February 6, 2013

Equality, one conversation at a time

What follows is an article I wrote for Northern Yearly Meeting's newsletter.

First Month 2013

The first conversation I had was with Carol (not her real name), the neighbor who lives behind us, across the alley.  It was May 2011, a week before that year’s NYM annual sessions.

Carol and I always greeted each other when we’d see the other working in the backyard or setting out recycling bins. 

“Hey, Liz, how are you doing?” she asked me this particular spring morning.  “Honestly, not very well,” I told her.  It was only a day or two after the Minnesota legislature had moved onto the November 2012 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman.* Carol had known Jeanne and me as a couple for two years, ever since she moved into the neighborhood.

“Oh no, what’s wrong?” she asked. I explained that Jeanne and I had been at the Capitol all week, protesting against the amendment.  Because of our friendship, Carol was able to affirm my hurt and then shared her own perspective:  “You know that I really like both of you; you’ve been great block club captains.  You also know that I’m a conservative Christian and that I work in the arts, so of course I know a lot of other gay and lesbian artists.  I’m really conflicted about gay marriage…”

That conversation was one of about 200 that I would have over the next 18 months; one of nearly 1,000 conversations that Minnesota Quakers would engage in; and one of about a million conversations statewide.  For 18 months between May 2011-November 2012, Minnesota became one of the first testing grounds that would avoid rhetoric and legal debates focusing on discrimination and “civil rights” for GLBTQ people. Instead, a coalition that included national and statewide partners, faith communities and businesses, would develop and rely on a research-based strategy that required one-on-one conversations about “what does marriage mean to you?” and about the gay and lesbian people, and the same-sex couples, we know personally.

During a phone bank with Minnesotans United for All Families, I engage a voter: “You mentioned that you and your wife have been married for nearly 25 years. That’s great.  And when you think back to that day when one of you proposed to the other, what do you remember about why you wanted to get married?”  After hearing his answer, I gently moved into the next part of the phone script:  “Do you know any gay or lesbian people, or people in same-sex relationships?”  (“Yes, my son has gay friends…”)  “Do you think gay and lesbian people, like your son’s friends, may one day fall in love like you did, and want to get married for similar reasons that you just mentioned?”

During the 18 months between when the Republican-led legislature moved the marriage amendment onto the ballot in May 2011 and the time when Minnesotans voted on the amendment this past November, communities of faith across the state, including Quakers, took an active role in the work to defeat the proposed amendment.  Pro-LGBTQ Minnesota clergy, including a Catholic priest and a Lutheran bishop, had letters to the editor printed in major newspapers; clergy held press conferences affirming that their religious communities supported marriage for same-sex couples as a matter of faith and belief; and many rabbis and pastors actively preached from their respective pulpits about how God’s love for God’s people is an ever-inclusive and ever-expansive love—a Love that strives for justice. 

I was preparing to speak with a group called Grandmothers for Peace.  They had asked me to talk about how the proposed marriage amendment was unjust, discriminatory, and an infringement of civil rights.  But such messages ran directly counter to what research was showing to be effective in changing people’s hearts and minds.  I prayed for a way to speak respectfully to these elders who had been involved in justice work and social change movements far longer than the few months I had been involved with Minnesotans United.  When it was my turn to speak, I asked the Grandmothers—with a few Grandfathers participating too—how many of them had done any baking for their family and grandkids.  Many indicated they had—cakes, cookies, bread—and I asked them, “Well, how many times would any of you use a recipe that you had already baked with, where over and over again, the result had been disastrous rather than delicious?  And what if you had tried that recipe two, three, or four times, never getting it the way you wanted it to turn out?  Would you ever go back to using that recipe again?”  I continued:  So if we know that the recipe for talking about this sort of proposed amendment has been based on talking about discrimination, equal rights, and the purpose of the Constitution; and if we know that this recipe has already turned out a disastrous result more than 30 times, why in the world would we draw on the same old recipe in Minnesota and hope that this time the recipe would turn out okay?  

Grandmothers for Peace, along with tens of thousands of other Minnesotans, were ready to learn about and try out the newest “test recipe” that would allow us to be the first state in the U.S. to defeat a proposed amendment that would have singled out a certain group of people from all others in order to limit their freedom to marry the person they love.

