© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Who are you? In the deep, dark night when you lie awake while all the world sleeps, what truths about yourself do you honestly ponder? What innermost thoughts, dreams, loves, fears, hatreds and inspirations define the essential ‘you’? And when the light of day arrives, and you move out into a world of relationships, work and human interaction, are you the same person whom you defined in the darkness? Are your actions and your speech consistent with who you are and who you were made to be?
On this Pride Sunday here in Cincinnati, I hope we might all celebrate the core meaning of this day – one of acceptance and joy for being authentic. This day is celebrated at various times in various cities around the world as a way to proclaim that no longer will ANY person – gay or straight – need to feel the shame or stigma for simply living true to themselves. Indeed, the message I hear from Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” is one for us all. To the frightened gay man or woman afraid that friends, family or peers will learn their truth, to the confused soul who struggles to make sense of life, to the one despairing of pain, depression or loneliness who puts on a brave face to the outside world, to the angry one who hates his or her own life and hides such self-loathing in drugs, alcohol or bitterness toward others, today of all days speaks of a need for authenticity. And joy. And freedom from the masks that many of us wear. And most of all PRIDE in allowing ourselves to stand in the light of day and simply be who we truly are – wounded, loving, straight, joyful, young, lusty, black, depressed, atheist, gay, old, white, vegan, fearful, etc. etc.
If we follow the one simple rule of life – to practice the Golden Rule to love others as much as we love ourselves, then there is nothing else under the sun about ourselves of which we should not be proud. No matter what is true about us – as long as we do no harm to others – we are good and unique people. And in that distinct individuality of wounds and triumphs, of fears and joys, lies the rare beauty, the uncut gem, that must not be hidden. Baby, you were born that way…
Theodore Geisel – or Dr. Seuss to most people – once said, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Added to such wisdom is William Shakespeare’s admonition in his play Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Our goal, therefore, must be one of living our truth both to others and to ourselves. In doing so, we fulfill Jesus’ words that truth will set us free. We are liberated from the prisons of shame, fear and guilt.
Authenticity then lies in the attempt by any of us to outwardly live according to our inner being. It involves refusing to conform to cultural, familial or religious standards and traditions that seek to define us. To live any other way creates a dissonance and confusion in our minds and in our relationships. Race relations in our nation have long been inauthentic precisely because persons are judged by outward appearances alone. Sexism, religious intolerance and classism often take the same approach. Instead of reaching for the spiritual ideal of loving fellow humans as we too wish to be loved and treated, we create false standards and stereotypes about others. We marginalize and demean in order to somehow elevate ourselves. Black pride, feminism and gay pride are all manifestations of the same desire to express authenticity – people who claim, own and assert their true selves against the prevailing prejudices, assumptions and false beliefs of others. Henry David Thoreau remarked long ago that we are all constantly invited to to be who we are. In that regard, equality efforts and Pride festivals around the country are efforts to fulfill such an invitation. Individually and communally, we are asked to be real with one another. No prejudice. No intolerance. It is the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin, the faith in one’s heart, the love of one’s life or the hidden pain one feels that determines the measure of a life. If that is indeed so, honesty and integrity calls us to liberate ourselves from the judgements of others and live in truth. Personal and communal integrity also calls us to honor and care for the truth in other lives.
As I have discussed here on several occasions, I led a life for far too many years that masked parts of my true self as a gay man. During those years I hurt others as much as I hurt myself. In my fears, my self-hatred, my inner denials, my hopes to be “normal” and my acceptance of what religion and society told me they believe is wrong, I was alienated from reality. I was alienated from me.
And when I finally chose to try to be authentic, to live in accord not with what the outside world told me I should be but with who I was born to be, I embarked on a journey of truth and freedom and peace. As I have mentioned before, I recall the shaking fear I had when I first came out to my eighteen year old daughter Amy. In one fell swoop I knew the constructs of her life and our relationship might be broken. And yet, as one whom I love so very much and for whom I would willingly give my life, I knew I had to be honest. And in that moment that I first told her, Dr. Seuss’ quote was fulfilled. Someone who matters most in my life did not mind my truth. As I sat facing her, unsure of her reaction, she simply put her arms around me and so full of youthful grace, said to me, “Daddy. It’s OK. I love you no matter what.” In that moment, as I have said, I as a parent was loved unconditionally by my child in the same way so many children yearn to feel loved unconditionally by their parents.
