Guest blogger Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum is Minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty in Clarklake, MI. You can read more about her experience at the HRC Clergy Call on her blog Rev. Cyn
This was the first time I ever went to Capitol Hill to lobby, so I approached the situation with a great deal of nervous excitement. The Human Rights Campaign suggested that we bring along letters of testimonial or support from members of our congregation. I asked my local congregation for letters, as well as my local PFLAG chapter. I received nine letters, to which I added one of my own, to make an even ten. Six were from members of my congregation—four from gay and lesbian members, two from supporters. Two of the others were from gay and lesbian members of our community, and the last was from a man whose same-sex marriage I performed when I was a minister in Massachusetts.
The letters from the seven gay and lesbian people I received told of instances in their lives of discrimination—being harassed publicly, being physically beaten or threatened with violence, being discriminated against in the workplace. One member of my congregation told of people she has known, gay men who took their own lives because of the horrible bullying and harassment they had been facing. She writes, “I had another friend who was teased all through Junior and Senior high school about what his sexual orientation would be and he… sat on the railroad tracks and let the train hit him.” Her partner writes, “We are separate & not equal. We are murdered.” One of the supporters who wrote a letter wrote of one of the terrible stories of this area, one that should not be forgotten, but already is being forgotten, as a Google search will bring up nothing of this story:
Seven Adrian men were arrested and tried for supposed homosexual activity in a local park on what turned out to be very questionable evidence. Police actually dug foxholes and used night photography to try to catch them… In a community of that size, and considering several of these men had families, the result for them was catastrophic.
The man whose marriage I performed in Massachusetts writes, “Because we are gay, we are publicly asked to deny our marriage on federal forms.” That little sentence, about being forced to deny his husband, spoke volumes to me.
Through these letters, I learned much more about my congregation members than I had known before. I knew that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face discrimination and even violence. I didn’t, however, know about the individual instances of violence that people I know and care deeply for had faced.
When I took these letters in to our senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, and to my congressman, Mark Schauer, I wanted to make sure these voices were heard. Too often, I am sure, papers that are handed to the staff members of senators and congressmen are tossed into a pile, at best, or a trash can, at worst. So I took a few moments and read some of the stories of violence that these Michigan voters had faced, to make sure that it was understood that the Matthew Shepard Act is an important piece of legislation that will make a real difference in people’s lives in this state that these legislators serve.
What I saw in the eyes of the staff members, and my congressman, was that they were deeply moved by hearing these stories. Hearing the stories made an impact on them. They took the copies of the letters with great care, thankful for having them. One of the senator’s staff members said how important it was to the senator to have stories like this to share as the legislation was being debated and voted on. The congressman’s staff member wanted very much to have the original copies to hold and share. (Fortunately, I had brought them.) And Congressman Mark Schauer said personally how meaningful it was to him to have met Matthew Shepard’s mother when she came to Congress.
Our senators and congressmen and congresswomen meet a lot of lobbyists. They get asked to vote for and against a lot of things by a lot of people. They get a lot of paper pushed into their hands. But what I learned in going to Capitol Hill is that when they get the rare opportunity to listen to real people’s stories and see how legislation that they work on makes a real and significant difference in these lives, they listen, and they care.
I am so thankful for the members of my community for sharing those stories with me. They made a difference to me, and I believe they will make a difference to this nation.