Thursday, August 31, 2006

TV Fall Preview

I met yesterday with Neil Guiliano, the relatively new Executive Director of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD has a long program of working with the media on the portrayal of sexual minorities, and I'm excited that they will be started initiatives this year on youth and on reaching out to faith communities. I am looking forward to collaborating with them.

They have just published a new study of the upcoming 2006 - 2007 TV season. Now my regular readers know I watch way too much television, and ever since I was small, I have looked forward to reading about new series in the fall preview issue of TV Guide. With the loss of Will & Grace, this upcoming season there only have 9 gay characters on broadcast entertainment shows, although nearly three times that many on cable networks. Day time talk though is another matter -- there's Ellen and I can't wait to see what Rosie does on The View.

The number of ministers on entertainment television though has now gone to zero, with the final season of Seventh Heaven and the very short lived show with the Episcopal minister from last season. I don't think I've ever seen a woman minister on an entertainment series -- have you? Maybe Grey's Anatomy could use a woman hospital chaplain.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Stained Glass Ceiling

That's actually a picture from the worship service before the March for Women's Lives in 2004. That's me on the right at the microphone; Rabbi Sally Priesland, the first woman ordained as a Rabbi in the U.S., is at the microphone on the left.

It seems like a fitting picture to go with a post about a recent New York Times article on how few women serve large congregations in the United States. The article shares that there is still tremendous discrimination against women ministers and rabbis; they are much more likely to be associate clergy or directors of religious education than they are to hold the senior position.

They quote men as saying they are distracted by women in the pulpit, including one man who says he has to shut his eyes when a woman is preaching. It reminded me of that one liner, "There are three sexes. Men, Women, and Clergy." It is a challenge to own one's sexuality and be a woman minister. It's a topic that we address openly in my seminary classes, but one that I'm guessing isn't usually discussed at most seminaries.

The stained glass ceiling is real -- even in those denominations that have been ordaining women for more than thirty years. It's time for real full inclusion.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Remembering Katrina

Before I became a minister and before I became a sexologist, I was studying for a job in public service. I majored in government in college and I was a Capitol Hill intern. My advocacy work for the past thirty years grew out of my belief that government can and does make a difference. I naively believed that in the time of a national crisis that the federal government would be there to protect us.

For me, that's the enduring legacy of Katrina. The federal government failed the people of Louisiana and Mississippi, and continues to fail too many of them today. My heart and prayers go out to those who were most directly affected, but this year's anniversary is a sobering reminder for all of us. It's also a reminder that the work there, the need there continues. I'm going to send another donation to our partner church in New Orleans today; I hope that if you are able you will send an additional donation to an organization helping rebuild after Katrina.

Monday, August 28, 2006

When Over the Counter Isn't

So, last week, the Food and Drug Administration finally released it's hostage -- the three year old pending application for Plan B, also known as emergency contraception. Headlines blared "Plan B now available as OTC medication."

Now, OTC stands for Over the Counter. But, in a clarification released today, it turns out that the medication will only be available BEHIND the counter. And people will need to show their identification to prove that they are over 18. And perhaps be subjected to a lecture by a pharmacist or store clerk who doesn't believe in emergency contraception. Somehow, all those requirements don't sound over the counter to me.

My 21 year old daughter supports the decision to require 16 year olds to get a prescription. She believes that a 16 year old who has had unprotected sex needs to be talking to a doctor or nurse practioner about getting on an ongoing method of birth control -- or even the decision to have sex at all. In theory, I support that position, but I've just worked with too many teen women to want to put up barriers to pregnancy prevention. I'd rather see the FDA require that every woman who gets Plan B is also handed the number of a local family planning clinic.

The irony of course is that our 16 year old sons can walk into almost any drug store in America and purchase a condom...from the shelf, not behind the counter, without an ID, or the possibility of a lecture. That's a good thing if it means he is protecting himself against STDs and pregnancy -- why would we want our daughters to have less?

