are constantly asked to worship God with our minds. We are challenged to engage with God in a substantive way, working out our salvation with the one who created us. Have you ever pondered what a gift it is to be allowed, to be asked, to be encouraged to worship God with your mind?

It has been by worshiping God with our minds that we have come to conclusions about how we should relate to each other….regardless of how alike or different we are.

There is a hurting world outside the walls of our churches. It is a world filled with folks who desperately need to hear that God loves them and that the people of God love them. We have traveled a difficult journey over the last few decades in helping us believe and practice what our Book of Common Prayer reminds us about the need to love God and to love our neighbors. If we do not share what we have learned with others, we have lighted the lamp and then put it under the proverbial bushel basket.

We, as a church, are not particularly good at evangelism. No real news there for any of us! The term scares many of us….often because of some of our past history in other church communities. In reality, we just need to learn to share the good news we have received with others. We need to invite others to join us in a remarkable and fulfilling journey with the God of love who created us for love. It is a journey all make at some point in life and we can offer a route that may not be expected…..especially about worshiping God with or mind.

A gift gains greater value when it is shared with others. Are we willing to share? Do the signs proclaiming "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" just spout a tired old slogan? Or do we really welcome all without restriction, exception, qualification or other criteria? Is it only a saying or do we really mean it?

Hear O Israel, Hear St. Andrews, and Hear Integrity Palm Beach: Love the lord our God with all that we are and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets… least that is what Jesus told us…..should we argue the point? Probably not. So let the people now say Amen!

Bruce Garner is the Province IV Coordinator for Integrity USA and served as its president from 1990-1994.  He also has served as a deputy to General Convention and as a member of the Executive Council of the church.

Presiding Bishop Issues Statement on Criminalization of Homosexuality

The leadership of Integrity read with gratitude the statement issued January 30th by the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, regarding the recent efforts to criminalize homosexuality by several countries in recent months.
The statement reads:
"The Episcopal Church has been clear about our expectation that every member of the LGBT community is entitled to the same respect and dignity as any other member of the human family. Our advocacy for oppressed minorities has been vocal and sustained.

The current attempts to criminalize LBGT persons and their supporters are the latest in a series, each stage of which has been condemned by this Church, as well as many other religious communities and nations. Our advocacy work continues to build support for the full human rights and dignity of all persons, irrespective of gender, race, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability or inability. To do less is effectively to repudiate our membership in the human community.

No one of God’s children is worth less or more than another; none is to be discriminated against because of the way in which she or he has been created. Our common task is to build a society of justice for all, without which there will never be peace on earth. Episcopalians claim that our part in God’s mission is to love God fully, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means all our neighbors."
English The Most Reverend Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
The Most Rev.
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Photo Credit:
Flickr user kirkamunga

Used under Creative Commons

"I am deeply grateful to the Presiding Bishop for adding her voice to the others around the church who are beginning to speak out against the inhumanities being endured by LGBT people around the world," said the Rev. Jon M. Richardson, Integrity's Vice President for National Affairs, who -- as our liaison to the Chicago Consultation -- traveled to Africa several times to meet and pray with LGBT Anglicans there. "It is especially heartening that she has set her words in the context of the larger vision that has been emerging in the Episcopal Church over the past few decades - we are not a church that will tolerate oppression against anyone. God has given us a higher calling: to respect the dignity of every human being."

Reports of violence against LGBT people in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria have been publicized since their governments enacted or considered laws intended to punish either those who are LGBT, provide assistance or support to LGBT people, distribute pro-LGBT "propaganda"  participate in a same-gender wedding, or even express same-gender affection.

Integrity president, the Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall commented that "these new laws and the consequent violence are in part due to a sustained campaign by Americans acting in the name of Christ. I am grateful that the Presiding Bishop has made it clear that The Episcopal Church has no truck with such homophobic activities."
The Presiding Bishop's statement follows commentary from the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, published widely earlier the same week. She acknowledged the western church's role in creating the intolerant climate many African LGBT people now face.

