The History of Gay Religious Activism in the U.S.

LGBT RELIGIOUS HISTORY

Not unlike the thousands of public parties held this past June during Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, hundreds of gay San Franciscans gathered on New Year’s Day 1965 for the much anticipated Mardi Gras Ball held at 625 Polk Street in the Tenderloin District. The most interesting aspect of the San Francisco ball was the fact it was held as a fundraiser for pro-gay clergy, according to Jaweed Kaleem’s article Unearthing The Surprising Religious History Of American Gay Rights Activism. Although today Americans for (homophiles or gay right activists) and against gay rights typically use their religious beliefs as the reasons, those who oppose same sex marriage and other rights for LGBT individuals have continued to declare that God is on their side. However, in the mid 1960s, LGBT activists often looked to men of the cloth as allies in the fight for justice and human rights, according to historians. Just months before the event, two dozen Bay Area Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ clergy and gay activists joined together to form the Council on Religion and and Homosexual in order to promote “need for a better understanding of human sexuality” and its “broad variations and manifestations.” Clergy and lawyers had negotiate with the police on behalf of the group to let the dance happen, but according to contemporary new articles, police showed up to take pictures of those attending the ball in order to intimidate them. When cops wanted to come inside, the lawyers blocked them causing six people to end up in jail for interfering with police and disorderly conduct. The clergy fought back with a press conference the next day and mobilized the city’s gay community and the pastors. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit over the arrest making it the first time the ACLU had joined in the fight for gay rights, according to the LGBT Religious Archives Network.

According to Kaleem’s article: “‘That was years before the 1969 Stonewall riots, which is popularly considered the beginning of the gay rights movement,’ said Heather White, a visiting assistant professor of religion at the New College of Florida who has spent years combing through LGBT archives for an upcoming book, tentatively titled Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. ‘And that’s just one of the best-known stories. There were Councils on Religion and Homosexuality and similar groups in D.C., Pennsylvania, Ottawa, Hawaii.””

The LGBT Religious Network along with a growing group of scholars such as White have documented hundreds of stories like the San Francisco clergy since it was found 13 years ago at the United Church of Christ-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary based now in Berkely, California, at the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. The organization’s website offers a series of profiles of and oral history interviews with Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Pagan LGBT clergy and religious activists, living and dead, Kaleem reports.White, part of the network advisory committee, explains that the expectations about how religion would view gay rights changed after the 1960s.

White explains, “What we know of the face of religion and gay rights has been shaped by a shift that occurred in the 1970s with the rise of conservative Christianity. It’s a consolidated political force that wasn’t in place before then. There were certainly conservative people and religious people who were involved in politics, but in the 1950s and 1960s, homophile organizations saw religious leaders as likely allies. That is less of the case today, though things are changing.”

A Pew Research Center survey released last Thursday reported that 62 percent of American believe homosexuality should be accepted rather than frowned upon by society, but there is still a clear division between religious Americans as far as gay rights are concerned especially same sex marriages. Recent polls show that white evangelicals strongly oppose gay marriage, while the nation’s largest churches do not support same sex marriage e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, Catholic American individuals tend to support gay marriage with several additional denomintaions allowing clergy to perform same sex marriages or blessings e.g.  the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and both Reform and Conservative Jews. According to Bernard Schlager, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry and an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at the Pacific School of Religion, “Some of the biggest gay rights activists and organizations started their work in churches.” Additionally, Schalger believes the inaccurate and widespread perception of religion firmly opposing gay right has changed as well, Kaleem reports. He explains, “It’s come to the point that sometimes people today say it’s more difficult to come out as a person of faith than it is to come out as LGBT in religious circles.” Melissa Wilcox, who also sits on the LGBT Religious Archives Network’s advisory committee and is an associate professor of religion and gender studies at Whitman College, has this to say: “With the increasing visibility of the marriage rights movement, we have started to see LGBT-supportive groups [within religious communities] being able to get their message out more clearly. That’s a battle for them, but many have been there all along.”

After decades of church activism, the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in the Unites States last week voted to allow pastors to officiate gay marriages in states where it is legal. An additional vote will take place to determine if the definition of marriage should be changed to cover two people not just a man and woman. Wilcox sums it up best by saying,”A lot of people are still wary of anything you’d call religion. A lot of people have been burned. But there’s a rich history out there of gay religious activism for us to appreciate and uphold.”

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