In Celebration: Rev Jane Spahr, “Lesbyterian”

With the widespread press attention to the gay and lesbian bishops in the Episcopalian church, the ECLA decision last year to recognize openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed and faithful relationships, and this summer’s decision (not yet ratified) by the Presbyterian Church of the USA to do the same, it is too easy to overlook the fact that gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry. Of the earliest years, I have written before, but I am now finding numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy in modern times, going back a lot further than I had recognised. (The earliest clear example I have found so far is of Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was ordained a Quaker minister in 1869.) The problem is not that there were not gay or lesbian clergy, but getting them recognised. Recognition, however, is important, and achieving it has been a major problem, with many courageous men and women making stands, suffering persecution, and securing a series of breakthroughs along the way.
In the Presbyterian Church, one of these pioneers has been Rev Jane Spahr, who was in the news this week for her appearance in a church court for conducting same sex marriages in California in 2008, during the few months when they were fully legal in California law- but not sanctioned by the church’s own regulations. I will come back to the weddings, and the trial, later. First, I want to go back a little further.

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Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, lesbian pioneers

Del Martin 

b. May 5, 1921
August 27, 2008

Phyllis Lyon 

b. November 10, 1924


“Two extraordinary people … that have spent the greater part of a half century … fighting for their right to live the way so many of us, frankly, take for granted.

 – San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

Wedding of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, 2008

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the first lesbian organization in the United States and have fought for more than 50 years for the rights of lesbians and gays. On June 16, 2008, Martin and Lyon became the first gay couple to be legally married in California.

Martin and Lyon both earned degrees in journalism. While working as journalists in Seattle, the two became romantically involved. The couple relocated to San Francisco and moved in together on Valentine’s Day 1953.

In 1955, finding it hard to develop a social network in San Francisco, Martin, Lyon and a small group of women founded the first lesbian organization, called the Daughters of Bilitis. The name was inspired by Pierre Louys’s “Songs of Bilitis,” a collection of poems celebrating lesbian sexuality.

Though it was intended to be a secret society, Martin and Lyon wanted to make the Daughters of Bilitis more visible. The group began publishing a monthly magazine, called The Ladder, which was the first-ever lesbian publication. As editors of the magazine, they capitalized the word “lesbian” every time it appeared.

In 1964, while fighting to change California sex laws criminalizing homosexuals, the couple joined religious and gay community leaders to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH). This organization was at the forefront of the movement to gain religious support on gay rights issues. Both women served on the founding CRH board of directors.

In 2004, when gay marriage was offered in San Francisco, Martin and Lyon were the first to wed. A California appellate court ruling subsequently invalidated their marriage. Then in May 2008, a California Supreme Court decision provided same-sex couples the right to marry. On June 16, 2008, they were the first same-sex couple married in California. The wedding was officiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Martin and Lyon have published two books together, “Lesbian/Woman” (1972) and “Lesbian Love and Liberation” (1973). On their 50th anniversary, the documentary “No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon” premiered. In 2005, the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association inducted Martin and Lyon into the LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame for their pioneering work on The Ladder. In 2007, they received the 2007 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Pioneer Award.

Bibliography
Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon.” (The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network).
Kornblum, Janet. “Gay Activists Blaze Trail for half century.”  USA Today. March 4, 2004

Streitmatter, Rodger.  “Phyllis Lyon & Del Martin.”  National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association: LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame.  June 5, 2008

Articles
Gordon, Rachel. “Lesbian Pioneer Activists See Wish Fulfilled.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 16, 2008

Marshall, Carolyn. “Dozens of Gay Couples Marry in San Francisco Ceremonies.” The New York Times. February 13, 2004

McKinley, Jesse. “Same-Sex Marriages Begin in California.” The New York Times. June 17, 2008

Books

Lesbian love and liberation (The Yes book of sex) (1973)
Battered Wives (1976)

Other Resources

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Bryan Jordan Smith (1983-2004), Mormon Suicide

b. March 27, 1983

d. August 18, 2004

Bryan Jordan Smith was born March 27, 1983 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from American Fork High School and LDS Seminary. He was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served an LDS mission in Omaha, Nebraska.

Bryan was a loving son and brother who enjoyed the outdoors, scrap booking, animals, and gardening. He loved cars and especially, his white Ford convertible Mustang. Bryan worked for Alpine School District at the Pony Express Elementary School. He planned on attending Joseph Patrick Academy of Hair this fall.

Bryan committed suicide on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 in American Fork. He left a suicide note stating that he could not handle the fact that he was gay and that was at least one of the reasons for his suicide.

Affirmation, Suicide Memorial

Paul Abels (August 4, 1937 – March 12, 1992) U.S.A

A striking feature of LGBT Church history, is how after a long period of invisibility, in the years following Stonewall, gay clergy followed other gay men and lesbians in coming out of their closets. Facing the prospect of so much more hostile reaction than those in some other professions, and with housing as well as income and career at stake, these people were embarking on acts of rare courage. In doing so, they were simply bearing witnessing to the truth of their lives, and its integration into their faith. In doing so, they can truly be regarded as modern martyrs. Paul Abels was one of the first. Like many others, he ultimately lost his career through his prophetic witness, and was forced to rebuild a new one outside of the church.
The fruits of his martyrdom though, live on. Many more gay (and later, lesbian) clergy were forced out of ministry or refused ordination on the grounds of orientation or gender identity. However, even in the beginning, they were able to gather some supporters who contested this injustice. Over time, these supporters grew in number, until we reached the current position where several mainstream Protestant denominations have accepted the value of including openly gay, lesbian or trans clergy, and others denominations are at least conducting serious discussions around LGBT ordination and even church recognition of same sex unions. Thanks to the early sacrifices of Paul Abel and others like him, the struggle for queer inclusion in church has become a broad –based and growing movement.
Paul was the pastor of the Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York City from 1973 to 1984, and was the first openly gay minister with a congregation in a major Christian denomination in America. This congregation in Greenwich Village was locally known as the Peace Church for its opposition to the Vietnam War and for its large gay and lesbian membership.


In 1973 Paul was appointed pastor of Washington Square United Methodist Church. While at Washington Square, he initiated a $1.5 million restoration campaign, planned the church’s 125th anniversary, and worked with the many community groups housed in the building, including the Harvey Milk School, a parent-run day care center, and many lesbian/gay support and social groups.
On Sunday, November 27, 1977, Abels was featured in a New York Times article entitled “Minister Sponsors Homosexual Rituals.” The article told about four “covenant services” that Paul had performed in recent months. And in the article Paul identifies himself as a “homosexual.”
Controversy arose throughout the denomination with many critics calling for his removal. Bishop Ralph Ward asked Paul to take a leave of absence. Paul refused and his appointment was upheld by vote of the New York Annual Conference. The bishop then appealed to the Judicial Council, highest court in United Methodism, which ruled in 1979 that Abels was in “good standing” and in “effective relation” and could remain as pastor at Washington Square.
(Read more at  LGBT Religious Archives“.)
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