A petition by Davis Mac-Iyalla of the UK-based Changing Attitude calls for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, to speak to his Ugandan and Nigerian peers about their enthusiastic endorsement of the laws.  Archbishop Welby and the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev. John Sentamu, published a joint letter to the primates reminding of the commitment made in the Dromantine Communiqué of 2005 to "the pastoral support and care of homosexual people" but referring only vaguely to the situations currently unfolding.

Integrity urges all our members and partners to speak to your congregations and loved ones about the persecution of LGBT persons abroad and the plight of those who seek asylum in the United States.  Please contact us if you would like more information.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of the Stakeholders' Council of IntegrityUSA

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

House of Deputies President Speaks Out on Nigeria & Uganda

On Monday, January 27th, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, issued a strong statement in Religion News about the deteriorating plight of LGBT people in Uganda and Nigeria, where the countries' parliaments approved new laws that essentially make it illegal to be gay.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings at a bible study during the
first Chicago Consultation event in Durban, South Africa,
in October of 2011

Photo Credit: The Rev. Jon M. Richardson
As Paul Lane reported last week, a weakened version of Uganda's "Kill the Gays Bill" voted into law in December was tabled by President Yoweri Museveni on a technicality, but it is not likely to be forgotten.

In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan approved a new law which is nominally intended to prevent same-gender marriage (with a 14-year prison term) but which in fact essentially states that it is a crime to either express same-sex attraction or support anyone who does.  Reports that gay men are being rounded up have been condemned by the United Nations and others.  In the Muslim-controlled north where sharia law is applied, those arrested are at risk of death by stoning.

The new laws have been lauded by the Anglican leadership in both countries. In her commentary, Jennings acknowledged the role the church has played in the situation:
"I am troubled and saddened that fellow Anglicans could support legislation that fails to recognize that every human being is created in the image of God. Western Christians cannot ignore the homophobia of these church officials or the peril in which they place Ugandan and Nigerian LGBT people. The legacy of colonial-era Christian missionaries and infusions of cash from modern-day American conservatives have helped to create it."
 Jennings, who is also a founding member of the Chicago Consultation, has spent time in Africa meeting with those who seek a more compassionate stance towards LGBT people, but find the literal understanding of the Bible encouraged by Western missionaries difficult to overcome:
"These brave leaders have taught me that there is no getting around the Bible when searching for the origins of the homophobia that is rampant in many African cultures. What’s more, Europeans and North Americans bear much of the historical responsibility for this sad state of affairs. As Zimbabwean biblical scholar Masiiwa Ragies Gunda has written, it is 'far-fetched to look beyond the activities of Western missionaries' when considering the role of the Bible in Africa."
The anti-LGBT fervor within African churches has been encouraged by American evangelical ministers like Scott Lively.  Lively is currently the target of a lawsuit for crimes against humanity in the U.S.  by Ugandan LGBT leaders for his role in the increasingly anti-LGBT culture there, under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law which has been expanded in recent years to include human rights abuses. Undeterred, Lively told a radio host in October that he considers the new anti-gay laws in Russia, where he has also spent time, "one of my proudest achievements."

Jennings sees all of this as a call to action for the church:
"Western Christians cannot fix the homophobia that is currently gripping Nigeria, Uganda, or other African countries. We can, however, stand in solidarity with progressive Africans and support their efforts to teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality. When we see human rights abuses, we can speak out. And most of all, we can acknowledge with humility that we bear our share of the responsibility for this tragic legacy of empire and insist on repudiating contemporary efforts to expand its reach."
Integrity's Vice-President for National Affairs, the Rev. Jon M. Richardson, is a fellow Chicago Consultation steering committee member who also took part in the Africa meetings:
"Reading this op-ed from the President of the House of Deputies makes me proud, once again, to be an Episcopalian. By virtue of our baptism we have a responsibility to 'seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.'

One of the gifts of the Anglican Communion is that it helps us all to see just how wide a net that covenant casts - our neighbors are not just the people closest to us, but our brothers and sisters all over the world in their times of celebration and in their times of suffering.

I had the honor of participating in the consultations on Bible and sexuality that the Rev. Jennings mentioned, and I have heard first hand of the suffering - and the celebrations and hopes - of our LGBT sisters and brothers from around Africa. We cannot stand quietly by as so many of their governments - too often with the blessing of their churches - seek to further oppression.

