Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year! Religious Institute 2010 In Review

Happy New Year!

2010 was a remarkable year for the Religious Institute!

We began the year by releasing our new report, "Religion and Sexuality 2020", which laid out goals for advancing sexual justice in faith communities in the next decade.

We launched the Faithful Voices Network, a multifaith grassroots network of people of faith concerned with sexual health, sexuality education, and sexual justice, including the full inclusion of women and LGBT people. Have you taken the pledge yet?

We published the first denominational database on sexuality positions and resolutions.

We completed a major needs assessment of the sexual health of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and worked with the leadership of the UUA to become even more sexually healthy and responsible.

We convened a colloquium of international leaders to develop the first religious framework on global maternal mortality and reproductive justice and assisted more than 200 congregations across the country in developing worship educating their congregants about the global crisis in maternal mortality.

We worked intensively with Yale Divinity School, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Brite Divinity School to meet the criteria of a sexually healthy and responsible seminary, and also provided programs at Pacific School of Religion, Princeton Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College.

Our work was featured in hundreds of print, electronic, and blogs. I was selected to be a regular contributor to the Washington Post On Faith column. Our call to clergy to devote the Sunday before National Coming Out Day to speaking out for LGBT youth was featured on the front page of the Washington Post online and in a column in the New York Times.

Our network of religious leaders grew past 5300; we offered technical assistance to 294 congregations and organizations, and we gave more than 80 speeches, workshops and sermons across the country.

None of this could have happened without our fabulous staff (Dr. Kate Ott, Amanda Winters, Tim Palmer), the many foundations that support us, and the dedication of our volunteers and donors.

We would be grateful if you would consider making an end of year donation to support our continued work at

With warmest wishes for the New Year and hopes of sexual justice in the year ahead.

Rev.Debra W. Haffner

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Celebrating end of all DADT!

I'm just back from a week's vacation...but I know you join me in celebrating the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I can't wait to watch the President sign its repeal tomorrow.

This significant vote in both the House and the Senate, by a majority of Congresspersons, is the beginning of the end of government supported homophobia and discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Call me an optimist, but I believe that the repeal of DOMA and the passage of a trans inclusive ENDA can't be far behind.

The arc of the universe DOES bend towards justice.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Is Marriage Obsolete? Uh, NO.

The Washington Post asked the On Faith Panel this week, "Is Marriage Obsolete?" A new poll showed that nearly 40% of Americans think it is becoming so.

You can read my Washington Post response here:

Which is puzzling when at least more than half of adults will marry in their lifetime and two thirds think marriage and family are in good shape.

What's even more puzzling is that the very organizations that are most worried about the "state of the union" as the National Marriage Project cleverly called it are those who oppose allowing same sex couples to marry.

The anti-clerical, anti-gay voices are already leaving their comments on my Washington Post blog. Can you take a moment and add a supportive comment?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We Remember -- World AIDS Day 2010

It's been almost 30 years since I first met someone with AIDS.

It's been twenty five years since I gave my first speech on AIDS prevention.

It's been twenty two years since I created Teens For AIDS Prevention in Washington, D.C.

It's been twenty years since I lost my first friend to this dreadful disease.

It's been too many years for HIV prevention to not be in every school, every clinic, every faith based organization, every country in the world.

And so on this World AIDS Day, I recommit myself and the Religious Institute to speaking out and working for an end to this now global largely preventable pandemic.

And I light this virtual candle to the people who died too soon, in my life and in yours. Bill, Billy, Danny, Marjorie, Lacey, Stewart, Damien, Bill, Michael, & Jim, may yours be an everlasting memory, an everlasting name.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pope, Condoms, and Me

Surely you all know by now that the Pope has acknowledged that condom use might be okay to prevent HIV in some cases.

I blogged about this yesterday at the Washington Post On Faith column:

One commentator called me a "vulgar ignoramous." If you have a moment, could you go there, read the column, and a comment. It would mean a lot to me.

And in the meantime, blessings to you and your's for a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sex and the TSA Scanner

I flew to meetings last week and went through the new TSA machine.

I wasn't particularly bothered that an image of my body would flash on a screen for a minute or two. I have to admit that I have a minor fear of flying, and I generally feel that if the government or the airline wants information for my security, I'm happy for us all to oblige.

But, I did wonder what training the TSA agents have received. Are they comfortable seeing these images? Have they been trained to do the new pat down so they aren't actually handling people's genitals? What are they expected to do when people's body piercings show up on the screen? How will the new pat down affect someone with a history of sexual abuse or assault?

And what about people of transgender experience? A transwoman walking through the new scanner may show up with a penis; likewise a transman may not have a penis. What about people with artificial or enhanced body parts? Is this covered in the new TSA operating manual? I'm guessing not.

So although I'm okay walking through these new machines, I am concerned that the sexuality issues they raise haven't received enough attention. Maybe it's time to write a letter to the head of TSA and ask.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is Immoral -- Not Homosexuality

The Washington Post On Faith Blog asked this week, "What beliefs support the ban on gays in the military?"

I was tempted to just write a three word column: Ignorance. Bigotry. Homophobia.

Instead, I wrote the following column:

I'd love for you to leave your comment there.

I long for the day when this question will seem as out dated and outrageous as asking "what beliefs support the ban on women" or "what beliefs support the ban on blacks and whites serving together" do now.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Oral Sex at the Bar Mitzvah? Mostly An Adult Myth

I just completed two mornings of training with future Rabbis and Cantors.

One of the topics included adolescent sexuality education and what teens needed from their religious communities. I asked the group had they ever heard about concerns about middle school students and oral sex at Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations and all of them had.

I've long argued in my books (see side bar to order my book, Beyond the Big Talk) that oral sex in the middle school is largely NOT happening. I've said that I can remember the name of the girl in the eighth grade who was offering oral sex, and that perhaps today there might be a few more, but my sense from working with teens around the country is that most middle schoolers are still worrying about kissing and that oral sex scandals in middle schools is largely a media myth.

There's new national probability data from Indiana University that backs that up. The new IU study finds that only 13% of 14 and 15 year old boys had received oral sex, matching pretty closely the 12% of girls those ages who say they offer it. One in ten girls that age say that they have received oral sex, also challenging the myth that girls are always the ones performing, boys receiving.

The numbers jump once teens are juniors and seniors in high school, but still only a minority of teens ages 16 and 17 have had oral sex ever. One third of the boys and 23% of the girls had received oral sex; one quarter of the girls and 20% of the boys had offered it. Few had had same sex partners. Teenagers are just not as sexually experienced as most adults believe.

Surely we need to be concerned about the youngest teens engaging in intimate sexual behaviors with a partner, and these studies do not look at the context of the relationships. Young people need our guidance and support to make healthy sexually decisions and set sexual limits. Parents, schools, and faith based organizations all play an important role. But, these numbers indicate that we need to be much more cautious in accepting media stories or rumors designed to alarm us that don't reflect actual young people's lives.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What The Election May Mean For Sexual Justice--Better Than We Think?

I'm sure your email box is filled, like mine is, with requests for funds from progressive organizations, telling you how dire the next two years will be.

Yes, I personally was disappointed in the drubbing the Democrats took in the House of Representatives (as an organization, the Religious Institute does not take sides in election contests), but I also was heartened by some of what didn't happen.

Most of the Tea Party stars did not get elected. Colorado voters turned down a pernicious anti-abortion amendment to their state constitution by a 3 to 1 majority. The National Organization for Marriage failed in their efforts in all but Iowa.

Four pro-marriage equality people were elected Governors, putting New York, Rhode Island, California, and Maryland in a position to affirm marriage for same sex couples in the next few years. The fourth openly gay member of the House of Representatives was elected.

