living the faith
Fargo YMCA recognizes nontraditional families
by Donald E. Skinner
A lesbian couple's request for a family membership that was turned down by their YMCA in North Dakota ignited a three-year community discussion about diversity and thrust their UU congregation into a leadership role. The result was real community change: The YMCA altered its membership policy.
When Jo and her partner Louise (they've asked that their real names not be used) and their eight-year-old son asked for the family membership at the YMCA of Fargo-Moorhead, North Dakota, which cost less than individual memberships, they were refused on the grounds that they weren't a "real" family.
When Jo asked a second time, she got a lecture, she said, "about how the Bible condemns homosexuality and that there was no way they were going to allow people like us to be considered a family."
That's when their congregation, the UU Church of Fargo, stepped in.
Here's what happened. Jo and Louise were initially turned down in 1999. Not wanting to be public about the matter, they let the issue drop. Soon after that their church's social justice committee picked it up.
The committee asked the YMCA twice in 2000 to broaden its definition of family. It also wrote to the YMCA board, saying, "As religious people, we believe that commitment within a family is a sacred bond deserving of society's recognition and support. When that recognition is granted to some families and denied to others, feelings of hurt and anger result, not only to those that were denied, but to those who believe that all stable families deserve society's support."
The committee pursued a quiet practice of lobbying the YMCA and individual YMCA board members. Then a Fargo Forum reporter discovered the issue and the real work began. Church members were interviewed in the newspaper, on the local public radio station, and on a conservative talk show where some callers stooped to name calling and references to bestiality.
The newspaper published two articles about the church itself as a place where people strongly believed in diversity and where members had the responsibility of determining their own religious truths. "Church United by Action, Not Dogma," one headline read.
Church members networked with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups and spoke at the Fargo Human Relations Com-mission meetings. They wrote letters to the editor and continued to lobby YMCA officials.
As a result, the YMCA board agreed to decide by fall whether to change its membership policy. It held several public forums to gather opinions. At the last hearing, in July, several speakers invoked Christianity. Those who supported a broader definition of family said that it was part of a Christian tradition of kindness. Opponents asserted that Christianity required a narrower definition.
In July, the board voted 10 to 4 to create a separate "household membership" while also keeping its "family membership." Each costs $60 a month, with an enrollment fee of $50. UUs in Fargo view the decision as not a complete victory but a step in the right direction. "Some day," Louise said, "Someone will say, 'Well, gee, it really doesn't make sense to have these two membership plans. Let's do away with the family one.'"
Said Jo: "Our intention was to illustrate something about this community, to bring to light an injustice. In that we were successful."
The new membership category is meant to address the ever-changing makeup of today's families, said YMCA Board President Lynette Pederson. "We have a special concern for the children in our community," she said, "and want to ensure that they are not excluded based on any real or perceived economic disadvantage."
Amery Bodelson, chair of the congregation's social action committee, said the YMCA issue represented a new level of social justice involvement for the congregation in recent years. "It has made a difference in the church. It's given us a reason to do more. It's created pride. And we've had several new members who found us because of this issue."
Jo added, "This brought us together as a church. And it brought up things we needed to work on, like how to work with outside groups. And how activist do we want to be?"
She downplayed her own role. "I suppose Louise and I showed a certain kind of courage, but the people who I think were courageous were the church members, the Gay Pride Collective, and the board of the YMCA. And everyone who raised a voice and said something, no matter which side they were on. I'm proud of the town. And I believe that now that this is over we will come back together as a community. People will move on."
And social change in Fargo probably won't stop with this, Louise said, noting new discussion about the United Way. A United Way committee is recommending that it withhold funds from agencies that discriminate based on sexual orientation including the Northern Lights Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Jo attended the Prairie Star and Central Midwest District's Midwest Leadership School this year and told her story there. "There were people who said they planned to go home and visit their local YMCAs (to find out what their policies are).
"For Louise and me this has been a powerful realization of what Margaret Mead said, about how a small group of people can change the world. This may be a small step but the implications for social change are huge."
"In some regard it didn't matter what the board decided to do," said Jo. "What mattered was that this community has had one of the best dialogues that I can recall in the thirteen years I've been here."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.