I am deeply grateful to our President of the House of Deputies for speaking with such wisdom here. I can only pray that other church leaders both here and around the world will speak as fearlessly and strongly as she has. It's a message the that needs to be heard by the whole church and the world it inhabits."
Integrity encourages all Episcopalians concerned about the plight of Nigeria and Uganda's LGBT people to educate your congregations, your bishops and your deputies to General Convention.  Please contact us for more information.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of the Integrity Stakeholders' Council

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Bridge Too Far for NJ's Transgender Population... For Now

Attention on New Jersey's traffic problems kept another story largely out of the headlines, but for the state's transgender population, its effects will last a lot longer than four days.
Trans* Equality advocate Stephanie Battaglino (R) with
her partner Mari (C) and  Orange is the New Black star
Laverne Cox (L) at the annual Women's Event
at NYC's LGBT Community Center in Nov. 2013
On January 13th, Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have allowed transgender or intersex folks to change the gender on their birth certificates without having to first undergo gender reassignment surgery.  The bill (A4097/S2786) passed in both houses of the New Jersey legislature, but not with enough votes to override the Governor's veto, which stated in part that the bill as proposed would lead to "significant legal uncertainties and create opportunities for fraud, deception, and abuse."

For the state's LGBT activists, it looked clear that the veto was actually about a matter unrelated to those who would be affected. Babs Casbar Siperstein, political director for the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey, called it "Arbitrary, capricious and designed to harm transgender people who are the most vulnerable among LGBT New Jerseyans."  Troy Stevenson of Garden State Equality asserted that it was "a vindictive move to punish the LGBT community after a year of tremendous progress."  And -- politics being what they are -- it is in fact hard to ignore the fact that a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill is Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.  A longtime champion of the LGBT community, she also happens to be co-chairing the bicameral committee investigating another act of obstruction which has gotten far more news coverage than this one.

On the flip side, Christie -- who also vetoed a bicameral marriage equality bill in 2012, only to have the state's highest court rule it into being this fall -- did approve a law making New Jersey only the second state to ban "reparative therapy" for minors.  These forms of treatment and counseling, which purport to change "unwanted" same-gender attraction, have been condemned by the American Psychological Association and other professional groups as misleading at best, irreparably harmful at worst.  

The transgender bill's Assembly co-sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) saw reason for hope even in the fact of rejection. "Gov. Christie's veto suggests that with safeguards he would have signed this legislation," she told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I plan to work with my colleagues and the Governor's office to get this legislation done during the next session."

But in the meantime, there is still rejection which -- political speculation aside -- feels very personal.  Stephanie Battaglino, an insurance executive who also does public advocacy work for trans* workplace rights, expressed her reactions on her blog:
"Caught in the cross hairs once again. First it was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) back in 2007 when we were summarily stripped out of the bill as a protected class in an effort to make it more – you should pardon the expression – passable. And now in my own backyard – this veto. Do people think we somehow like it underneath the proverbial bus that we always seem to get thrown under? Or is it perhaps that we are too easy a target? 'Need a punching bag? Roll out the transgender community, nobody cares about them anyway. They’re just a bunch of wackos on the lunatic fringe.'"
Stephanie is also an Episcopalian, one of our own, and has shared her own faith journey from the pulpit and other speaking engagements.  She articulated how important a milestone getting her own revised certificate was, which helps explain why the bill's failing was so wounding:
"I can assure you that to many of us in the trans community, an amended birth certificate is by no means merely a piece of paper. It is so much more than that. It is a panacea for many. I can remember when I received mine in the mail a few months after my surgery. It meant everything to me to see my mother and father’s name, the hospital in Newark where I was born that is no longer there, the date and time of my birth – and most importantly my full female name. It is more than an understatement to say it was completing. I remember thinking to myself through my tears of joy, 'this is the way it was always supposed to be – and now it is.' To deny someone of that feeling of completeness because of a perceived lack of 'appropriate safeguards' is at best totally lacking in compassion, and at its worst, inhumane."
To Stephanie, the best way to help society continue to evolve is by getting out there and letting them experience her as a human being, rather than an issue or a condition:
"I often say in my speaking engagements 'just give me five minutes' and you’ll come away with a much different perspective about transgender people. To briefly paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, if you must judge at all, than work with me to create a forum whereby I can be judged on the content of my character – the content of my 'human-ness.'"
Integrity seeks to foster this dialogue and education whenever and wherever possible.  The Institute for Welcoming Resources, of which Integrity is a coalition partner, offers TransAction, a curriculum for congregations better understand and welcome transgender people to be a part of their community.  Stephanie and others share a ministry of engaging people in conversation about these topics. If your congregation or group is interested in hosting an enlightening event, please contact us.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of Integrity's Stakeholders' Council

