In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up
because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t
speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for
the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they
came for me – and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Martin Niemoller (1892-1984)
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
I am writing to urge you to sign the Letter from Virginia Christians to the Virginia General Assembly, and to encourage others in your congregation, community, and denomination to do the same.
The attacks on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members of our communities are real and incredibly painful.
Under a bill that now has passed one house of the Virginia Assembly, state agencies will be required to investigate whether any person seeking to adopt a child in the state of Virginia “is known to engage in current homosexual activity” and to present those findings to the circuit court considering whether to approve the adoption.
Another bill that has crossed over to the Senate will allow local school boards to ban student organizations that seek to create a safe place for gay students and straight allies to meet together to reduce harassment and intimidation of gay students.
Last week at a House Committee hearing on the marriage amendment, I witnessed the delegate patroning the legislation take photographs from the dais of witnesses testifying against the bill during their testimony. Another delegate interrogated a gay witness about “how he had come by his children.”
The one potential bright spot in this legislative session – a bill that would end Virginia’s unique ban on employers providing health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of their employees – has passed the Senate but faces opposition in a House of Delegates emboldened by their anti-gay successes in the first half of the legislative session. The current ban has real consequences for people. In our own congregation, I have watched a couple suffer with the threat of serious illness and have to seek money from family members to pay one partner’s medical bills. Had the couple lived in any state other than Virginia, the other partner’s employer would have provided her health insurance to cover the costs.
Standing up for gay people is hard for straight people, and it’s hard for gays who are not completely open in every aspect of their lives. When you stand up, legislators can harass you with impunity while you testify before them. They can not so subtly threaten that they will use information that you provide them to take away your children. They can require state agencies to investigate your sexual behavior and report it to the courts. When you are threatened with intimidation from others, they can ban you from meeting in safe spaces with those who would offer you their support.
A lesbian friend commented to me at lunch this week on the difficulty of getting straight allies to stand up publicly for gays and lesbians due to the fear of being labeled gay themselves and ostracized. It made me think of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s reflections, quoted above, on his actions in Germany prior to World War II when he failed to stand up for members of his community who were being persecuted for characteristics different from his own. I also thought of Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus out of fear for his own safety ‘ere the cock crowed twice (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72). Why is it so hard to stand up? Why did Niemoller fail? Why did Peter, who had been at Jesus’s side throughout his ministry, suddenly deny that he even knew Jesus?
There are risks in standing up. It is at minimum inconvenient; it may be threatening to job and social standing. And these risks seem to weigh particularly heavy when balanced against problems that seem to us hypothetical, rare, or remote.
If we are straight, we won’t face a state agency investigating our sexual activity with our partner if we try to adopt a child. If we are straight, we won’t live with the intimidation, harassment, and accompanying fear of being gay and out while in high school. If we are straight, we won’t have to worry about our partner not being able to pay for adequate medical care in Virginia just because we are gay.
But the risks are only hypothetical, rare, or remote because we are straight. If we are gay in Virginia, if we are the modern-day rejected and outcast of Virginia society, the risks are not hypothetical, or rare, or remote. They are woven into the fabric of our daily life.
The burden of being a straight Christian in Virginia today – the cost of our discipleship – is that we are called to walk with those whom Virginia has unjustly rejected and cast out. We are called to face those risks that we can easily avoid by simply remaining silent. Martin Niemoller calls out to us. If Jesus stood with the lepers and other rejected persons of his day, Jesus must certainly be standing with our gay brothers and sisters in Virginia today. Will we stand with Jesus, or will we find the cock twice crowing?
Many of our churches are open, welcoming, affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. What happens to that commitment at noon on Sunday when we walk out the church doors back into the world? As communities of faith are we saying to our gay parishioners and to gay members of our community whose talents we would welcome in our church that it’s fine to bring your pain in here to prayer, but out there, your pain is your own? If you, church member, have to suffer through ill health, we’ll pray for you, but we won’t speak out with you to demand that the State allow you to receive the health care that your partner’s company is willing to provide? If you, youth group member, are intimidated and harassed at school because others think you are gay, we will counsel you and pray with you for strength within the walls of this church, but outside these doors, you are on your own?
Please make your voice heard and stand against these injustices. Sign the Letter from Virginia Christians to the Virginia General Assembly. Tell our gay sisters and brothers that they are not alone. Affirm for them that Jesus does indeed care for them, and that as Christ’s body here on earth, the Church will stand with them.
Peace in Christ,
Hope United Church of Christ