I'm not naive about the changes in the House or the leadership of anti-choice Representative John Boehner. But I am reminding myself that it was a Democratic House passed the Stupak amendment.

So, I'm feeling grateful today that the election didn't turn out much worse...and that the 2010 election is finally over. Let's hope that together we can continue to advance sexual and reproductive justice over the next two years.

Guess you can call me an optimist.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Eat. Pray. Vote.*

I just received an email from a good friend who was at the Comedy Central rally in Washington, D.C. this weekend.

He said he's never been to such a crowded event. He never got anywhere near the stage, never heard a speaker, yet he was still glad he had made the effort to be there. He said everyone around him, who also couldn't hear anything, was happy and glad to be there.

His analysis was that people wanted to show up and witness that they weren't tea party-ers, that they wanted sanity and civility returned to American life, that extremism has gone too far.

I get it. I am so tired of the attack ads that are filling Connecticut and New York television and radio stations. I'm tired of all the emails filling my inbox about what's wrong with the other guy. I'm finding all of the analysis of what's gone wrong in the past two years tiring (I loved Bill Clinton's line this weekend: it took them 8 years to get us in this hole, we need more than two years to get out of it.)

But, mostly I'm so done with having talking heads tell us today what's going to happen tomorrow -- because ultimately it's about US...all of US going out to VOTE. To educate ourselves beyond the ads, which I'm assuming aren't really telling us the truth. To regardless of where we stand politically, to make our voices heard. To prove the pundits wrong, that we are still a country that values liberty and justice for all. (And a special call out to my readers in Colorado, please please defeat this anti-choice amendment. We need to let the country know that voters support women's ability to make their own moral choices.)

Eat. Pray. Vote.*

*an anonymous sign at the Comedy Central rally.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It Gets Better

My blog on the "It Gets Better" Project. Please comment and pass on.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Message about LGBT Bullying

I delivered these comments to open a Vigil in Norwalk, CT on the recent suicides of several lesbian and gay youth.

I bring you greetings from the Unitarian Church in Westport, where I serve as the community minister, and the Religious Institute, the organization I lead of more than 5000 religious leaders from across the United States. I stand here tonight as a clergy person, as a mom, as a neighbor, as someone who works every day for the full inclusion of us all, and someone who loves many many gay and lesbian people.

Tonight we come together with heavy hearts to commemorate the lives of the at least seven teenagers who took their lives because of bullying and harassment: Bill Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Raymond Chase, and Aiyisha Hasan.

The only thing we know for sure these young people had in common was that they were perceived to be gay or lesbian.

We come together tonight to say, “Enough. Never Again. Enough.”

There is nothing new about bullying. Forty five years ago, here in Norwalk, I was bullied and physically attacked as a second grader at Fitch School up the street from here because I was Jewish. Many of the grownups here were probably bullied for a whole variety of reasons as well. Teachers and parents often ignored it, thinking it was a children’s problem to take care of. For those of us who carry the scars from elementary school, middle school, high school, we know that we’ve struggled with those feelings of not being accepted, not being welcome all of our lives.
People who are LGBTQQI, teens and yes, adults – that means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex – are often harassed and bullied throughout their lives. An anti-bullying initiative will fail as long as WE fail to stand up to the homophobia – the hatred directed at LGBT people – that still exists in our schools, on our streets, in our workplaces, in our laws, and in our society.

To the LGBT people here, both teens and adults, I am here to tell you that God loves you just the way you are …and that sexual and gender diversity is blessing to us all.

To the LGBT teens here, I want to say that you are loved, worthy, and accepted just the way you are. That God made you, that people love you, and that suicide is NEVER the solution. If you are being bullied, TELL SOMEONE, ASK FOR HELP, REACH OUT. Yes, as the YouTube project says, it does get better, but I want it to be okay for you right now. And I want you to know that there are adults who can help.

To all of the teens here, I beg you to become the generation that no longer accepts bullying as a fact of life in middle school and high school, but says NO MORE. Standing up for people who are being bullied, telling someone a joke is offensive, asking fellow students to abandon “that’s so gay” as a universal put down, is not tattling or not being able to take a joke – it’s courageous, it’s intervening, and it may save someone’s life. Teens must take a stand.

To the religious leaders here, I ask you, I implore you to use your pulpits to proclaim a life saving message that God loves us all. That while we may all not agree about what four passages in the Bible say about same sex sexual relationships, we know that the overarching messages of our Scriptures is Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. All of Our Neighbors. In response to the question to our Christian neighbors “What Would Jesus Do about Homosexuality?” I am quite sure the answer would be Love Them. Include Them. Welcome Them. And take the log out of your own eye about other people’s sexual behavior. In too many cases, religion has fed cultural homophobia, and left people feeling alienated and ashamed. If religion has been part of the problem, we must become part of the solution, and that includes speaking out against those who hide their homophobia, their own fears of their sexuality, behind four verses.

To the government leaders, school officials, police, and teachers here, I urge that you pledge to make our workplaces, schools, community agencies, and streets safe for every one of us, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. And that means you too must intervene, speak out, and stop harassment at any level.

To those of you who are parents or neighbors or caring adults, thank you for coming out and please make a commitment to yourself that you will speak up, speak out for the dignity and worth of all people. Tell your neighbors and your co-workers that you were here tonight and ask for their help. The culture will change when we all say loudly and often that every one of us has the right to live and love free from harassment and discrimination.

During the height of the AIDS epidemic, there was a poster that read Silence = Death. Silence about homophobia and bullying and violence and discrimination has also meant death. Pledge with me tonight that you will be silent no more.

Say it with me. Enough. Never Again. Enough.

God bless you all.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

An Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Gay Youth Suicides

Dear Clergy Colleagues:

It’s Tuesday morning, and you are probably not quite ready to think about next weekend’s sermon. Perhaps you’ve already announced the upcoming topic in your newsletter. I am praying that you might be willing to change it.

You may know that October 11th is National Coming Out Day, a day that encourages gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people to publicly state who they are. In light of the at least five gay youth who killed themselves in September, it’s time for us to come together as religious leaders and say, “Enough.”

I’m hoping that next weekend from your pulpits you will come out with your support for GLBT youth and adults. Yesterday, I issued this challenge to the nation’s clergy in a column for the Washington Post. You can read it at

In part, it read:

All of us have teens and young adults who are gay or lesbian in our congregations, many who are suffering in silence and are at risk. A study done by my colleagues at the Christian Community, found that 14% of teens in religious communities identify as something other than heterosexual. Almost nine in ten of them have not been open about their sexuality with clergy or other adult leaders in their faith communities. Almost half have not disclosed their sexual orientation to their parents. And nonheterosexual teens who regularly attend religious services were twice as likely as heterosexual teens to have seriously considered suicide. Our young people are dying because we are not speaking out for them.

What if next weekend all of us told them from our pulpits how heartbroken we are by Tyler Clementi’s suicide and that we want to make sure that no young person in our community would ever feel such despair? Or perhaps you can begin to develop sexuality education programs in your community for youth and parents that include education about sexual orientation and gender identity. Include books in your congregation library about new theological understandings of sexual orientation and pamphlets from LGBT persons in your vestibules. Invite LGBT adults in your congregations to lead worship or education programs and tell their stories. Tell your teens and young adults that you love them, that God loves them and that you will stand with them in the face of bullying, victimization, and harassment. Invite them, beseech them to come to you or other trusted adults if they are even remotely thinking about taking their own life.

As a member of the Religious Institute network, I know that you support full inclusion of LGBT persons. I hope you’ll join with clergy across the United States in speaking out this weekend. For worship resources, see our online guide, Acting Out Loud.