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

No One is Free Until We All Are Free: Reflections on MLK Weekend

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said "no one is free until we are all free". I have been thinking about this quote a lot over the past few weeks and months. The LGBT movement for equality has made major strides in North America and Europe over the past few years. Granted, much of this progress is tied to where you live. In many states and countries we can marry; in many we can adopt children; in some we can do one but not the other; and in many we can do neither. It seems, at least in many Western countries that the arc of the moral universe is finally bending toward justice. This has led to a feeling of complacency among many of our brothers and sisters.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese
with Davis Mac-Iyalla
of Changing Attitudes:
Nigeria, when he spoke
at St. Mark's-in-the
Bowery in New York.

Photo Credit: Paul Lane
This progress is, unfortunately, not the case everywhere. In many areas of the world not only are the conditions not getting better, they are in fact getting worse. In June Russia passed the "anti-gay propaganda law" effectively taking away freedom of expression and assembly from LGBT people. There is now a push, much of it coming from the Russian Orthodox Church, to recriminalize homosexuality, which was decriminalized in 1993. This has been largely covered by the U.S. media in the lead-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next month.

The LGBT community in Uganda was given a reprieve last week when President Yoweri Museveni returned the bill, now infamously known as the "kill the gays" bill, although "softened" to life in prison, to the Ugandan Parliament for review and further discussion. Make no mistake, this bill will rear its ugly head again, supported by American religious organizations as well as many in the Anglican Church of Uganda. Sodomy is already illegal in Uganda.

In Nigeria, a bill titled the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, supported by the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, was passed by the Nigerian Parliament and signed into law by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. This bill not only outlaws "gay marriage" (which was never legal in Nigeria in the first place), it provides for a prison term of fourteen years for anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or civil partnership abroad. It also criminalizes anyone who registers or participates in gay organizations or clubs or who makes a public show of a same-sex relationship, the punishment being ten years in prison. The arrests have started. While fourteen years in prison may sound draconian, in Northern Nigeria, where Sharia law operates side by side with federal law, those arrested have been handed over to Sharia courts where the maximum punishment is death by stoning!

The progressive gang
The Rev. Scott Gunn, Integrity's President, the Rev.
Dr. Caroline Hall, Davis Mac-Iyalla (Changing
Attitude: Nigeria), The Rev. Colin Coward
(Changing Attitude: UK) at the Primates' Meeting
in Tanzania in 2007

Photo Credit: Scott Gunn
Used under Creative Commons License.
Some Rights Reserved
In Uganda and Nigeria, as well as other countries with harsh penalties for homosexuality (many of which are vestiges of British colonial rule), these bills seriously threaten health services providing HIV treatment to MSMs (men who have sex with men).

What can we do? Educate ourselves. Get the word out: these developments, especially those in Nigeria, have largely gone under the radar of the U.S. media. A good source of information is on the Nigerian LGBTIs in Diaspora web-site:

As an Episcopalians / Anglicans we can urge our bishops to speak out. Find out who the Indaba partners of your diocese are and ask your bishop to speak with them about this; ask him or her to contact the Presiding Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sign Nigerian LGBT rights activist Davis Mac-Iyalla’s petition to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York which can be found here.  At press time the petition was approaching 1,000 signatures.

