Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can We Speak Out For the World's Women?

I've been thinking a lot about how privileged I am. The recent arrest of Professor Gates must surely remind all of us who are white about our white privilege. The arrest of my friend Shadi Sadr in Iran reminded me starkly of the privilege I have to be an advocate in the U.S.

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells the story of a woman in Pakistan who nearly lost her life in childbirth and whose newborn died for the lack of a $3 cab ride to a hospital. Kristof writes, "One of the most lethal forms of sex discrimination is this systematic inattention to reproductive health care, from family planning to childbirth -- so long as those who die are impoverished, voiceless women." How can a half a million women a year dying from pregnancy-related concerns not be a headline nearly every day?

I'm just back from seeing "Ruined," a remarkable play at the City Center in New York. It's a dramatic portrayal of the horrors facing women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape and violence are daily parts of life, and women are cast out of their families and villages when they are the victims of violence. It brings home the work we've been doing on the Congo Sabbath Initiative in a very real way.

I cried through a lot of the second half of the play. I cried when I read Shadi's story in the New York Times this morning. As a Universalist, I know that none of us are free, unless all of us are free. And, I know that each of us can play a part in bringing justice to the world, even if it's just a small step. What can you do?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Afternoon At The White House

This is going to read a little bit like that classic "what I did on my summer vacation" essay you wrote in the 8th grade.

But, I'm just back from a trip to Washington, D.C. and a meeting of progressive faith leaders with Rev. Josh DuBois and Michael Ware from the White House Faith Based Office, Jennie Yeager from Public Communication, and Lauren Dunn from the Domestic Policy staff.

The meeting was held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building -- that's the one that sort of looks like an ornate wedding cake. And we were in a room that used to be the Vice President's office in past administrations (until they moved them to the actual West Wing.) Despite prior meetings over the years, I was still excited to be there.

We began asking for this meeting shortly after the inauguration. I am indebted to Nancy Ratzen, the President of the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), for helping make it happen.

Our purpose for the meeting was to bring progressive religious leaders to demonstrate faith based support for sexuality education. I was joined in speaking by Rev. Ignacio Castuera, National Chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Ann Hanson, Minister for Sexuality Education and Justice for the United Church of Christ; Rev. Carlton Veazey, President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (all of whom serve on the Religious Institute advisory committee); Rev. Ann Tiemeyer from the National Council of Churches of Christ; Rev. Amy Stapleton from the United Methodists; Lisa Cox from Catholics for Choice; and Nina Schwartz from NCJW. Together, we estimated that we represented over 60 million people of faith in the U.S. who support comprehensive sexuality education -- and oppose teaching young people only about abstinence.

The White House staff was warm, receptive, interested, and had many questions. They seemed particularly interested in learning about the UCC/UUA's Our Whole Lives programs for difficult to reach youth, and sex abuse and violence prevention. Rev. DuBois assured us that their goal was to reduce the need for abortions not the number of abortions (a subject I have written about here many times, and it was great to hear him use that language). We were also told to expect that the President would have something to say about teenage pregnancy prevention in the next few months.

It's always hard to know at first whether such meetings accomplish much. But I think we succeeded in our mission. We brought truly progressive religious leaders to the White House to support sexuality education. Our united voice let them know that mainstream to progressive Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Unitarian Universalists support sexuality education and have for decades. We reinforced our faiths' commitment to truth telling, to helping young people develop a freely informed conscience, and to helping them celebrate their sexuality with holiness and integrity, as adolescents now and as future adults.

I'm grateful to the people who helped make it happen, to my colleagues for traveling to be with us, and to the people at the White House who listened, really listened, to us.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A First Step, Long Overdue

My inbox was flooded yesterday with statements of support for the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, introduced in Congress by Reps. Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro.

SIECUS wrote that the bill "sets aside the false choices that the culture war has passed off for too long as the legitimate boundaries of discourse and public policy. And it does so by supporting common sense approaches that will empower individuals to make more informed, responsible, and healthier decisions for themselves and their families."