You may remember that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” It is time for all of us to act.

In Faith,

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tyler Clementi's Suicide Must Be A Teachable Moment on Homophobia

Dear readers: I wrote this letter this morning to the Today Show, who ignored the reason behind Tyler Clementi's suicide, concentrating only on Internet bullying. Please consider writing them as well at And please talk to your children! Tell them nothing is worth taking their life over, that you love them, and that sexual diversity is part of God's gift to us. PLEASE.

Dear Today,

Your piece on Tyler Clementi's suicide focused almost exclusively on the dangers of webcams and internet posting, rather than addressing what drove Tyler to take his life.

If Tyler had been kissing a girl, this tape wouldn't have been made. If made, it wouldn't have been twittered and posted.

But, he wasn't. He was kissing another boy, and even in today's world, that made him the subject of ridicule and hate. And his shame at being outed drove him to end his life.

Homophobia and hate caused his death, and you inadvertently add to the problem when you don't even mention it.

Tyler's death is one of five gay teens and young adults in the last few weeks. Can we count on you for a segment on gay teen suicide? Can we count on you to get the word out about GLSEN, or It Gets Better, or the Trevor Helpline?

Let's make sure that Tyler didn't die in vain. Help us make this a teachable moment for parents and teens. Please call on me if I can be of help as you prepare this segment on the real issue that is causing so many young people to take their lives -- and how parents can make sure that their children know that they are loved and accepted without regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New London Clergy Commit To Addressing Sexuality From the Pulpit

This coming weekend, more than 20 clergy in New London, CT will address sexuality from their pulpits. In Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and Muslim faith communities, congregants will hear that sexuality is sacred.

My colleague, Dr. Kate Ott, Deputy Director of the Religious Institute, has been a resource to the New London clergy association for the past three years.

The local paper, The Day, featured op eds from a variety of religious leaders on sexuality this past Sunday. You can read them here

I'm excited to see this commitment by the New London clergy to bring sexuality into their churches, synagogues, and mosques. Let us know if we can help you!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Speak Out Against Maternal Mortality Worldwide and For Universal Access

The Religious Institute is committed to working towards a just, equitable, and inclusive world. On September 15th, as part of that global commitment, the Religious Institute is releasing its first internationally focused theological framework, the new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice.

The Open Letter is being released to coincide with the United Nation’s High-Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. In 2000, the leaders of 189 countries agreed to eight goals to eradicate extreme poverty. Goal Five calls for improved global maternal health by reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and achieving universal access to reproductive health.

Every year, more than 340,000 women and girls die as a result of the preventable complications from pregnancy and childbirth, almost all in developing countries. According to the Guttmacher Institute and the United Nations Population Fund, maternal mortality could be reduced by more than 70 percent by improved access to reproductive health services, including contraception, treatment for pregnancy and birth complications, and strategies to prevent or manage abortion related complications.

The new Open Letter recognizes that this is not just a public health crisis but a moral one. As the letter states, “the sacredness of life is best upheld when women and men create life intentionally, and women are able to have healthy pregnancies and childbirths.” Surely, people of faith from diverse perspectives can agree to work to create a world where no woman loses her life to create a new one.

The Open Letter calls on all religious leaders to:
• Educate themselves and their faith communities about the crisis of maternal mortality.
• Publicly advocate for increased support for maternal health and reproductive health services, domestically and globally.
• Work within their traditions to make the reduction of preventable maternal mortality a social justice issue.

You can help. If you are a religious leader, please become one of the endorsers of the new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice. Become involved with the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative. As a person of faith, join the U.N. Millennium Campaign.

The Open Letter ends, “We are called to bear witness to the harsh reality that without comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, women and girls around the world suffer illness, violence and death. Our mission as faith communities compels us to work together to assure that all may flourish. We renew our call to sexual and reproductive justice. We make a solemn commitment to help create a just and equitable world where no woman will die giving birth to the next generation.”

May it be so.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Let There Always Be Light

I offered this chalice lighting at our homecoming services yesterday.

The first words spoken in the Hebrew Bible are, "Let there be light."

Let there be light today as we once again gather in community.

Let us feel the light of each others' lives.

Let us feel the light of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the end of Ramadan.

Let us remember those we lost on September 11th.

Let this light remind us to bring our light into the world-our search for truth, appreciation of diversity and full inclusion.

Let it remind us to witness against those who would burn sacred texts, commit acts of terrorism, or deny that every one of us has inherent dignity and self worth.

Let this chalice represent what brings us back to our beloved community-the gifts of friendship, of wisdom, of insights, of encouragement, or support. Let this light remind us of our history, our knowing, our shared silence and our shared laughter, our shared tears, and our shared hopes for our futures.

May our lights be rekindled - as individuals, as friends, as family, as a church community.

Let there always be light.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

La Shana Tova -- Rosh Hashanah 2010

The Days of Awe begin with us tonight.

May the next ten days be days of reflection, introspection, and peace.

May we prepare ourselves for the changes in the year to come.

May it be a good year.

May it be a healthy year.

May it be a year of peace for all of us, in our homes, in our communities, all around the globe.

May it be a year of peace within ourselves.

May we live our lives with integrity, service, and love.

May we be blessed with the strength of this community, of our families, of our friends.

May we remember what it truly important in life and may we remember to be grateful every day.

May we all be inscribed another year in the Book of Life.

La Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Denominations Support Sexual Justice

I thought you’d enjoy this report from Juliana Mecera, the Religious Institute’s 2010 summer intern.

This summer I researched seventeen different Jewish and Christian denominations, exploring their policies and programs on sexuality education, reproductive rights, women’s programs, and the full-inclusion of LGBT persons—and was pleased to find that denominations are active and even vibrant in engaging and responding to sexuality concerns. As I met—over the phone and in person—with many church and synagogue leaders, I appreciated their familiarity with sexuality issues and was encouraged to learn that many had worked with the extensive resources of the Religious Institute to improve the quality of sexual information and care they provide to their congregants.

Impressively, all of these denominations (see list below) are active in at least one of these areas pertaining to sexuality! As children begin school and religious education courses start-up again, I was especially attuned to educational issues. A large majority—14 of these 17 denominations—have either developed their own sexuality education curricula or promote another denomination’s resources. Furthermore, 11 of these denominations support
sexual education being taught in public schools.

Support for the full-inclusion of LGBT persons is fairly strong among this group as a whole. Ten have an official policy for full-inclusion, and of the 7 that do not, 3 have unofficial organizations that work for the full-inclusion of their LGBT members and offer them support. Unfortunately, even those denominations which formally support LGBT persons often lack an official denominational office to help congregations become welcoming and affirming. Even more striking is that 14 denominations—all but 3—have a national women’s program, and 11 denominations have an official statement that advocates for reproductive rights.

It’s truly heartening to see this amount of engagement by religious communities in sexuality-related issues. The numbers of these prominent denominations, however, indicate that there is still work to be done, particularly in advocating for LGBT inclusion. I am thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to further this work at the Religious Institute this summer.

• African Methodist Episcopal Church
• Alliance of Baptists
• American Baptist Church
• Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
• Church of the Brethren
• Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
• The Episcopal Church (USA)
• The Fellowship
• Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
• Metropolitan Community Churches
• Presbyterian Church (USA)
• Reformed Church in America
• United Church of Christ
• The United Methodist Church
• Union for Reform Judaism
• United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
• Unitarian Universalist Association

Juliana M. Mecera

Monday, August 23, 2010

Clergy Sexual Misconduct is Preventable Not Inevitable

This Saturday's Belief Column in the NY Times began:

"Sooner or later, every traditional faith has to confront sexual impropriety by its spiritual leaders: extramarital sex, or sex with the wrong people (members of the congregation, minors) or, for supposedly celibate clergy, any sex at all."