As a U.S. citizen, you can contact your Senators and Representatives in Congress and ask them to contact the State Department, which -- although it has publicly condemned these laws -- could do more. It has been reported that the Canadian government has already cancelled a state visit by Nigerian President Jonathan which was scheduled to take place in February. Keep the pressure on.

Keep our brothers and sisters in your prayers and those of your local parish.

"No one is free until we all are." We still have a long road to travel.

Paul Lane is the Diocesan Organizer for New York and Acting Chair of the LGBT Concerns Committee of the Diocese of New York

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Seeing Jesus as an LGBT Asylum Seeker

(Photo Credit Jessica Rinaldi - Reuters)

-Max Niedzwiecki

As I write this, I look forward to my parish’s Epiphany service, which marks the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God. Since this is New Orleans, it also marks the start of Carnival Season and the first time since last Mardi Gras that anyone is supposed to eat King Cake.

But this year, I add the excitement of joining with partners to launch the LGBT Faith Action Network (LGBT-FAN) which will support faith-based efforts to help LGBT asylum seekers throughout the United States.

Our kick off begins with a Congressional Briefing on January 8, a community event on January 9, and an LGBT-FAN planning retreat January 8-10—all in Washington, DC.

The constellation of cosponsors has me feeling like Mardi Gras. The list is growing and currently includes Center Global of the DC Center for the LGBT Community, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Integrity USA, the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, Metropolitan Community Churches, Reconciling Works, PCI Justice, St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, the United Church of Christ Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The last time I wrote a blog post about LGBT-FAN, I asked readers to reflect on Matthew 25: 34-40 in which Jesus says "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me," and consider reaching out to people who flee to the United States because of extreme homophobia and transphobia in their home countries. As people fleeing terror, they share much in common with heavily pregnant Mary and Joseph, who the Bible tells us fled to Egypt seeking safety.

I’m saying much the same thing today: Consider that your faith might be calling you to reach out in some way – large or small – to people fleeing violence and persecution. Epiphany is a call for Christians to recognize Jesus – not just in a baby born into an impoverished refugee family over two thousand years ago, but also in men and women who have faced torture and murder, sought refuge in the U.S., and are not allowed to work or use most social services until they have been granted asylum or their applications have been pending for at least six months. Many of them are living on the street and taking extreme measures just to survive. Why? Because they are lesbian, gay, bi, or trans, and they were born in places where that can be a death sentence.

Taking even a small action could make a huge difference in someone’s life. Here’s what you can do right now:
  • Learn more by going to .
  • Sign our petition, which calls on government leaders to acknowledge the basic human rights of LGBT and other asylum seekers:
  • Donate any amount to the newly launched LGBT-FAN Fund, which is dedicated to supporting LGBT asylum-seekers’ basic living expenses such as rent and food:
  • Write us a comment and we’ll get back to you about more ways to get involved:
Max Niedzwiecki, Ph.D. is the Coordinator of the LGBT Faith & Asylum Network, and the former Executive Director of Integrity USA.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Goodbye to David Cupps

David Cupps
The new year is always an exciting time. We get to look forward to new futures and new possibilities. This New Year's is a little bittersweet though. After more than three years of excellent service on the staff of Integrity, our Operations Manager, David Cupps, will be moving on to new opportunities.

We are sad to see him go. He has served as the core for many systems and groups that have not only served Integrity well, but that have served the Episcopal Church well. “During the year when we had no Executive Director, David really kept the organization going, and I depended on him for his wisdom, knowledge, and leadership as well as for doing everything it takes to make Integrity run smoothly,” said the Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall, president of Integrity's Board of Directors.

Among David's major contributions to Integrity during his tenure was the development, in collaboration with former VP-Local Affairs Neil Houghton and our ecumenical partners at the Institute for Welcoming Resources, of the curriculum for the many Believe Out Loud congregational workshops which hundreds of people have been attending across the country. 

After experimenting with a 'virtual' office for several years, with David based in his hometown in Kentucky and our Executive Director first in New Orleans and then in Georgia, the Board decided, with advice from a consultant, that having the Executive Director and the main administrative team in the same geographical location creates an important synergy. This led to a restructuring of the staff and a move away from Kentucky. It was not an easy decision, knowing that David would not personally be able to make the move.

