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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)

crossposted from [personal profile] elisechenier and echenier.wordpress.com

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This past week I met with Vancouver's queer seniors writing collective Quirk-e to talk about a draft of an article I recently completed with the title: “Freak Wedding! Marriage as Postwar Lesbian Pleasure Practice.” The article was inspired by the headline of a 1957 tabloid story about a butch and fem lesbian wedding in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The question I ask in the article is simple enough: how can we make sense of butch and fem lesbians' highly conventional marriage practices when everything else about them was highly unconventional?

Continued at Elise's journal.

crossposted from [personal profile] elisechenier


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In the summer of 2011 I rode my motorcycle around the U.S. in search of pre-1980 evidence of same-sex marriage for my book Outlaws to In-Laws. I made stops at queer and lesbian and gay archives in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Elise Chenier and Troy Perry
Caption: Me and Troy


While in L.A. I met up with Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which today boasts 222 member congregations in 37 countries. The MCC was founded in 1968. Perry ran an ad in a local gay newspaper inviting people to attend a Christian service he was to conduct himself. With no money to put toward the effort, he held the service in his living room. Twelve people turned up. Nine were friends he cajoled into coming. Only three came as a result of the ad.

Perry’s fiery sermons services, however, quickly attracted large crowds of queers thirsty for spiritual sustenance and community. One of the most popular services he provided was to bless couples’ unions.

Unlike the story of Daisy de Jesus, which I wrote about last week, the history of Troy Perry and the MCC Church is well documented in archives, books and on film. Interviews, however, often bring out nuances and details left off the official record. I was keen to meet Perry and hear what he had to say on the subject. We met up in June of 2011 and spent close to three hours talking about the MCC and gay marriage.

Here is a 38-second clip from our interview. Perry explains his feelings about marriage and describes an early, creative solution to the exclusion of lesbian and gays from formal marriage rites. The clip gives us a sense of Perry's intoxicating voice and his passion for life and love. It's easy to see why so many are drawn to him.



Do you know of similar “creative solutions”? Did you ever marry or attend a wedding ceremony at the MCC in its first decade?

crossposted from [personal profile] elisechenier

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Archivists are the unsung heroes of the historical profession. They are made all the more special by the fact that in the lesbian and gay archives sector most are unpaid, or underpaid. Theirs is a true labor of love.

Doing research in volunteer-run archives means that services can be patchy. You rely on the goodwill and good humor of others, and luck and happenstance can have as much to do with your research results as a good method and thorough approach.

When I first began contemplating same-sex marriage as a research topic, I contacted the Lesbian Herstory Archives. As luck would have it, the volunteer archivist in that day was someone who worked particularly hard to help answer research queries as best she could. When I asked if the Archives had any research materials on lesbian weddings or marriages before 1980, she found a few clippings in a file, and suggested other collections they had where I might look. She also went the extra mile and chatted up a few of the long-time Archives volunteers and workers, women whose participation in the local lesbian scene went back to the 1960s and '70s New York community. One of them suggested I contact Daisy de Jesus. Continued.

Crossposted from [personal profile] elisechenier

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[click for larger]


The headline says it all. In the 1950s, lesbians were “freaks.” This was especially true of butch women who adopted a masculine working-class style. Their style alone communicated volumes: I will not conform to society’s rules; I will not be a “proper” woman; I am a sexually desiring being, and my desire is directed toward women, especially feminine women.


When I first uncovered this image, I was stunned. It is rare to see photographs from this period. Few working-class women had cameras, few could afford to take photos, and most moved so often that photos tended to get lost, misplaced, or thrown out.

But even more than that, I was surprised to learn that these women, whom historians have always characterized as rebels, as heterosexual refuseniks, as the political predecessors to the lesbian and feminist liberationists who denounced marriage and romance as major sources of women’s oppression, got married. Not only that, they did so in the most conventional of ways. As the image of Ivy and Gerry shows, they wore conventional wedding attire. My research is showing that this was only the beginning. Women arranged for an officiant – sometimes a friend, and sometimes a Christian minister sympathetic to same-sex lovers – and exchanged heartfelt vows. Afterwards, many couples celebrated with a multi-tier wedding cake. There was no marriage license, of course, but what did that matter?

How does lesbian marriage fit with the image historians have constructed of butch and fem culture as a rebel culture? Was marriage in this case an act of resistance against heterosexual norms or was it, as some queer critics of today’s marriage equality movement argue, conformist and conservative? Continued at [personal profile] elisechenier

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