Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History In The Making: President Signs Matthew Shepard Act

Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered because he was gay more than 11 years ago.

Today, President Obama will sign legislation in his name. According to the AP, the measure expands current law to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It took 14 tries to get this fully inclusive legislation passed. 14 tries.

This is hardly brave legislation, in that on almost all polls, more than 75% of Americans support hate crimes legislation that protects LGBT people. But, it is the first piece of national civil rights legislation that includes protections on gender and gender identity, and should be celebrated. I'd like to think that other legislation (repealing DOMA, repealing DADT for starters) will follow soon.

I'm hoping that Judy Shepard will be at the White House this afternoon. I imagine that her heart will both be glad that such legislation finally exists...but that her grief for her son will also feel overwhelming. I can't help but think of Scripture -- he died, so others shall live. My prayers will be with her and all the other parents who've lost their children to hate crimes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thinking About Sexology?

I'm just back from the fall meeting of the board of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. We began the meeting at a reception at the home of the Chair of the Widener University sexuality masters and doctoral program, where we shared how each of us had been inspired to become a sexologist.

I don't think I've written about that here, and thought I'd share a piece of that story. I also thought some of my regular readers might be interested in how to become a sex educator or therapist, and I encourage you to visit the AASECT web site. I also hope that some of you may be interested in the outstanding education that Widener offers to people who want to go into this field.

AASECT played a major role in my decision to become a sexuality educator, and even today, my association with its outstanding members and its annual conference and newsletter informs my ministry. I'm proud to be an AASECT certified sex educator.

But going back...I was very involved in the women's movement at college, and became involved in the women's health movement. I was trained to teach women about their bodies and reproductive health, including what we called "self-help", or self pelvic exam. My roommate (now incidentally also a minister) and I were trained by women associated with the Boston Women's Health Collective to give lectures and slide shows at college campuses. It was an exciting opportunity to empower women to understand more about their bodies -- and their sexuality.

I didn't think it had anything to do with a career. I was on my way to law school, via an internship in the U.S. Congress. I needed three additional credits to complete my degree in three years, and stumbled by accident on a one week intensive course called "The New Sex Education" at American University -- yes, co-sponsored by AASECT.

I took the course, and my mid-week, I was certain that THIS was what I was supposed to do in the world, not law. And as one can only do early in one's adult life, I quit my job that following Monday to start working in the reproductive health field and begin my training as a sexuality educator. I now understand that as my first call. I'm glad I listened.

Today, if you're interested in becoming a sexologist, the path is a little clearer. Interested? Check out AASECT and Widener. And if you are experiencing sexuality issues or want more education, check out the state by state listing of certified educators and counselors at

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Working Together: International Religious and Sexual and Reproductive Health Organizations

Last week, the Religious Institute in collaboration with the Population Council convened its first international colloquium of religious leaders and sexual and reproductive health professionals to develop new collaborative ventures. More than 25 international organizations sent representatives, who came from as far away as Kenya and Geneva.

It was a great meeting, and set the foundation for our new international initiative to increase religious support for international family planning and reproductive health programs. You'll be hearing more about that in the coming months here.

I offered one of the introductory comments, and thought I'd share with you some of my recommendations for religious leaders on how to engage these issues and for sexual and reproductive health organizations on how to reach out to faith leaders.

*Religious leaders, we must break the silence about sexuality in our faith communities. We must preach about these issues, provide sexuality education for children, youth, and adults, offer adult forums, integrate sexual justice into our social action programs...

*SRH colleagues, approach faith based leaders for their moral authority and influence, for advice on values based approaches, in appreciation of their leadership, and influence on people of faith, not just as service providers or people who can deliver your message.

*Be willing to start where the faith community IS, not where you would like them to be. Work on AIDS can begin with working on care, on sexuality education could begin with educating parents or sexual abuse prevention, for family planning it could be maternal mortality or violence against women. Seek to develop relationships and partnerships first. Patience IS a virtue.

*Don’t write religious leaders off because of their tradition. In Pakistan, muslim clerics are distributing contraceptives. In Iran, there have been religious rulings that reassure couples that using contraception is consistent with their faith traditions. In Thailand, Buddhist values were incorporated into the national family planning room. In some areas, priests and imams may be your best allies, and leaders from Protestant traditions may not. It is important to identify key faith leaders who support you, and then ask them to introduce you to others. Have faith leaders speak to faith leaders, not public health professionals who don’t know the faith well.

*Make it easy for religious leaders to be involved. Ask for their help in developing materials. Our Congo Sabbath went more easily once we had materials that could be used in worship, as handouts, as adult education sessions. Offer training on sexuality issues. But, a note of caution: let religious leaders be religious leaders. Don’t try to “message them” with public health messages, don’t ask them to become your business partners.

