Experience at the FNCC-GBLT Conference 3/8/01
By Lair Decker
As I drove from Tampa to the FNCC for the first ever Alternative Lifestyles Conference I really had no idea what to expect. This was to be my first conference and only my second visit to the FNCC. So, I happily enjoyed the drive in mild anticipation of events to come. Little did I know that the experience would be truly life changing!
Upon arriving, I checked in at the gym and made my way to my room to unpack. I found one of the hundreds of bikes and rode (for the first time in 25 years) around the magnificent campus. It was exhilarating. The air was clean and sweet, the temperature was mild, the sun was shining and so were the faces of the other members I was meeting on my ride. "Hello," "How are you?" "Nice to see you," were some of the happy, spirited greetings I received from these otherwise strangers. Portent of things to come I thought? How comforting to be among people who hold the same beliefs as I.
We met for evening Gongyo, which was electric. 170 forceful, determined, energetic voices lifted in daimoku and prayer. WOW! When we finished, loud cheers and applause rose from the group gathered in devotion. We were then greeted and warmly welcomed by the organizer of this historic conference, Diana Elrod, a YWD member from California.
After other introductions, Gary Murie, Vice General Director, was introduced and shared his experiences of being a gay man in the organization. He had endured many obstacles during his 30 year practice because of his sexual orientation. His leaders told him it was wrong to be gay. That being gay and being a good Buddhist were not compatible. He was told because he was gay he'd never reach enlightenment. He was also told if he wanted to be a leader in the organization he would have to get married (which he did) and give up his gay lifestyle (which he didn't) — as if he could give up who he really was. How do you give up your self??? Your being??? Your personal identity???
I was dumbstruck by what I was hearing. Could my Buddhist organization, my solace, my spiritual support group be homophobic? How could I have missed this all these years? I've never been discriminated against in the organization. I was a Honcho in New York. I was a group leader and a district leader here in Florida. No one ever told me that I have to be straight to be a Buddhist. In fact, my life-partner of 20 years, Fred and I held many meetings in our home and he even accompanied me to meetings and SGI activities. As a gay couple we always felt welcome. I left the meeting that evening feeling stunned ... not knowing what to think.
Friday morning, after Gongyo, Danny Nagashima, SGI-USA's General Director greeted us and told us he felt our powerful spirits the minute he arrived on campus. He said he'd never experienced such a feeling of energy coming from a group attending a conference at the FNCC. Of course this brought us to our feet with cheers and applause of appreciation. He then read President Ikeda's welcoming message to us. A hush fell over the crowd in anticipation of Sensei's words.
"My heartfelt congratulations on your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Supporters Conference! I ask that all of you who have gathered today please enjoy your dialogues and encourage one another to your hearts' content, so that you may move forward through building a network of human harmony."Wait a minute ... did I hear right ... did he actually say the words, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. Yes! Through my tears and heaving sobs I felt for the first time, in my 20-year practice, Daisaku Ikeda actually spoke to me directly ... deeply ... profoundly ... personally. Of course, I had always honored his great words and encouragement, but never before had his compassion touched the depths of my heart — the core of my soul — the center of my being. What a breakthrough! The room was a mass of weeping, cheering, hugging, holding, smiling, ACCEPTED FOR WHO WE ARE, members of the SGI-USA!!! It seemed to me, that if Sensei could appreciate our diversity and accept us just as we are — gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and supporters, then so could the rest of the organization.
Certainly, Gary Murie's experience we had heard the night before must be an isolated incident. Unfortunately, I found out that wasn't the case. As the weekend unfolded, we were informed by many gay and lesbian men and women who shared their experiences of present-day leaders who are, right now, giving guidance to members to change their homosexuality and become straight if they want to have a true Buddhist practice ... to get married and give up this wrong lifestyle ... that homosexuality and Buddhism are incompatible. Leaders who are espousing archaic, uninformed, harmful, and detrimental guidance to members who are coming to them for direction.
One of the leaders attending the conference offered the following to a member struggling with this very problem. He said, "While I understand that this guidance is incorrect and we should continue to better educate our leaders, I also feel that if someone went to a therapist that continued to tell them, as psychologists did as late as the mid-70s, that homosexuality is a mental illness, then one should find a different therapist. You might encourage the person to get a second opinion about that guidance from someone in their organization that they trust and who may have a more current grasp of correct Buddhist guidance." He went on to say, "Please let people know that is an off-the-cuff reply and not any kind of official organizational response. Sometimes people take things that way and I get myself in trouble."
