Friday, October 19, 2007

Virginia Young Hilton, 1930 - 2007

When I read Lindsay Beyerstein's tribute to her late father, the line that reduced me to tears was this one: "He was among the most ethical people I have ever known". When I read it, it seemed likely that one or both of my own parents would be gone before too long; my father's health has been deteriorating for ten years or more, and my mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. And both of them are among the most ethical people I have ever known.

My mother went first, as it happened. We've been mourning for what seems like forever, and we'll continue to feel her loss--well, forever. At the same time, I think we're all especially conscious right now of how lucky we were to have her, of what an extraordinary person she really was.

My mother was someone who made a difference. She spent her whole life serving people: as a nurse, as a minister, as an activist. In Dayton, Ohio in the early '60s, she fought segregationist real estate practices. In Mississippi, where my father worked in the civil rights movement (for the National Council of Churches), she provided medical care and taught nutrition to the families of sharecroppers who had been evicted for registering to vote. As a minister, she preached equality and social justice. She was always actively involved in pro-choice and peace organizations. For the last 25 years or so, she and my father have been among the most visible advocates of LGBT equality in the United Methodist Church.

Given her age, it goes without saying that she faced horrific sexism at every step of the way (for example: she went into nursing after the powers that be told her that as a woman, she couldn't be a doctor). When she started preaching, women ministers were still controversial, even in a denomination that had been ordaining women for decades; some in her congregation believed the scriptures (more specifically, that asshole Paul) forbade it altogether. She didn't just refuse to give up--she forced the issue, bringing feminist issues such as choice and inclusive language front and center in her ministry. What we saw of her struggles made a deep impression. My mother raised four boys; if any of us can presume to call ourselves feminists, she deserves the credit.

She lived what she believed. I'm not a fan of faith in general, but my parents stand as examples of the notion that faith can be a positive force. My mother's religious beliefs broadened her view of humanity; they motivated her to fight for equality for everyone, for the value of every human life, against war and economic injustice.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a really good obituary that, I think, actually did her justice. The opening sums it up nicely:

In the early 1940s, a New Jersey seventh-grader named Virginia stood up to her school's grown-ups and refused to sing at her school's eighth-grade graduation ceremony because her two African American classmates were not allowed to participate....

The girl's defiance was just the start of Virginia Hilton's lifetime commitment to civil rights, women's rights and gay rights.
What better epitaph could any of us hope to have?