Brian McNaught: Religious LGBT Folk are Unsung Heroes

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"Injudicious if not improper" is how, in 1976, the Presbyterian Church USA described the ordination of openly gay men and women. In May 2011, they changed their mind, and agreed that lesbians and gay men could serve at all levels of the church.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has its roots in the Anglican Church of England, which opposes marriage equality. But, their National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is now the site of gay weddings.

Despite the dire warnings of the Pope, the majority of Roman Catholics in the United States support marriage equality.

There are openly gay and lesbian bishops, priests, rabbis, imams, nuns, and religious brothers today, but that has not always been true. Many people in my generation were denied ordination in their churches because of their sexuality. What happened?

Did Ellen DeGeneres bring about this change? Harvey Milk? The Human Rights Campaign?

No, despite the inability or refusal of many gay historians and queer academics to acknowledge it, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sects have changed thousands of years of biblical interpretation and practice because of the unwavering witness of their LGBTQIA members. Chris Glaser is one of them. Author of the book, Uncommon Calling, A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, movie-star-handsome Chris served as the only openly gay member of a 1976-1978 Presbyterian Task Force to Study Homosexuality. He’s one of the brave, determined people who stayed in the denomination to force it to change its demeaning policy.

You won’t see Chris’s name in a timeline of American LGBTQIA history and culture. His steadfast, lifetime contribution of service, which had an enormous impact on the Presbyterian Church USA changing its position on the ordination of openly gay people, is deemed less significant than a television star coming out of the closet. You won’t see the names of Ellen Barrett, the first open lesbian to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1977. Had Barrett not been ordained, would Gene Robinson have ever been made a bishop by the Episcopalians? And what about Bill Johnson, the first gay man ordained into the ministry in any denomination in 1972? Had he not endured his trial three years after Stonewall, had John Boswell not done his scriptural explorations, had Michael Collins not fought for a seat at the Methodist table, would Richard Blanco have been invited to write a poem for Barack Obama?

Legislators and Supreme Court judges today are unable to cite Judea-Christian belief and practice when supporting laws that dehumanize gay people, because in the late 1960s and early 1970s, gay caucuses such as Dignity, Integrity, and Evangelicals Concerned were formed in every major religious denomination. Any progress made among Jehovah Witnesses is because of the presence of openly gay members of that denomination. Mormon allies are marching in gay parades because of the hard work of LGBTQIA Mormons.

There were just a handful of us, a half-dozen young, inspired, self-confident men and women in every mainline denomination, who in the early 1970s dared to openly defy our churches and our families, by declaring in whatever public means available to us that we were gay, religious, and not uncomfortable with either. Our heroic stories have been ignored by most gay historians, but President Obama would never have endorsed marriage equality had we not liberated sexual theology.

We were a threat to closeted clergy, and disparaged by radical movement leaders. We shook the very foundations of our churches with our books, civil disobedience, fasts, firings, ordination denials, and excommunications. We petitioned our church leaders in thoughtful letters. We sat for years on commissions that would decide our sinfulness in the nicest of terms. We got more hate mail collectively than any group of gay leaders in the country. Conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews can twist the words of the Bible or Koran into the most demeaning sentences. They have particular animosity for people of their kind who threaten the peace of their daily lives and weekend services.

We were a band of brothers and sisters who knew each other, sometimes intimately. We stayed at one another's houses when we traveled. There was no e-mail at the time, telephone calls were expensive, and we were mostly unemployed. We kept up with one another’s lives through The Advocate, Gay Community News, or caucus newsletters. We met up at national conferences, and we shared hotel rooms. We all had been told by our denominations, “No Cross, no Crown,” which meant that if you didn’t suffer as Jesus did by carrying a cross, you’d never be crowned in heaven. We were also told by our denominations that being homosexual was our cross, and that unless we repented there would be no crown, or, in some cases, no tiara. But we earned our crown or tiara by standing up to the most powerful people in the world: the Pope and all other ecclesiastical princes. There are more lash marks on the backs of gay Christians, Jews, and Muslims, than on those of gay songwriters or tennis players.

When he heard that I was collecting historic artifacts for an exhibition on LGBTQIA People of Faith, Chris Glaser sent me the one-of-a-kind T-Shirt that he had made up in 1976 that proclaims, “Injudicious if not Improper.” He wore it whenever he attended Presbyterian Church conferences. I get as excited about this artifact as I do the gavel Barney Frank sent from the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate.

If you’d like to learn more about the heroic men and women who transformed their religious denominations by standing up for themselves and for us in the early days of the movement, and who have continued to work for a theology that embraced us as fully human and worthy to be represented at the President’s inauguration, visit the LGBT Religious Archives Network at www.lgbtran.org.

Brian McNaught was named “the godfather of gay diversity training” by The New York Times. He works with corporate executives globally, is the author of six books, and is featured in seven educational DVDs. He and his spouse Ray Struble divide their year between Fort Lauderdale and Provincetown. Visit Brian-McNaught.com for more information.


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