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Just friends

I preached yesterday at my home congregation, the Unitarian Church in Westport. The sermon title was "Friendship -- With Benefits."

You can read the whole sermon at the section called "Debra's Sermons" on the UCW web site in a few days. I talked about how I hate the term "just friends" because it implies that friendship is less important than other relationships.

I shared though that we can take back the term "just friends" if we understand that “just” comes from “justice”, right relations. “Just friends” love and nurture each other. “Just friends” listen to each other, sit with each other, and offer each other unconditional regard. “Just friends” show up. “Just friends” tell you the truth when no one else will, but always with kindness and compassion.

May you be blessed with just friends.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Gender Sensitive Torah

I grew up in a very secular Jewish home, and I asked to go to synagogue after I started attending my friends' bar and bat mitzvahs. When I did go, I always felt let out -- partially because I hadn't studied Hebrew and I didn't know the songs like my friends did, but I also have a strong memory of my reaction to the texts that only seemed to talk about men. How could we only be praying to the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" -- over and over again? Why were the heroes of the stories all men? Why did God create man first? Where could I find 13 year old me in these texts?

Now, I don't mean to imply that I had a fully developed feminist consciousness at 13, just that I knew they weren't talking to me. I was delighted this morning then to learn in a post in a newsletter from The Shalom Center of a brand new translation of the Torah that calls itself "A Gender Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation." It's available on for $18.48. I plan to order it.

Language matters. It matters to women that they can find themselves in sacred texts. It matters to gay people when ministers talk about "partners" instead of husbands and wives or even spouses. It matters when we speak about different types of families instead of privileging one over others. It matters that we seek to include everyone. I'm grateful to the translators of this new volume for making it a little easier to do so.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It's About Time -- and Morality

Victory at last! Three years after its own advisory committee said that emergency contraception should be available over the counter, the FDA announced this morning that pharmacies could now sell Plan B without a prescription to women 18 and over. As I blogged earlier this summer, the decision to still require adolescent women to obtain a prescription within 72 hours of unprotected sex is a political decision not one based on medicine or science. Still, today's decision is a victory for those who have worked so hard to bring this medicine to American women, long after women around the world have had easy access to it.

I'll leave it to my secular sister organizations to tell you more about why this decision is medically important. It's morally important though because it is one more way that women can avoid an unintended or unwanted pregnancy. I heard some anti-choice person on the radio say that today is a tragic date for women and their children. But, it is precisely because life is sacred and parenthood is so precious that new life should never be created carelessly or because a condom broke or because intercourse was forced or because people got swept away. It's hard to understand how every person who opposes abortion isn't working with us to assure that every sexually active woman has easy access to contraception, including Plan B.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Family Values

If you've seen the movie, this picture has to make you smile. If you haven't, it's from "Little Miss Sunshine" and it is a totally delightful bittersweet comedy about a dysfunctional family on a road trip in a VW bus without a clutch. The last ten minutes of the movie (not to be revealed, of course) are worth the price of the ticket, but there are multiple sermons that could be written from this movie on the value of family and love in our lives. This is a family that loves each other in spite of most of our families do.

It was the perfect start for our annual family vacation to the beach in Rhode Island. We're going to ride the waves, take long bike rides, go to the water park, play miniature golf, and eat steamers and freshly picked corn. It's been our family's annual vacation for more than twenty years. I'll be "back here" on Thursday.

Take a moment this week to be thankful for your family.

Friday, August 18, 2006

JonBenet and Mikey

I'm guessing you have no idea who this child is. His name is Mikey Vallejo-Seiber, and he was three years old when he was murdered by his mother's boyfriend. His mother and the boyfriend began trial this week.

As pictures of JonBenet Ramsey once again fill newspapers and TV shows, one has to wonder what makes one murdered child a national news story and another murdered child a footnote.

My heart broke when I read this story on Gender Pac.

