Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Seeking Secondary Virgins for Political Office

There have been several newspaper articles in the past week about the Republican's "abortion problem." Many of the front runners for the Republican nomination have publicly taken pro-choice positions in the past. Some like Mitt Romney and John McCain are disavowing them; others like Rudy Guiliani are trying to distance themselves from the issue.

It's clear whose votes they are trying to wrap up. The majority of Republicans do not support overturning the Roe v. Wade decision; it's the conservative Christian voter that they are trying to reassure.

The New York Times on Sunday reported that Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform said that "any of the four could redeem themselves in the eyes of the conservative movement despite their past records just as some high school students take abstinence pledges even after having had sex." They quote Mr. Norquist as saying, "It's called secondary virginity. It's a big movement in high school and also available for politicians."

Perhaps someone needs to tell Mr. Norquist that pledges of secondary virginity most often only last until the teenager falls in love again. Or that if they are truly pro-life, they would call for candidates who are committed to reducing unintended pregnancies through the most effective ways we know how -- sex education and family planning services.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oscar Redux

I probably should have blogged about the Oscars yesterday, but I wanted to tell you about the IPC conference first. It will certainly be too late to do this tomorrow, and I find that I still have something to say about how the Academy Awards evening, just like last year, somehow demonstrates that the universe is indeed moving towards greater justice.

You may remember last year -- Brokeback Mountain won for best picture, bringing the anguish of the closet to multiplexes across America. Like this year, more people of color were nominated and received awards than ever before. Gay people thanked their partners on national television. More normal size women graced the red carpet.

Melissa Etheridge took us one step farther this year. She, like almost every other nominee, jumped up when her name was called and kissed her partner on the lips. She said "I was kissing her because that's what you do, you kiss your loved one when you win an Oscar, that's what I grew up believing." She thanked her wife and four children during her acceptance speech. I couldn't help but wonder how people around America were reacting, but to me, it seemed perfectly natural. You win an award, you kiss and thank your partner.

But, it was Ellen in her pant suits and sneakers that told you that America was really changing. When she came out in the late 1990s, it made the cover of Time magazine and her show was cancelled. On Sunday night, she owned the auditorium and her sexual orientation was a NON-ISSUE. She and partner Portia Rossi were photographed without comment like all of the other celebrity couples. She was NOT a statement; she was just the emcee. Perfectly natural.

But another step for justice in the world.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The New Moral Majority

I had the privilege of being the opening keynote speaker at the Institute for Progressive Christianity winter symposium in Cambridge, MA this weekend. I spoke about why it is so important for progressive religious leaders to include sexual justice as part of their agenda.

Dr. Richard Parker from Harvard then gave an inspirational forty five minute talk (without any notes -- a feat that I cannot personally do!) on the history of Christian leadership in social justice movements in the United States. His take away message was that progressive Christians have always been the majority in the United States, and that we need to claim the MIDDLE ground rather than allowing the right to characterize social justice movements as on the left. He encouraged the IPC members to identify themselves as the "emerging majority" as indeed the recent elections demonstrated.

That's true for sexual justice issues as well. We need to remember that the majority of people of faith support contraception, sexuality education, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and non-discrimination laws against GLBT people. It's time for us to reclaim faith, the Bible, the family, and God from those on the right who claim to own them. In fact, it's time for us to declare that we are now the moral majority.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

My One Year Anniversary!

I don't usually blog on Sundays -- but today is the first year anniversary of my blog and I thought we should celebrate!

When I started this blog on sexuality and religion, I was asked after there would be enough to write about on these topics every day. That's never been a problem -- in fact, I am often faced with trying to decide among multiple topics each day. The news is a never ending source of blog entries -- as is our ongoing cultural confusion about sexuality and the persistent sense that our spirituality and our sexuality have little to do with each other.

I am grateful to report that more than 30,000 people have read this blog during the past year...and that about 3000 of you drop by on a pretty regular basis. If we were a church, it would be a mega-church!

I have been advised that the name for this blog "Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection" is just too long -- and frankly doesn't sing. I'd love your ideas for a new name. We can even make it a contest...and let people vote later on. Leave a comment or email me at the Religious Institute.

