Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Check This Out

The tragedy of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is not only in the tens of millions of lives losts but in the failure of governments to respond in ways that are known to protect people against infection with HIV.

I've just learned about a new book by Helen Epstein, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS that sounds like a must read.

You can read the heartbreaking analysis yourself in the August 16, 2007 of The New York Review Of Books.

I've written many times that every new case of HIV transmission results from a lack of political and moral will to do what we know must be done for prevention. Epstein's book shows just how true that is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Tell Me Your Ideas

I'm just back from a week's writing retreat at a friend's ranch in New Mexico. I am putting the final touches on the edits of my new parenting book and I began outlining my next book. The parenting book finally has a name -- "What 21st Century Parents Need to Know: Raising Today's Children With Wisdom and Heart" -- and will be published in April 2008.

It's hard to wake up to the humidity of Connecticut and the suburbs after a week of early morning cool sunrises under the vast New Mexico sky. I felt a little like an urban child sent to the country by the Fresh Air Fund.

I'm hoping to finish the proposal for my new book by the end of August, a book about religion and sexuality in America. I want to write about HOW American became so confused about the connection between religion and sexuality, how these issues are playing out in politics, denominations, and in our personal lives, and offer a new perspective on sexual ethics and morality. I'd love to know your ideas about which topics are most important to include.

And any suggestions about how to deal with the first days back at the office overload would be appreciated as well!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ask the Candidates

On August 9th, the Human Rights Campaign Fund is sponsoring a presidential candidate's forum in Los Angeles. They are asking you to help them develop the questions to ask the candidates. So far, many of the Democratic frontrunners have confirmed their attendance. No Republican has, but surely Mr. Guiliani might show.

That seems to me like a sign of progress around sexual and gender diversity. President Clinton certainly courted gay and lesbian voters, and then to many of our dismay signed such legislation as "Don't Ask Don't Tell", "The Defense of Marriage Act" and Abstinence-only-until marriage education.

Will this year's candidate's do better?

Actually, I have a lot of questions for the candidates about sexual justice issues. I'd like to see a new President quickly overturn many of the policies that limit our rights here and around the world.

Will he or she promise to overturn the Mexico City policy, Don't Ask Don't Tell, the abstinence only requirement in international AIDS funding, and that's just what occurs to me this morning at 6:30 am? Will he or she support sexuality education, sex abuse prevention, family planning programs, emergency contraception, the ERA, pay equity, and might we dare hope for support for marriage equality?

Let me know your questions? The Religious Institute is preparing a packet this summer for all the candidates on how to speak with a moral voice about sexual justice. We'd love your help!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More on Candidates and Sexuality

I watched the YOUTUBE/CNN debate last night with great interest. Partially, because I still haven't decided on a candidate, but also to see how sexuality issues were covered.

Yes, Senator Obama got to talk again about sexuality education for children. He seems to have decided that the safest way to go is to talk about sexual abuse prevention -- his statement a few days earlier at Planned Parenthood were much stronger. Several of the candidates were asked about marriage equality, and three cheers to the lesbian couple that asked it. We've got to see what we can do to help the candidates not say "gay marriage" but to talk about equality. I wished John Edwards could move beyond civil unions, but I liked his honesty about his struggle. I agreed with Senator Obama's response and it's clear he's been working on it: civil marriage rights for all with denominations deciding whether to perform rites or not for same sex couples.

The remarkable thing to me is that these issues are now standard discussion points. As Senator Clinton said last night, how amazing it was to have people fighting about who best represented women's issues. The Pew Research Center was quoted in this past week's Sunday New York Times: 75% of voters said that whether a candidate was a woman would not affect their voting, 86% didn't care if a person had been divorced, and 51% didn't care if a candidate was gay. Perhaps America is growing up on sexuality issues.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tammy Faye Baker Messner

They were the first religion and sex scandal that I remember. They had built a conservative evangelical empire, including a theme park, and then he cheated on her with his secretary. Much worse, he cheated on all of the people who had sent him small donations to support his ministry, and he served time in jail because of it.

Tammy Faye Baker Messner died this weekend at the age of 65. She always seemed like a bit of a caricature with her overdone makeup and a little bit of the hapless victim. She stood by Jim Baker for a few years, but as the truth emerged about his character, she finally divorced him, only to marry another man who served time in jail for similar offenses. In her last years, she appeared on "The Surreal Life", a program about passe celebrities where she hung out with a porn star.

But, underneath it, one sensed that there was a much stronger woman, and she earned my respect because in the last ten years she supported gay pride events and even co-hosted a TV program with an openly gay actor. Her obituary in the NY Times quotes her as saying, "I refuse to label people. We're all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn't make any junk."

Actually, I think Ethel Waters said the last first...but good for Tammy Faye to echo it publicly, despite sure opposition by some of her former PTL supporters. May she rest in peace.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Video Posted!

Here's the actual video:

More on O'Reilly/fixed links i hope!