The wrote, "Mendoza, who was openly critical of Mikey's upbringing, attempted to "toughen up" the toddler by calling him a "sissy" who needed to be toughened up, slapping him, and urging him to beat up his Elmo doll, according to the toddler's mother. The three-year-old died in the hospital after suffering massive internal injuries from being kicked, punched, and dropped on the head while in Mendoza's care."

According to Gender Pac, he's not the only boy child who has been killed because of gender variant behavior. How many children will die -- or live agonized lives -- because they don't fit into our cultural stereotypes of how boys and girls, and men and women, should behave? Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C. has an excellent program for parents with gender variant children; Genderpac is starting a new program called "Children As They Are." The 2004 update of my book "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children" has a section for parents on gender variant children.

Isaiah 56:5, talking about the known sexual minority of the time, wrote, "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name, better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name." May Mickey Vallejo-Seiber become such a name.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Search for Common Ground

Two stories showed up in my inbox yesterday about the abortion debate. NARAL Pro-Choice America released a new poll on abortion that found that 77% of likely voters say that "government and politicians should stay out of a woman's personal and private decisions whether or not to have an abortion."

Eight in ten agreed that American's are tired of the divisive abortion debate.

Me too.

And that leads to the second story. Thirty clergy met earlier this week in Rapid City, South Dakota to discuss how to help their congregants address the abortion debate. One participant, the Rev. Jeri Behringer, who retired in May from the Spearfish UCC, said the seminar was helpful in providing a model for congregational discussion. She told the paper,

"Something has happened in the last few years that seems to have divided us in ways that I've never seen before in 36 years of ministry. There's an inability to hear each other and respect each other and respect that we are all Christians together, regardless of whether we agree on every issue."

It's been said for more than thirty years, but it bears repeating -- pro-choice is not the same as pro-abortion. Pro-choice is common ground. Only an individual woman can make this decision. The moral agency of women must be respected and affirmed, and as religious leaders, we must work to assure that abortion remain legal, safe, and accessible. We must also do all we know to prevent the need for abortion -- as our "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision" says, "it is precisely because life is so precious that it never be created carelessly."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Strange Bedfellows

The Kaiser Family Foundation announced yesterday that it has entered into a partnership with the Fox Networks Group to air a series of public service announcements for teenagers on health issues. Called the PAUSE campaign, it is designed in the words of the press release, "to help teens understand the power they have to make difficult decisions on a range of issues including teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; alcohol and substance abuse; and online safety, among other topics."

Now, I'm all for helping young people make good decisions and encouraging young people to think before they act makes sense. But Fox? Fox news shows have a long history of bashing sex education, abortion, gays, and most other issues I care about. I've had some pretty awful experiences on Fox news shows, and generally say no when I'm asked to appear.

Now, I know that entertainment and news divisions are different -- and my son and I are devoted American Idol and House fans. But I can't help but wonder how editorial may affect the information provided. The list of organizations that will be linked to DOES NOT include Planned Parenthood, Advocates for Youth, Sex Etc, or any gay and lesbian youth organization. What could Kaiser have been thinking?

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Gays in the Military -- Discharge "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network released a report yesterday that the number of gay and lesbians servicepeople discharged because of being gay increased 10 percent last year; one base in Kentucky actually discharged 49 people in one year.

Wait -- aren't we in the middle of a war? And the Armed Services is increasing the number of people it dismisses based on sexual orientation?

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was bankrupt public policy when it was signed by Bill Clinton in 1993. It says that the military can't ask service members about their sexual orientation, but can dismiss people if they volunteer the information or if there is "evidence of homosexual conduct." There isn't a shred of evidence that gay and lesbian people can't be good service members; Israel, Australia, and the U.K. all have openly gay service members.

It's time that the policy is discharged. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has an online petition you can sign that they will send to your member of Congress and the President. It will only take you a minute, and it can be your action for sexual justice today.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

More on AIDS

Blessings to Bill and Melinda Gates for putting prevention squarely on the agenda of the 16th International AIDS Conference last night.