I agree 100%. Ryan/DeLauro is a good piece of legislation that addresses many of the important issues, including comprehensive sexuality education, family planning, and support for pregnant and parenting women. Preventing unintended pregnancy, ensuring abortion access and funding family planning initiatives are intertwined issues and should be dealt with together. But this bill is only a piece of the reproductive health and justice agenda we hope to see.

As we said in 2005, in our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision, there is a moral imperative for access:
"The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by economic, educational, class or marital status, age, race, geographic location or inadequate information. Current measures that limit women’s access to abortion services—by denying public funds for low-income women; coercing parental consent and notification as contrasted with providing resources for parental and adolescent counseling; denying international family planning assistance to agencies in developing countries that offer women information about pregnancy options; and banning medical procedures—are punitive and do nothing to promote moral decision-making."
In addition to reducing unintended pregnancies, we must work together to address the circumstances that result in the decision to have an abortion. Poverty, social inequities, lack of education, sexism, racism and unsupportive relationships can severely restrict a woman's ability to freely choose.

All of this is part of our religious and moral commitment to reproductive health and rights. Ryan/DeLauro is a first step -- but an important one nonetheless. And long, long overdue.

“Click” reproductive services back into our healthcare (and education)!

While Rev. Haffner is vacationing this week, Religious Institute staff will be guest blogging. Today's post is by Dr. Kate Ott, Associate Director.

It makes sense that the nation’s leaders consider reproductive healthcare services an optional part of universal coverage. It makes sense because from little on, we learn that the “reproductive system” is not a significant part of our bodies functioning. In fact, we ignore its existence when talking to children for as long as we can when.

In my little East Coast town, our library was recently renovated to include a fabulous new children’s play area complete with reading corners, imaginary play resources, and of course a new kid-friendly computer section. My youngest, age 4, started playing a science game about the body’s systems on the computer. You can call up the breathing (pulmonary system), blood (cardiac system), bones (skeletal system), brains (nervous system), muscles (muscular system), stomach (digestive system), BUT you can’t pull up the reproductive system. In fact, the click-on “universal man” is so amorphously shaped he has less reproductive organs than Ken-Barbie.

As you play the game, you learn the names of the body parts including internal organs. You can double-click the heart to see if it is soft or hard. You can highlight nerves and watch them carry a message to the brain. The digestive system stops short of having click-able links that connect to any “private parts.” My 4 year old wanted to know “where the food went next” and why the body didn’t have a penis. He knows that if he drinks lots of water he will have to go to the bathroom and pee comes out his penis. At 4, he made this connection and wanted to know why that wasn’t part of the game. A natural part of life in his opinion!

I took some time to play the game as well, so I could see if my initial reaction was correct. In fact, there were no reproductive organs and no way to make basic connections between areas such as the penis, vulva, or others. Why keep this information out of the game? Yes, the player might have to choose a boy or girl at the start of the game in order to specify which reproductive organs each has. And the explanations would need to be age-appropriate, just like they were for the nervous system.

Silence through absence of a reproductive system in a computer game (or any books available in the library) for children teaches them a loud and clear message that reproductive health and “that part of our body” is not to be discussed. We have reproductive organs, folks. It isn’t optional! Let’s make them an equal part of our bodies, of what we teach children, and of our healthcare plans.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Healthcare Reform is a Sexual Justice Issue

While Rev. Haffner is vacationing this week, members of the Religious Institute staff will be guest blogging. Today's post is by Kate Ott, Associate Director.

Healthcare reform dominates the newspapers, TV news shows, and President Obama’s daily agenda. Recently, Obama changed his optimistic call for congressional healthcare plans by the August recess to (hopefully) by the end of the year. Interestingly, it also dominates the email alerts coming daily from sexual and reproductive health advocates. What do the two have in common? Healthcare reform is a sexual justice issue.

Healthcare reform has been a topic of national politics since the early 1900’s. The government never took national healthcare under its wing and Unions started forming early iterations of HMOs. While the history is fascinating, it is also strangling our current efforts to provide basic, affordable healthcare for all.

