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Churches unite ‘on the side of love’

Gay marriage is explored in a forum by two ‘affirming’ congregations.

Shay Reed and his partner Warren had been together for nearly a decade, when they learned last February that gay men and lesbian women in San Francisco were being married, followed, within weeks, by same-sex couples in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

The long-inaccessible state-sanctioned union was suddenly a real possibility for the committed couple, North Kitsap residents who belong to Bainbridge’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and who are raising a son together.

Although they had long joked that they preferred celebrating milestone years in the relationship to “getting married and seeing if it works,” when Warren proposed Reed accepted.

The pair were married April 6 by a Unitarian minister in a Portland church, with both families looking on.

“You know, it’s changed things with the parents,” Reed said. “They always accepted us, but it was exciting for them to see us get those rights, (to) be legally married.”

Still, Reed is mildly uneasy about the possibility that legal status of the marriage may be undermined or even rescinded, as challenges by conservative groups like the Campaign for California Families make their way through the legal system, and an amendment to the Constitution reserving marriage for heterosexual couples is considered.

However events turn, gay marriage has become part of the national conversation, and a subject for discussion on Bainbridge, with a panel discussion May 11. The event is co-sponored by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap, and Eagle Harbor Congregational Church.

The forum is an outgrowth of the Unitarian group’s decision last year to become a “welcoming congregation” – which, after extensive training in how to include congregants of all sexual orientations in every aspect of spiritual life, has voted to make the welcome more systematic for bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgendered faithful.

Eagle Harbor congregants have also voted to make their church open and affirming, while same-sex ceremonies have been performed at Grace Episcopal Church.

“The gay marriage issue presented the opportunity to continue keeping it (welcoming) in people’s awareness,” said Unitarian minister Drew Johnston, who helped organize the upcoming forum. “This makes it less of a one-time project and more of a cultural shift.”

Johnston, who traded a Kennewick congregation for Bainbridge last year, invited Keith Kron – a former classmate and head of the UUA’s Boston-based Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns – to the island to lead the panel discussion.

In 1999, Johnston had helped Kron revise the first edition of “The Welcoming Congregation,” the text used nationally to guide churches embracing openness.

By training lay leaders, leading workshops and preaching, Kron has shepherded 419 of the 1,000 UUA congregations across the nation through the process.

“When I started this job eight and a half years ago, there were 57,” Kron said.

Johnston, who led his Kennewick congregation through the welcoming process, says that while he’s experienced little opposition on Bainbridge to the notion of gay marriage, there can be occasional resistance.

“The most confusing opposition I have now is from people who feel that traditional marriage will be somehow threatened by allowing loving couples to marry,” he said.

Johnston admits that he does pose a few extra questions to gay and lesbian couples considering marriage.

“Typically they will have some family who object or who don’t know,” Johnston said. “The question is: ‘How will that enter into your ongoing relationship?’ I have the most trouble with people who can’t tell, or feel they can’t.

“Because they end up leading a hidden life, which seems to me to be a throwback to another era.”

Johnston notes that while UUA ministers have been performing ceremonies of union for gays and lesbians for 30 years – with some of the ministers calling the ceremonies “weddings” – the legal sanction has added an important dimension.

“I think the most striking thing for me is the increase in comfort and the ability of people to be genuine,” he said, “so closets aren’t so dark any more.”

Island music teacher Carol Willis Buechler, who plans to marry partner Tara Elizabeth Simsak next October in Vancouver, B.C., welcomes the discussion.

“I don’t believe that allowing legal same-sex marriages would weaken society in any way,” Buechler said, “because marriage, at its core, whether gay or straight, strengthens and protects the bond between couples and within families, and therefore helps to unify communities as a whole.”

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