By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/23/2020
Posted: 6/29/2006
Topics/Keywords: #GayRights #ReligiousPolitics Page Views: 3191
Self-expression is the way we live the life we were intended to live.
Cooties Outbreak

When I was in 5th grade, we moved to Florida. The kids there were resistant to newcomers, and I had trouble making friends. I was told I was a "creep" and had "cooties". This was new terminology for me and I didnít know what to do about it.

One day, as I sat waiting for my piano lesson, my classmate Pam, the most popular girl in the class (as she had described herself to me) came out from her lesson and had to sit with me on Mrs. Capella's porch to wait for her mom. And she wasnít reticent to talk to me. She had a long list of my shortcomings, and was eager to share them. In other words, she spent the next twenty minutes telling me exactly why I was a creep.

What it boiled down to, was that I was noticeable, the worst thing one could be. I must not "upset" other people by being me. The proper role of a fifth grader was to "blend in."

Of course, it didn't occur to me at the time that she, the "most popular girl in class," was clearly not following her own rule. Nevertheless, I took her advice seriously. I spent the next eight years in hiding, only beginning to come out of that shell as a high-school senior. But it wasnít until my 25th high school reunion, that I found out from others in my class that, because I seemed so withdrawn, they figured I didnít want to be friends with them; so they left me alone!

I had spent seven miserable, nearly-friendless years in grade and high school because I took seriously advice that told me what other people thought was more important than my own self-expression.

These days, I have the example of happy self-expression in my grandson, Zachary. When we were attending Sunday services at the Unitarian Universalist church, we used to bring his little three-year-old self with us. He liked to come to church, and though there was a children's play room he preferred to sit with Michael and me during the service. It seemed to bring joy to those sitting near us as well, who went out of their way to tell us so afterwards.

However, one member of the congregation instructed me a few Sundays after that when we bring Zachary to church, we should sit in the back row so as not to "distract" other members of the congregation…Even though Zachary did not fuss or jump around or otherwise draw attention to himself in any way other than being adorable.

My first impulse was to agree. We wouldn't want to be noticeable! But then it occurred to me that, as our little congregation grew, we were going to get more families with small children. Would all children be made to sit in the back row? Did Rosa Parks mean nothing to these people?

See, the Unitarian Universalist church prides itself on its embracing of diversity. UUs were among the first white American churches to welcome black members; they were among the first to actively recruit gay members, which was how Michael and I came to this congregation to begin with. But just because the church as a whole welcomes diversity doesn't mean every member in it is as accepting. Apparently, I'd just been given instructions by a person who wasn't very comfortable with the presence of young people.

That church was located on the edge of Sun City, the model retirement community for all retirement communities that followed. Out of some 200 members, there were perhaps five individuals under ten—and all but Zachary were content to remain hidden in the playroom until the service was complete.

Zachary had not been crying or screaming. He did need to go to the bathroom once during the service, but thatís true of most members of that rather elderly congregation.

Knowing that Zachary would not enjoy the service from the back seat, where he couldnít see or hear the minister (even at three, Zachary listened to the sermons), we actually skipped church the next couple of weeks.

But then I suddenly realized: The ghost of Pamela had returned. A visible child in the sanctuary was a "distraction" to be avoided. Says who?

Accepting diversity doesnít just mean accepting people whose ethnicity is different than one's own. It also means accepting the diversity of age, attitude, hair style and the varying ability to match belt and shoes that one finds in any group. It means being strong enough in oneís own distinctiveness to not be threatened by someone elseís.

So, for the rest of the time we attended that church, we brought Zachary with us and sat in our usual seat. We sat there for all those who the Pamelas of the world would suppress: people who are "too gay" or "too black", ladies with big hats, men who wear thongs to the beach, big people who are compelled to wear Lycra, and anyone else who wants to share the treasure of their unique selves without feeling shame.

I believe that, when Jesus advised against hiding one's light under a bushel, that this was what was meant.