First, our historical steps wed healthcare to employment. That relationship breeds most of the current rhetoric about responsibility and healthcare coverage (e.g. Responsible people know they need healthcare. Responsible individuals work, so they can have healthcare). Many people work and have no healthcare provided to them. Many people cannot afford to buy individual healthcare plans even when they are fully employed. How is this a sexual justice issue? Transgender, lesbian, gay people can lose their jobs without cause based on perceived or known sexual orientation or gender identity in many states, and their healthcare right along with it. Healthcare plans still exclude pregnancy plans, contraception coverage, or fertility treatment because women’s reproductive health is not seen as “common” or “necessary” (a.k.a a need men have).

Second, healthcare has always been an individual benefit. Healthcare was not seen as a basic need to be provided and certainly not one that we as a country bear a responsibility to provide. If we do decide to provide healthcare to the poorest of the poor or the elderly, people begin to argue that we shouldn’t make it too good, because we don’t want “them” relying on it. This argument fails to grasp how many factors in our lives contribute positively and negatively to our health. It is not personal will that determines our health. Our health is impacted by our income, education, occupation, neighborhood, housing, social stress, and so on. A quick demographic review will tell us that our racial/ethnic background or geographic location creates sub-groups of people who will be healthier simply by virtue of where she or he was born. How is this a sexual justice issue? A June 2009 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “documents widespread disparities in access to health insurance and health screenings, and finds that there are ‘racial and ethnic disparities in health status and health care in every state in the nation, often disparities that are quite stark’.” The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women at or above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). Poor women are disproportionately from racial/ethnic minority groups. LGBT youth represent 20–40% of all homeless youth. Many leave their homes because of conflict with their families’ religious beliefs, others experience verbal and physical harassment in their communities and schools causing both emotional and physical pain requiring treatment by healthcare professionals.

Third, growing from arguments of individual responsibility, what should and should not be covered has been an on-going dilemma. Medicaid and Medicare were signed into legislation in 1965, I imagine ever since people have disagreed (specifically about Medicaid funding) for reproductive healthcare. How is this a sexual justice issue? In some cases, poor women were involuntarily sterilized to cut costs for subsequent pregnancies and childrearing. That is called eugenics, since policies only targeted poor women, often racial/ethnic minorities. In other cases, contraception or abortion funding was cut or restricted (and is still being pushed as a needed cut) causing increases in unintended pregnancies and STIs.

What if we started over? Dump the history of healthcare reform. Start with Healthcare is a human right. Recognize that individual choices AND social systems bear on our healthiness, including the environment in which we live, job availability, effectiveness of school systems, our racial/ethnic backgrounds, etc. And, accept that sexual and reproductive health are equally important healthcare issues. Would the conversation be different? Maybe we could get healthcare reform before the August break instead of the end of the year!

For a congregational resource discussing sexuality, economic, and racial/ethnic intersections see our guidebook A Time to Every Purpose.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Episcopal celebration

While Rev. Haffner is vacationing this week, members of the Religious Institute staff will be guest blogging. Today's post is by Tim Palmer, director of policy and communications.

Integrity, the organization working for full inclusion of LGBT Episcopalians in the life of the church is celebrating a “virtual clean sweep” at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim, CA. Bishops and Deputies (which includes clergy and lay delegates) agreed on resolutions supporting transgender civil rights, ending a three-year policy of “restraint” with regard to the consecration of openly gay or lesbian bishops, “generous pastoral support” for blessing same-sex marriages and unions, and developing liturgical resources for same-sex ceremonies to be considered in 2012.

All in all, it was a great convention for LGBT Episcopalians. Now, the fallout.

I’m guessing that’s what the press will be looking for. Ever since Gene Robinson was consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the media angle on the Episcopal Church has been impending doom – schism, defections, a communion in disarray. Critics of the resolutions passed at General Convention are predicting more of the same now that the church has taken affirmative action on behalf of its LGBT members.

But let’s allow this story to play out. If the arc of history truly does bend toward justice, then perhaps the Episcopal leadership has not so much gambled the church's immediate future as invested in its long-term vitality.