In his opening address, Bill Gates said, "Treatment without prevention is simply unsustainable." Melinda Gates talked about "proven effective approaches -- condoms, clean needles, education, and testing" and urged participants to make sex workers "critical allies in the fight to end AIDS."

That's called speaking truth to power.

It's not the message that the U.S. government is giving to the world. I'm glad that someone from the U.S. did and could.

Treatment without prevention is also immoral.
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Friday, August 11, 2006

International AIDS Conference -- Traveling Mercies

The 16th International AIDS Conference begins tomorrow in Toronto. I won't be there this year, but I have attended some of the previous conferences. More than 20,000 researchers and clinicians from around the world are expected.

At previous conferences major breakthroughs have been announced. It would be wonderful if that would happen again. The numbers are staggering -- 38.3 million people around the world living with HIV, 3 million people dying of it each year.

I just read the U.S. government has sharply limited the number of CDC and NIH scientists who are being allowed to go to the conference. For those who are there, it may be hard to explain why it is that the U.S. continues to promote abstinence-only-education programs as a central component of our global strategy and why US monies cannot go to programs that reach out to sex workers. It seems immoral that so much of the U.S. AIDS work allows politics and ideology to trump science and prevention.

I have to admit I'm glad I'm not off to an international airport this morning. The lines look staggering and the new regulations mean giving up one's lipstick, water bottle, iced latte, and carry on cosmetics. I thank God but more importantly Scotland Yard for foiling this attempt. I cringe though how people like Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman are using it to attack those who are against the war in Iraq. I will continue to pray for peace...and for the safety of all of those traveling to Toronto today.

Have a blessed weekend.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Josh Blue -- a note of hope

I watched far more reality tv than you might imagine. Our rule for TV watching for our 13 year old son is that he can watch adult programs if he watches them with a parent and allows us "teachable moments" during the commercials to talk about our values about what we've seen.

He likes "Last Comic Standing", a show replete with teachable moments. Many of the comedian contestants did very adult, racy humor that frankly shocked even me at times. But one comedian never did, and last night he won.

His name is Josh Blue for those of you who aren't TV watchers. He is 27 and has cerebral palsy. He is wickedly funny and original, and incorporates his disability into his act. My son and I thought he would win the competion from the beginning of the season. I don't think he once told what he himself called a "genital joke."

I found his winning a hopeful sign about America growing up...growing up about people with disabilities and growing up that humor doesn't need to be about sex or body parts. Yes, we had a few teachable moments last night -- but we also laughed together.

PS This seemed like a good time to promote my sister's very funny blog about knitting. She can be read at If you knit or love a knitter, I think you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Get Involved

I'm proud to be from Connecticut this morning. We sent a message well beyond our borders yesterday to politicans who support the war in Iraq. It felt good to vote. Apparently it was the highest turnout ever in a primary.

There are very definite rules about clergy advocating one candidate over another. And I won't do that. The message I want to get out though is that our votes can make a difference. When it comes to sexual justice issues like abortion, contraception, marriage equality, sex education, and so on, who is in office on the federal, state, and local difference makes a difference.

The elections are less than three months away. I hope you will get involved in working for pro-choice, pro-equality candidates at every level.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Maybe if my mother had raised me differently

I want you to imagine for a minute a poll that asked the American public this after left handedness: Do you think it is something people are born with, linked to upbringing, or just how some prefer to write?

Surely we would think such questions absurd, despite the fact that for many centuries people thought left handed people were immoral, stupid, or even evil. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am left handed.)

Well, that's the basic question the Pew Research Center asked in July about homosexuality. They found that 36% of Americans think that homosexuality is innate (up 6% since 2003), 13% think it is linked to upbringing, and 38% say it's "just how some prefer to live." Now, the good news is that there have been significant increases in the view that homosexuality is innate among college graduates, liberals, mainline Protestants, and those who seldom or never attend church.

