Rev. Tess Baumberger: Unitarian Universalism and the gay rights movement

Rev. Tess Baumberger

Someone once said, “We are … sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

At Unity Church, we stand on the shoulders of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, who took our theology to heart by living it in their personal lives, and also out into the streets by living it in the world. Ours has been a religion of relevance.

We can live our faith today in farseeing ways because our forebears raised us up. The Universalist belief that divine love saves all people started this raising. Affirming each soul’s worth led Universalists to campaign for abolition, public education and women’s rights. Belief in divine unity raised up in Unitarians an attitude of tolerance, inclusion and acceptance. They worked to defend the rights of all people based on their inherent dignity.

Each subsequent generation in our faith raised the next higher. For example, though early abolitionists wanted to end slavery, this did not necessarily mean that they saw African-Americans as equal. However, those who followed them took their predecessors’ public battle for equal rights into their private hearts, which changed them. They came to see all people as equal, and worked to change the hearts and minds of America with this vision. The abolitionists may not have envisioned that frontier.

In 1961, our two ancestral faiths merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, which means our combined faith was born in the heat of the civil rights movement. This transforming fire shaped the way we have lived our foundational beliefs in the dignity of each person and the worth of every soul ever since. This past Monday was National Coming Out Day, so I want to celebrate the way we have lived those two core beliefs in the gay rights movement.

Some of our ministers performed weddings for same gender couples in the 1960s. In 1970, our general assembly passed its first resolution to end discrimination against gays and bisexuals. The Unitarian Universalist Gay Caucus formed the following year, to lobby for a denominational office of gay affairs. That office formed in 1973. In 1978, its director assembled a planning guide for same-gender unions. In 1996, our national board of trustees unanimously passed a resolution supporting same-gender marriage. That same year, delegates from our congregations passed a similar resolution, encouraging the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations to let the world know that we stand on the side of love.

Unity Church had already included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people (and advocated for their rights) for a long time, and so took up that call. Our members and ministers were very active in the battle for marriage equality in our state. We celebrated many same-gender weddings here after helping win that equality.

We have come a long way as a religion and as a nation with regard to gay rights, but the recent suicide of a gay college student outed by his roommate shows how far we have to go.

Our abolitionist ancestors fought to change laws. Subsequent generations took equality’s cause to the hearts and minds of America. Our calling now may be similar — to transform the hearts and minds of America toward tolerance of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual family, friends and neighbors. This could save lives. The stakes are very high. If that is our calling, it is incredibly relevant.

Another frontier may be to educate people about bisexuality and transgender concerns, as neither are well understood. Bisexuals fall in love with a person, without much regard to gender. Kinsey argued that sexual orientation ranges from straight to gay, with most people in between. Transgender refers to people born in a body that does not represent their true gender identity. As transgendered people come to terms with this, they may transform their bodies as they live that true gender.

If we live our foundational beliefs in the worth of every soul, the dignity of every person by addressing these frontiers, future generations may regard us as giants, sit upon our shoulders, and cast visions into futures we cannot foresee. We might be giants, or we might be standing on the shoulders those whose theology and advocacy raised us up. In either case, there is work to be done, hearts to be won, lives to be saved.

The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information about Unitarian Universalism, please There you will find links to all our churches. You can reach her at