It is NOT inevitable that religious leaders will sexually act sad that we have come to a place where that is viewed as a statement of fact.

Yes, dear readers, I know that there are legions of stories throughout the ages where spiritual leaders have done just that. But it doesn't have to be so.

In our classes and materials, the Religious Institute has defined the characteristics of a sexually healthy religious professional. In part, a sexually healthy religious professional uses power justly and recognizes the potential for the abuse of that power, and knows how to deal with sexual feelings appropriately, recognizing boundaries for relationships with those he or she serves. The Religious Institute recommends that every seminary REQUIRE a course in sexual misconduct prevention for every student studying for the ministry, and that denominations require such a learning experience for every ministerial candidate.

Sexual misconduct by clergy is preventable not inevitable. It's past time for seminaries and denominations and lay leadership to assure it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Marriage is SO GAY.

It was a big week for marriage equality.

Judge Walker decided not to stay his decision, except for a week. Unless something unexpected happens, same sex couples will again be able to marry in California as of August 16th.

The Governor of Maryland said he would sign a marriage equality bill if passed by the legislature.

The Mexico Supreme Court said that same sex marriages performed in Mexico City must be recognized in every Mexican state.

For the first time in a national poll, a majority of Americans supported the right of same sex couples to marry.

That's just in this past week.

I believe it was Nietzsche who said, "there's no greater power than an idea whose time has come."

It's time.

This morning, I purchased a T Shirt that says "Marriage is so gay." I'll post pictures. I can't wait to wear it out when I'm with my husband.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

C'mon, Let's Celebrate: Prop 8 Found Unconstitutional

When we look back at the history of marriage equality, yesterday will surely be a milestone.

Judge Vaughn Walker, chief justice of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California overturned Prop 8. The decision in part said:

"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license."

From this minister's perspective, not a moral or religious one as well. The Religious Institute has supported marriage equality since its founding in 2001. More than 2200 ordained clergy have endorsed our "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality." Several faith traditions have policies that support marriage for same sex couples, and more than two dozen denominations urged Congress to defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment way back in 2004.

There is surely to be much hand wringing by conservative religious groups this morning, and there is no doubt there will be an attempt to appeal Judge Walker's ruling (maybe even by the time you are reading this!) This is very likely to the first step in the sure to come Supreme Court ruling on marriage for same sex couples. What it is important for us is to keep reinforcing that many religious leaders, congregations, and denominations support marriage because we know that where there is love, the sacred is in our midst. As I wrote in my last blog, good marriages are based on responsibility, equity, and love, without restrictions based on biological sex, procreative potential, or sexual orientation of the partners.

So, for today, let's celebrate this latest decision and move toward equality! And know that tomorrow it's time to get back to work.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's Marriage -- No Adjectives Needed

I am so pleased to be one of the religious leaders selected to be part of the Washington Post's On Faith panel. Organized by Sally Quinn and Jon Meachem, each week we are sent a question to consider answering.

This week's question was, "Should Religions Intermarry?"

The question was sparked because of Methodist Chelsea Clinton's upcoming wedding this weekend to a Jewish man.

You can read my response to the question here. In a nutshell, I said that people bring many differences to marriage, and that people's religion, gender, or sexual orientation don't define what makes a good marriage. I also shared some of what I've learned from being in an interfaith marriage for almost 30 years.

It's not interfaith marriage, interracial marriage, or same sex marriage. It's just marriage -- and it's a lot of work.

What do you think?

And blessings to all of the couples -- including Chelsea and Marc -- getting married this weekend.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I Did on My Summer Vacation -- Learnings from Greece

I wonder if it's just me, or if most ministers have pieces of sermons writing in their heads, even when they are on vacation...or maybe especially when they are on vacation.

I'm just back from 10 days in Greece with my partner. It was a wonder week, with stops in Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini.

Sexuality and religion were ever present in Greece. There were phallic symbols on walls and monuments in Delos. There were beautiful Greek gods in various stages of undress in every museum, and tiny pictures of multiple ways of sexual partnering on lots of vases and shards. There were the amazing legends of Greek gods and goddesses, often remarkably sharing power. There were the friezes of the Amazon women warriors, making me wish I remembered more of my 10th grade English and history classes.

And in the modern world of today, there were the family beaches where every women except perhaps most of the Americans were comfortable playing in the water topless. There were the single sex bathrooms in every restaurant we visited, men and women sharing the common sinks while waiting for the stall (some times labeled, some times not) to be free. There was an ease of physical affection between men and men and women and women that was unremarkable to the people around them. On the other hand, except for furtive teenage couples in corners at night, there was little PDA by anyone.

There were little churches everywhere. Tiny Mykonos apparently has 365 of them, one of each day of the year. But we never saw anyone actually going to any of them, even on the two Sunday's of our visit. Worry beads were more ubiquitous than crosses.

And then there were the glorious sunsets over the islands. Each night, I felt a deep reverence and a deep gratitude for the blessings of my life -- and a peace for the love that surrounds us all.

Blessings for your time this summer.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What A Week -- July 12 - 16th

I'm behind in blogging, as I just returned on Tuesday from a mini-vacation celebrating my dad's 80th birthday, and then had the second part of a root canal procedure. Apologies to my regular readers for falling behind! I am usually still on twitter though, so for quick updates, follow me there at @revdebra

It's been quite a week.

Good news on marriage equality. Argentina passed marriage equality for same sex couples. You have to wonder if they can do it there, why the U.S. can't do it here. The D.C. Court of Appeals decided by a slim margin to uphold marriage equality in the district. Last week, as you probably know, a Massachusetts court said that denying marriage to same sex couples is unconstitutional. That will probably be the basis for a future Supreme Court ruling.

Not so good news on abortion. The President yesterday inexplicably put out a ruling prohibiting abortion coverage for any reason in the new high risk pools being created. Going beyond the requirements of the Hyde amendment, it seems to be away to further mollify the right on reproductive health services for women. For greater analysis, you might want to check out NARAL or PPFA's web sites.

I was pleased however to read the President's new HIV/AIDS strategic plan, released earlier this week. You can read it at I'll close this post with its vision statement:

“The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination”

May it be so.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ending Eugenics for Sexual Orientation Before It Begins

You may have seen the article in Newsweek about using medications in utero to decrease the likelihood that a girl fetus will be born a lesbian or reject tightly prescribed female sex roles.

The article behind the article was developed by the Hastings Center and you can read it here:

My reaction to the articles were mixed. Based on my own readings and discussions with scientists over the year, I do think that prenatal hormones and genetics play a role in both sexual orientation and gender identity. I think there is much that will be learned in the future about how much, and I support high quality, carefully reviewed, given consent for research -- apparently not what has been going on according to the Hastings Center.

However, the possibility that such research could be used for genetic engineering is appalling. I believe as a sexologist that sexual diversity is not "abnormal" but expected, and that we should support diversity not try to eliminate it. And as a minister, I believe that sexual and gender diversity is part of the blessing of God's creation. We need to name any attempt to use medications to change sexual orientation as eugenics, and work to oppose it before it even begins.

As our Open Letter on Sexual and Gender Diversity says,

"Loving, just communities embrace everyone; they are strengthened when all people are able to live fully and express their gender and sexuality with holiness and integrity. We celebrate sexual and gender diversity as a blessing that enriches all."

Friday, July 02, 2010

Happy Fourth of July!

I have a special fondness for the fourth of July.

My son's birthday is July 6th, and as he was growing up, we gathered as a family on July 4th to watch the fireworks and celebrate his birthday. For many years, he was convinced that the fireworks were there because it was his birthday. (He turns 17 next week and has just returned from a service learning trip in a small town in Costa Rica.)