Thank you to you for reading...thank you for helping spread the word...thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. Blessings on this day.

Reverend Debra

Thursday, February 22, 2007

More From the Episcopal church

The Religious News Service headline reads, "Top Episcopal Bishop Urges Fasting on Gay Issues."

My first reaction -- before I read the article was -- "it's bad enough that churches are tearing themselves up over these issues but now they can't eat!"

Bishop Jefferts Schori meant it metaphorically of course. She was responding to the Anglican primate's directive to the American Bishops that I blogged about on Tuesday.

She wrote, "While those who seek full inclusion for gay and lesbian Christians, and the equal valuing of their gifts for ministry, do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what that tradition says about sexual ethics. ..Each is being asked to forbear for a season."

But, what does that tradition really say about sexual ethics? Surely she's not talking about that part of the tradition that doesn't believe women should be leaders of the church (or even speak within the church.) Surely she's not talking about polygamy or patriarchy or divorce or premarital sex.

No, she's talking about people who fall outside of the heterosexual monogamous married model that is espoused as the moral norm. I had hoped instead she would talk about understanding that sexual and gender diversity are part of our blessed endowment. Somehow a time out doesn't seem to me what is needed. These very type of compromises not only ultimately satisfy none, but do damage to the thousands of faithful who are gay and lesbian or who love gay and lesbian people.

I had hoped for better. May her fast lead to new insights and commitments to justice for all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Pause for Lent

I used to envy the girls in my predominately Catholic elementary school Easter. Easter meant new dresses, bonnets, and pretty patent leather shoes. Oh, how I envied them those pretty shoes.

But, I never envied them Ash Wednesday when they had to come to school with smudges on their foreheads or Lent where they all seemed to give up dessert after lunch or candy. I still remember one second grader telling the rest of us that she had convinced her mother to let her give up peas.

But, my adult Jewish Unitarian Universalist minister self likes the symbolism of the call to renewal, to self sacrifice, to reflection, and to preparation for the days ahead. I like the idea that for forty days, people are called to actively engage with that that they call divine and try to emulate character and spirit.

I think there is something humbling about asking oneself "What can I give up that is keeping me from being the best person I can be so that when the rock is rolled away, I will be ready. What can I start doing to be ready?"

It's not a question just for those of us who observe Lent and Easter. It's actually not a question we should only ask one or 40 days a year. But, today is a good place to pause and remind ourselves of our better intentions.

What are you ready to give up? What are you ready to begin? How can you best "let God be God in you?"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Latest from the Anglican Communion --

She even looks like someone I would like.

I've been thinking a lot about her since I read that at an international meeting seven archibishops refused to take communion with her. And yesterday, the Anglican Archbishops gathered in Tanzania issued their edict to the American Episcopal Church:

"make an unequivocal common covenant" that they will not authorize same-gender blessings within their dioceses and confirm that Resolution B033, passed at the 75th General Convention, means that a candidate for bishop who is living in a same-gender relationship "shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."

In other words, stop performing same sex unions and ordaining gay and lesbian bishops -- or else.

The U.S. House of Bishops has until September 30, 2007 to respond to the Primates.

My heart hurts for those in the U.S. Episcopal Church who know that our sexual and gender differences are assets to be celebrated, not problems to be solved. I find it hard to imagine what it must be like today to be in Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's shoes -- or is that robe and stole?

The Episcopal Church has just launched its own blog -- www.episcopalchurch.typepad/com/episcope You can leave your comments there -- tell them why you think God calls us to embrace all of God's children and why everyone must be welcome at the table.

And pray for Presiding Bishop Schori. I think she's going to need it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Banning Scrotum.....

Last week, I blogged about the woman who was so offended by the words "Vagina Monologues" on a theater billboard that she convinced the manager to change them to the "HooHaa Monologues" in order not to have to answer her daughter's questions about the word vagina.

It turns out some people don't like the names for male anatomy either.