From providing structure to our operations center at General Convention 2012 to managing the logistics of so many Believe Out Loud trainings to getting the Friday Flash out every week, David was there time and time again. We are deeply grateful for the work he has done to make the transition to Executive Director Vivian Taylor and Office Administrator Katie Omberg as smooth as possible.

Dr. Hall continued, “David stepped in to take on Integrity's administrative and program management when we needed a knowledgeable person at short notice, and did a wonderful job. He has been the eye at the center of the storm for many years, answering all inquiries with gentle efficiency, remaining on call even on vacation, and managing a zillion priorities at once. I will miss his calm voice at the other end of the phone and his gentle optimism in the face of difficulties.”

Goodbye and best of luck, David. Thank you for everything you have done for us. God bless all your future work and life.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Integrity President Caro Hall to Lead Retreat in San Joaquin

Evergreen Conference
On January 24-26, Integrity San Joaquin will hold its second annual Winter Retreat for LGBT people and allies at the beautiful Evergreen Conference Center (ECCO) in Oakhurst, California.  The Rev. Dr. Caroline Hall, Integrity's President, will facilitate.

A native of Great Britain, Dr. Hall lived for a time in the 1980s in the Findhorn intentional community in Scotland, where she met her spouse. She has lived for the past 20 years in Los Osos in the Diocese of El Camino Real, where she is now priest-in-charge at St. Benedict's Episcopal Church.  Her background, however, is in non-profit management and social work.  She particularly enjoys helping those who have felt excluded from faith communities because they "don't fit the mold" to see that Christianity is a lot bigger and broader than they thought and that God's abundant love is available to everyone.

 The retreat begins Friday evening,January 24th as we arrive at ECCO and gather for fellowship, snacks and a movie.  On Saturday, Dr.  Hall leads our retreat program, entitled the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge, throughout the day. On Sunday, after morning Eucharist (joined by our friends from St. Raphael's, Oakhurst) and free time, we enjoy lunch together before departure.

The Rev. Dr.
Caroline Hall
Last year, Dr. Hall published a book entitled A Thorn in the Flesh, which explores the societal changes both inside and outside the Episcopal Church that led to its evolving stance on the inclusion of LGBT people.  She also serves on the board of People of Faith for Justice on the Central Coast, and is a founder of the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations.

Accommodations at ECCO are $119 per person/double room and include 2 nights lodging and 5 meals. Registration deadline is January 6th.  For questions contact the Integrity - San Joaquin Diocesan Organizer, Jan Dunlap at 661.201.2630 or

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Slaughter of our Holy Innocence: HIV Criminalization in the New Century

by Sean R. Glenn

Although, as I have indicated in previous work, I try my best not to allow my HIV positive status to define me by writing about it too frequently, I’m going to set that penchant aside for a moment. What I want to discuss right now is not an easy matter; there are no clear-cut either/or binaries here, and I worry that I’m likely to make some people uncomfortable in the language to follow. What I want to talk about is far more frightening for those living with HIV than rejection or health complications: the criminalization of HIV positive individuals, a new dimension of unjust and, frankly, scientifically illiterate HIV stigmatization. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents—an uncomfortable occasion that marks events that may have occurred following the birth of Jesus, and, perhaps more importantly, events that continue to this day: the violence of systematic oppression, stigmatization, and our own culpability therein. To some, a discussion concerning HIV criminalization may not seem an appropriate topic for such a feast day, yet on the eve of Epiphany (and the eve of my three year anniversary) there are connections I can no longer ignore.

Despite medical advances over the past two decades, HIV positive people remain a stigmatized group that reveals serious lacunae within the confines of our language. That is to say, while conventional wisdom holds that HIV is “a gay thing,” the facts tell us that HIV confronts every single one of us: the virus is entirely unaware of the age, gender, sexual orientation, race, economic status, or religion of those it marks. That said, in the United States there are certain communities that do bear more statistical risk than others: intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men (gay, straight, or otherwise), and communities of color, particularly women thereof. Life with HIV spans many categories, revealing that clear-cut grouping of peoples and conditions doesn’t work; to address it is to declare that one must always engage in conversations about HIV carefully, and always with an eye toward the broader issues social justice that the virus thrusts before our (often unwilling and unprepared) eyes.

