(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Last Sunday I quoted Leo Tolstoy from his book War and Peace about the true nature of love. It is only real, he wrote, when it is a sacrifice of both soul and body for another. Throughout history people have sacrificed their reputations, freedom, happiness and lives to love whom they wish. Their stories highlight how most societies are often judgmental and discriminate against love between consenting adults that is considered different. Forbidden love is, much like racism or religious intolerance, a serious and ongoing from of bigotry.
Antony and Cleopatra were two such hated lovers. As the preeminent Roman military commander of his time, Antony fell in love with the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra. After she moved to Rome to be with him, and after they had a child out of wedlock, Roman public opinion was outraged. A man of aristocratic birth should not marry an ethnically different woman. The Senate stripped Antony of his command and banished them both. Antony and Cleopatra later committed suicide after realizing their relationship was impossible.
Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari were also forbidden lovers. Dante is the famed Italian poet who wrote the classic Renaissance work Divine Comedy. As young adults, they were strongly drawn to one another. They penned passionate love letters to the other and sought to be married. But they were forced by societal rules to remain apart. Arranged marriages were the standard of the time. Dante and Beatrice were engaged by their respective parents to other persons and thus were forbidden by law to be together. Beatrice, three years after marrying another man, died supposedly of a broken heart.
Richard the first, better known as Richard the Lionheart, was undoubtedly homosexual. As a military commander of courage and skill, he was a hero of his day – as he still is in England. Numerous accounts written while he lived, however, indicate he was gay. For many years, he had a young Knight as his lover and he frequently confessed and repented, in public and at church, for what he called “that sin”.
Richard later fell in love with King Phillip the second of France. A writer of the time documented in official royal papers that, “They ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the king of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that King Henry of England, Richard’s father, was absolutely astonished at the passionate love between them and marveled at it.”
Richard, however, was forced to marry a woman since he wanted to be King. The two never had children and their relationship was said to be strictly formal. Numerous books about Richard, however, still refuse to consider these facts. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that any accounts indicating Richard was homosexual are unproven. That is, of course, true since such a private matter, from nine hundred years ago, cannot be proven beyond doubt. Many in England today, and most members of the British royal family, refuse to acknowledge that the great, courageous and very masculine military King Richard the Lionheart was gay.
A more recent British King was also forbidden to love the person he chose. In 1936, King Edward caused a constitutional crisis in England when he proposed marriage to a divorced American woman named Wallis Simpson. English society was shocked that their Queen might be a divorcee. Parliament considered forbidding the marriage. Winston Churchill condemned it. King Edward then announced on national radio that he would choose love over being King. He abdicated his throne.
Richard and Mildred Loving were not of royal birth, but their forbidden love will also go down in history. Married in Washington DC in 1958, this interracial couple moved back to their Virginia hometown. A month later, at 2 AM one morning, police broke into their home, found them in bed, and arrested them under a 1924 law forbidding marriage between blacks and whites. A judge later found them guilty of a felony and sentenced them to prison. He said, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” The judge said he would commute their prison sentence if they left the state – which they did.
In 1963 then Attorney General Robert Kennedy encouraged them to challenge the conviction in court. Two ACLU lawyers took the case. In 1967, in a landmark Civil Rights decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the Loving’s favor and struck down all laws forbidding interracial marriage.
In 2016, in another landmark case, Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court used the Loving case as legal precedent to rule that laws forbidding same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Any two adult Americans, the Court essentially ruled, have the right to love and marry as they please.
Tragically, homosexuality is still illegal in 76 countries. Miiro and Imran are Ugandan young men who just last year were arrested while sleeping together. They were dragged through the streets naked. They were evicted from their home. Their belongings were burned and they were thrown in jail.
Imran was later paraded in front of all students at his school while they beat him and yelled horrible names. His mother disowned him in front of the assembly saying he was not worthy to be her son and she preferred him dead rather then alive and gay. To this day, Imran and Miiro live in hiding. Many Ugandan politicians are heavily supported by American Christian evangelical churches and ministers who encourage them to uphold anti-gay laws.
All of these stories beg the question: how can any romantic love between consenting adults be illegal? Whether it be laws or standards against divorced persons remarrying, interracial marriage, or ones against same sex unions, discrimination against different forms of love are usually based on religious beliefs – which are subjective, open to interpretation and not based on reason.
Experts say prejudice toward different forms of love comes from the human propensity to categorize and stereotype others. Throughout history people have stereotyped Jews, blacks, Asians, homosexuals, the divorced, the other abled, the overweight, senior citizens, and now the transgendered. By categorizing people into different groups based on appearance, or whether they conform to specific standards of behavior, societies determine who is a part of the “in-group”. We socially discriminate because of our desire to elevate ourselves, or our group, over another. That’s precisely the reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me says whites created the concept of race – so they could categorize people, make themselves superior, and thus diminish all others.
