Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement

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Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement

As gay men and lesbians became a visible presence in American society in the late 1960s, they began to confront their relationship to religious organizations. Organized religion, and ancient Jewish and Christian Scripture in particular, has been understood as a leading source of opposition to gay and lesbian rights. Gay men and lesbians have challenged that perspective, arguing that the references to gay sexuality in the Bible arose in a different context from the world we know today of committed gay and lesbian relationships. They have created their own religious organizations and demanded the right to participate openly and equally in Jewish and Christian (and to a lesser extent Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, and Islamic) communities in the United States and internationally.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) is the oldest and largest independent gay and lesbian religious organization. It was founded in Los Angeles in 1968 by the Rev. Troy Perry, a Pentecostal preacher who had been defrocked when his homosexuality was revealed. MCC churches have two sacraments (baptism and communion) and six rites (membership, holy union, funeral, laying on hands, blessing, and ordination). The worship styles and theological orientations of the more than three hundred churches vary according to the background and interests of minister and parishoners, but all MCC member churches subscribe to the idea that "Scripture does not condemn loving, responsible homosexual relationships."

The Unity Fellowship Church Movement was founded in Los Angeles in 1985 by Bishop Carl Bean. Unity has congregations in several large cities. Unity churches are open to all Christians and to all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their allies. The leadership of Unity is predominantly African American, and its worship style is similar to that found in other black churches in the United States.

The first gay synagogues started in Los Angeles and London in 1972, and in New York in 1973. These synagogues formed the nucleus for the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Organizations, which was founded in 1980 and which now consists of more than fifty synagogues and groups worldwide. Most of the gay and lesbian synagogues have joined either the Reform or the Reconstructionist movement, although some remain independent. Their worship styles are eclectic, as members and rabbis represent various Jewish religious backgrounds, from Orthodox to secular.

In the late 1990s the American Catholic Church was founded in Baltimore by the Most Rev. Lawrence Harnes. The church follows Roman Catholic teachings but accepts clergy whatever their marital status, gender, or sexual orientation. Its forerunner was the Eucharist Catholic Church, which was organized in Atlanta in the 1940s and which ministered particularly to gay men.

Virtually all organized religious groups have had to respond to gay and lesbian demands for inclusion. Responses have varied. Some groups seek to convert gay men and lesbians to heterosexuality. Some organizations welcome openly gay individuals if they remain celibate. Many support civil rights but refuse religious rights, such as ordination and same-sex unions. In every denomination that has not embraced gay and lesbian rights there is an organized group engaged in a struggle for equality and acceptance. Some individual congregations define themselves as welcoming, whatever the stance of their national organization. Some denominations have embraced gay and lesbian people as equal members of laity and clergy.

Evangelical Christian groups have for the most part rejected demands of gay and lesbian people for inclusion in their churches and are the leading sponsors of groups to convert them to heterosexuality. But there are many groups of gay evangelicals, including the National Gay Pentecostal Alliance, Good News, Evangelical Anglican Church in America, and the Faith Temple in Washington, D.C., organized by the Rev. James Tinney, a black gay evangelical. These groups seek acceptance of gay relationships based on the argument that it is God's will that they were created gay and Christian.

The Catholic Church has affirmed love and welcome for gay men and lesbians if they remain celibate. Dignity, the largest national lay movement of Catholic gay men, lesbians, and their families and friends, was founded in 1973 and has grown to include seventyfive chapters in the United States. They demand the right to worship openly as lesbians and gay men within the church; refuse celibacy, since they are denied the right to marry; and advocate change in the church's teaching about gay and lesbian relationships. Other groups, such as Courage, which was founded in the 1980s, accept Catholic teachings about celibacy for gay men and lesbians but encourage open participation of gays in the Catholic Church.

Orthodox and Conservative Jewish groups have not welcomed openly gay men and lesbians into their midst, although the Conservative movement has gone on record as supporting civil rights for gay men and lesbians and deploring antigay violence. A group of women who call themselves Orthodykes explore their desire to remain committed to traditional Judaism as lesbians.

Other groups that have not welcomed openly gay and lesbian participation also have groups of gay men and lesbians within their ranks who support and advocate rights. These include AXIOS, an organization for Eastern and Orthodox Christians; Affirmation, a group for gay and lesbian Mormons; the Seventh-Day Adventist Kinship, a group to promote understanding; Emergence International: Christian Scientists Supporting Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals; Honesty, a Southern Baptist group; and the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.

Some Christian denominations are deeply divided on the acceptance of gay men and lesbians. These groups have welcoming churches as well as organizations to support gay men and lesbians. These include the Episcopal group Integrity, Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, Lutherans Concerned, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and Cornet, the United Methodist Covenant Relationships Network. There are some ordained gay and lesbian clergy who have been allowed to remain in congregational service after coming out, and many who serve in other capacities. Same-sex unions are commonly performed although not officially sanctioned. Gay men and lesbians are active and equal members of welcoming or reconciling congregations. Yet each of these denominations also includes congregations and individuals who adamantly oppose the inclusion of gay men and lesbians, and ministers have lost their positions if they have come out as gay or performed same-sex-union ceremonies. Acrimonious battles have been fought over this issue, often coming to no resolution.

The United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Society of Friends, and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have been the most accepting of gay men and lesbians. The first openly gay ordination in the United States took place under the auspices of the United Church of Christ, which ordained the Rev. William Johnson in 1972. All the groups ordain gay and lesbian clergy, support equality of membership in congregations, and allow clergy to perform same-sex unions. (Reform Judaism has yet to make a decision about the latter.)

Religious groups outside the Jewish and Christian traditions have also had to deal with this issue in the American context. The Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco is openly gay, and Buddhism in general tends toward toleration of gay and lesbian sexuality. GAI, Gay American Indians, incorporates issues of spirituality into its work, as does Trikone, a group of lesbian and gay South Asians. Most Goddess religions are strongly gay-affirmative. While Islam does not support open expressions of gay and lesbian sexuality, there is great tolerance for private relationships.

Because much of the acceptance of gay men and lesbians in religious circles is predicated on the notion that sexuality is based on nature rather than on choice, and on choosing either celibacy or committed relationships, bisexuality has been slow to find acceptance in religious circles. Yet there is a growing support for bisexual concerns, and some gay-lesbian groups ( Jewish, Christian Science, Unitarian Universalist) have added "Bisexual" to their names. But the world of religious support for gay men and lesbians has been slow to incorporate support for bisexual and transgendered people.

See alsoChastity; Civil Rights Movement; Clergy; Human Rights; Marriage, Christian; Marriage, Jewish; Metropolitan Community Church; Priesthood; Unity.


Comstock, Gary David. Unrepentant, Self-Affirming, Practicing: Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay People Within Organized Religion. 1996.

Cooper, Aaron. "No Longer Invisible: Gay and Lesbian Jews Build a Movement." Journal of Homosexuality 18 (1989–1990): 83–94.

Hartman, Keith. Congregations in Conflict: The Battle over Homosexuality. 1996.

McNeill, John. The Church and the Homosexual. 1976.

Perry, Troy D., and Thomas L. P. Swicegood. Don't Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches. 1990.

Rebecca T. Alpert

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Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement

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