But, I also love the big meanings behind the holiday: freedom and equality for, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I know, of course, as my colleagues at Tikkun are reminding people in an email this morning that the Declaration of Independence only extended that to white men, that the colonies allowed the slavery of Africans and ignored Native Americans completely, and that women had no rights at all. And, I don't think we should ignore those historical realities. Tikkun has written a lovely reading to share at July 4th picnics that you might use or adapt.

But, it's the promise of those big words that move me and seem to me not only legal but spiritual in nature. I believe to my core that we are all created equally in God's image and that we all have inherent dignity and worth. And I believe that we are all compelled to work to make that birthright a reality to all, regardless of sex, gender, race, class, religion, or geography.

So, Sunday night, we will have our picnic, watch the fireworks, take a moment to be grateful for our lives and our families and friends, and recommit ourselves once again to what we can do to bring about a better world.

Happy Fourth of July.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stride Toward Freedom

Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is bringing out the collected works of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have to confess that until this weekend I had never read more than speeches by Rev. Dr. King. I couldn't put "Stride to Freedom" down, and read it cover to cover in two sittings.

It is his telling of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was gripping. More than 50,000 people stayed off the Montgomery buses for more than a year. It was led by African American ministers and their congregations, who often faced personal violence, harassment, and arrest. It was a mass movement of people saying "ENOUGH" and standing up for their freedom at great personal cost.

Now, of course, I knew something about this, but I was deeply moved and inspired by this book, and it's starting me thinking about how in today's world, the movement towards full inclusion of LGBT people is at a similar "tipping point." This past weekend, as I participated in Minneapolis Pride and even attended a Kathy Griffin concert, I was moved to see the diversity of people supporting full inclusion. Holly Near is right: "we are gay and straight together and we are singing, singing for our lives." I have no doubt that if he were alive, Dr. King would be working with us on these issues. He writes in this book, "the inseparable twin of racial justice is economic justice." I would amend it to say that "racial justice, sexual justice, and economic justice are inseparable triplets." (Oh, I think I need to tweet that!)

I loved this quote from the book, as it also describes the ministry I hope I am doing in the world:

"Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal...any religion that professes to be concerned with the soul of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is as dry-as-dust religion."

Looking to be inspired this summer by your summer reading? Check out

Friday, June 25, 2010

Raise a Faithful Voice for LGBT Pride

Rev. Haffner is on the road this week. This guest blog is by Tim Palmer, director of communications and outreach for the Religious Institute.

It's supposed to be hot and humid in New York City on Sunday, but I'll be stepping out with my fellow Episcopalians in the city's 40th annual march for LGBT Pride. The Village Voice has a terrific first-person account of the first march -- in 1970, one year after the Stonewall uprising of June 1969. Since that article isn't online, I'll direct you to Michael Musto's column instead.

Musto asks an important question: For all the progress and visibility LGBT people have achieved in popular culture, why are our civil rights still lagging behind? Here we are in Year Two of the Obama administration, and there's still no
ENDA, no DADT repeal, and no mention of challenge to DOMA.

But -- unlike Years One through Eight of the previous administration -- there is reason for hope. The U.S. House of Representatives has authorized repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; the Senate Armed Services Committee has followed suit; and now we await action by the full Senate. ENDA -- the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- has at least gotten a hearing or two on Capitol Hill, and some advocates remain hopeful that the bill will finally pass. (Does
89% public support count for nothing?)

No surprise that the U.S. Catholic bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention are mobilizing to forestall both of these steps toward justice. The Religious Institute offers two ways for progressive people of faith to make their voices heard.

First: If you are a member of the clergy or a religious professional,
read and endorse the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexual and Gender Diversity. The Open Letter makes a faith-based argument for LGBT civil rights and full inclusion in our congregations and denominations. We launched this sign-on campaign earlier in the week in the hope of getting at least 1,000 signature by Monday, June 28th -- the 41st anniversary of Stonewall. We are more than halfway there. Please add your name, and forward the invitation to your friends and colleagues.

Second: We invite all people of faith -- laity and clergy, from all traditions -- to become part of the
Faithful Voices Network. The network is a multifaith, grassroots movement of people of faith who support sexual health, education and justice, including LGBT equality. Take the pledge today!

If it's too hot to join in your local Pride march, do your celebrating online. Help us raise a faithful voice for LGBT justice. And have a happy and blessed Pride.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

UN Efforts to Decriminalize Homosexuality A Start But Not Enough

I had the privilege of attending a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office on "Exporting Homophobia" around the world. Ugandan Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who is leading the effort against the anti-gay bill in Uganda, was the featured guest. A "dream team" of religious LGBT advocates were at the meeting, including Yvette Flunder, Cindi Love, Michael Adee, Stephen Parelli, and Michael Schuenemeyer.

I learned a new UN acronym at the meeting: SOGI. That stands for "sexual orientation and gender identity." A representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights pledged her support to work to decriminalize homosexuality around the world. Other speakers talked about educating people of faith in the global south on alternative scriptural understandings of homosexuality and one person from Kenya spoke about moving people from seeing homosexuality as the sin to understanding that it is sodomy that is sinful.

Although I was happy to be there and moved by Bishop Senyonjo's presentation, I can't help but feel that the United Nations representatives aren't thinking BIG enough, and that many of the participants don't really understand the sexology of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. I wonder how SOGI became code for LGBTI issues, when all people have a sexual orientation and a gender identity.

But, I also feel somehow that concentrating on the goal of decriminalization isn't BIG enough. Yes, we need to work to make sure that it is not a crime to engage in same sex sexual behaviors everywhere in the world, and yes, we need to help the UN understand and advocate that the rights of LGBTQI persons are protected as human rights.

However, we need to be articulating and working toward a world where it is understood that sexual and gender diversities are part of God's blessing to us, that sexual rights are human rights, and for a relationship-based rather than an act-based sexual ethic. I want to help create a world where participants in this type of forum would affirm the rights of consenting adults to sexual pleasure, regardless of the sex or gender of the partners and which body part goes into another. I want to be at meetings where we discuss how to move people of faith to a broader affirmation of sexual rights and pleasure for all of us.

This wasn't that meeting. I'm thinking about how the Religious Institute could help facilitate that type of dialogue. Ideas welcome!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non Virgins Need Not Apply

I've just published a Huffington Post blog on the decision by a Christian school in Florida to fire a 39 year old teacher for having sex before her marriage.

You can read the full post at

It's inconceivable to me that in today's world having premarital sex can be used as a reason to terminate employment -- or is seen as some how debased. Remember that more than 90% of Americans have premarital sex, and that's been true for at least the past forty years.

What do you think?

Friday, June 11, 2010

US State Department Rocks: Revised Standards for Passports for Transgender Persons

You all know that I've been critical about how slow change has been by the Obama administration on LGBT issues. I wish that ENDA had been passed, the end of DADT had been an executive order, and that the President would support marriage equality.

But change is happening. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced new rules for people who are undergoing gender transitions who need passports. It used to be that only people who had had gender reassignment surgery could change their passports. No longer true. All a person will need is a doctor to certify that they have undergone gender transition. There's even an option for someone in the process of transitioning. I would have preferred that sex be removed from the passport application completely, but this is an important step forward. You can read the new policy at

The President promised us that his policies would be based on science and not ideology. I'm grateful to all of our colleague organizations who have worked to bring these changes about to recognize the humanity and equality of us all.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

International Family Planning Saves Lives -- Get Involved

I started my professional career 35 years ago this summer at the Population Institute, where as the Director of the Resource Center, I developed fact sheets on population and family planning.

