People, All People Belong to Each Other
Taking our successes and learnings from the
Marriage Equality movement to prevent the
loss of precious life as happened in Orlando.
By Jamila Tharp,
Imam for Muslims for Progressive Values, Unitarian Universalist Community Minister,
Spiritual Guide and Peace of Mind Parenting Coach
Dedicated to Ibrahim baba
It was the end of 2010 and I had just recovered from a bout with cancer that year, faced with the uncertainty of whether I would stay in remission. The Love of My Life, my wife Michelle, and I had our then 7-year-old daughter and our 2 boys, who were 3-years-old and 1-year-old. It was at this juncture in my life that I began to take to heart the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) spiritual invitation to “Die before you die” which means in many Muslim traditions:
Live the way that you would if you had two hours to live.
Live in love, live in gratitude.
Tell, show, be in love.
Live in Peace, live in connection.
Leave nothing unsaid, undone.
“Die before you die” is a paradoxical statement with two deaths, and a luminous life in the middle. This is what it would mean to die to your ego: Die to your selfishness. Die to the illusion that we are a perfectly self-sufficient bubble cut off and isolated, cut off from humanity, cut off from love, cut off from nature as God’s masterpiece, cut off from The Source of All Being, The Reality of the Unity of the One in which we are all a part. Faced with my mortality, I found myself connected to my heart’s desire for a better future for my children where humanity would understand the need to protect all people. Life is difficult enough at times. I decided to not waste time and to place my faith in the belief that together, we can end the added unnecessary hardships of suffering due to discrimination. It was in this luminous light in the middle that I imagined what felt like the unthinkable- the idea that Utah could be the first red state to achieve marriage equality. These were my heart’s whisperings when I learned I would be the intern minister for The First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, on the path to fulfilling my educational and professional requirements of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.
It was in this context that my family moved to Utah in 2011. The opportunity to learn parish ministry with the Unitarian Universalist congregation was a blessing. I joined strong social and environmental justice champions, advocating for clean air, healthy stewardship of our Mother Earth, living wages, international refugees, immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQI civil rights and so much more. I not only found kinship and immense support in my organizing for Marriage Equality, I also found myself in the presence of many wise teachers and leaders. The opportunity to be part of the marriage equality movement in Utah was extraordinary and a wonderful experience, even if not always easy.
We arrived in Salt Lake City in the spring of 2011, just in time to rent a booth at the Salt Lake City Pride Festival in June to introduce our new Utah State Chapter of Marriage Equality USA, a cause we had been involved with since 2002. We quickly ran out of our educational materials and swag as waves of people stopped by our booth. Michelle and I took turns standing on a chair to talk to the crowd. People were overwhelmingly supportive even if somewhat in disbelief. It was obvious that people were hungry for hope. They told us their stories. They cried. They left and brought groups of people back. We collected hundreds of names and contact information. Our chapter was born. Utahns were thirsty for marriage equality. Michelle jokes that we were like John The Baptist, announcing, “Get Ready! Marriage Equality is on it’s way!”
The first sermon I delivered as the ministerial intern at The First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City was on why I felt it was possible to win marriage equality in Utah and in the nation with our collective engagement in “Love Warrior Work”.  What was originally received with open arms by the progressive liberals of Salt Lake City, was soon derailed by the two prominent LGBTQ Utah non-profit organizations in an infamous “bait and switch” meeting. After my sermon, a cast of characters appeared introducing themselves as “prominent activists” for the LGBTQ community, each expressing their desire to be on my planning committee for a Valentine’s Day Action in Salt Lake City. With the encouragement of my supervising minister and the church’s board, I met with them.