"The Higher Power of Lucky" is this year's winner of the Newberry Medal, the award in children's literature. Lucky apparently is the consumate eavesdropper, and she overhears someone saying that a rattlesnake had bit his dog on the scrotum.
That word "scrotum" is causing some school librarians to ban the book. A librarian from Colorado was quoted as saying in the NY Times, "you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature. At least not for children." Another in New Jersey said she wouldn't want to explain that word.

The book is written for 9 to 12 year olds. Surely nine year old boys know they have scrotum, and it surely wouldn't hurt girls to know the names of male anatomy. As children reach upper elementary school and begin the changes of puberty, they deserve to know about their bodies. I remember the delicious insight I felt reading about Anne Frank's first period in a book when I was ten; Judy Blume's books did the same for generations of girls after me. It was a signal that authors understood me and what I was concerned about. I think our nine year olds can handle Lucky.

I'm guessing that the uproar really isn't about protecting the children. It's about protecting the adults from having to answer a child's question about a body part honestly. But isn't the role of the school librarian to provide information? And since when are proper names of the part's of the body worthy of censorship?

It's partly why I feel so strongly about parents introducing body parts when their children are still toddlers as I discuss in my book "From Diapers to Dating." It's also why I think faith-based institutions should play a role in sex education.

Apparently many parents agree. This morning, the book is number #35 on Amazon's list.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Practicing What I Preach

On Monday, we released our new "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality."

Last night, I got to practice what I preach. (A strange expression for a minister, huh?)

I was invited to meet with a youth group at a local UCC church. More than 50 9th - 12th graders attended. Sprawled across the floor and cozy couches, they reacted first with skepticism that a minister was there to talk to them about sexuality but increasingly opened up when they saw that I was sincere that I would answer any question they had about sexuality, except about my personal sexual decisions.

I began my talking about sexuality in Scripture but moved quickly to sexuality in adolescents' lives. I told them, as we say in the Open Letter, that I didn't believe that most adolescents were ready for mature sexual relationships, but that they also had the right to full information and if they were going to engage in any type of sexual intercourse that they needed to use contraception and condoms. I talked about the five characteristics of ethical sexual relationships and how to know if you have them in a relationship.

And then I turned to the questions that they had placed on cards in a box. Some of them were clearly designed to shock me -- I answered them anyway. The first one I read said, "my girlfriend doesn't move in my bed. What's wrong with her?" I am pretty sure it was not a sincere question, but the boys in the room got the message when I answered that if this was true, it was probably HIS problem not her's. There were questions about masturbation, homosexuality, condoms and contraception, and how much sex is too much.

Frankly, it was hard work. The balance between reinforcing that I didn't think they were physically, emotionally, or spiritually ready for sexual intercourse of any kind and giving them the information they needed IF they are having mature sexual relationships was constantly in my mind. So was acknowledging and showing respect for the diversity of experiences and behaviors in the group. I realized again how important training is for religious leaders who will undertake this work.

It was also fun -- and reminded me how grateful I am for the ministry I am called to do in the world. Read the Open Letter -- talk to a teenager who needs you this weekend.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I want you to look carefully at the sign for this theater in Atlantic Beach, Florida...what's showing tonight and through the weekend?

That's right. "The Hoohaa Monologues."


It turns out that a woman passing by complained to the manager of the theater that the sign read "The Vagina Monologues." According to him, she explained that she didn't want to tell her daughter, who is old enough to read, what a vagina was.

I'll forgive you if you're smiling about now....but it really isn't funny. In fact, it basically proves the point of Eve Ensler's play. By denying women the names of the parts of their body, we in essence are denying their sexuality. If you've read my book, "From Diapers to Dating", you know that I believe that even the smallest children need to learn the names of the parts of body -- all the parts. It teaches them that all body parts have value, that we can talk about sexuality in our homes, it doesn't instill shame, and it equips them to tell if someone tries to touch them inappropriately.

I'd be happy to have the Religious Institute buy that mother a ticket to the play...I think she needs it. And her daughter needs to know not only that she has a vagina, but a vulva and clitoris as well.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day!
Valentine's Day is a perfect holiday for a minister and a sexologist. The legend of Valentine’s Day is unique among secular holidays in its connection of religion and sexuality. Its history is both pagan and early Christian.