We all need to remember that yes, sexual and reproductive health are public health issues, but they are moral issues as well. Our commitment to the dignity and worth of all people commands us to work for women’s equality and flourishing. Our theological commitment to truth telling calls us to oppose abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Our understanding that it is because life is so precious, we must do everything possible to make sure it is not created carelessly and that means we must support contraception and sex education. Our commitment to the moral agency of women means we must articulate that abortion is always a moral decision and that every woman, regardless of where she lives, must have the right to make that decision safely and legally. We must end the violence against women’s bodies and also their lives, including preventing unnecessary death. Our commitment to the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and the poor means that we must work to assure that all people have yes access to family planning and reproductive health services but also the right to make responsible and healthy and pleasurable sexual decisions.

May it be so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Call for Shared Ministry

On Sunday, I offered the "Charge to the Congregation" at the instillation of my colleague and friend, Rev. David Bryce, as the senior minister at The First Church in Belmont, MA. Although the words were in some way specific to this Unitarian Universalist community, in others, I think they apply to all of us who are members of faith communities.

I decided to share part of them here.

“Shared ministry” has perhaps become such a buzz word in our congregations that it is a cliché. But it is true: we make community together; we care for each other together. Surely you have learned during your years of having an interim minister, how important it is that you are there for each other. You and David are partners in this shared journey.

I urge you to remember the core principles of Buddhism that I have heard summed up this way: Show up. Speak the Truth. Do What You Do With Enthusiasm. Don’t Get Attached to the Outcome. The last is often the hardest for many of us. Remember that none of us is as smart as all of us are together, and that sometimes what we most want as individuals, may not be what is best for the community as a whole. Believe in the democratic process. Work together not for common ground, but as I often say in my own ministry, for the common good, indeed for the higher ground. William Sloane Coffin, the great 20th century minister, said, “Human unity is not something we are called to create, but only to recognize it and then make it manifest.”

Know that ultimately you – each of you, alone and together -- are responsible for the well being of this church community, and for it being a prophetic voice in the world. Practice radical hospitality – seek out the newcomer, be inclusive of all people, work to becoming a multicultural community, be a sexually healthy faith community, assure the safety and care of all who enter your doors.

Be a beacon to the world. Think about how you can take the “good news” of Unitarian Universalism out into the world -- into the community of Belmont, but also to serve the needs of the most marginalized in surrounding areas. Speak out for social justice in your town, in your state, and in the nation. In the words of the UUA’s latest theme, stand on the side of love.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Contraception and Legal Abortions Save Women's Lives Globally: Speak Out

Yesterday, I was at a meeting of the United Nations Foundation. The Religious Institute is a new grantee of the UN Foundation and will be developing a new initiative to engage U.S. religious leaders and people of faith in advocating for international sexual and reproductive health.

I was inspired by the other grantees' projects and commitments.

I was reminded again this morning why this work is so important. The Guttmacher Institute has published a new study, "Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress." Read it here at

In brief, the study found that global contraceptive use is contributing to a significant decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies, and thus a decline in the number of abortions. The unintended pregnancy rate declined from 69 per 1000 in 1995 to 55 per 1000 in 2008. That's still too high, but provides clear evidence that there must be more U.S. and global support for family planning programs. And not surprisingly, Guttmacher found evidence that abortion rates fall when unintended pregnancies go down.

It's a wonder, then, that anti-abortion groups aren't working FOR contraception rather than against it.

But more, they need to know that making abortion illegal or having it highly restricted does NOT decrease the number of abortions. In a somewhat surprising funding, Guttmacher discovered that abortion occurs at roughly equal rates regardless of its legal status.

There is a difference, though: where abortion is illegal, women die. To be more precise, an estimated 70,000 women DIE each year from unsafe abortions, and an additional five million experience serious medical effects.

EVERY ONE OF THOSE 70,000 WOMEN'S DEATH IS PREVENTABLE through safe and legal abortion services and high quality, post-abortion medical care.

I don't see how any anti-abortion advocate could dare to use the term "pro-life" in the face of these statistics.

Outraged? Get involved. If you are a religious leader, endorse our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion As A Moral Decision. If you are a person of faith, join our newsletter list to find out more about the plans we have for an "International Women's Health Sabbath" later this fall. Write the White House and Congress about your support for international family planning. Speak out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thank You, Union, for My Unitas Award

Last week, I was honored by Union Theological Seminary with the UNITAS award, the seminary's highest alumni honor. I was recognized along with Rev. Dr. George Webber, class of '48, Dr. Phyllis Trible, '63, Dr. Larry L. Rasmussen, '70, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, '72, and Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney, '79. (If you don't know these people, they are inspiring, and you can read their biographies at

I was deeply honored and moved to accept the award in their company. It was a beautiful, emotional and stirring ceremony. I had the great privilege of being introduced by my colleague and friend, Rev. Dr. Marvin Ellison.

As the newest of the graduates, I was introduced last. I was so moved by the speeches of the other honorees that by the time it was my turn, I was pretty nervous. I asked, actually implored God to be with me as I rose, my heart beating wildly.

My remarks are too long to post here, but perhaps I'll post them at our web site. I concluded this way, after naming the other honorees.

