‘This is what progress looks like’

‘This is what progress looks like’

The Rev. Keith Kron on the fight for marriage equality and other aspects of Unitarian Universalist support for GLBT people.
Jane Greer


This has been a year of surprising victories and frustrating defeats for supporters of marriage equality.

In 2009, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa all legalized same-sex marriage. Washington, D.C., followed suit when its mayor signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in D.C. in a ceremony at All Souls Church, Unitarian, on December 18. On the other hand, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, which in 2008 overturned gay marriage legislation, and Maine voters overturned a law permitting same-sex marriage in a November ballot initiative. The state of New York saw a bid for the legalization of same-sex marriage quashed in the State Senate.

The Rev. Keith Kron, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns, sat down with UU World to talk about the vicissitudes of the marriage equality movement this past year. The UUA’s “go to” person on the subject of marriage equality, Kron, who is openly gay, also spoke about other aspects of the UUA’s support for BGLT people.

UU World: How would you assess the ups and downs in the marriage equality movement in 2009?

Keith Kron: This is what progress looks like. But this situation is different because it’s one of the first times we’ve voted on social change. We didn’t have statewide ballot initiatives about anything during the Civil Rights movement. You saw a little of it in the 1970s with the Equal Rights Amendment, with different states deciding whether they could support the ERA and trying to amend the Constitution. But you didn’t see this intense battle on a statewide level with people trying to change their constitutions.

This year we’ve had successes in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa. Maine has a history of repealing legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The legislature would pass laws against BGLT discrimination and then the voters would defeat them in ballot initiatives. This happened in 1998 and 2000. So it’s not surprising.

There are a lot of people strongly for or against marriage equality. But I think there’s a greater number of people who really don’t have strong feelings either way. These are the people who ultimately decide whether marriage equality happens.

I read a fascinating article about folks in California who were trying to figure out how to vote on this. On the one hand their religion told them not to believe in marriage equality, but on the other, their children were in the same playgroups as children who had same-sex parents. Their lived reality is that parenting is the same no matter who’s there. But their faith tells them that this really matters. It would be interesting to know how folks reconcile their faith with their everyday life.

UU World: What role have UUs played in the fight for marriage equality?

Kron: I think Unitarian Universalists have played a huge role in helping people see that religion is not of one voice about marriage equality. During the debate in Vermont over legalizing civil unions [in 2000], it was really important then that there was an interfaith group of clergy supporting equal rights for same-sex couples. Most of these clergy were UU ministers, but because there was a smattering of [United Church of Christ] ministers, a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopal priest, etc., people were able to see that this was more than one faith speaking out against it. You could turn on the news and see that there were groups speaking both for marriage equality and against it—and they both had “Reverends” in front of their names. I think the average person thought, “I have to make up my own mind about this as opposed to all of religion saying this is morally wrong.”

We’ve also given other liberal religious faiths a lot of support and hope that they don’t have to be so single-minded about how they feel about this particular issue. The Episcopal Church is still deciding whether they can perform single-sex unions. They watch some of our clergy perform same-sex unions, which they’ve been happily doing for decades. In states where there isn’t marriage equality, [some of] our ministers are not signing marriage licenses—for any couples. I think our lived experience is something that helps them think, “I don’t have to feel a particular way about this.”

UU World: Why are so many people opposed to same-sex marriage?

Kron: We’ve seen a lot of homophobia veiled as religious beliefs. The group Faith in America uses the term “religious-based bigotry” and talks about how many conservative religious groups use their religion to mask their homophobia. We see a bit of calculation on the far right not to appear homophobic. Their leading tactic right now is to invoke children, telling parents, “Your child is being indoctrinated [with homosexual values].” It’s a very successful tactic because it does create doubt. I will remind folks that when I came on the job [as director of the UUA’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns in 1996], the second biggest concern among our congregations when calling a gay or lesbian minister was that their kids might not be safe. It’s not so long ago that people in our congregations had the same fears.