The clip has been posted at UTUBE:


I've been inundated with calls, emails, and blog comments. If I didn't allow your email comment, it's because it was too hateful or vicious. Sorry, you don't get to attack my character or use foul language on my space. (Actually, I don't think you should do it elsewhere either!) I do want you to know though that I'm archiving all of them, and any that look dangerous will be turned over to authorities.

The comments on the blog below will give you a pretty good idea of what I am receiving. I let "Paul" speak for all of those of you who found me, shall I say, unlikeable. There are also lots of very positive comments.

For example, see this review on News Hounds --

Thanks to all of you who have written me supportive comments. To others, I am remembering what the Bible teaches about loving your enemies.

Bill O'Reilly and Me

I was on the O'Reilly show last night, talking about Senator Obama's support for sex education, beginning in the primary grades.

I was more than a little hesitant about saying yes, but as my readers know, I complain about the lack of progressive women religious leaders on network television and I thought I'd give it a try.

If you saw it, I'd love to know what you thought. (I have received several pieces of hate mail already, one calling me an evil evil woman for calling myself a preacher. So, please spare me those!)

I actually enjoyed myself. Mr. O'Reilly was surprisingly pleasant to me (must have been the collar and not wanting to yell at a minister), and I was able to make my points, even as he was talking over me. I wanted listeners to know that sex education in the younger years was about such sexuality topics as bodies, family roles, gender roles, sex abuse prevention -- and that it set a foundation for education in upper school. I wanted people to know that parents, schools, and religious institutions all have a role to play in sexuality education, and that religious denominations support public school sex education.

Mr. O'Reilly got a little hung up on my using the word "uterus" in describing where babies come from. He said using it would take away children's innocence and would be too complicated. In response, I told him that children needed to know the word penis and vulva too. He looked confused about "vulva." I wonder what he would have done if I had said clitoris or scrotum on air.

We're going to try to find a way to post it at utube. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Much Is Silence Worth?

Well, in the case of the Vatican, apparently 660 million dollars.

That's how much it's going to cost the Roman Catholic Church to settle a case brought by 508 people who were sexually abused by priests over the past fifty years.

Think for a moment about how many people that might feed...or house...or provide health services for.

Think for a moment about how those 500 people and their wives, husbands, partners, and children have suffered.

Think how much the Vatican doesn't want Bishop Mahoney to have to testify in public about why these priests were simply moved to another parish rather than being removed from service completely...rather than being required to get help and to be held accountable.

The Vatican said on Monday that they are now committed to ending this problem. They also said in their release that other institutions have this problem as well. It reminds me of the child who says, "But everyone is doing it" when their parent discovers cigarette smoking. Perhaps the Vatican forgot that the book of Matthew tells us to take the log out of our own eye first.

I understand why each of these survivors would want a million dollars, why it would feel justified. But I can't help but think it means we'll never really know how this abuse of power and patriarchy was allowed to go on for decades...or if it has really ended now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Teen Sexuality -- Just In

I've been saying and writing for a long time now that the rapid declines we saw in teenagers having sexual intercourse would level off at current levels -- and indeed a new report from the federal government says just that.

After year's of decline from 1991 to 2000, the percentage of teenagers having intercourse has leveled off at 45.6%, a rate constant from 2001 - 2005. That's right -- a little less than half of today's teenagers have intercourse, down from a little more than half 15 years ago.

Think about what's been going on since 1991. As many of us have been saying, teenagers began delaying after there was widespread education about HIV/AIDS and BEFORE the federal abstinence program went into effect in 1997. Today's release is one more piece of data that shows that these programs aren't changing most teenagers behaviors.

The new report also shows that the rapid increase in condom use in the 1990's has also stalled, no surprise given how few schools are now able to teach about condoms. It's at 63%, a dramatic increase over the past fifteen years, but no change since 2003.

We need to do better for our teenagers. We need to help them delay having any kind of sex that they aren't physically, emotionally, or spiritually ready for...we need to make sure that they have information and access to full information, good family planning services, and condoms so that they can be safe...

We need to remember that about half of teens won't have sexual intercourse in high school and they need our support and respect.

But, we need to not forget that about half will...and they need our support and respect as well.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Gone fishing...

or at least kayaking and biking...

I'm taking a much needed vacation for the next few weeks, and that will include a vacation from blogging. I hope to give myself the space to allow the world to go on without any comment from me for the next few weeks, to not try to change the world in any way but just live in the natural world.

If you're new to my blog, I hope you'll take the time to read recent entries. You can pick a topic on the right and see what my thoughts have been...and I invite you to visit the Religious Institute's newly designed web site and view our resources.

I'll look forward to sharing when I return in a few weeks. May these summer days be blessed ones of relaxing, rejuvenating, and re-creation for us all.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Love and Partnership is Sacred for Us All

This is what a "practicing homosexual" minister looks like.