Last night, I read two outstanding articles on how vital family planning services still are to the world's women and how much unmet need still exists.

Dr. Willard Cates, President of Family Health International, wrote in the new issue of Contraception that family planning is the essential link to achieving all eight Millennium Development Goals. Family planning will help end poverty and hunger; prolongs education; empowers women; saves infants lives; reduces the risks of abortion and childbearing and thus reduces maternal mortality; prevents HIV transmission by women to their babies; and promotes global partnerships. A "new" fact for me was learning that family planning is "five times cheaper than conventional green technologies for reducing CO2 climate change."

Susan Cohen wrote an excellent article, "Family Planning and Safe Motherhood: Dollars and Sense" for the Guttmacher Policy Review. that concludes that "doubling the modest, current global investment in family planning and maternal and newborn care -- to just over $24 billion combined annually - would reduce maternal mortality by at least 70%, half the number of newborn deaths and do so at a lower total cost than investing in maternal and newborn care alone." Her analysis also concludes, "the most effective way to reduce the incidence of abortion overall, including unsafe abortion, is to increase use of modern contraception - making it easier for women to avoid unintended pregnancy in the first place."

The moral imperative was clear to me that first summer I went to work after college. It's the same today. Family planning saves lives.

Get involved. Join our Faithful Voices Network to learn more or sign up to host a Rachel Sabbath in your congregation next year.

Monday, June 07, 2010

"Gay? Whatever, Dude," NYT Headline

As stunning as the facts presented in a Friday New York Times Op-Ed column were, in some ways it's the headline that shows just how much things have changed.

"Gay? Whatever, Dude" was the headline on the center of the op-ed page. It's hard to imagine that headline even a few years ago in a major national newspaper.

Charles M. Blow reported that more than half of Americans now think that "gay and lesbian relations" are morally acceptable, and for the first time, more men than women do. Male positive attitudes have increased by 48% since 2006.

He pointed out that more people answer affirmatively to questions about gays and lesbians than they do to questions about 'homosexuals." He wrote, "the inclusion of the root word sex still raises an aversive response" by some. It's noteworthy, then, that the headline writers didn't use, "Homosexual? Whatever" in their national newspaper. There is still the "ick" factor that gets in the way of people being okay with sexual diversity.

But all of this points to a maturing of sexual attitudes, and gives me hope that one day soon there will be an end to employment discrimination, an end to marriage discrimination, an end to military discrimination, and an end to social discrimination because of people's sexual orientation.

May it be so.

Monday, May 31, 2010



Happy Memorial Day!

What a great morning this was. About 25 of us from the Unitarian Church in Westport marched in the local Memorial Day parade. We were indeed "gay and straight together" like in the Holly Near song. We ranged from age 3 to mid 80's. The most wonderful part about it is that we were cheered from one end of the parade route to the other. I was prepared to have to do some "sidewalk counseling" if people were rude, but instead, we were welcomed and appreciated. It was a lovely way to celebrate Memorial Day. And felt hopeful for the day when in every town, a Rainbow Task Force would be welcomed and included.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who has been serving in the military for the past ten years. She told me she hasn't been able to sleep since last night's vote by the House of Representatives to eliminate Don't Ask Don't Tell. The vote was 234 to 194 to end this discriminatory policy that has caused so many service people to live in the closet and so many to have been dismissed from the military.

My friend, who is a happily out lesbian in her personal life, has lived "don't tell" for her entire military career. That's meant having to never answer questions about whether she's married or partnered, never having a picture of her partner on her desk or being able to bring her to a social event, and worrying during dangerous overseas assignments about how her partner would learn if something happened to her. It's meant never sharing with her work colleagues about her outside life and trying to "pass" as heterosexual.

I've admired her commitment to her military career but have always wondered about the cost to her well being to living such a bifurcated life.

There's still a vote in the Senate to come, but the Senate Armed Services Committee also voted yesterday to repeal DADT as it is known. Some military chaplains have expressed their dismay that they won't know how to minister to gay service people. Some have wondered how they will be able to handle sleeping quarters for gay and straight men and women. The quick answer is, "you already do." There is no reason to believe that the military doesn't already reflect the general population figures that at least 4% of people are gay or lesbian.

The larger answer though is that discrimination doesn't belong in the military. The military was able to integrate people of color. They have slowly been figuring out how to integrate women. And they will be able to do so for gay, lesbian, and bisexual military as well.

The decision to publicly affirm one's sexual orientation -- whether straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual -- should be up to the individual, not public policy. It's time -- it's past time -- for the Congress and the military to reverse policies of exclusion for my friend -- and all the other GLB servicepeople proudly serving their country.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Washington Post On Faith

I am so happy to tell you that I've been selected to be a member of the Washington Post "On Faith" panel.

This panel consists of diverse religious leaders from across the United States. Each week we're asked a question, and I'll have the opportunity to write a piece for them on that subject.

This week was on immigration, and I'm so excited that I'm actually the first featured post on their website and in their press release to Religious News Service.

You can read more here

It would be great if you could read the article and post a comment. I have a sense that they keep track of who gets the most comments on their posts. Right now, I'm running behind Cal Thomas.

Let me know what you think!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Evangelicals' Theology of Sex -- Good News, If You're Heterosexual and Married

The National Association of Evangelicals just announced the publication of a new booklet, "Theology of Sex," as part of a new effort for dialog about the ways to reduce abortions in the U.S.

I'm delighted that they are taking seriously our call in our January report, Sexuality and Religion 2020, for denominations and religious institutions to talk about human sexuality in the context of their own faith traditions.

And this report does that. We couldn't agree more with the NAE's understanding that the Bible teaches us that sex is good, that "God established multiple purposes for sex" and that spouses must be committed to one another's sexual satisfaction. And I was surprised but gladdened to read about the NAE's support of family planning.

The report is indeed "good news" -- if you are an evangelical, heterosexual, married, monogamous adult.

Not so much if you are one of the 75 million single American adults, who are advised to express their sexuality only "in a chaste way." The report advises that homosexual behavior is sinful, that marriage is designed by God only for one man and one woman, and that cohabitation is indeed still to be considered "living in sin." I can't help but wonder how such pronouncements are going to help single evangelical adults -- both straight and gay -- live responsible and ethical sexual lives.

The authors of the NAE document emphasize an act-based sexual ethic, which privileges sexual intercourse in marriage as God's single intent for us all. Not only do I view "sex" as so much more than one act, I also believe that sexual diversity is part of God's blessing. At the Religious Institute, we call for a relational sexual ethic that accepts no double standards by sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. You may want to read the theology section of our 2020 report at

Although the authors and I disagree in many ways about sexual theology and the myriad sexual messages in the Bible, I am pleased to see them breaking their silence about this central issue in people's lives. And although we have a different understanding of what their conclusion means, at the Religious Institute, we too "advocate a sexuality that is joyful, nonexploitive, respectful, and aligned with God's creative intent."

We look forward to the dialog.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sex Education for Conservative Politicians - Redux Mark Souder

Dear Mr. Souder (and Mr. Pekar if you are listening):

I know both of you say that your faith is important to you, so maybe you'll listen to some advice from this sexologist minister.

I know you've fought against comprehensive sexuality education and promoted abstinence only education -- even in a video with your mistress.

But let me share with you some of the things we teach in sexuality education that we think every public figure -- indeed every person -- needs to know.

You can have a sexual feeling without acting on it.

A sexually healthy adult understands the difference between a sexual relationship that can be life enhancing and one that might be harmful to oneself and others. In other words, sex is never worth losing your job or your family over. NEVER.