But, am I the only one who finds it offensive that questions of science are being put to public polls? There is a great deal of science about what causes each of us to have a particular sexual orientation, and although some of the prenatal and genetic factors are still being understood, surely we know that it's not upbringing nor is it a choice. I always ask people who advance the choice argument "When did you first know that you were heterosexual? Was it a choice you made?"

There is a lot of education to be done. I'm pleased to tell you that we have received a grant from the Carpenter Foundation to begin the development of a Study Note on sexual difference, which will help congregations and clergy address both the science of sexual orientation and a theological framework on sexual difference. We hope it will be available by late spring 2007.

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Morality of Abortion

Yesterday, I wrote about a new Pew study on public opinions on abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell research, and I recommended reading it to you.

But, I remain troubled by the way certain items were worded in their study and the report. They talk for example about "gay marriage" and "gay adoption" rather than marriage equality and adoption by same sex parents. I don't believe that sexual orientation should be used as an adjective -- I an not in a "straight marriage" and I don't believe that there is such a thing as "straight adoption." How we talk about an issue helps define wonders if answers would be different if instead of asking "do you oppose or favor gay marriage" Pew had asked "do you favor or oppose allowing same sex couples equal rights to marriage?"

But, it is their question on the morality of abortion that really concerns me. Pew asked: "Is abortion morally wrong? In nearly all circumstances? In some circumstances? Not a moral issue? Don't know." Huh? How is that a neutral way of posing this question? How would I a pro-choice faith leader have answered that question?

Of course abortion is a moral issue. And yes, in some circumstances (like sex selection of the fetus or after viability) I would believe that it was morally wrong. 49% of people chose that option when presented with the four possible responses. But, I also believe that most women make moral decisions about abortions when deciding that they can't carry a pregnancy to term in their own individual circumstances. Had I been polled, the researchers would have concluded that I belonged in the group that thinks abortion is morally wrong. They would have been wrong.

Next time, maybe Pew can ask "Is Abortion A Moral Decision?" without biasing the answers.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Public Attitudes on Abortion, Same Sex Marriage, Stem Cell Research

I read a new report by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press this weekend on abortion, same sex marriage, and stem cell research that concluded that "despite talk of culture wars...there has been no polarization of the public into liberal and conservative camps."

They found:

56% oppose marriage for gays and lesbians, but 54% now support civil unions.

51% people that abortion should be generally available or allowed with more limits.

56% support stem cell research using embryos.

These aren't exactly a public mandate for sexual and reproductive rights. On the positive side, Americans are becoming more supportive of civil unions, with more than half of people aged 18 - 29 favoring same sex marriage. Conversely, baby boomers are more supportive of legal abortion than younger ones, with only 25% of people 18 - 29 saying that abortion should be generally available. It makes me worried about the future of reproductive rights.

Not surprisingly religious background makes a difference. A majority of mainline Protestants are more liberal on these issues than white evangelicals and black Protestants. For example, 71% of mainline Protestants are supportive of abortion in at least some circumstances compared to only 23% of evangelicals, 36% of black Protestants, and 44% of Catholics.

My take away message? We're not there yet. The need to talk not only about the public health and civil liberties issues is acute; more importantly though religious leaders need to talk about the moral framework for these issues. If you're not familiar with our "Open Letters to Religious Leaders" on marriage equality and abortion, visit our web site.

I'll blog about two specific questions in this poll that that particularly trouble me later on this week.

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Hundredth Blog Post

I was going to write this morning about the new report from the Guttmacher Institute that the decades long decine in the U.S. abortion rate was coming to an end and the moral imperative of assuring that all women have access to contraception, sexuality information and education, and abortion services.

But, when I opened my blog this morning, I saw that this is my 100th blog post! In the blogsphere, isn't that a cause for a celebration or a party?