Much to my surprise, our meeting was not focused on collaboration toward securing the over 1,400 federal and state civil rights and protections of civil marriage. Instead, it was designed to “put me in my place”, to make it clear that I was an outsider and that I knew nothing about Utah. I was told that if I pursued this issue that I “would set the state of Utah back on LGBTQ civil rights issues for decades.” I understood the fear expressed by those at the meeting. The LDS church actively advocated for reparative therapy, literally prescribing shock therapy as a “healing” for members whom they perceived as afflicted with the malady of homosexuality, as they called it, “same sex attraction.” Scores of LGBTQ teens were kicked out of their homes, living on the streets and committing suicide. People lost, or feared that they would lose their housing, their employment and even their children. I understood these fears. The reality is that the LDS Church’s policies, in reaction to securing marriage equality nationwide, have become even more draconian in making it clear that their members who are LGBTQ, including youth, don’t belong. Homelessness and suicide rates for Mormon youth have skyrocketed.
I also understood the universal truths expressed below by Rev Howard Thurman and how these words still describe the condition for so many suffering from our country’s persistent and deadly virus of racism. My family experienced the weight of homophobia with two moms and also the weight of racism directed at our middle child who is African American. These words and truth emboldened me to persevere, to keep the light of my hope and my faith kindled, but politics partly foiled my organizing for Marriage Equality as a minister our first year in Utah. I would carry Thurman’s words with me to the next year following the completion of my ministerial internship when I had the opportunity to organize as a mom, a wife, and a volunteer, from a place of my full personal agency, my faith.
It becomes clear that if there are any citizens within the state who by definition, stated or implied, are denied freedom of access to the resources of community as established within the state, such persons are assailed at the very foundation of their sense of belonging. It reaches in to affect what takes place even within the primary social unit, the family, where community is first experienced. The term second-class citizen is often used to describe such a status. This means that such persons are outsiders living in the midst of insiders, required to honor the same demands of sovereignty but denied the basic rewards of sovereignty. This collective or communal denial of the rights and the “rites” of belonging cut deep into the fabric of the total life of the state.
It is important to share not only what went right in my own organizing, but also what went wrong in our “Love Warrior Work” for marriage equality. I regret that the marriage equality movement lacked the imagination and courage to connect the fight for marriage equality with the struggle to secure civil rights and protections for all people. We truly need a “Rainbow” strategy and approach to ending discrimination, all discrimination. It is crucial to voice the fact that our country still struggles terribly to recognize that Black Lives Matter as well, to face our Islamophobia, both intricately interconnected phenomena and from the same ilk. My family struggled just as much due to racism and Islamophobia, if not more, as due to homophobia while living in Utah. We diligently advocated for our then 5-year-old African American son to combat the intolerable racism that he endured in the Utah schools. It was a mistake on my part, and on the part of the whole marriage equality movement, that we lacked the courage, awareness and imagination to highlight the intersectionality of oppressions and to advocate publicly as strongly against racism and against Islamophobia as we did against homophobia. It is my hope that we still can.
During the fall of 2011, the state LGBTQ leadership adamantly protested the pursuit of marriage equality in Utah. At the same time, my senior minister supervisor retracted his support, as he had “worked hard to build his relationships and alliances with the state’s LGBTQ leadership.” It was in this context that, for the first time, my family faced a Valentine’s Day without a Love Warrior action/event planned. Our then 8-year-old daughter, Abigail, was righteously indignant about our missing a year of public witness to her family’s love, of doing educational outreach, of co-creating a healing opportunity to publicly challenge institutionalized discrimination on the day everyone associates with Love- Valentine’s Day.
So Abigail, with her two moms’ support, took charge that Valentine’s Day in 2012 to ensure her voice would be heard. She created a big beautiful Valentine’s Day card on which she gathered over 300 signatures from fellow classmates as well adults in her life. The Valentines was addressed to the state of Utah and was published on the front page of The Salt Lake City Tribune with an interview with her on February 14th, 2012. The Valentines read:
Will you be my valentines Utah? My name is Abigail and I am in 3rd grade. I have 2 moms and I love them with all my heart. We moved here last year and we have no legal rights and no legal protections in the state of Utah as a family. My moms are married, but you don’t recognize this. Why? Please take a stand on the side of love. Family is family. Love is Love. These are my friends showing their support for my family and for Love. 