"We have each had very different paths since we left Union, but each us of has ministries in the world fueled by our passions. Each of us in our own way learned that it is worth the risk and the doubt and the uncertainty to do what your heart tells you to do and to accept the call God has offered: in the words of Rabbi Nachman, 'to use my life to the fullest, to become the person, I am meant to be.' Union helped me become that person, that minister."

And I am deeply grateful.

Here's what the citation said, in case you are interested:

"Debra W. Haffner. Minister, sexologist, writer, social activist, mother, and founding director of the Religious Institute; for her passionate insistence that faith communities promote healthy, responsible and pleasurable sexuality; and for her fearless celebration of love that is just and whole."

I will treasure my memories of Friday and this honor for the rest of my life. And like President Obama's award last week, I will seek to honor it with my actions and life in the future.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

To Anti-Choice Religious Leaders: What Happened to Truth Telling?

To the Christian Post, LifeNews.Com, California Catholic Daily, and those tons of smaller anti-abortion bloggers:

I understand that people of faith disagree about abortion. I understand that you would like abortion to be illegal once again and unavailable in all circumstances.

We've been on other sides of this issue for a long time.

I understand, then, why you were upset that more than 1,100 clergy and religious leaders endorsed the Religious Institute's Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision.

And that you didn't like that we sent that out through Religion News Service and to members of the Senate, calling for them not to add further restrictions on women's access to abortion in health care reform.

What I don't understand, though, is why you distorted our press release and claimed that we were asking for taxpayer-funded abortions in the health care reform bill, rather than that existing plans that cover abortion services be allowed to continue to do so.

Moreover, you distorted our press release to say that denominations had endorsed the Open Letter, when it can only be endorsed by individual clergy, acting out of their personal faith commitments. Perhaps you wanted to create issues in denominations that have their own fault lines over choice?

And the words you use to describe the Religious Institute -- a "so called" organization "claiming to represent" more than 4900 clergy and other religious leaders are designed to disparage our leadership and organization. I invite you to learn more about our very real organization and the efforts we support.

The health care reform debate has been marred enough by the egregious lying of those who oppose it, from made-up death panels to using women's reproductive health access as a pawn to make it more divisive. Surely you don't have to lie to find something to disagree with us about.

I call you to our shared Scriptural commitment to truth telling. You do remember those passages, don't you?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Why Welcome Isn't Enough: The Story of the Part Time Flag

I had a lovely time preaching at a church near Cape Cod yesterday. It was one of those New England early churches, with built in pews, towering organ, and high wood pulpit. A rainbow flag hung over the front door.

I preached an updated version of what I think of as my "travel sermon" on sexual morality, justice, and healing, and I was warmly received by the parishioners, many of whom were quite senior. One of my favorite moments in the service was when an older gentleman in the choir, in coat and tie, sang the line "We are gay and straight together" as a solo during the Holly Near anthem, "We are a gentle, angry people."

After the service, I did a workshop with church leaders about how to be a sexually healthy and responsible congregation. The church had completed the process and voted this spring to be a welcoming congregation. I congratulated them for their work and for the flag announcing it to those passing by the town green.

They reported to me that it only flies some times -- that they had reached a community agreement to only fly it periodically.

I asked why.

There were many answers. It's a historic district. It's too much to fly it all the time. People don't want us to be known as a gay church.

To be honest, I was stunned. I asked them what message they thought they were giving LGBT people by sometimes having the flag up, sometimes not. I told them if it was me, I'd probably think that some weeks I was more welcome than others - or maybe not welcome some Sundays at all.

I've been thinking a lot about this since yesterday. There is what a colleague calls a "heart lag" on these issues. Jet lag is when our bodies haven't caught up to the new time zone. Heart lag is when our innermost feelings have not caught up to our intellectual understanding. Most people know in their heads that it is wrong to discriminate against LGBT persons and that they are called to full inclusion. It's just that their hearts haven't totally caught up. They are on a journey, and over time, I pray that they will get there.

The Religious Institute's new online guide, Acting Out Loud, is designed to help congregations move from welcome to full inclusion. I hope you'll check it out.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Is It The Beginning of the End of DADT?

The Boston Globe reports that a top military journal is about to publish a research article that concludes that there is no justification for the "don't ask, don't tell"(DADT) policy. Read the article here.

The writer reportedly concludes that the policy is hurting the military when it must dismiss qualified personnel and hurts the people who remain closeted in order to serve.

It's about time.

I have gay and lesbian friends in the military who have had to go to extraordinary lengths to hide their orientation in order to serve. I don't feel at liberty to share their stories, except to say that I have asked out loud why they haven't just quit, rather than deny their personal lives.

The President had discussed the injustice of the DADT policy during the campaign, but the hope that he might lift it by executive order was dashed. This article should help provide backbone to the military, Congress, and the White House to get rid of this sad legacy signed by Bill Clinton.

Let's pray that the end of DADT is close.