A sexually healthy adult lives according to their values. It is one thing for a person in an open relationship who works for the right of each person to make their own decisions about their sexuality to have outside experiences-another for people like you to act in a way that is directly oppositional to the public policies you espouse. Frankly, I find it hard to understand how you can live with yourselves as you pursued this affair (or in Mr. Pekar's case, "rented" a boy). Surely someone has taught you about the importance of living with integrity.

I wish I believed that your situation would help other conservative policy makers back off from trying to legislate other people's sex lives. Remember that line, people in glass houses...But since I end up writing a similar column to this oh every six months or so, I'm not too optimistic.

What happens next is up to your families and your colleagues and your own soul. May you find a way to repair your families and your life...and may you indeed serve as an example to your colleagues.

In Faith,

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Take the Faithful Voices Pledge

My organization, the Religious Institute, wants to change the way America understands sexuality and religion.

The popular view in our culture is that people of faith oppose sexuality education, reproductive justice, and the full inclusion and equality of LGBT people.

You know better.

And most of my readers are probably fed up with hearing conservatives claim to speak for all people of faith on these issues, when you know they don't speak for people like us.

You may have been appalled when Congress placed new restrictions on abortion access and reinstated abstinence-only sex education -- all because of the lobbying efforts of certain church leaders. You might have been horrified, and angry, when conservative religious organizations financed the campaigns that overturned marriage equality in California and Maine. Regardless of your faith tradition, you are surely frustrated that so many faith communities remain silent on sexual health and justice, while ignoring the sexual health needs of their congregants.

We created the Religious Institute in 2001 to raise a faithful voice for reproductive justice, comprehensive sexuality education, and the full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in faith communities and society. Since then, we have built a national network of more than 5,000 clergy and religious professionals, representing more than 50 different faith traditions.

Now, we are taking our message from the pulpit to the pews. And we hope you will join us.

I invite you to take 10 seconds, right now, to take this pledge: "As a person of faith, I support sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society."

When you do, you will become part of the Faithful Voices Network -- a new, multifaith movement of individuals like you who share a progressive vision of sexuality and faith, and a religious commitment to truth and justice. The Faithful Voices Network will encourage religious leaders everywhere to engage the issues of sexual health and healing that affect every individual and every family. It will give you the tools and resources to break the silence around sexuality in your congregation, and become an advocate for sexual justice in your community.

Every voice counts. We are counting on yours.

In Faith,

Rev. Debra W. Haffner
Executive Director
Religious Institute

p.s. -- Please take 10 seconds to pledge your support for sexual health, education and justice in our congregations and communities. Together, we can write a new future for sexuality and religion -- a future of healing, equality, and integrity. And please invite your friends after you take the pledge. There are links on the thank you page so you can post to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. THANK YOU!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Pill and Mother's Day: A Personal Reflection

Today is Mother's Day and my husband and son prepared a lovely brunch for me, my sister, and my mother. There were flowers, cards, and more carbs than I've eaten in a month. I felt very well taken care of, if not a bit nostalgic for the days of homemade painted macaroni necklaces.

Today is also the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill. Or more technically, the 50th anniversary of the day the birth control pill was approved by the FDA.

I first learned about "the pill" from my mother. She was of that generation that used the first high estrogen pills, and I remember asking her what the funny circle with the white and blue pills that were on the kitchen counter were. I think I was about six. She told me that she and my father only wanted two children and the pills meant she could have that. I still can picture that discussion: it taught me that parenthood was a choice and that there were ways to avoid pregnancy.

Fast forward 13 years, and I went to the campus health center to get birth control pills. I hadn't yet had intercourse; indeed I felt like I was one of the last standing virgins on campus. But, I wanted to be prepared when I did fall in love and I knew that the pill was my best option for not becoming pregnant.

I used the pill at various times over the next twenty years -- as a new couple in love, after my daughter was born, during the period I was trying to decide if our family size was complete. I used the pill both as "family planning" for some years, but also as a way to separate sexual pleasure and intimacy from procreation.

It's in that last that "the pill" truly revolutionized women's lives. More so than any birth control method before it, oral contraceptives allowed us to experience sexual pleasure without risking our lives and futures. It allowed us to choose when we would become mothers safely, but also to choose pleasure and intimacy without risking unintended pregnancies. (I came of age sexually at what surely is one of the few times in world history when sex meant few consequences for women -- we had the pill, abortion was legal, and the two prevalent STDs were easily treated; that's not true for young women today or women in many parts of the world.)

I think we're still dealing as a culture and surely as religious institutions with what it means that procreation and pleasure are easily separated. But, I know today, that I am grateful beyond words for my two children -- and the era of modern contraception that made them planned and oh so wanted.

Friday, May 07, 2010

This Week's Teachable Moments: Lawrence Taylor, Escorts, and The Pill

If you've read my books for parents on raising sexually healthy children and teens, you know that I recommend using every day moments to provide your children with a little bit of information about sexuality and a little bit about your values.

The news regularly provides opportunities to talk with your children about sexuality issues. From elementary school and up, your child is hearing information about sexuality from news sources, even if you don't think they are paying attention. And if you don't initiate talks about these topical areas, they may be left to figure it out on their own. These news stories can also provide a "hook" for you to bring up topics with your children.

I'm guessing that from age 10 and up, your child will hear about Lawrence Taylor's arrest for sex with a minor yesterday. This story could give you an opportunity to talk about the age of consent in your state, about healthy sexual relationships, about your values about fidelity in marriage.

Or then there's the story of the co-founder of the Family Research Council paying a male escort to travel with him in Europe through a gay online escort service. That would give you a chance to talk about sexual orientation or paying for sex or hypocrisy or again healthy sexual relationships.

Or maybe you're in the car and there's a story about the 50th anniversary of "the pill" this week. That gives you a chance to talk about contraception, how sexual attitudes have changed during your lifetime, or healthy sexual relationships.

The content needs to be age appropriate -- your discussion with your 8-year-old is different than with your 16-year-old, but the process I recommend is the same. Here are the three steps for a teachable moment discussion:

1) Ask your children what they've heard. Find out what they know.

2) Clarify their information, clear up misinformation.

3) Give your child YOUR family values. Say, "In our family, we believe...."

And keep it short. As my son used to remind me while pointedly looking at his watch, "Mom, it's a teachable moment, not a teachable hour."

P.S. - If you are a parent and don't have my parenting books, click on the link to the right, and you can buy a copy at and have a small donation returned to the Religious Institute.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stop Asking - Stop Answering -- Gender (M or F) on Forms

I just made a decision that I'm hoping you'll share.

I was asked to sign up for a listserv for a professional network of people working on international sexual and reproductive health. The form required me to give my gender, and the drop down box gave two options, M and F. I skipped the question, pushed submit, and got an automatic message that I had to answer that question.

I contacted the organization, who basically replied that it couldn't do anything. I told them I couldn't sign up. My gender has no relevance to my participation on this listserv, and I have no need to share it.

To stand with my friends and colleagues of transgender experience, I've decided I'm no longer going to answer gender or sex questions that don't provide another option to M & F. And when they are required, I'm going to write and tell the organization why I can't participate.

If enough of us do it, forms will change -- and people will be educated that the gender binary doesn't apply to all of us.

Will you join me?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Arizona Immigration Policy: Why It Matters To A Sexual Justice Advocate

I am outraged, as I know you are, about the new immigration policy in Arizona that allows police to question people about their immigration status and requires them to produce documentation that they are in the United States legally.

It is nothing short of a full frontal attack on people of Latino descent in Arizona and xenophobia at its worst. I'm also pretty confident that it will be found unconstitutional. I'm proud of the work my denomination is doing in Arizona in their Standing on the Side of Love campaign.

