A couple of weeks ago I spoke on a panel about faith and reproductive justice at a conference called Beyond Roe: Reproductive Justice in a Changing World at Rutgers Law School. A colleague from another organization organized the panel for the audience of lawyers, future lawyers, and activists. He framed the panel by saying that one of the gifts that religion brings to this work is the ability to use stories to connect people and issues.
So I spoke about how my life story brought me to the work I do today. This is an edited version of the talk I gave.
What I learned about sexuality in the faith community of my teen years was pretty straightforward. Basically the message was, if you think about sex, you’re committing a sin, and if you have sex before you’re married, you’re going to hell. And it was clear that if you felt attracted to someone of the same sex, as I did, you were going to hell even faster.
Not surprisingly, I left that religion when I graduated from high school. I could no longer tolerate the expectation to deny all my sexual feelings, to never question the church’s teachings, and to accept that my role in life was to be subordinate to men.
Years later, when I finally came out as a lesbian to myself, my friends, and eventually my family, I was pretty sure that I was exiled from the Christian faith forever.
And then I discovered progressive Christian faith communities. I tried out one, then another. I finally went to an Episcopal church and I knew I was home. The theology that I heard from the pulpit and experienced in the liturgy resonated deeply with my own experience of God.
We are created in God’s image. God created and loves and values diversity in God’s creatures. Jesus was a radical religious teacher who treated the most marginalized people of his day with dignity and respect. He crossed boundaries, broke religious taboos and pissed off religious and civil authorities.
I learned that Jesus did not come to save humanity from itself, but to show humanity how to be our best selves. The fact that Jesus came to us as God in human flesh proves that human bodies are important, and sacred, and intimately bound up with our faith. Sexuality and spirituality are two sides of the same coin.
This was faith that made sense to me. Not so-called literal interpretations of texts that are thousands of years old, but a search for eternal truths in the stories of God’s relationship with humanity. Not a strict adherence to doctrines handed down through church “fathers” with a political agenda, but a faith journey that attempts to live the way Jesus lived, always pushing the margins outward, always welcoming the “other.”
This kind of embodied theology, born of the great Catholic tradition of liberation theology and encouraging engagement in the world, was the basis of my theological education. But even before I went to divinity school, this progressive Christian faith proved important in my work.
My first career was as a French and Spanish teacher. I spent most of it in a large public high school in a medium sized town. It was a community that was dominated by conservative Christian churches. There were no progressive religious communities in that town and no progressive religious voices in the public arena.
When I became one of the advisors of the Gay Straight Alliance at my high school, I became a teacher that kids could talk to about sex. Those kids weren’t getting much useful information from their sexuality education or their faith communities and they surely needed it.
The state that I taught in mandated abstinence-based sexuality education, and the clergy in town warned parents that teaching their children about birth control would only lead to them engaging in sexual intercourse.
I have no doubt that these factors contributed to the fact that during my 20 years in the district, at least 25 of my students aged 16 and younger got pregnant. Birth control was difficult to obtain, and even if it hadn’t been, my students weren’t encouraged to use contraception.
Interestingly, at least five of the girls who were in the Gay Straight Alliance and who identified as lesbians also ended up pregnant before graduation. This was not unique to the school where I taught. Recent studies tell us that lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are less likely to use contraceptives than their heterosexual peers, and that pregnancy rates among lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are considerably higher than rates among their heterosexual peers.
So after 20 years of talking with teens who had unplanned pregnancies and who were concerned about raising their children while they themselves were still adolescents, and after 20 years of working with LGBT teens who were bullied and rejected by their faith communities and families, and after 20 years of answering a student’s tearful question, “Am I going to hell?” with a resounding no over and over again, in short, after 20 years of fighting the effects of the dominant conservative Christian theology that was the polar opposite of the liberating gospel that grounds my faith and the faith of hundreds of thousands of other progressive Christians – after all that, it is not surprising that my career after divinity school led me to the Religious Institute.
The Religious Institute is a multifaith organization that works to promote sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. Our founding document, the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing expresses our core belief that sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.
The work I do helps future religious leaders learn about the positive connections between faith and sexuality, and helps give people of faith ways to express their commitments to sexual and reproductive justice in explicitly religious terms. But most of all, we seek to change the conversation on religion and sexuality in the public arena. It’s my hope that someday, no teenager will ever wonder if they are “going to hell” because of their sexuality.
The Religious Institute’s Religious Declaration ends, “God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity.” Indeed.