I love writing my blog, except on those days where I can't think about what to write about. I love that it offers me a virtual pulpit to comment about what's going on in the world about sexuality and religion without needing to find a media outlet who might be interested. I love that more than 250 of you have become regular readers, and that the blog has generated speaking engagements, media requests, and even two donations to the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. I love hearing from readers about what they find useful --more importantly, hopeful.

So, on this blog milestone, may I offer you my prayers and wishes that in your own life you celebrate the connection between your sexuality and your spirituality with joy, holiness, and integrity.

Stay cool this summer weekend.

Rev. Debra

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

NPR, Adolescents and the Media

NPR has been running a program all week on the media's influence on children and teenagers. I'm particularly interested in it because as I've told you before I'm writing my third parenting book this summer.

Children today have access to more media than ever before, although the actual number of hours they consume it hasn't increased dramatically. Many of today's parents grew up with one television in the family room that showed three to six channels; today's child and teen is likely to be in a home with more than three televisions, including one in their bedroom, which have dozens of channels, as well as computers, cell phones, video consoles, MP 3 players, video and dvd players, and so on.

I've learned in my talks to parents around the country that parents often feel out of control, and so I was delighted to be asked by NPR's Mark Silver to do an online Q&A about parents, their children, and the media. He did a great job -- it includes such topics as R rated movies, violent video games, and viewing sexual IM exchanges, including how to use my three part process to talk to your teen about oral sex. You can't get a much better pulpit that National Public Radio; I'm grateful for the opportunity.

The Dixie Chicks

We saw the Dixie Chicks last night at Madison Square Garden. They are terrific performers and put on a great concert.

The Garden was nearly filled. The audience was multicultural and intergenerational. I had thought we might be the oldest people there, but the audience ranged from seven to eighty. I talked with a seven-year-old girl in line who were there with her father. I asked her who's idea the concert was; she smiled and said, "My dad's. He rocks." Several people held signs that said, "I'm Gay, but I love chicks."

Their new single "I'm not ready to be nice", a response to the response about their comments about the Iraq War resonated with the audience. During "Mad as Hell", people held up signs that said "Thank You." My personal new favorite is "Lullaby"; it's a song to their seven children, but to this minister's ears, it would be a wonderful song for weddings.

For a few hours last night, my world felt hopeful and unified. If only the real world was.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Teens and the FDA

Today is my birthday. It's also the anniversary of my 31st year working in the sexual and reproductive health field. You can do the math.

I love my life and feel very grateful for my family, my friends, and my ministry. But, it's hard not to be a little discomforted by the number today.

But, I'm also thinking about age this morning as I
read that the Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it is ready to reconsider its long delayed action on over-the-counter emergency contraception. Long overdue, it's hard not to be cynical that this was announced the day before hearings on a new FDA commissioner.

But, what most struck me is that the FDA told the manufacturer that the drug can't be available over the counter to young women 18 and younger. Coming on the heels of last week's Senate vote on transporting teens for abortions , it's another blow to the ability of sexually active young women to protect themselves. It's a bow to conservative groups who incorrectly continue to assert that availability of contraception causes young women to have sex. That's a little like saying that because I have an umbrella in my car, I'm going to drive some place where it's raining. I can honestly say that I've never met a teenager who is having sex in order to use a contraceptive.

I'm glad I'm not a teenager today -- or even in need of contraception anymore -- but I am a parent, an aunt, a friend, and a minister to many young people. I know that teenagers need help in learning how to make healthy, ethical, moral decisons about their sexuality, but I also know that many young people aged 18 and younger are sexually active. According to recent studies, 6 in 10 teenagers have had sexual intercourse by senior year. It is immoral to me to withold contraception from young people because it makes us uncomfortable that they are having sex.

That's why I am so glad that the
Religious Institute has recently received funding from the Moriah Foundation to develop a new "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality." It will join our series of theological frameworks on abortion, sexuality education and marriage equality. Stay tuned.