Thanks for sharing these poignant experiences, Joy. You have hit on several key pieces of spiritual needs already–the need for full inclusion, for normalization of relationships, and for affirmation. It would be rare for LGBTQ individuals in my generation to have never experienced religious discrimination, harassment, or persecution in some shape throughout their lives. Younger generations are growing up in a somewhat different world, so their experiences may not be quite so jagged. But religion is often the last bastion of prejudice, and so all generations are at risk of hearing words of exclusion and persecution rather than love and grace from their religious leaders and institutions.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the need for advance directives. In North Carolina, married couples receive something like 200 rights that non-married couples are excluded from. For many years, LGBTQ couples were by definition denied access to all these rights. So very early on, Cath and I had documents notarized, establishing each other as healthcare power of attorney. The fact that we were not allowed to get married gave me a very different perspective on other couples (gay, straight, or otherwise) who, for a variety of reasons, do not get married. While the church has been busy excluding anyone who is engaging in a sexual relationship outside marriage, I was trying to figure out what a person of faith is supposed to do when engaged in a committed relationship in which marriage was not an option. I come from a Baptist family (progressive theologically, but not in some other ways), and so some of those other assumptions and prejudices I had unconsciously carried from my family about “sex outside of marriage” had to get re-evaluated when I was that person who wasn’t conforming to the carefully prescribed “appropriate” social and sexual mores.
Cath and I had a commitment ceremony in 2010 in our local congregation–a UCC church. I was unable to announce it too publicly, because I was not out to administrators at the hospital at that time. But we had lots of family and friends come in to help us celebrate. The ceremony was a bit of a blend of traditional and radically different. Then, in 2014, when the Supreme Court made marriage legal, we had a second ceremony, smaller and more private. So we celebrate an anniversary on May 29 and another anniversary on Oct. 20 each year.
You also mentioned the use of the word partner. I think I am becoming more of an anomaly in my preference for the term partner or spouse. But I do not like the word wife. Those 200 rights that we could get as a married couple, along with my partner’s strong desire to get married legally, led me to make our union legally recognized. But in some ways I feel that the institution of marriage has been seriously marred and discredited. Not to mention the patriarchal overtones inherent in the term “wife.”
That leads me to one simple tip for communicating with non-traditional couples: use the language that they use. Just like with transgender individuals’ choice of pronouns that should be respected, I would encourage folks to listen to the language that couples use to refer to themselves and each other, and use those same terms. Even if someone uses the term “friend” for a romantic partner, as was formerly very common, that is an indication to the listener that they don’t feel safe. If the listener rushes to “normalize” by putting a different label on the relationship, the individual could feel extremely vulnerable and disrespected. Using their terminology and letting them “come out” when ready is an important way to show respect and dignity.
These are some of my initial musings…