Here's a little history to share with your honey, your date, or your children as you celebrate!

The Roman festival “Lupercalia” was a pagan holiday in mid February to assure the fertility of both women and crops. Young men pulled slips of paper with the names of young women out of boxes to learn who would be their sexual companions for the next year; think of it as an early

In 496 c.e., hoping to end the pagan celebrations, Pope Gelasive turned the festival into a minor Christian holiday, naming it for St. Valentine. The names of saints replaced the names of young women on the slips of paper in the boxes, and men were supposed to emulate the saint on the slip they had chosen for the next year. (One can imagine this must have been a hard sell after the previous custom!)

St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men so they could serve in his military without family obligations. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the Emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “From Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270. This of course was when priests were still allowed to marry.

Today of course St. Valentine's Day celebrates none of these. Although one could look at today as a vast commercialization of love and romance (flowers at the train station this morning were triple their usual price!), I'd prefer to think about it as a reminder to "love our neighbor as ourselves'". I know that today can be a tough day for people without romantic partners or those who are feeling disappointed in the romantic love in their life. But what if we all take the time today to reach out to the people who share our lives -- family, children, friends, and yes, for those of us who are lucky to have them, our partners and lovers -- and tell them not just that we love them but how important they truly are.

Valentine's blessings to you and your's.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Open Letter on Adolescent Sexuality

Today the Religious Institute is releasing a new "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality."

It's the first multifaith theological framework calling for religious institutions to recognize adolescent sexual rights and to assist them in discerning their readiness for mature relationships. The Open Letter affirms that "most adolescents are not developmentally ready for mature sexual relationships that include intercourse of any kind" but calls upon faith communities to recognize that many adolescents will become involved in sexual relationships during their teenage years. It urges religious leaders to advocate for adolescent sexual health through comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive health care.

The release of the Open Letter will be covered by National Public Radio throughout the day on Monday. The Center for American Progress features my editorial on its home page today, and I'll be on the Lisa Birnbach Show talking about its release.

You can download the letter from the Religious Institute web site, and we can also send you the lovely printed copy. Write our Associate Director Dr. Kate Ott with your snail mail address.

And after you read it, let me know what you think!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Marriage Matters

Next week is "Freedom to Marry" week. It's a national call for marriage equality for all.

I'm pleased to share that The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force asked us to write an "Article of Faith" on why as religious leaders we support marriage for same sex couples. You can read it at

They asked a variety of religious leaders to comment on the piece. I was moved by the diverse support, but nothing moved me more than this story by Rabbi Joel Kushner about his son. It offers the WHY marriage equality (and why not stop at civil unions) far better than I can.

Here it is:

I met my son when he was four and a half years old. He called me Joel and his father was Papa. When he was seven years old, I married his father in a large religious ceremony that he had an active part in. About a week before the ceremony, he started calling me ‘Dad’ and it was Dad this and Dad that in every sentence and question. A few days after the ceremony, as we sat around the table, he said, ‘Dad, remember when I used to call you Joel?’ as if it was years ago and not just two weeks. I said yes and asked what had brought about the change. He looked at me as if it were the most obvious thing in the world and said, ‘You got married to Papa.’ I smiled and thought about what had created family for my young son. Marriage matters.”

Marriage Equality matters.

How could any person of faith want to deny this seven year old this experience of love and family? Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Completely heterosexual?

Rev. Ted Haggard's counselors yesterday announced that he was "completely heterosexual" and that his years of liaisons with Mike Jones were...what? An out of control compulsion for sex with male escorts?

Now you may remember that Rev. Haggard never responded to my invitation to talk, so I really don't know what his sexual orientation is...but I think it's pretty clear he is NOT "completely heterosexual." Or at least, he wasn't "completely heterosexual."

As a minister and as a sexologist, I believe that people can change their behavior. I don't believe that we can change our sexual orientation, although I do think that for some people, sexual orientation is more fluid than the binary categories of heterosexual/homosexual. For example, I've know several people who fell in love with someone of a different biological sex than they ever would have expected.