In Massachusetts, just before the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, they did a statewide poll. Of the people who supported same-sex marriage, 77 percent had someone in their lives who was gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The numbers were almost the opposite among those who don’t support marriage equality.

For many, it’s hard to see sexual orientation as a range. They see it as an either/or proposition. One of their own ways of dealing with their internal homophobia is to become even more conservative, more rigid.

There was a study done at the University of Georgia in the mid–’90s in which two groups of men, one that identified as homophobic and the other as non-homophobic, measured how aroused they got when they were showed different pictures, including pictures of naked people. The group that was most aroused when shown photos of naked people of the same gender was the homophobic group. Many people are more fluid in their sexuality than they think they are or they think they should be.

I remember talking with a man who had a girlfriend. But, he liked having sex with men. He couldn’t imagine being in a relationship with a man. There are lots of people with some variation of that. They identify as a particular sexual orientation. In HIV prevention communities they don’t use terms like “gay,” “bisexual,” or “heterosexual,” they just refer to it as “men who have sex with men.”

We live in a very duality-based culture with our notions about gender and sexual orientation.

UU World: Do you think same-sex marriage is inevitable?

Kron: Any number of conservatives have said, “We’ve lost on marriage equality. We may prevent things from happening in certain states like in California and Maine, but ultimately we’re going to lose on this because change is coming.”

Look at the statistics about interracial marriage. In 1948, when California legalized interracial marriage, about 5 percent of the country supported interracial marriage. In 1967, only 23 percent did. Today 77 percent support interracial marriage. We have made that much progress in 50-plus years. Now we’re at 30 percent of the country supporting same-sex marriage. More than half support some sort of partner recognition. I see those numbers continuing to move in our favor.

The younger generation is saying, “What’s the big deal?” We know more gay and lesbian people. We’ve had kids, siblings, and classmates come out. There’s far less misinformation. Even when Sarah Palin was asked in debate about whether homosexuality is a choice or not, she said “I don’t know.” Thirty years ago she would have said, “It’s a choice.”

UU World: Is the Welcoming Congregation program still necessary, or have we Unitarian Universalists moved beyond it?

Kron: There are 642 Welcoming Congregations out of a total of 1,022 UU congregations. Of those that are not Welcoming Congregations, only 20 have more than 100 members. People are finding out that they can’t do the program once and stop. They have to keep reminding themselves; they have to keep educating the new people who join the church.

Some congregations go back and do a piece of the “Welcoming Congregation” curriculum. We also have a curriculum, “Living the Welcoming Congregation,” that is a follow-up to the “Welcoming Congregation” program. One of the ideas that we are considering is having congregations recertify themselves as Welcoming Congregations every five to seven years. We also have suggestions for adapting the Welcoming Congregation program for smaller congregations. We even have one congregation of eight that is a Welcoming Congregation.

UU World: What does the UUA still need to work on in terms of BGLT issues?

Kron: We’re pretty strong on gay and lesbian issues, but we have a way to go on bisexual and transgender issues. Our congregations still live with little information on transgender issues and concerns and too much misinformation about bisexuality. When I came into the movement, it was OK to have only one openly gay or lesbian member. Now it’s about 5 or 6 percent of the congregation. But that’s where we are with transgender people. Most congregations are comfortable having one or two transgender members. One congregation with more than 800 members, has four. I know one other congregation that has like a dozen. But for the most part it is still limited to one or two. Additionally, Interweave has a nice curriculum out on bisexuality that I would love to see more congregations use.

We do get better and better at our public witness and outreach, and I’d like to see that continue to grow and improve. One of the interesting things we’ve learned through state ballot initiatives, even in more conservative states, is that when UUs partner with local BGLT groups for education and getting out the vote, it’s an easy way for a congregation to do public witness work in their community. Our experience continues to tell us that when we take a stand on BGLT issues, a lot of straight people show up. Our congregations allow so many people a place to talk about their lesbian daughter or their gay brother. They don’t have to worry that they’ll offend or be offended.

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