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More than Survival

Photo from Laura Engelken, walking with her wife, Katrina, as part of the UVM contingent of the Burlington Vermont Pride Parade.

Rev. Laura C. Engelken is an ordained minister and student affairs professional with over 20 years of experience in higher education and pastoral settings. In her work, Laura seeks to equip and empower individuals and institutions to identify, explore, and critically reflect upon the ways they and others make meaning of their life and world. Her hope is to create spaces and communities which enable individuals to bring their full selves to their life, work, and relationships – including their religious and philosophical identities. She currently directs the Interfaith Center at The University of Vermont.  

When I first read the subject line in my email box, I caught my breath. The New York Times was releasing breaking news of the Supreme Court’s decision on whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals deserved employment protections under civil rights law. paused before reading the full sentencehesitating in that liminal space between hope and despair. 

Unconsciously, my heart and mind gave me a moment’s pause to prepare myself for the verdict. The question of whether LGBT individuals should be granted employment protection is not an esoteric policy debate or abstract theological question for me; it is deeply personal.  

The first time I lost a job due to my sexuality, the attack was clearly articulated. When I asked the non-profit director and board member to explain the reason for my abrupt termination after three short days of employment, the immediate response was “You live with Rachel and it’s a small town.” In search of insight and assistance in the face of this blatant discrimination, I called a different non-profit. This one offered legal advice to LGBT individuals facing situations such as mine. “You live on the wrong side of the interstate,” the staff member told me bluntly. There’s nothing we can do for you there. With rage boiling within me, I curtly replied, “This is where I live.” 

So, I moved. I drew on my privilege as an educated, able-bodied, cisgender, white, U.S. citizen and found opportunity elsewhere in the country. Along with my belongings, I left that town carrying the sting of discrimination and feelings of guilt. I was able to leave that community; yet other LGBTQ people I knew living there, some closeted about their sexuality and some living openly, did not have the resources available to do so. might have survived in that small town, but I never would have thrived.  

So, what happened once I returned to the full subject line in my email? How did I feel after reading the story that revealed 6 out of 9 judges affirmed that folks like myself should not be denied the ability to care for themselves and their loved ones merely on the basis of our sexual orientation or gender identity? Relieved. Not excited, not joyful, or triumphant, but an exhausted sense of relief. Instead of having to flee my home, family, and community should I again be pushed out of employment because of my sexuality, I now have the legal grounds to defend myself. 

Foundational to my personal and professional commitments as a minister, educator, and activist is the belief that all of us are created with worth and dignity by the Divine. Of course, I cannot objectively prove this belief to be true, it nevertheless gives shape to the ways in which I spend my time, energy, and resources. It is why I feel called to engage in interfaith efforts to create spaces and opportunities that enable each of us to bring our full selves to more just, sustainable world. 

This belief is also why my feeling of relief in response to the Supreme Court ruling was quickly accompanied by another – the feeling of discomfort. The discomfort that this ruling came on the heels of the Trump administration’s approval of discrimination against transgender people in health care. In a time of the pandemic, those of us whose gender identity does not conform to the social or theological ideals of our given medical provider may be told without fanfare that we are ineligible for treatment. It also comes when we are rightly giving attention to the assault on Black lives, however, the conversation remains silent about the epidemic of violence against Black transgender women.  

I believe all human life is created with worth and dignity by the Divine. This truth is not conditional upon the particulars of embodiment or the idiosyncrasies of zip code. I also believe it is not conditional upon the particular framework that I, or my interfaith friends and colleagues, use to understand and describe that inherent worth and dignity. What matters to me is that together we build a world that doesn’t just allow each person to survive but enables us to thrive. 

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