Thursday, November 29, 2007

Final Reflection for Turkey on Women and Religion

I think I am almost over my jetlag. Friends suggested that I try melantonin at bedtime, which seems to be helping.

I reported earlier on the anti-U.S. government tone at the meetings in Turkey. What I haven't written about was the anti-religion undertone.

I found myself one of the few women in the room to speak out for the positive role that mainstream to progressive religious leaders could play in countering religious fundamentalism and urging outreach to those faith communities. I was one of only two ordained clergy at the meeting, and it was a novely to be one of the most "conservative" voices in the room. (This is not a role that I usually assume at meetings!

Many of the activists in the room have given up on religion and indeed faith completely as a result of religious fundamentalists. We had shall we say lively conversations about whether faith has a role in the public square at all and about whether religion can have any positive impact in civil society.

It made me sad to see the positive impact that faith can have for people denigrated...and it made me proud of the work that my religion, Unitarian Universalism, is doing in the world. Most of the participants were unaware of my religion and curious (if not almost disbelieving) that we are a religion without creedal requirements and a commitment to full inclusion of women and LGBT persons.

Turkey is celebrating the 800 birthday of Rumi this year. I couldn't help but think of his lines, "Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are millions of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

P.S. This past Sunday, there was an article in the New York Times that featured my presentation in New York a few weeks ago. You can read it at

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Reflections from Istanbul

I got back from Istanbul last night.

The world feels like a smaller place for me than it did a week ago. The conference participants included women from Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, Palestine, Israel, Mexico, Nicaraqua, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Egypt, India, Thailand, China and the Sudan. We ranged in age from 22 to 70, stunning in our diversity yet united in our work for women's rights and against religious fundamentalism.

We were there to discuss a forthcoming study of women's rights activists from around the world, and the particular results of that study are still embargoed. But what I can share is that in every part of the world, religious fundamentalists concentrate on the control of women's sexualities as core issues for organizing. Young women are particularly at risk -- from abstinence-only-until-marriage campaigns to laws against abortion to honor killings.

I am so moved by the bravery of these women. I met an Irani woman who has been exiled to the U.S. because of her writing on women's rights; a Nicaraguan woman who spent 4 years in jail because of her work and is facing another trial because of her support for legalized abortion; women who reported great risks when they returned to their countries just to attend this joint meeting. I learned that stoning is now legal as a punishment for sex outside of marriage in the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the UAE. (Yesterday, some of these women launched a new international campaign, called Stop Stoning and Killing Women, at a conference in Istanbul. I urge you to learn more about this horrific and now condoned practice.)

I learned that more than one in ten women activists from around the world have faced sexual abuse or imprisonment because of their activism. It made the blog comment I received this morning calling me a "satanic deviant minister from hell...who should go to jail" seem completely insignificant.

I wish you could hear the stories...but also feel the resilience, the good humor, and the commitment of these women to make the world a safer, more just place for women. We talked and talked and talked...and shared meals...and even danced a bit.

I was honored to be there and renewed and recharged -- I am reminded by a quote from Goethe, that goes something like this:

"The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers, and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and who though distant, is close to us in spirit -- this makes the world for us an inhabited garden."

To my new friends and colleagues from around the world -- may justice soon roll down like mighty waters. May you truly be blessed and safe.

Friday, November 23, 2007

First Report From İstanbul

İ have been here for three days now..two days of meetıngs wıth a fantastıc dıverse group of women actıvısts from around the world, ıncludıng a sıgnıfıcant number of women under 30.

The discussıons have been lively and intense. There are only three women here from the U.S., and I must admıt to feelıng at tımes lıke I should be apologızıng for US polıcıes. It ıs clear that evangelıcal far rıght groups ın the US are havıng an ımpact around the world on women,s rıghts.

I am very aware of how prıvıleged İ am ın thıs context. People may hate what my work and mınıstry stands for, but I do not face the threat of physıcal vıolence and even ımprısonment that some of my sısters here have faced. İ can travel freely, speak freely, offer my belıefs freely, make my own sexual decısıons wıthout fear of state or fundamentalıst reprısal. Those are freedoms that feel stark,as İ lısten to women from other countrıes talk about threats and attacks.