As a mother, I understood that there is something incredibly damaging for a person, for a child, to be treated as though they fall outside not only that which is deemed “normal”, but also outside that which is collectively held to be sacred by family, community, and even by God. One’s sexual orientation, gender identity and racial identity are such integral parts of one’s whole and holy self that such religiously based ostracism is not only emotionally and physically damaging, but spiritually damaging as well. Regardless of one’s faith, if that faith is dictated to them and love is withheld from them, than faith is nothing more than a jail cell that robs one’s personal power, sense of self as divine and in divine connection to all that is. There is a fine line between family and public policy making. The front line of defense for family is building children’s empowerment, their self-awareness and their sacred sense of connection with all that is, even in the face of oppression. Our daughter, Abby, also known by her Muslim name, Amina Nur, has known her own mind for awhile now with regard to how she has wanted to express her divine light in the public realm with regard to having two moms. 
I eventually won over the participants in that infamous “planning meeting” by first bypassing them and organizing on an organic multi-religious faith community level, our people of faith allies for marriage equality. I remember sharing often with my wife Michelle during these months, “Just wait and see. They, (meaning the two major LGBT Utah organizations) will not want the marriage equality train to leave the station without them.” Six weeks before our Valentine’s Day action in 2013, I was notified that they were indeed “on board” for marriage equality and that they were willing to invest resources and money in leading Utah to secure marriage equality, as well take the lead in organizing a marriage equality “red state” coalition. Ironically, the Utah Pride Center printed t-shirts shortly thereafter, advocating for marriage equality with a picture of a train and a logo that read, “All Aboard for Marriage Equality!” I’m not kidding.
Our multi-religious coalition of support included Baptists, Lutherans, Unitarian Universalists, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, United Church of Christ members and more. First and foremost, my goal was to engage people as educators and healers, allies from different faiths. I also built strong alliances with the mayor’s office staff of both Salt Lake City and of Salt Lake County. Key to successfully awakening the divine spark of personal agency and healing with regard to marriage equality in Utah was the coming together of many faith communities and people of faith, not ceding to one narrow interpretation of faith.
I was a guest preacher and speaker at various faith communities’ worship services and events as an openly out Muslim woman of faith.  I used Facebook to organize and get my message out. I carefully constructed a vision where I painted a picture to help everyone understand what to expect, but also so that everyone could participate in the actual co-creation of our Valentine’s Day action/event.  For example, on our organizing web page it read:
What to expect? Loving faith leaders present! We will have music, song and speakers, all gathered together in the celebration of our common humanity and Love. The key points to this action are educational and healing. Each and every one of us has an immense capacity to make a difference for equality for numerous people – strangers and friends alike – by being educated and able to engage in meaningful conversations as an agent to change hearts and minds about a segment of our human family that has not been allowed to sit, to derive sustenance for fulfillment and to be seen as a family member at Humanity’s table.
When the day arrived, people were greeted by music and volunteers, lovingly dubbed “Guiding Lights” by Abigail. They held the vision of the beauty and the flow of our gathering. They greeted and provided an orientation for people as they gathered in the arboretum for speakers and singing.
Loving and committed same-sex couples peacefully requested civil marriage licenses, knowing they would be denied. The program was conceptualized as a worship service. The messaging used to organize the action was largely secular in nature, while at the same time theologically universal, focusing on the themes of Love, fairness and inclusion. Interfaith clergy fully embraced theological language in offering their support, a key contradiction to the oppressive use of religion as justification to discriminate.
The intention of this action was to be both educational and healing. We each have a part to play in changing hearts and minds about a segment of our human family that has not been allowed to sit, to derive sustenance for fulfillment, nor even allowed to be seen as a family member at Humanity’s table. How do we ignite this capacity for people to be societal change agents? We take charge of the public discourse by advocating for Love.
The marriage license counter action itself was a part of a larger program, sandwiched in between beautiful music, singing and powerfully spoken words shared by various community leaders and loving couples. Two dozen loving and committed same sex couples gathered quietly, holding bouquets of flowers, accompanied by over 15 clergy members from a wide range of religious faiths. Together they ascended the stairs to the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office on the 2nd floor. The rest of the crowd of 200 plus people stayed below. The building was well lit and open to the indoor atrium with 3 layers of surrounding balconies. Participants could hear beautiful music and vocals of love songs in the background.