There is an upside to progressive action in our faith communities that too rarely gets reported. Some congregations that have taken deliberate steps to welcome LGBT persons and families have suffered temporary declines in membership. But many find they attract new members over time, including same-sex and heterosexual couples who want to raise their children in an inclusive community. So rather than counting how many people march out of Episcopal parishes, what if we watch for how many march in?

I get that controversy drives news cycles; unfortunately, we tend to allow reporters’ questions to shape our own. In the coming weeks, I expect to read about fallout from the Episcopal convention. But as an Episcopalian myself, I will also be listening for what’s being said inside my church. I am hopeful that the anxiety we have endured for the last six years or longer will finally give way to rejoicing. Not because membership is up – that won’t happen overnight, and justice is not a numbers game, in any case. Rejoicing, because church leaders decided no longer to allow threats of schism to preclude prophetic action.

In an interview with the New York Times, Bishop Robinson described the moment when his fellow bishops voted to affirm same-sex relationships in the church:
We took the vote, there were closing prayers, and usually somebody says amen and we’re up and out of there. But last night not a person moved, for 10 minutes. There was absolute silence. I think we realized the momentousness of what we’d done. People just sat their quietly praying. It was amazing. It was almost as if we didn’t want to leave each other.
Imagine that. And let the rejoicing begin.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sotomayor, sexism, social location, and social justice

I've been thinking a lot about the status of women in the U.S., religion and the world this week.

I just looked for and couldn't find an image of the good old boys -- er, Senate Judiciary Committee, who grilled Sonya Sotomayor this week. But, with the exception of Senator Feinstein, the images I saw were predominately older, white men. I couldn't help but think that they looked pretty much the same as the panel that held hearings on Clarence Thomas almost twenty years ago. I was both infuriated and amused as I listened to these white men lecture Sotomayor on equality and the need to not have her face and gender affect her decision-making. Do they really not understand at any level that THEIR race, class, and gender affect the way they make decisions? (Uh, no.)

That led me to thinking about feminist and liberation theology that taught us that we must always begin by acknowledging our unique social location and how it affects how we think, live, and act. Guess those aren't on the Senators' required reading lists.

But maybe they'll listen to former President Jimmy Carter, who earlier this week published this letter on behalf of a group of retired statesmen from around the world called "The Elders." Read it here Carter eloquently speaks out against discrimination and violence against women in all of the world's religions and calls us to understand that recognizing and supporting women's equality is part of God's call to us.

I hope the predominately white men who control the Congress and the world's religious bodies are listening.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pray for Sotomayor -- and That The Senators and Commentators Withhold Racist/Sexist Comments

I like Sonya Sotomayor.

I don't know her (although we share some mutual friends), but at least so far, she's a rock star to me. I love that her mom is in the front row at the hearings, I like the outfit, I like that she got on the plane on crutches. More, I like what I know about how she rules and how she speaks her mind. (Of course, like everyone else who is a pro-choice advocate, I'd like to know more about her positions on Roe and other abortion decisions.)

Last week, the Women's Media Center ran a montage of clips showing the racist and sexist coverage of the nomination. You have to watch it yourself to believe that people are saying these things in 2009: I was especially infuriated by G. Gordon Liddy (he of Watergate infamy) speculating she might not make good decisions if she was menstruating or, heavens worse, about to menstruate. (Mr. Liddy obviously doesn't live with women...or know that if he is to worry it's probably more appropriate to be concerned about hot flashes or perimenopausal rage...but I digress.)

I've only caught a tiny bit of the opening hearing; it seems like a lot of posturing to me. But to the Senators involved, I'm praying that you remember that the fact that she is a Latina and a woman is unworthy of being remarked upon in this hearing on her suitability for the High Court. And I think I will leave it up to the WMC to monitor Fox tonight; I don't think I can pray enough to keep them from offering sexist and racist coverage.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Governor Sanford: The "Ultimate Line" Isn't

Forgive me, if this is "old news" to you. I was away without a television or Internet access most of last week, so I missed the latest AP interview with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. I caught a piece of it last night on the rerun of the July 2nd Daily Show, and went online this morning to find out more.