But, some of this avoids an important question. If Rev. Haggard lived in a world that accepted and affirmed homosexuality, would he have wanted to put his wife at risk by visiting a male escort for sexual behaviors? Would he have been forced to step down from his job? Would he be leaving his home state as the news reports?

When will we affirm that sexual difference is a blessed part of our endowment?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More Good News About Today's Teens...

The first time I was ever interviewed in the national press was for an article in Newsweek back in 1975. I was the Resource Center Coordinator for the Population Institute and was in charge of keeping up to date on teenage pregnancy. I was 21 and barely older than the girls I was researching. The teenage birth rate was, as I recall it, over 60 births per 1000 teenage girls.

Yesterday, the National Center for Health Statistics announced the latest teenage birth rate -- it's dropped to 40 per 1000, the lowest rate ever recorded, the lowest rate in the past 65 years.
This is a remarkable public health accomplishment. The reason -- teenagers are more likely to delay having sexual intercourse than they were a decade ago (which accounts for about 15% of the decline in births according to a recent study) and much more likely to use contraception and condoms than any other generation of young people. Sex education programs that promote abstinence and contraception and better availability of family planning services as well as better contraceptive methods have made a difference.

This is also a moral accomplishment. It means that while the adults are fighting over the content of sexuality education programs and even such no-brainers as protecting girls against cervical cancer, the teenagers are getting the message and behaving more responsibly. It also means that many adults -- parents, the media, the folks who run good sex education Internet sites for teens, and yes, many faith based institutions, are doing their job. Let's take a moment to celebrate today's teenagers and the adults who are serving them.

The U.S. continues though to have one of the highest teenage birth rates in the developed world. We can and must do better. Stay tuned on February 12th for the release of our new "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Winning...and Losing

I've just come back from a wonderful afternoon at a New York Times crosswords puzzle contest with Will Shortz, the editor of the NY Times Crosswords. I didn't win...I didn't even come close. I did finish the first two rounds with okay times, but was stumped on the third puzzle. It was fascinating to watch the three folks who were the finalists complete their puzzles in front of a room of people. I was happy to be there.

Crosswords are one of my only hobbies. Frankly, between ministry, the Religious Institute, being a mom, being a friend, and meditating and trying to get to the gym five days a week, I don't really have time for hobbies.

Does blogging count as a hobby? How about checking to see if anyone is reading my blog? Reading other people's blogs? I think they all might count.

I was thrilled this morning to find out that I had won first place in four categories of the UU Blog Awards. This blog won for Best Cultural Commentary, Best Political Commentary - Single Entry, Best Political Commentary - Best of Class, and the one I'm most proud of, Best Minister Blog.

I feel a little like Sally Field -- "You like me, you like me!". Thank you for taking the time to vote for "Sexuality and Religion: What's the Connection." Congratulations to the other winners, including "Peacebang" who won first place in six categories, including Best New Blog. I really enjoy her blog on "Beauty Tips for Ministers".

So, winning and losing...I actually feel really good about both today. I am so blessed to do what I love...whatever the outcome.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Who's family values?

That's the name of a video for elementary school children that's causing an uproar in a small town in New Jersey called Evesham Township.

Now, I haven't seen the video myself, but colleagues have. The video shows all types of families -- single parent households, grandparents raising children, biracial couples, couples with adopted children -- and yes, same sex couples with children. The message is that all families have value. The school system in Evesham uses it to teach tolerance and respect for diversity.
Several hundred parents showed up at a community meeting this week to debate whether the video should be used. One press report quoted a woman as screaming, "they're 8 years old. They don't need to see homosexual people in the classroom." My colleagues who were there were stunned by the intolerant and hateful comments, including pseudo-religious arguments.

One reports sharing the controversy with his eight year old son. He said something like, "I guess they didn't get the point of the movie, Dad."

Indeed, they did not.

Jim Wallis in an article today on talking about the minimum wage wrote, "That's our foundation: God hates inequality."

All inequality. That's what this video is trying to teach children. True family values means recognizing that all families have value.

Or as it says in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures, "love your neighbor as yourself." All of your neighbors. Even in little towns in New Jersey.