Everyone is driven by faith, but not everyone examines their faith, re-evaluates, re-invents, and renews their faith. Yet, faith is not a dead stone. It can be the breath we take to sustain life, to move us with conscious purposefulness, sustaining us in the face of our deepest challenges and guiding us to be our best and highest self in all our engagements with humanity and with creation. And, faith can be destructive, sustaining myths of what it means to be normal defined by a narrow minded few who possess power. And, faith can spin deeply damaging fictions of purity dividing everyone into “us” and into “them”, into those who are “damned” and into those who are “saved”.
The marriage equality movement in the United States of America was ignited and fueled by an awakened spirit of faith, of personal agency, for a critical mass of American people, of individuals, willing to be publicly visible, whose stories and journeys are fascinating, compelling and even heroic. Committed same-sex couples, families and children played an important role in securing civil marriage equality in Utah. An instrumental role was played by a core coalition of people of faith, including heterosexual allies, and clergy of faith in the battle for marriage equality. They brought marriage equality to Utah by not ceding the public domain to one interpretive lens of one religious faith and providing a safe and healing space for over two dozen same-sex committed couples to request civil marriage licenses on Valentine’s Day. It is essential to counter the justification of using religion to discriminate against people.
I would be sorely remiss to have arrived at a time in history of having secured marriage equality in the U.S.A. to not pause and really truly think about and beyond just our achievements. I am thinking about the amazing people across our country who did the very real and hard work of tapping into their own personal agency, with a willingness to be a public “Love Warrior” for marriage equality, and I am thinking about what we might have missed.
Who did we leave out of this movement? How did we maintain structures of barriers for some groups of people to engage in the marriage equality movement? Why? How are oppressions interlocking in our lives? How might we look at how we have participated in hurting people by not inviting them into this movement or by choosing social justice language that privledges able bodiedness like “Standing on the Side of Love”, excluding those who can’t stand? In many cases, though certainly not all, our successes in the marriage equality movement were achieved by mostly lesbians and gay men, mostly white, mostly middle class and mostly those who could pass for the mythical constructs of “normal.” This is an essential learning needed to bring our world to wholeness and healing. Many of us are held back by our fears for good reasons. Lacking support, we particularly lack the imagination and safety to engage from our full personal power in social and environmental justice movements. My own isolation with regard to my non-binary gender identity in which my preferred pronouns are ghe and ghr, limited my full potential in my ministry and activism. I could not imagine my activism, educating, ministry and engagement with people with one more self-identification that completely fell out of the mythical idea of “respectable” western heteronormative normal.
Like many white people in our country, I have been ignorant about the pervasiveness of the disease of racism which still inflicts a great deal of harm upon our brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters who are people of color. I know I am not alone in this realization. My most difficult reflection in thinking about my work for marriage equality is a personally painful one for me as a mother. It has been painful to understand my shortcomings in perceiving, understanding and empathizing with the depth and insidious and harmful nature of racism, as well Islamophobia. People often ask me, “How was Utah for your family with two moms?” Yes, we experienced difficulties because we were a two mommy family. Honestly though, what was far worse was the overt racist aggressions and barrage of racist micro aggressions targeted toward our then 4 year-old African American son. The effects of racism were detrimental to his spirit and his developing emotional and social intelligence. As an openly out LGBTQ religious leader and activist, I received death threats. I never knew the source of such disturbing threats. Did they come from an isolated person, or from within the Mormon or Muslim communities? At times, it was difficult to find solace from even within the more liberal circles of people of faith, because they unknowingly colluded with the more conservative Muslim religious clergy leaders in dismissing me as a Muslim heretic, even going so far as to ask me to cover or hide my identity as a Muslim in my liberal religious leadership and activism.