In the interview, Sanford declared to the whole world that his was a real love story not an affair, that the Argentinian woman was his "soul mate," and that he was trying to work things out with his wife. You have to wonder how he doesn't understand that the first two are going to make the third much more difficult.

But I was also interested in this AP report about his admission of other relationships during his marriage:

Sanford also said that he "crossed the lines" with a handful of other women during 20 years of marriage, but not as far as he did with his mistress. "There were a handful of instances wherein I crossed the lines I shouldn't have crossed as a married man, but never crossed the ultimate line," he said.

Now perhaps he was talking about falling in love with other women, but I'm guessing what he meant was what I sometimes call PVI, penile-vaginal intercourse. It's reminiscent of Bill Clinton's saying "did not have sex with that woman," when he meant he didn't have PVI.

And I find it both disturbing and amusing to see a grown man claim that it isn't sex unless PVI occurs. It's an adolescent sexual ethic that says that sex doesn't count unless Part A goes into Part B. It's what allows young people who are having anal and oral sex to claim they are virgins, and it discounts that gay and lesbian people have sex at all. It's an ethic that makes men with prostate cancer and women with vaginismus give up sexual contact with their partners completely because they can't have "sex" anymore. It's a construct that keeps people from understanding that all sexual behaviors don't have to end in intercourse. It's a way for people like Governor Sanford to break their commitments to their wives because they maintain that intimate behaviors that don't include intercourse somehow don't "count."

It's an act-center morality that needs to be replaced with one based on relationships, not on particular sexual acts or the gender of the persons involved. To my mind, there isn't an "ultimate line" that determines the morality of a sexual experience, but it's whether it's consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected -- and consistent with one's personal values. I can't know for sure, but at least on values and honesty, it seems like the Governor crossed that line a long time ago.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My immodest proposal: Sex education for politicians

I am just back from a wonderful, stimulating Renaissance Weekend in the awe-ing Grand Teton National Park.

Renaissance Weekends are off record and journalists and bloggers are asked not to report on others comments -- but we are permitted to talk about our own.

I was on a lunch panel called "My immodest proposal", and I proposed to the 250 or so government leaders, scientists, astronauts, writers, professors, religious leaders, and other distinguished guests that every newly elected politician be required to come to the Religious Institute for a two day sexuality education program.

On the first day, we'd cover the science that they need to know as policy makers: maternal and child health, contraception, HIV/AIDS, sexuality education, sexual orientation, gender identity, stem cells, and ARTs. There's a lot of sexual science for policymakers to know so they can make informed decisions in these areas.

And on the second day, I'd adapt my course for seminarians and clergy, "Sexual Attraction and Boundaries." I'd give them the opportunity to examine their own values and commitments, and talk about the characteristics of a sexually healthy adult. I'd be sure to tell them that a sexually healthy adult distinguishes between sexual behaviors that are life enhancing and those that might be destructive to self and others. And I'd tell them that although great sex is one of the most wonderful blessings, it is NEVER, REPEAT NEVER, worth losing your family, career, reputation, or elected office over.

Yes, it's an immodest proposal, and I'm guessing most of the audience thought I was kidding. But, I'm not. I'd love to teach this course, and as recent and long ago events would witness, a lot of our elected officials would benefit.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love

Last week, at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, the UUA unveiled its new slogan, "Standing on the Side of Love" with a huge banner on the front of the Salt Lake City Convention Center.
The slogan began as a slogan for marriage equality, but has been adopted as the UUA's theme for the coming years. At first, some folks were upset that it had been co-opted for larger issues, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
What a perfect personal and political ethic. If LOVE is the prevailing theology, then answers on immigration, the death penalty, war, the environment and yes, sexuality, all become very clear. Choose love. Treat each other with love. Treat yourself with love. Enter each day committed to stand on the side of love.
What do you think?
P.S. I'm at a conference this weekend, and have already been asked at least half a dozen times what UU's believe. Here's my 30 second answer:: One God. No Hell. Build Your Own Theology. Stand on the side of love.
Works for me.