Five Churches that Stood Up For LGBT People Before Stonewall

(Dr. White will be speaking at Holy Apostles Church on June 23rd as part of World Pride Celebrations. All are invited.)

By Dr. Heather White 

The history of Christianity and LGBTQ rights is often told as a simple story about oppression, silencing and condemnation. But many Christian churches were actually on the front lines of the struggle for LGBT rights, even before the 1969 Stonewall Riots. The following list includes churches affiliated with mainstream denominations, as well as congregations that LGBT people started themselves. This list of five helps to make the point that religious organizing and community building has historical roots that extend back as far as the formal efforts to organize for LGBT rights. Note: This list is also far from complete and we look forward to adding more religious institutions as their history emerges.

The Eucharistic Catholic Church, Atlanta, GA

We are different from other churches, in that we do not condemn the homosexual for his nature any more than we condemn the heterosexual.”

One of the earliest known LGBT-welcoming congregations began meeting in 1946 in Atlanta. The group was led by George Augustus Hyde, a gay man who had been ousted from a Roman Catholic seminary a few years earlier. A small but diverse group of black, white, Protestant, Catholic, homosexual, and heterosexual Christians met in a downtown Atlanta house. In 1961, Hyde wrote a letter to ONE, an association of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles. In it, he described the church’s theology: “We are different from other churches, in that we do not condemn the homosexual for his nature any more than we condemn the heterosexual. Frankly, we are not more concerned about your sex life than we are about the color of shirt you wear.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist, San Francisco

The two Methodist ministers called a press conference on January 2, 1965 to denounce the unjust actions of San Francisco’s vice squad, which had raided a drag ball the night before and arrested six people.

Cecil Williams and Ted McIllvenna, both Methodist ministers, called a press conference on January 2, 1965 to denounce the unjust actions of San Francisco’s vice squad, which had raided a drag ball the night before and arrested six people. Williams was a black minister with organizing experience in the civil rights movement and McIvenna was a white youth minister with specialized training in sex education. Glide Church, where they served on the pastoral staff, was located in the heart of the Tenderloin district, which preceded the Castro as San Francisco’s queer neighborhood.  Both ministers also a participant in the 1964-founded Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which was organized to facilitate a dialogue between clergy and members of local gay and lesbian societies. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual advocated among liberal Mainline Protestant churches to encourage support for gay and trans rights.

The Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles, California

God had told him to start a church and to preach the simple message that God loved gay people.

Twelve people gathered in Troy Perry’s living room in October of 1968 for the first meeting of the Metropolitan Church. Perry, a gay man and former Pentecostal minister, had put out an announcement for the new church a few weeks before. His reason: God had told him to start a church and to preach the simple message that God loved gay people. Within a few months, the Sunday services of the newly-founded Metropolitan Community Church leapfrogged into the hundreds. In 1970, the Los Angeles church joined with other new congregations in San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, and Phoenix to form the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a new Christian denomination. By the early 1977, with eighty member churches, the UFMCC was the largest national LGBT organization in the United States. The MCC also helped to inspire a network of LGBT welcoming synagogues, the first of which started in Los Angeles by Jewish attendees of MCC, who formed Beth Chadim Chadashim in 1972.

Westport United Methodist Church, Kansas City, Missouri  

A Methodist minister wrote one of the earliest theological defenses of same-sex marriage, after he officiated at two couples’ marriage ceremonies in 1968.

Micky Ray remembers walking into one of Kansas City’s gay bars soon after he arrived in the city in 1968.  The bar was empty, but a sign on the door announced a meeting taking place that night at Westport United Methodist Church. The meeting was for The Phoenix Society for Individual Rights, the city’s first gay and lesbian association. Methodists clergy continued to be staunch allies in the late 1960s and early 70s, as gays and lesbians in Kansas City began to organize collectively. The Phoenix Society collaborated with local clergy to develop educational programs on homosexuality held at St Paul Theological Seminary. Paul Jones, a Methodist minister and a professor at the seminary, wrote one of the earliest theological defenses of same-sex marriage, after he officiated at two couples’ marriage ceremonies in 1968. This Kansas City story is not a rarity—in many cities, sympathetic churches and clergy provided meeting spaces for some of the earliest LGBT organizations.

The Church of the Holy Apostles, New York

The Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance met there, and the West Side Discussion Group held popular Wednesday night dances at the church.

A little known fact about the Stonewall Riots is that the radical movement sparked the 1969 police raid found a community center in a church. The Church of the Holy Apostles, located in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, opened up its parish hall for meeting, dances, and events organized by gay, lesbian and transgender organizations. The Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance met there, and the West Side Discussion Group held popular Wednesday night dances.  Additionally, three different LGBT religious groups meet on the church premises– The Church of the Beloved Disciple, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, and the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. Other New York churches, including Judson Memorial Church and Washington Square United Methodist Church, also provided meeting space to LGBT groups in New York during the last 1960s and very early 1970s.

Dr. Heather White is Visiting Assistant Professor, in the Religious Studies Department and Gender and Queer Studies Program at University of Puget Sound.  She is the author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights.

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