Logically and scientifically, such discriminations toward different variations of love make no sense. People fall in and out of love all the time. Others are victims of a spouse who leaves them. Should a divorced person be any different from another?
Same sex attraction has been documented in over 500 different animal species – it is a common part of nature. Even more, it has been accepted and approved within many human civilizations – from ancient Greece to the Mayan culture where homosexuality was the approved form of love.
Discrimination against interracial unions makes even less sense especially given what science has proven. Genetically, as shown by the mapping of human DNA, all people are virtually the same. Every human shares 99.9% of genes. We are biologically all the same. Any differences between people are based on subjective categories societies create. Furthermore, humans have engaged in procreation with people of different ethnicities and skin colors for thousands of years. There is no single person who is therefore of so-called pure heritage. We are all, even white supremacists, human mixtures.
The right to love whom one wishes is a basic right – one implicitly codified in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that all people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Since giving and receiving love is both a basic freedom, and a path to happiness, it is therefore a logical inalienable right.
It’s also a spiritual right embodied in the Golden Rule to treat others equal to how oneself wishes to be treated. Reason tells us that when I allow you the choice to love whom you wish – that is equal to the same wish I have to love whom I choose. I should extend to you the same right I want for myself. Jesus said this Golden Rule is the foundation of ALL morality. Buddha, the Quran, the Torah, the Hindu Upanishads, Native American wisdom, and Confucian ethics all promote the Golden Rule.
This idea gets at the heart of empathy. If I purposefully try to understand your romantic attractions, I’ll realize they are essentially the same as mine. As I said, we all want the same thing. We want to love someone else and we want someone else to love us. Spiritually, ethically and rationally, it makes no difference which consenting adult we choose to love.
Unitarian Universalists have always been at the forefront of advocacy for human rights. As we all know, UU’s were leading abolitionists, proponents of gender equality, Civil Rights activists and gay rights advocates. UU’s now – very, very tentatively – support ALL alternative love expressions between consenting adults – ones like polyamory. There is a UUA sanctioned group called Unitarian Universalists for Polyamorous Awareness. This group seeks to educate and advocate for the rights of adults to love, if they wish, multiple other consenting adults at the same time. That advocacy does not extend to legal marriage like polygamy, but it does uphold the ideal of which I speak: Any form of romantic love between consenting adults, that does not harm another, should never, never be stigmatized or forbidden.
That fundamentally means that persons who engage in alternative forms of love are to be respected like all others. There is nothing negative about their character or basic goodness. Romantic love defines our common humanity. Any love for another person uplifts the giver and bonds him or her to all that is true and sacrificial in the universe. Expressed toward any adult who willingly receives it, love is never wrong. Love is love is love.
I imagine most of us have experienced some form of discrimination in our lives. Some of us have felt intolerance on extremely cruel levels. The hurts I’ve felt from bigotry, as a gay man, does begin to compare with that felt by women, people of color or Jews and Muslims. But that fact does not make the pain I’ve felt any less real.
It hurt deeply when I came out – and the previous congregation I loved served for many years – turned its back on me. Revealing one small piece of my identity – whom I wish to love – suddenly made me evil and grotesque – even though I was still the person I’d always been. Fellow ministers said God hated me and that I was going to hell. Close friends, persons whom I’d officiated at their marriages or their parents’ funerals, or sat with while they recovered from serious illness, they rejected me. As I said, they have a right to their personal life choices about love, but do they have a right to judge the content of my character based strictly on supposed standards of whom I should or should not love?
No. And neither do any of us. I still choke up when I remember the first day I walked into the former Gathering. At a time when I had rejected all forms of spirituality, when I believed them all to be hypocritical and often hateful, at the Gathering I was immediately surrounded by people who took interest in me as a person. They expressed love and support for me in ways I’d rarely felt. I’ll never forget that open-armed acceptance.
I felt the same thing when I first began coming here two and a half years ago. I believe it was my fourth Sunday as a guest minister here when I told my story as a part of the message – including my coming out experiences. Afterwards, many of you, whom I barely knew at the time, hugged me after the service and assured me I was in a welcoming place.
May we always be a welcoming congregation. May we make our homes, schools and workplaces the same. As enlightened individuals, let’s never judge others based on whom or how they love. Instead, I pray we simply celebrate the fact that they DO love. Quite simply, let’s celebrate the noble ideal of love in general – however it is shown.
I wish you all much peace and joy.