Speakıng of whıch, I hope you wıll take a moment to respond to the prıson sentence and floggıng ımposed on the 19 year old Saudı woman as punıshment for beıng gang raped. İ am surprısed that İ have not read or seen any offıcıal US or US relıgıous response to thıs story whıch ıs beıng featured promınently on both CNN and BBC news here. İf you want background on how to respond, vısıt the Amnesty Internatıonal or Women Lıvıng Under Muslım Law web sıtes.

More on Tuesday when İ return to the US.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turkey for Thanksgiving


I'm off on Tuesday for a weeklong trip to Istanbul, Turkey. I've been invited as one of 35 women participants, and one of only two from the United States, to a meeting sponsored by the Association for Women's Rights in Development on how religious fundamentalisms are limiting women's rights.

The AWID is "an international membership organization that works to strengthen the voice, impact, and influence of women's rights advocates, organizations, and movements internationally to effectively advance the rights of women."
I am delighted to have been invited and look forward to telling you what I learn from this amazing group of women from around the world. Watch my blog for reports!

I am sad to be missing Thanksgiving with my family. As my son said, "Mom, how ironic to miss Thanksgiving for Turkey!" But I am grateful for their support of my ministry and these opportunities.

And I am grateful to all of you -- my regular readers. You now number about a thousand people who return on a regular basis. Blessings for a wonderful Thanksgiving for you and your's.

Rev. Debra

Friday, November 16, 2007

Welcoming Transgender

This week, I led a workshop at my home congregation, the Unitarian Church in Westport, called,
"What's the T in LGBT"?

Our congregation has been a welcoming congregation for gays and lesbians for more than a decade, and we have had gay clergy and staff. Same sex couples are visible members, our religious education for youth sexual orientation openly, our social action program advocates for marriage equality, and so on.

But, we have at present, no transgender members (at least that we know of), and I'm not sure a person of transgender experience would receive the type of welcome we would want.

Twenty two of us spent the evening exploring what gender diversity means, the types of persons who are transgender, and what policies and programs we might begin to offer. The highlight of the meeting was the presentation by the director of the Connecticut Transadvocacy Coalition, who shared her personal story as well as issues facing people in Connecticut.

It was her painful history -- and her current affirmation as a transwoman -- that made the difference. Knowing people, hearing their stories, makes a difference. Meeting and knowing the people who seem like the "other" makes a difference.

It was a first step for us in becoming a trans-friendly faith community. November 20 is the National Day of Remembrance for transpeople who have lost their lives due to hate crimes. There may be an event near you. Check the link out here. Go and listen. Meet someone new. Ask yourself if you are need to know more about transgender people. Read our new guidebook, "A Time to Seek", available for downloading on our web site. Let me know what happens.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Catholic Bishops Try It Again

In case you can't make out the picture, it's nine elderly white men -- the presiding U.S. Catholic Bishops. And this morning they decided to tell all American Roman Catholics how to vote in the 2008 elections, including the expectation that they would vote against any candidate who supports legalized abortion.

This just in from the AP:

BALTIMORE - Roman Catholics voting in the 2008 elections must heed church teaching when deciding which candidates and policies to support, U.S. bishops said Wednesday.

And while the church recognizes the importance of a wide range of issues — from war to immigration to poverty — fighting abortion should be a priority, the bishops said.
"The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many," the bishops said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly adopted the statement, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," as they ended the public sessions of their fall meeting.
The document does not recommend specific laws or candidates, and it emphasizes that "principled debate" is needed to decide which policies best promote the common good.
But "that does not make (moral issues) optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore church teaching," the bishops said.

What happened then to the idea of an informed conscience -- or, separation of church and state? And really, does abortion trump all other social justice issues when deciding on which candidate to support?

My guess is that the average Roman Catholic voter will pay about as much attention to this as they do to the prohibitions against premarital sex and birth control -- which means not much.

