Sunday, 26 January 2014

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In the history of lesbian and gay politics, historians put a lot of stock in whether or not the people we study were"out." But what exactly does "out" mean? This past week I interviewed Robert W. Wood, author of 1960 bookChrist and the Homosexual Wood is a retired United Church of Christ (formerly Congregationalist Church) minister who knew since high school that he was gay. As a teenager he poured through Biblical scripture looking for guidance regarding his sexuality and found none.
Cover of the 1960 book Christ and the Homosexual
A year into university Wood was called up for military service. He suffered a gun shot wound in the mountains of Italy that left him with a collapsed lung. When he was finally released from hospital 666 days later (not making that up), he took his GI Bill benefits and enrolled in the Oberlin Seminary where he studied for a life in service of God. By the time he graduated, he was no better informed about the Christian view of homosexuality and decided to fill the gap himself. Once established in his own church in the commuter suburb of Spring Valley, New York, he crafted a book-length argument for a Christian approach to homosexuality, one that saw homosexuals as equal to heterosexuals, that maintained God approved of homosexuals, and that argued pastors had a moral and ethical obligation to become better informed about homosexuality so that they could provide good counsel to their homosexual parishioners. He also insisted on the right of same-sex couples to marry, which is why I came to know him and his work. Not only did Wood use his real name (something Edward Sagarin, author of the 1951 book The Homosexual in America chose not to do) and put his image on the book sleeve, he gave a copy to each of his own church's board members. Wood does not identify himself as a homosexual in the book, but simply writing such a book automatically raised suspicions. Remarkably, if an eye was batted in Spring Valley, it was done in private. Wood's position as pastor was never challenged, and he went on to serve at two other churches before retiring in 1986.

Two years after the book came out, Wood met, fell in love with, and married rodeo cowboy and artist Hugh Coulter. They bought and wore matching gold bands on their left ring finger but maintained separate residences. When congregants invited Wood out socially, Hugh usually went along. Some grasped the nature of their relationship, others did not.

Was Wood "out" or not? In an interview I conducted with him last week he says he "came out" in 1957 when he published a short article called "Spiritual Exercises" in a gay men's physique magazine. He used his real name and it was printed with a clear head shot, the same one he later used for his book. In an earlier interview with Stephen Law, Wood described an unambiguous public declaration of his sexuality more typical of what Americans consider "coming out." When Hugh died in 1986 a sympathetic parishioner said, "I am so sorry your friend has died."

"He wasn't my friend,"Wood declared, "he was my partner." It was the first time he confronted the ambiguity that had allowed him and Hugh to lead the life they did while still actively and openly advocating for gay rights.

Being "out" enabled people to publicly fight against oppression while simultaneously providing a visible role model for lesbians and gays who believed they were abnormal, deviant, and sinners. For that reason, being out had a measurable historical impact. Wood's book is case in point. He received hundreds of letters from lesbians and gays who expressed relief at having a positive view of themselves put forward, but who were still too afraid to sign their own names at the bottom of the page.

Did Wood come out in 1957 or 1986? Or is "outness" too blunt an instrument for understanding the history of queer resistance politics? Perhaps Wood's story suggests that we need a different metric for measuring "outness" in the 50s and 60s than we do for the 70s and after. What do you think?

(Special thanks to Alan Miller of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for putting me on to Wood's work)

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One of the big news stories before Christmas 2013 was the United Methodist church's defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer for officiating at his son's marriage. His son is gay, as is the man he married. This week's blog entry is about a different Methodist minister who was removed from the church in 1973 on similar grounds. While in Boston I interviewed Rev. William E. Alberts two days before the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry announced its decision to defrock Schaefer.

Alberts was not actually defrocked; his bishop deemed him "unappointable" and was subsequently forced to retire after he officiated the marriage of Harry Freeman and Bob Jones, who I'll write about next week. According to Alberts, however, his removal from the church had nothing to do with having officiated a gay marriage. It was a red herring directing attention away from the deeper problem of racism within the Southern New England Methodist conference.

In 1964, Boston's renovated Old West Methodist Church was re-opened, with a grand vision to establish it as the voice of Methodism in Boston. Alberts was brought on board as co-minister with special responsibility to develop experimental programs that provided "services to humanity." As Martin Luther King called for racial justice and Lyndon Johnston called for a War on Poverty, so followed the churches -- at least on the surface.

Rev. Alberts earned a PhD from Boston University in psychology and pastoral counselling in 1961 while serving at Lafayette St. United Methodist Church in Salem, Massachusetts when he was handpicked for the position at Old West. When he took up his new post he quickly forged connections with diverse community members: the Cambridge Street church became home to music groups and a theatre company, and a refuge for hippies, activists, radicals and Cuban relief workers. The experience not only changed the community, it also changed Alberts.

Angered by police violence against the so-called hippies who flocked to Boston in 1968, Alberts dressed like a hippie and was arrested on the Boston Common with two young men. "I used the denial of our rights, upon arrest, to dramatize in a Boston Globe story the mistreatment by police of the thousands of hippies who had flocked to the Boston Common. "In 1971 I was arrested with several other anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at a sing-in in the Cambridge Draft Board office and did 8 days at the Billerica House of Correction; and the Boston Globe published my daily diary ;about that jail experience."

According to Alberts, however, in the eyes of his superiors his most controversial action was to stand with his African American brethren in support of the fight against racism within the church.

In 1969, the New England Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) requested the conference allocate $500,000 a year for three years for black economic and community development programs. This request was inspired by James Forman's delivery of the Black Manifesto at the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most prominent white Protestant churches in America. The Manifesto demanded half a billion dollars be given "reparations" from American Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. The funds would be used to establish a farming cooperative, four publishing houses, four black television networks, a research centre for training in communications, a grant to the National Welfare Rights Organization, an International Black Appeal, a black Anti-Defamation League, and a black university. The BMCR was more modest -- requesting, not demanding, for example -- but they were equally steadfast in their commitment to achieving racial justice through and in their church and community.

In a 1970 Boston Globe account of the meeting Alberts, who is of white heritage, and colleague Rev. William B. McClain, who is of African American heritage, described how after the proposal was advanced, "a white racist Christian mind set surfaced." Eventually some funds were granted, but it was a fraction of the original request.

Two years later, when a black pastor was passed over in favour of a white pastor for promotion to a church with a predominantly African American congregation, the BMCR requested a formal investigation into the possibility that racism was a factor in the decision-making process. Once again, Alberts was a vocal supporter who stood with McClain and other BCMR members.

As Alberts sees it, the gay marriage he officiated in April 1973 provided the excuse his superiors needed to get rid of him. The bishop demanded that he not perform the ceremony, but Alberts ignored the warning.

Interestingly, the gay marriage issue did not provide the traction the bishop needed and he resorted to even more sordid tactics to achieve his goal, but that story will have to wait for the book. (So, too, will the twist to this entire affair: the bishop who deemed Alberts "unappointable" was African American.)

Alberts' story reveals something that is becoming increasingly evident in my research. In the mid-1960s, those with authority within organized religion were open to permitting exploration of new ideas about social change and social justice circulating at the time, including the call to embrace homosexuals in Christian community. It quickly became evident, however, that, if taken on board, these ideas would demand radical change, not moderate reform. After a brief period of openness and experimentation, many of the mainline churches made a hasty retreat and retrenched behind their vestments.

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