In that beautiful moment of authenticity with my daughter and with many other times I have had since then, I’ve found the freedom that we all seek. As much as we are able to reveal the truth of ourselves – the weaknesses, fears and doubts all of us have, the more peace and contentment we will find. Contrary to the fear and shame we may feel about ourselves, taking our masks off allows the world to see the genuine beauty in us. Perfection or normalcy is often an illusion created in our dreams. Beauty, instead, lies in truth. Beauty is the wounded and depressed one who is not afraid to say so, the gay kid who lives an open life, the alcoholic who confesses and seeks help, the nerd, physically challenged or outcast in us all who claims a certain pride at being different. Each one is a work of art, a person to behold and cherish and admire. Baby you were born this way…
Who we are as people – the essence of our souls, personalities and attitudes, are amalgamations of genetics and the influences of our environments. While we can often change the actions we undertake in life, it is impossible to substantially alter our innate personalities and identities. Even further, most psychologists, including those of the American Psychiatric Association believe that one’s sexual identity is fixed and not subject to change. There have been many studies undertaken to determine the cause of human sexuality – is it a trait with genetic origins, pre-natal origins or simply the result of how we are raised along with other environmental factors? While no study is conclusive, research has shown higher numbers of gays within extended families – pointing to a possible genetic influence. Research also shows a higher incidence of gay brothers and gay twins thus indicating genetic influence. Other research points to the influence of maternal hormones during pregnancy as possibly influencing the development of the infant brain and sexuality. While other psychologists point to life environmental factors as the cause – like how we are raised as children – the weight of anecdotal evidence shows that most gays and lesbians believe they were so from very, very early ages.
Presently, there is no conclusive evidence. However, a 2005 genome study released by the University of Illinois Department of Psychiatry perhaps best states the reality. It said: “There is no one ‘gay’ gene. Sexual orientation is a complex trait, so it’s not surprising that we found several DNA regions involved in its expression. Our best guess is that multiple genes, potentially interacting with environmental influences, explain differences in sexual orientation. We believe genes play an important role in determining whether a person is gay or heterosexual.” For all intents and purposes, many scientists, researchers, and therapists affirm Lady Gaga and her song lyrics, baby you were born this way…
My appeal to all of us today is to stay focused on what really matters. Ultimately gay pride, today’s festival and parade are about celebrating authentic lives for an entire class of people who have been historically denied that right. More importantly, pride speaks to any of us – gay or straight – about living openly and truthfully as well as accepting all people in their honest and open lives. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, said that “a life unexamined, is a life not worth living.”
And so we must ponder the depths of our souls. We must be willing to confess and admit our flaws as much as we celebrate our strengths. We must embrace our differences from what culture might tell us is normal – in our appearance, our beliefs, and our spirituality. To the conservative in the midst of a progressive congregation like ours, the call is to celebrate who you are and come out. To the one worn down by the weight of life, come out and share your burdens. To the atheist or agnostic in our predominantly Christian culture, celebrate your beliefs openly. For each of us, be genuine and be real. Such widespread authenticity will reduce bigotry and challenge the culture to embrace diversity and tolerance.
I hope this ethic of pride in who we are is one we will continue to embrace and practice here at the Gathering. One of the marketing slogans we will use promotes the fact that we are a diverse and colorful group – a congregation comprised of so many different people. While we claim a certain progressive theology, that does not speak of our different politics, lifestyles, backgrounds, or even faith. When I describe this congregation to others, some are shocked that Buddhists and atheists attend and are welcomed at a church that claims to be Christian. We may be a United Church of Christ congregation but that denomination is also unsure of who and what we are. All of this speaks to our proud and unique identity but even in that, we are far from perfect. In any of us lies the hidden secrets we do not reveal, the private pain we believe we should suffer alone, and the beliefs we hold private.
Our celebration today should remind us, then, that pride begins within ourselves. We must have confidence in who we are. And our pride must be informed by self-awareness and honest self-examination – to clearly see our strengths and our weaknesses. In those dark hours alone at night, can we be real with ourselves or do the masks we wear confuse even us? Coming out of our closets is a process we must ALL undertake.
We must also remain aware of our self-talk – the voice of positive and negative thoughts we speak to ourselves. How can we have pride in who we are if inner voices tell us we are weak or sinful or hopeless? We should expose ourselves to inspiration from multiple sources – music, art, drama and spirituality. How many other opinions and thoughts can we be exposed to? Finally, we must undertake to practice the ideal often repeated here – life is not just about ourselves, we must serve others. Pride is not about the self – it is about being authentic and true to the goodness within each person. If we are truly authentic people, we will have a love, care and concern for the least of God’s children – the poor, homeless, disabled, and marginalized. It is not enough to have Black pride or gay pride. We must have pride – i.e. concern for – the condition of all humanity.
Forgive me if this message has figuratively rained on your parade. Pride is a legitimate emotion for those who have been hurt, marginalized and hated and today is rightfully a happy one. But pride is truly about authenticity. We celebrate the authentic and honorable lives of the GLBT community – many of you and myself included. But this pride, as I have said, is nothing unless it is grounded in authentic lives across the board. Who am I when nobody is looking? Who are you? To thine own self be true – because, once again, baby you are not a mistake. You were born this way…