But, it raises disturbing questions about how clergy should engage the upcoming election. It's hard to imagine that there wouldn't be a huge outcry if one of the pro-choice denominations told its members how they were expected to vote. Of course, we don't have holy communion and ex-communication to hold over their heads.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A new twist on parent/child communication about sex

Court TV caught up with me late Friday to ask what I thought about a court case where a mother pleaded guilty for talking about sex with her 11 and 15 year old.

According to the reporter, the mom answered her son's question about oral sex with detailed information about her own sexual history and showed them one of her sex toys. Her 11 year old complained about it to a counselor, and she was arrested.

Court TV wanted to know what I thought and if I thought it would send a chilling message to parents about talking to children about sex.

Now, I don't know much more about this case then what I've told you here, but it sounds more like unwise parenting practice than it does a crime. (It is possible this was part of a pattern of abusive behaviors; I just don't know that.) I don't think it's a good idea ever for parents to share their personal sexual practices with their children, even when they ask things like "Mom, do you and Dad ever...?" And it is of course both immoral and illegal to expose your children to sexually explicit materials and behaviors.

But, I don't think the state should get involved in monitoring parent child communication. How often I hear parents saying hateful or mean things to their children -- "stop being so stupid", "if you don't stop that right now, I'm going to smack you" come to mind. Labeling your child instead of labeling their behaviors. Or how about those parents who teach their children to hate and despise people who are different than their are? Surely those do more damage in the long run than providing too much information about sex.

What do you think? Should showing teenage children a personally used vibrator be a crime? Unwise for sure, but criminal?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

ENDA Passes House -- And We Should Celebrate, TODAY

I spent 13 years in Washington, D.C., working on public policy issues for much of it, and I understand how as an advocate, it's hard not to get everything you want, everything that is right.

Gracie Allen's line, "do not put a period where God has placed a comma" is running through my mind.

Late yesterday afternoon, the House of Representatives passed a historic Employment Non-Discrimination Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and those of us who believe that sexual diversity is part of God's blessing, should be celebrating. First introduced in 1974, the bill took 33 years to pass. It makes it illegal “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment of the individual, because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.”

When the bill was introduced early this year, it included provisions to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender expression and gender identity. Those provisions were stripped when sponsors realized they did not have the votes to pass a trans-inclusive bill. That's where the inside the Beltway struggle began, with many organizations I support arguing that we needed to oppose a bill that left out the "T" of LGBT. I understood their point, supported an amendment to re-introduce protections for transgender persons into the bill, but I can't join them in not being joyful about what DID happen yesterday. And after we celebrate today, we need to get back to work. I join the call for the introduction of an ENDA that includes trans protection immediately, with public hearings to be held as soon as possible.

The conventional wisdom is that this version of ENDA, once approved by the Senate, will surely be vetoed by President Bush. It may very well be 2009 before there is a trans-inclusive ENDA. And although I understand that that means that in 39 states, people can still be fired for their gender expression, two years, given the movement towards full equality for LGBT persons is decades old, doesn't seem so far away.

We are moving towards justice on full inclusion...even if it's one step at a time. The period on full inclusion will come.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

One More Time: Abstinence Only Doesn't Work, Comprehensive Programs Do

On Monday of this week, here and at Huffington Post, I blogged about the proposed $28 million increase for the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage program.

This morning, the National Campaign, a nonpartisan organization that has prided itself on being a "big tent" for people concerned with teenage pregnancy, bringing together conservative organizations with more mainstream groups, issued a new report, Emerging Answers 2007, that should be the final nail in the abstinence-only program.

My friend and colleague Dr. Doug Kirby is the author of the report, and after reviewing 115 rigorous studies, he concludes that a majority of the comprehensive sex education programs help young people delay and use protection when they do have sex, and that not one of the evaluated federal abstinence programs has been effective at changing teen's behaviors.

Here are a few quotes:

"In sum, studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination. … Only when strong evidence demonstrates that particular programs are effective should they be disseminated more widely."1(p. 15)

"At present, there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence, or reduces the number of sexual partners. In addition, there is strong evidence from multiple randomized trials demonstrating that some abstinence programs chosen for evaluation because they were believed to be promising actually had no impact on teen sexual behavior. That is, they did not delay the initiation of sex, increase the return to abstinence or decrease the number of sexual partners."1(p. 15)

In contrast, a substantial majority of the comprehensive sex education programs reviewed—which receive no comparable federal funding—are effective. The positive outcomes included delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use. "

All this from an organization that has been unwilling up until now to oppose the federal abstinence only program.