In the months following my diagnosis I was asked several questions by friends and family, including “are you angry at the man who gave you HIV?” and “You know you can take legal action. Are you going to press charges?” The answer to both was, and continues to be, an emphatic “no.” In a matter such as this there is no room for finger pointing—that simply distracts us from more systemic issues. I made a mistake, as did the individual who likely transmitted the virus to me.

I recently came across a lengthy article on BuzzFeed detailing the state of HIV criminalization in the United States, which focused primarily on a case of HIV criminalization in Iowa. This is just one of many such cases that have found their way across my path in recent years. According to data collected by the organization ProPublica, the last decade has seen at least 541 recorded cases “in which people were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal charges for not disclosing that they were HIV-positive.” The data goes on to suggest that this number could actually be higher because in at least 35 states have laws which make it a criminal offense to expose another person to HIV; in 19 states, it is a felony. Yet, peculiarly enough, these laws can be executed and punishments proscribed even if the virus is not transmitted. Let me repeat that: these laws do not require transmission to occur. Possible exposure is enough to land an individual in prison.
I must confess, when I first learned of this, it was almost impossible to contain my rage and indignation, especially given that there are numerous other infectious conditions that are, in the age of retroviral therapy, much more deadly and far more communicable than (controlled) HIV for which no such laws exist.

This does, of course, force us to deal with issues of consent and ask the question “who bears the burden of responsibility here?” In the case of consensual sexual encounters (because, let’s face it, non-consensual sexual encounters are criminal), I would argue that, insofar as HIV transmission is concerned, the burden of responsibility is shared. Conventionally, the burden is placed squarely upon the HIV positive individual, but this, I would argue, is dangerous (and opens a complicated can of worms concerning credibility, honesty, and self-knowledge). Now, before the readership erupts in shocked dismay, let me qualify this by saying that, under the best of circumstances, I believe that an HIV positive individual should always disclose their status. I always make a point to do so because only in my silence does the virus win. However, the reality of social stigmatization and stratification complicates this wildly. As a result, it is also my stance that an HIV negative individual should always protect themselves; always. Always use protection and, as terrible as this might sound, never presume a person to be HIV negative—that person might not know their status. This also means, however, that protection does not include avoiding HIV positive people. I have found in the past that the best protection has been to openly engage with HIV positive individuals. I have always felt safer with HIV positive people who have openly disclosed their status to me. Honest disclosure means several things:

1) You can be sure of this person’s status; there is no doubt.

2) You can also likely be sure that this person, having disclosed, is receiving treatment and is taking medication to suppress their viral load, making it significantly more difficult to transmit the virus. If someone has recently contracted the virus and does not know it, presuming the safety of a previous negative HIV test, the chances of transmission are significantly higher.

3) You can also assume that this person who has disclosed has likely undergone a complicated internal dialogue about the consequences of their honesty. This is not something to take for granted, and this is where I feel the greatest danger of HIV criminalization laws lies: if people do not feel safe enough to disclose their status, they won’t. If the fear of being stigmatized by a systematically prejudiced legal system aligned with conventional societal ignorance is present, it is safer to either claim ignorance of one’s status or, more dangerously, avoid getting tested for HIV altogether.
This is a sure recipe for the continued presence of HIV for generations to come, and it is a guarantee that unjust stigmatization will win. If people are afraid to get tested—afraid to know about what might be happening within their bodies—then we can be sure that infections rates will climb. As I have often said, “HIV is something one rarely gets from someone who knows they are positive.” If people know they are positive, treatment is sought; if treatment is sought, the risk of transmission is significantly reduced.

If we cannot openly disclose, discuss, and feel safe about our HIV statuses, we let the virus, and the stigma surrounding it, win. Our innocence is accordingly slaughtered and, as a result, HIV won’t go away.

HIV wins only when HIV stigmatization wins.  

Sean R. Glenn is a composer and conductor of sacred choral music. He holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Boston University and a Master of Arts in Music from the Aaron Copland School at Queens College. His home on the web is