Even Scripture was renewed for some, not as an old tool for beating one group down, but as a vehicle for bringing new Light to lift all of us up.  In my own experience, I was opened to verses like Genesis 2:18, around the concept of a “helpmeet”–that God didn’t pair a man, Adam, with a woman, Eve; but rather that God created “suitable helpers” for one another, because it is not good for any of us to be alone. For our GLBTQ members and attenders, a suitable helper has to do with love, commitment, and responsibility; not exclusively about differences in body parts or even gender identity.

Quakers of course participated in the statewide work all along, too.  Meetings across Minnesota sent Friends to participate in phone banks; invited trained presenters to speak with them; or participated in interfaith groups that had gathered to learn how to transcend the unspoken rule of “Minnesota nice” and engage in conversations that would ultimately set tens of thousands of conflicted and undecided voters on a journey of deeper consideration of the issues that impact loving, committed same-sex couples.

Another phone-caller’s story was shared online:  “I was on the phone with an older Catholic woman. It was really important for her to be faithful to the Catholic Church, but she also saw the suffering that her gay and lesbian friends were going through.  I told her that she could leave the question on the ballot blank.  By doing that, she’d be able to say she didn’t go against the teachings of the church, and the blank vote would help her friends because it would be counted among the No votes. The woman ended the call by saying, ‘I think God may have sent you to me, because I really didn’t know what to do, and you’ve given me something to think about.’”

Members of the Marriage Equality Committee (MEC) of Twin Cities Friends Meeting (TCFM) became active in the interfaith group that was formed in St. Paul.  Other Friends sat on the interfaith roundtable sponsored by OutFront Minnesota—a roundtable that had been convened from about 2004-2008 as the Faith Family Fairness Alliance. As time went by, dozens of Minnesota Friends became visibly engaged in the work of the Vote NOcampaign; many others held their own conversations privately, put up Vote NO lawn signs, wore Vote NO t-shirts, gave money to the campaign, and much more.

Faith-based activities included wearing and distributing buttons that read “I’m a Minnesotan of faith voting NO on the marriage amendment”; having houses of worship, including TCFM, display large orange signs that declared “People of Faith Vote NO on limiting the freedom to marry”; and having churches, meetings, and synagogues speak with fellow worshipers to be sure they knew not only what the wording of the proposed amendment was and why it was important to vote No.  In the case of TCFM, the MEC also did the work of reaching out to every single worshiper personally; to explain that the meeting had minuted its support for marriage equality; and to have a conversation about the proposed amendment and about the GLBTQ people we knew in the meeting.

The ripples of MEC’s Spirit-led work also reached NYM-affiliated meetings in 2011 as well as the gathered body of Northern Yearly Meeting in 2012, where the work was taken further and deeper into NYM’s Meetings for Worship for Business during the annual session.

It’s now about three months after the historic results from the November 2012 election. The affirmation of civil marriage for same-sex couples took place in the states of Washington, Maine, and Maryland, in addition to the defeat of Minnesota’s proposed anti-LGBTQ marriage amendment. 

After all that, Jeanne and I don’t know how our neighbor Carol voted, but we were able to talk with her several times during the year-and-a-half, accompanying her on her own journey of wrestling with how to be faithful to her religious beliefs while also affirming the love she saw among her friends and neighbors. 

Lots of Friends label me an activist now.  But I like to think of myself as someone who simply decided to get involved.  That’s a lot of what engaging in social change movements is about, really: inviting one another on a journey and into a new type of conversation.  When we do that, we can interrupt our own and others’ automatic thinking that we’ve been socialized to accept without question.  We can begin to listen more deeply to what God is telling us and begin to live out a new order, growing closer to God and to the Light within all of God’s beloved children.

*Like many other states, Minnesota has in place a “Defense of Marriage Act” [DOMA] statute that since 1997 has prevented loving, committed same-sex couples from being able to marry legally. 

UPDATE Second Month 2013:  Currently, a re-configured Minnesotans United for All Families is working with the Minnesota legislature to present a bill that, if approved, would provide marriage for all loving committed couples, regardless of the gender of each partner.

No comments: