Uplifted as equal- becoming Affirming at Gower St United Church, NL

Note from Affirm United: On January 27 2019, Gower Street United Church in St. John’s NL voted to become Affirming. They will become the first Affirming ministry on the island, joining Labrador City on the mainland in Labrador. And great will be the rejoicing! Many thanks to Larry Kelly for his permission to share his words. 

Reflection by Larry Kelly – January 13, 2019, Gower St United Church in St. John’s NL

Good Morning! Last Sunday Lorne spoke about the differences between welcoming and affirming congregations. This morning’s affirm message speaks to why affirming congregations may be more important now than ever.

In the 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, and 32 years since it was declassified as a psychiatric disorder, significant LGBT legislative and human rights protections have been enacted. However, same sex relationships are still illegal in 72 countries, resulting in imprisonment, and 8 of those countries maintain the death penalty for homosexuality.

Culturally we have progressed, however there is evidence of a growing global political backlash aimed at eroding LGBT rights and creating an environment conducive to discrimination and exclusion. The US Administration, heavily influenced by the Evangelical alliance is attempting to systematically roll back equality rights, for example forcing transgender personnel from the military. And, increasingly, business owners feel emboldened to refuse services to LGBT customers, citing moral or religious reasons.

A recent ongoing poll, created in 2014 by GLAAD (Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) saw an increase for the first time in the number of people who said they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable with LGBT people in their faith communities, having an LGBT family member, having their child taught by an LGBT teacher or study LGBT history in school.

Despite Canada’s advanced human rights protections, we are not immune to the negative and bigoted rhetoric of others as we are connected to and live in a global community. And we cannot legislate how people think, believe or perceive.

In Ontario, the Conservative government recently removed an updated sex education program (which included LGBT relationships and gender identity) from its schools. This past year parents in Middle Arm pulled children from a class discussion of LGBT inclusivity, citing religious faith for their decision, and in Botwood, members of a new Gay Straight Alliance club were bullied and threatened with physical violence by their peers.

Despite increasing acceptance of LGBT people in society and greater visibility in the media and public life, many still experience discrimination, harassment and violence at work, in school and at church.

In fact, 6 weeks ago the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission ruled that a United Church in Newfoundland discriminated against one of its congregants based on sexual orientation. The congregant was directed to relinquish his leadership roles in the church when it became known that he was gay.

Hate crimes against minorities are trending upwards throughout the world. In Canada LGBT hate crimes were up by 10% in 2017 and reportedly more violent than other categories of hate crimes. Last year, there were 22 murders of transgender people in the United States and more than 300 worldwide. The true stats are probably worse as many hate crimes go unreported.

Research shows that LGBT people have higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population resulting from heightened and long-term exposure to societal and institutional prejudice and discrimination. LGBT youth almost universally experience bulling and harassment by their peers, comprise between 25-44% of homeless youth in Canada and are 3-4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

On January 5th Karl and I celebrated 39 years together. Like most of you we created a loving home, have family and friends that we love, and who love and support us, have enjoyed long and successful careers and are now enjoying retirement. However, our experiences as a couple also includes intolerance, homophobia and discrimination.

A rainbow flag stands between a stained glass window and organ pipes with intricately carved wood, in a church worship space.
A rainbow flag inside the sanctuary at Gower St United Church, St John’s NL.

We know the pain and disappointment of family rejection by some family members, the sense of isolation when ridiculed and shamed by a clergy when spiritual guidance and support was sought, and the sense of loss when deciding to leave the church. We know the humiliation of being taunted and called fags while walking on a busy downtown street, and when young men often drove by and yelled faggot at Karl when he was live on air. We know the sense of despair resulting from harassment by a homophobic boss, almost to the point of exhaustion.

We know the sense of betrayal because of the actions of a young overzealous reporter who felt it was her right to out Karl in her newspaper column, and fear of the audience response, and trepidation about the anticipated reaction from his boss, who ridiculed, cursed at and blamed Karl for allowing it to happen. We know the sorrow of losing many friends and acquaintances during the AIDS epidemic and felt the isolation when colleagues did not want to be around us for fear we might be infected. And we felt anger and frustration when bigoted evangelical church leaders preached that AIDS was God’s retribution for a depraved and evil lifestyle.

Those experiences did not and do not define our lives and in many ways reinforced our faith and commitment. I share these experiences with you only to underscore that we all come to this place with similar, but sometimes unique life experiences that help us evolve and renew as a community of faith. As Lorne stated last week, each time a new person comes through the door, the community becomes a new community.

When planning to get married in 2010, our needs were two-fold; to have a church ceremony and to become part of a congregation. Fortunately for us, Gower was the only church embracing marriage equality. We were warmly welcomed by everyone associated with the planning and performance of the ceremony, and in the weeks following, strangers congratulated and welcomed us to the congregation. We felt affirmed in that we were asked to participate in the work and leadership of the church. This congregation has uplifted us and made us feel equal. While our experiences are unique to us there are many LGBT people with similar life experiences who may also be seeking a sense of community and belonging centered on faith or spirituality, and with much to give. May they also find their way to Gower.

We believe that Gower is affirming at its core but recognize that our affirming work will never be complete. However, every action that we take toward a more just society matters, not only for LGBT people but for everybody. We hope that in the spirit of this season of Epiphany, we at Gower become the light, and move forward as an example of a truly affirming congregation seeking justice, equality and inclusion for all.






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