Tragically, just days ago, our country experienced in Orlando, Florida its worse mass shooting in recent history of the United States of America, since Wounded Knee, leaving 50 people dead and over 50 people seriously injured at the Pulse, a LGBTQ gay night club in Orlando, FL. The shooter, pledged ISIS allegiance and was likely ‘radicalized’ through the internet. U.S. authorities describe him as a homegrown extremist who was inspired by radical Islamist groups. News reports describe him as having frequented the club regularly as a gay man. Regardless what facts unfold, we collectively mourn for those killed, those wounded and their friends and families. As a nation, we are traumatized by this shocking massacre. As people who are LGBTQ and as people who are Muslim, we are more anxious and fearful. For those of us who are Muslim and also LGBTQ, we face a particularly complicated and interconnected set of interlocking oppressions, homophobia, Islamophobia and racism.
As a justice seeking nation, we live in a time in which we need to not only grow our imaginations about what it means to be normal, to be a family or who it is that can get legally married, but we also need to quit ceding the public’s definition of what it means to be Muslim, or to be a Mormon, to be any kind of person of faith to the fundamentalists, the extremists and the terrorists claims of what it means to be a person of that faith. Radicalized individuals and terrorist groups like ISIS and ISIL benefit by and large by the West’s confusion about what it means to be a Muslim. It is important that we are not anesthetized to the very maladies that are currently killing us every day as people who are LGBTQ here in the United States, like currently still exists in Utah for LGBTQ youth.
I am a person of faith, a Muslim and a person who is LGBTQ. These go together beautifully for my family and me. Our Love and our family’s dedication to each other carries us through, masha’allah. Alhumdulillah, we are thriving now. This is what I want for everyone. I want us to want for each other what we want for ourselves: peace, security, protection, prosperity, closeness, meaning, connection, self-worth, equal treatment, fairness, and on and on.
Taking charge of the public discourse is key to changing hearts and minds. A profound phenomenon occurs when people’s fears are met with images of Love. The simple truth that Love is Love. Family and children are natural spokespeople for Love. I think it is time to take the infrastructure we have built to gain momentum in human rights and bring our resources together to fight injustice anywhere, against anyone. Particularly we need to bear witness to the reality that Black Lives Matter, that people of color’s lives matter, that first nations people’s lives matter, that Muslim people’s lives matter and, that a whole religion and its people are not at fault for what one unstable mind brings to bear in terror, destruction and even claims divine authority to do so.
“If any one kills a human life, it is as though they killed the whole of humanity; and if any one saves a human life, it is as though they have saved all of humanity …” Qur’an 5:32
We need to remember that “People, all people belong to each other”.
1. “Why Marriage Matters: Jamila and Michelle”, http://www.whymarriagematters.org/stories
2. “Love Warrior Work” A sermon delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City on October 2, 2011 by Jamila Tharp, Ministerial Intern (https://youtu.be/d4QXhJxp3N0 and https://youtu.be/MjtmHfuwpCA).
3. “McEntee: Girl sends a message in a valentine to Utah”, The Salt Lake City Tribune, http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/politics/53505695-90/abigail-valentine-marriage-moms.html.csp and “McEntee: Utah girl wishes for a happier Valentine’s Day for her 2 moms”, The Salt Lake City Tribune, http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/news/55826548-78/abigail-moms-marriage-valentine.html.csp
4. More of Abigail showing up to speak her mind in the public realm. http://fox13now.com/2012/11/26/community-forum-on-restricted-book-about-lesbian-mothers/, http://dailycaller.com/2013/02/01/book-about-lesbian-couple-back-on-grade-school-shelves-after-school-district-aclu-settle/, http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/highlight/55301f2502a760aefb00030d, http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2015/04/27/op-ed-12-year-old-two-moms-has-plea-all-teens,
5. Examples of multi-religious faith organizing & bridge building, http://www.mttaborslc.org/pageview.aspx?id=40191, http://www.mttaborslc.org/theology-on-tap
6. The organizing website for the Valentines Day action of 2013, http://valentinesdayactionutah.com
Outstanding telling of the path your family has taken to stang in faith for love, while combating discrimination. Blessings
Wonderful article! I enjoy reading your unique perspective ?