Actually, as of Monday, he was no longer allowed to call himself minister. The ELCA appeals committee voted that he be removed from the "clergy roster" because he is living in relationship with another man. His church, St. Johns Lutheran Church in Atlanta, has decided to allow him to stay as their pastor, despite their decision.

Bradley Schmeling told the church that he was gay before they called him to service. That was okay by the rules of the ELCA because he wasn't involved in a same sex relationship at the time. The trouble started when he told them he had fallen in love and found a life partner.

Does any of this make sense to you? It is surely a case of following rigid rules that ignore the reality of people's lives. Schmeling is happily in love, happily received by his congregation. And the national denomination is so rule centered that they don't want him to serve anymore.

It makes me happy to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Surely the day will arrive when the mainline Protestant churches will understand that sexual diversity is a blessing and that the gift of love and partnership should be open to us all. Could that day perhaps arrive this summer at the ELCA General Assembly?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Can We Count on Congress to Just Say No?

Could the end of your tax payer dollars supporting abstinence only education be near?

The signs are promising. On June 30th, the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program expired, although the Senate voted to extend it for an additional three months. The House voted last week to eliminate the requirement that one third of US international HIV/AIDS dollars must be used to promote abstinence. And Laura Bush told CNN over the weekend that condoms are "absolutely essential" to HIV prevention efforts and that she supports eliminating the abstinence requirement.

But, not unexpectedly, the abstinence-only industry is warning its supporters of the end of teenage morality, sky rocketing STD and pregnancy rates, and so on if the program is allowed to expire, and mounting a summer campaign on Congress. (Just google news search "abstinence only Congress" to see for yourself.)

They stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars for programs that that have been found to be ineffective in reducing sexual intercourse among adolescents, discouraging STD prevention and contraceptive use when they do become sexually involved, and indeed, even increasing oral and anal sex among teens who take virginity pledges.

It's time to just say no. Just say no to programs that don't provide full information to young people. Just no to programs that teach young people that having sex before marriage causes grave psychological and physical harm (yes, that's the federal requirement) even though 95% of Americans have sex before marriage, most without such dire consequences. Just say no to programs that keep countries from providing the HIV prevention efforts their citizens need.

Tell your Congresspersons to just say no as well. (In case you don't have it handy, the Congressional switchboard is 202-224-3121.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Confidentiality...means you don't tell

I read a news story over the weekend that continues to disturb me. Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court voted 9 - 0 that a woman named Peggy Penley could not sue her minister for telling the church elders and the congregation that she had had an affair, information that she had told him in a private counseling session.

Here's a short clip from the AP story:

Kelly Shackelford, an attorney for Westbrook, called the ruling "a great victory for pastors across Texas."

"The U.S. Constitution protects the right of a church to choose its members and govern itself in any manner it chooses according to doctrine and faith, without government interference," added Hiram Sasser, who works...at the Liberty Legal Institute.

Penley's attorney, Darrell Keith, said the decision fails to protect Texas church members from malpractice by secular professional counselors who are also ministers. He said he believes the court misapplied the First Amendment in this case and mischaracterized the pastor's roles.
He said his client will have to decide whether to ask the court to reconsider its ruling. If that is unsuccessful, they could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite my reservations about the current Supreme Court, I hope they do. I believe strongly in my obligation as a minister and pastoral counselor to maintain the confidentiality of my sessions with congregants and clients. I am pretty sure that it's part of the code of ethics I sign. I'm pretty sure that telling others about what I learn in counseling would be grounds for malpractice, and if it's not, it should be. I also am pretty sure that my clients assume that our sessions are confidential. And that's the way it should be.

A victory for pastors? Well, maybe for conservative churches in Texas...but for me it's one more reason that confidence in organized religion is waning. A new Gallup Poll released last week found that trust in organized religion is at a near record low, down from a peak of 68% in 1975 to 46% today. (But only 25% of Americans express confidence in the presidency and only 14% in the Congress.)

A sexually healthy faith community offers counseling from trained religious leaders; Ms. Penley, I am so sorry you didn't have that.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Michael Moore -- Prophet

My regular readers know that my first career training was in public health, and so I'm going to take a break from my usual entries on sexuality and religion, to tell you -- no, URGE you -- to go see SICKO, Michael Moore's new film on what's wrong with health care in the United States.

The movie is way too disturbing to say that I enjoyed it, but it is both engrossing and entertaining. Like the best kind of sermon, it made me laugh and it made me cry. I am left with haunting images of people who have died because of our insurance-driven health care system and how much better England, Canada, France, and even Cuba provide health care for their citizens.

At one point towards the end of the movie, Mr. Moore explains that we need to move from a profit driven system to one where "WE means more than ME." I thought to myself that this is what the Scriptures mean by "love your neighbor as yourself." It's what the book of Matthew means when it tells us that we will be judged in heaven by how we took care of the least among us. It indeed is speaking truth to power.

This is a movie crying out for social justice. It deserves to be seen in theaters across America. It calls us to action. Pass the word on.

Rev. Debra