I asked a colleague whether there was a pending sign on letter by national religious leaders, and she seemed surprised that we would want to be outspoken on immigration laws. Now as a small organization, we do concentrate on a small number of sexual justice issues, but there is no question that they are affected by these laws.

At its core, my strong faith commitment to the dignity and worth of all persons means that I do not think any person is "illegal" or unworthy of equal treatment. But, these issues also intersect in more practical ways. What's going to happen to Hispanic women in labor in Arizona when they go to a hospital? What about when they visit a public health clinic for birth control? What happens to gay and lesbian Hispanic immigrants who live with U.S. citizens in families but because there is no marriage equality are denied immigration status that their straight married friends have? There are many such questions where these issues intersect.

I'm also acutely aware that the same people who support these types of laws also fight against sexual justice issues. A recent poll of Tea Party activists for examples show that 82% of them think immigration is a very serious problem, 84% oppose marriage equality, and 79% don't support the availability of abortion. (A third believe that President Obama was born in another country.)

SO, why would I speak out against the Arizona law? Because all of these issues are interconnected, and because as long as there is injustice for any group, there cannot be, "liberty and justice for all."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

1st Denomination Database on Sexuality Issues

Wondering how yesterday's decision by the ELCA to allow partnered gay clergy came about?

Wondering about the history of the Roman Catholic Church's policies on child sexual abuse -- or how other denominations respond?

Needing to find a church or synagogue that supports sexual justice issues?

Look no further. I'm delighted to let you know about the first online searchable denomination database on sexuality issues.

The Religious Institute database includes statements and studies from 28 religious denominations on 22 issues, including adolescent sexuality, assisted reproductive technologies, contraception, homosexuality and sexual orientation, marriage and marriage equality, transgender and gender identity, sexuality education, and sexual abuse and violence. Each entry consists of the full text or excerpt of the denomination’s position, as well as a link to the original source.

The database was created as a research tool for journalists, scholars and educators. It will also assist clergy, seminarians, theologians, congregational committees, and others engaged in writing, teaching, policymaking or discernment. Individuals seeking a religious home may also use the database to understand how different traditions address sexuality concerns.

The database includes documents from a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions, reflecting both conservative and progressive perspectives. Because the collected resources date back to the 1970s, researchers can examine the historical evolution of a denomination’s positions on contemporary issues, such as sexual orientation and assisted reproduction.

You can search the database here:

The full press release is posted at

We hope you'll help us spread the word on your blogs, web sites, newsletter, twitter, and FB pages.

Let me know what you think!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Newsweek on Abortion: Only Half the Story

This article appears in today's Newsweek: It's major points are that young people don't care enough about abortion rights and that the pro-choice movement needs to be begin to address the "moral complexity" of abortion.

Here's the letter I just sent them:

To the editor:

Your article on supportive attitudes about abortion rights among young people only tells part of the story. Yes, it's difficult for some people born a decade after Roe to conceive abortion being illegal, but my experience with young women activists is not represented in your article. In fact, your writer chose not to interview the many organizations headed by young women working on abortion rights.

But more concerning to me as a minister who runs an organization of more than 5000 religious leaders committed to sexual justice, are the assertions that the pro-choice movement has ignored the moral complexities of abortion. Religious leaders have been in the forefront of the movement for abortion rights for more than fifty years. The Clergy Consultation Service in the 1960's and 1970's were among the first to advocate for repeal of abortion laws. More than thirty years ago, many religious denominations passed courageous resolutions in support of women's moral agency and their right to a safe and legal abortion. Our "Open Letter to Religious Leaders On Abortion As a Moral Decision" has been endorsed by more than 1100 ordained clergy, and calls for a world where abortion is safe, legal, accessible, and rare. Rather than ignore the moral complexities, we call on leaders of all faiths to prepare themselves to support women compassionately as they also affirm women as moral agents who have the capacity, right, and responsibility to make their own decisions about unintended pregnancies.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Friday, April 16, 2010

The United Church of Christ Gets It

It's thrilling to share this new video from the United Church of Christ with you.

It is a stirring, moving photo montage demonstrating their commitment to justice, full inclusion, and diversity.

It's an invitation to join their churches...but I think it's a challenge to other denominations to do as well for all. They are creating a viral movement. I hope you'll take a moment and watch it.

Regardless of your religious background, I think you'll find "God is still speaking."

I'm having a bit of denomination envy myself.

The Language of God from United Church of Christ on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sexually Healthy Rabbis, Ministers, and Priests

I spent Monday with a group of United Methodist officials who are working to create a new policy for training for clergy and seminarians on sexual boundaries and harassment prevention. The Religious Institute is helping them place this work in the context of working with clergy on becoming sexually healthy religious professionals.

A sexually healthy religious professional of course understands appropriate sexual boundaries and how to deal with their attractions. But, they are also knowledgeable about human sexuality, familiar with their sacred texts on sexuality, have engaged in reflection on their own sexuality and how to integrate sexuality and spirituality, trained in pastoral counseling on these issues, skilled in preaching, and able to serve as a role model, discussing sexual issues with comfort, ease, and respect.

The good news is that a number of denominations are now understanding that assuring the sexual health of their religious professionals is central to ministerial formation. The UUA, as I've written here before, will now require all of their candidates to demonstrate competency in sexual health, education, and justice. We're working with at least five other denominations to help them more forward on these issues.

Maybe it's time for the Vatican to call on us for advice too.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bristol Palin's PSA on Teen Pregnancy

Candies released its new PSA with Bristol Palin.

There are a lot of things that are troubling about it. It implies that only families of means (or even perhaps with famous parents) can adequately support their pregnant teen daughters. That is of course patently false. And teen parenthood is hard, no matter your family's resources.

It also doesn't begin to mention that teenage pregnancy can be PREVENTED through the use of contraception.

But, I like the overall message that teenage parenthood is tough, and I find "pause before you play" compelling. To me, it says think about sex before you have it, always a good message for teenagers AND adults. No matter what your age, thinking BEFORE sex is always a good idea (although as a sexologist, I'd tell you that thinking DURING is rarely.)

I think this ad would be a great trigger for discussion with teens in your home or in a classroom. One could point out the classist assumptions -- and still point out that preparing for sex, making sure it's right for you and the circumstances, and then choosing to abstain from intercourse or get contraception and condoms before anything physical happens.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Adults Are The Problem With Teen Sexuality

Adults set up a fake prom in Mississippi rather than have a lesbian teen couple attend the actual prom.

A district attorney in Wisconsin threatens to charge sex educators with sex abuse if they teach condom use to teens younger than 16 in accordance with state education law.

A Vatican official on Easter Sunday suggests that the faithful avoid the "petty gossip" about sexual abuse of children and youth by priests.

These recent events reported in the news in the past few days appal me. I'm guessing they do you, too.

And what do they teach our young people? That some adults so devalue gay and lesbian youth that they shouldn't be included in important events. That some adults would rather deny young people life saving information than acknowledge that some teens engage in sexual relationships. That some adults turn their back on young people who are being sexually abused by adults.

What do I want teens (and the adults who care for them) to know? That forming a sexual identity is a developmental task of adolescents. That adults need to support the teen virgins and the teens who engage in sexual behaviors. That truth telling should be the hallmark of all of our programs. That adults will do everything they can to protect youth from abusive adults, regardless of profession. That young people have the right to ask questions and a right to have answers. That they deserve our respect and our support as they become adults.

The good news for today is that the teen birth rate went down last year, after increasing for the past two. More teens are protecting themselves, either by abstaining from PVI (penile-vaginal intercourse) or by using contraception. While the adults are fighting, they're seeking out what they need to be safe. Shouldn't we be on THEIR side?