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Greater NW Pride: From Separate to Welcoming, Inclusion, and Integration: Parallels Between the Community of People with Disabilities and the LGBTQ Community in the Church



Since assuming the role as the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator, and attending local churches and Reconciling meetings, regional Annual Conference of the OR-ID UMC Conference, and attending the national Reconciling Convention, I’ve been inundated by the use of words like “separate,” “welcoming,” “inclusion,” and “integration,” wondering if everyone was on the same page about using those terms, and where the movement towards full integration of LGBTQ+ people was headed in a largely oppressive straight/hetero cisgender culture. Hopefully, to no one's surprise, the LGBTQ+ movement in the Church is not the first to use this language or practice of "welcoming" and "inclusion", and so on.  It is part and parcel of all civil rights vocabulary and actions, including civil rights among people of color, among women, and among people with disabilities. This is where I had an “aha!” moment! In remembering the lessons of language and practice of advocating for and with people with disabilities earlier in my life, I want to share how that earlier work informs me in my role and function of advocating with LGBTQ+ people in the OR-ID UMC Conference. By the way: the parallels are stunning. Consider the following…
In my work in advocacy with people with disabilities, there were certain catch-phrases that always stood out in terms of where schools, religious institutions, public spaces and programs were in the long, slow march and pilgrimage towards equal rights in US society. For example, in the 1950s and early 60s, this was a continuation of the previous centuries: “separate and not equal” policy and practice when it came to the place and presence of people with disabilities in society as a whole, including the Church, as well as the public square. Open discrimination towards people with disabilities, aka, “the handicapped” was the status quo. Even in the deaf community—who were, then, considered, disabled—people were forced to not use American Sign Language (ASL) but to read lips and use limited oral communication. Large institutions dotted the land for people with intellectual disabilities, along with other various disabilities, including physical disabilities and for those who struggled with mental illness. People with disabilities were to neither be seen or heard from through the 1950s. 
In the 1960s, when there was more work in the social sciences and education regarding the best educational approach in working and living with people considered “disabled” with the very root causes of what is considered a disability in terms of scientific research being uncovered, there was clear evidence that “separate and not equal” approach was harmful not only for people with disabilities, but with the society as a whole.  Through the Kennedy Administration up through and to the Ford Administration, progress was made in terms of mainstreaming children and adults with disabilities into modern American society as our perspective of people with disabilities shifted, including with the Education for Handicapped Children Act in 1976.  Mainstreaming was the practice of bringing people with disabilities into “normal” settings, but still treating people with disabilities as, well, disabled. Finally, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, in which my friend, the Rev. Harold Wilke, himself a UCC minister who also happened to be paraplegic, was there on the dais when President Bush signed the Act into the law of the land. Since then, many parts of American society moved from mainstreaming to inclusion, moving towards fuller integration of people with disabilities into contemporary society.
The one institution that people with disabilities were and are still treated often as “separate and unequal” is the Church.  Why didn’t the movement in society, that brought more people with disabilities into modern American life, bring about full integration of people with disabilities in the life of the Church? Because there were and are no laws that direct or enforce the Church and its leadership to fully integrate people with disabilities into the life of a church. The culture in the US in which people with disabilities, along with those in the deaf culture, are least integrated is the Church.
The reason I bring this up is that the parallel with the LGBTQ+ community and the Church is incredibly easy to see and hear, both through anecdotal evidence, and through statistics. Since I’ve been hired by the OR-ID UMC Conference as the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator, I kept and keep on hearing the same arguments used and directed towards LGBTQ people as were and are used towards people with disabilities. In a weird way, we, who are LGBTQ+, are the modern “disabled” or “handicapped” group and are treated as such.  Even though there are plenty of verses in the Bible in which God shows God’s partiality towards those with disabilities throughout Church history many in the Church have treated people with disabilities as if one’s disability is “contagious” and may rub off the “normals,” which is why “they” are kept out of a church.  Even though many of us who are disability advocates used the language of “welcoming,” “inclusion,” and “integration”—the very same language used in and the goal in the LGBTQ+ community as we fight for equality in the Church—it will take generations for authentic welcome, real inclusion, and full integration to take place with people who are considered “disabled.” The same may be said of the LGBTQ+ community: regardless of what happens in the UMC's General Conference of February 2019. It will take generations for people who are LGBTQ+ to feel and think we are authentically welcomed, truly included, and finally integrated, in the largely hetero/straight, cisgender Church (universal) and its local congregations. Right now, denomination-wide, LGBTQ+ people live lives of unequal "value," constitutionally, in the majority of the UMC denomination, regardless of the rhetoric of some wanting to be inclusive. Until the constitution, the Book of Discipline of the UMC in large part, then being out as an LGBTQ+ clergy person, let alone as a member in some conferences, is unthinkable.
In the coming weeks, in this blog, I’m going to continue to draw and learn and teach from the parallels with those in the disability community, and the use of language and actual practices in welcoming, including, and fully integrating those of us who are LGBTQ+ in the life of the Church (universal), among the Protestant denomination (UMC and PCUSA alike), and local churches. I am doing this study because we use this language of welcoming, including, and integrating, without little understanding or common agreement as to what these words and actions mean. As a result, there is a lot of hurt among one another, even though that is not our intent, or the intent of our largely oppressive, straight/heterosexual, cisgender allies. So, consider this blog, dear friends, a prologue, and join me next week for “separate and unequal” blog as we seek to make room in Christ's Beloved community for one and all.

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!