I couldn't agree more with his observations. Because someone has a leadership role doesn't mean they have all the answers, or for that matter, the correct answers in every situation. Leaders are doing their own human revolution and need our understanding and compassion to help them. Yes, we do have a responsibility to listen to our leaders BUT we also have a responsibility to be true to ourselves no matter what society at large or individuals think or say. President Ikeda states in the book FAITH INTO ACTION (p. 65):
"Our lives are our own. It is not for someone else to dictate to us how we should live. All that awaits those who allow themselves to be continually swayed by what other people say or do is unhappiness. We simply need to have the self-belief to be able to say: 'This is right. This is the path I will follow. I am content.' Happiness is born from such inner fortitude. Moreover, those who earnestly devote themselves in accord with the mystic law cannot fail to realize lives of total fulfillment!" Further, President Toda stated in an essay he wrote, "... Therefore live your own life; in fact, you must perceive that there is actually no other way than to live your own life."Over the course of the wonderful three days we spent together Danny Nagashima, Greg Martin, Linda Johnson, Matilda Buck (through a videotape) and many leaders and members shared experiences, held discussions, gave encouragement, and offered emotional and spiritual support. The depth of honest sharing and profound guidance, at times, was staggering.
Human Revolution was indeed happening to me and all around me. It was so moving, so insightful, so meaningful, that at times, I didn't think I could absorb anything else ... not another word, another thought, another emotionI was drained! However, we would come together in small discussion groups or eat a meal together or meet for Gongyo and I was revived ... refreshed ... renewed ... ready to absorb the insightful, incisive life-stories being shared. The entire experience was mind altering and life changing. It pierced through the outer layers of my intellect and existence and spoke to the crux of my being ... my homosexuality and my Buddhist practice ... two inseparable entities that comprise my essence. And to be in an environment which was safe and secure and encouraged the open exchange and discussion of such topics was truly astounding.
In his guidance for March 18 from FOR TODAY AND TOMORROW, President Ikeda states,
"Let us do our utmost to sustain the wonderfully warm atmosphere of the SGI an atmosphere where members feel free to discuss whatever is on their minds. Unless we do so, our organization will stop growing, stop developing. The SGI is a world of humanity — of the heart, of faith, of compassion. It is a world of unity and mutual inspiration. That is why it is strong. If we continue to value and promote these qualities, the SGI will continue to grow and develop forever. I want to declare here and now the atmosphere where we can discuss anything is fundamental to the SGI."We were a wondrous gathering of 170 different souls who laughed, cried, cheered, healed, shared, spoke, remained silent, prayed, chanted daimoku, recited Gongyo and breathed each others' pain and joy. We were truly an entity of the Daishonin's itai doshin. He would have been proud of our compassion and our diversity.
In a letter, from The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, volume 6, pages 295-96, sent to Sennichi-ama, Nichiren Daishonin writes:
"So it is, that some love the blossoming cherry trees and some love the moon, some prefer sour things and some prefer bitter ones, some like little things and some like big. People have various tastes."He goes on to say:
"But though they differ from one another in such ways as these, when they enter into the Lotus Sutra, they all become like a single person in body and a single person in mind. This is just like the various rivers, that when they flow into the great ocean, all take on a universal salty flavor, or like the different kinds of birds that, when they approach Mount Sumeru, all assume the same golden hue."As the weekend drew to a close I reflected on the immeasurable benefits I had received — the feelings of acceptance and validation by the highest echelon of the organization and the opportunity to be given clarification on the temple issue. Discussions on topics such as, the relationship of mentor and disciple and how to use faith to overcome slander helped me deepen my faith and understanding. The chance to meet and be with a wonderful group of like-minded and like-spirited people, the beautiful gift of juzu beads that President Ikeda sent to each of us, and the network of members from the United States, Australia, France, and Italy who helped to me see deeper into myself and my practice ... those benefits are etched in my heart.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today. I hope my experience will be a springboard for further discussions on this important matter. If any of us is discriminated against within the organization for our sexual identity or orientation, our race, our nationality, or for whatever reason, or if we slander the law by being prejudiced or discriminatory, then we are all diminished. As someone said at the conference, perhaps we could begin to think of ourselves, not as human beings having Buddhist experiences, but rather as Buddhas having human experiences. We are the children of the Daishonin...the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. We have a responsibility to act as such.