The important question though is will Congress listen to the research and stop funding these programs? The answer should be an obvious "yes".

Unfortunately, all indications are that not only will they reauthorize and refund, their going to vote more money. And it's our young people that will suffer as a result.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"For the Bible Tells Me So"

I had the opportunity to preview "For the Bible Tells Me So", and encourage you to find out if it is playing in a theater near you.

A 2007 Sundance Film Festival winner, this quick paced, visually strong documentary follows the stories of Christian families with gay children, as they seek understanding and acceptance from their churches. We meet Bishop Gene Robinson's wonderful parents and hear how former Presidential candidate Dick Gephardt and his wife learned to embrace their lesbian daughter into their life. The heartbreaking stories including a mother who learned about sexual orientation too late and an ELCA's family's struggle.

The stories are the movie's highlight and have the potential to change people's hearts on full inclusion.

The theological component focuses on what Ted Jennings has so aptly named the "clobber texts", the few verses in Leviticus and Romans that explicitly condemn same sex sexual relationships. I kept waiting for the various theologians interviewed to talk about the welcome and love messages of Scripture; it was more than an hour into the film that someone finally brought up "Love Your Neighbor As Yourself."

In my work, I have found it much more helpful to talk about verses on love and inclusion, the great commandments, the Good Samaritan, and the eunuch texts than to try to convince a fundamentalists that the four to six clobber texts aren't authoritative or were really about pagan rites. In our new book, A Time to Seek: A Study Guide on Sexual and Gender Diversity, we compute that these clobber texts make up less than .03% of the Bible.
In contrast, the central messages of love for one's neighbor, welcome of the stranger, and justice for the poor and the oppressed appear throughout both the Hebrew and Christian testaments.

1 John 4:11 - 12 are two verses though that sum up the call to full inclusion: "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us."

That's what my Bible tells me so.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Just Say No to Increases in Abstinence Funds

Unbelievably, it looks like the Democratically-controlled US Congress is going to agree to the Bush Administrations request for MORE monies for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. The new total in the reconciled appropriations bill is $141 million, $28 million more than it was this year.

Here's some news from our friends at SIECUS:

Last year, CBAE grantees received $113 million in federal funding. While the Senate version of the appropriations bill this year reduced funding to $85 million, the House version increased it by an equal amount to $141 million. The version of the bill that came out of the conference committee more closely resembled the House version by increasing CBAE funding to the President’s requested level of $141 million. This money can only be spent on programs that teach abstinence-only-until-marriage and are subject to heavy restrictions. For example, any program that receives CBAE funds has to teach that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." ...

CBAE is one of three federal funding streams for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Combined, these revenue sources have given more than $1 billion in federal funds to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs since their inception. The last two Republican-led sessions of Congress did not increase funding for these initiatives. The $28 million increase proposed under the current bill would be the second largest increase for these programs in history.

How is this possible? Weren't we promised something better? Is it too much to hope that the Congress will stop supporting a program that is known to be ineffective, that denies young people full and accurate information, and that ignores the fact that almost all Americans have their first sex outside of marriage?

It's time to honor a commitment to truth telling. It's time for Congress to learn to "just say no."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

My Annual Reminder

I had my annual mammogram this morning, and it seems like a good occasion to remind readers of the importance of regular screenings for women over 35 and younger women with risk factors.

Mammograms aren't comfortable, and it is hard not to feel some anxiety waiting for the results. I've known too many women with breast cancer -- most are survivors, but some have died way too prematurely. I call to mind women I know who died and am blessed by their memory, and the women I know who are struggling right now. In the past month, two women I know have found out they have breast cancer and another is dealing with a re-occurence. I know you have your own names.

But, we also know that early detection is our best hope for recovery. And that means monthly self breast exams and annual mammograms. And our prayers for all those affected, including their families.