February 22, 2022

Historic Houses of Worship as Advocates for LGBTQ Rights & Inclusion

Houses of worship may not be the first places that come to mind when thinking about institutions that uplifted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, as many LGBTQ individuals across the nation and the world have faced discrimination as a result of the policies of organized religions. Although discrimination against this community has not been extinguished from religious institutions, an increasing number of religious groups in the United States have taken firm steps towards welcoming and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community.

According to Ken Lustbader, the co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and former director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, "pre- and post-Stonewall, many religious leaders and congregations, often in opposition to religious doctrine, supported the use of their historic religious properties as safe spaces for the LGBTQ community.” At the time, spaces such as sanctuaries, parish halls, and other auxiliary religious buildings often served as the only available “incubator spaces for political, social, religious, and artistic organizations.”

Many participating congregations in the National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation that offers financial support and technical assistance to community-serving historic houses of worship, have been at the forefront of championing LGBTQ inclusion and rights over the past fifty years. The following five National Fund-supported churches illuminate how, as Lustbader emphasized, “the use of these sacred places is linked to the history of LGBTQ activism and culture.”

Interior view of a church sanctuary with a series of rainbow colored ribbons to mark Pride covering the pews.

photo by: Darlene DiDomineck

The sanctuary of the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, adorned with Pride ribbons.

Trinity + St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (San Francisco, California)

Trinity + St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, consisting of two historic congregations which merged in 2012, is the oldest Episcopal church on the Pacific Coast and has served as a spiritual home for LGBTQ individuals since the late 1970s. In 1976, the Episcopal Church officially became fully inclusive, open, and welcoming of the LGBTQ community.

Consequently, Trinity attracted LGBTQ individuals who had been excluded from most churches in San Francisco, which had one of the highest populations of LGBTQ people in the country. In 1985, activist Ruth Brinker founded Project Open Hand, a nonprofit which delivered hot meals to people with AIDS, in Trinity’s kitchen. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the congregation openly welcomed and ministered to people with HIV/AIDS.

Today, Trinity + St. Peter’s remains committed to full LGBTQ inclusion in its clergy, staff, congregation, and community outreach. As of 2016, approximately fifty percent of the congregation identified as LGBTQ. Freedom in Christ Evangelical Church, a non-denominational church for LGTBQ people, also holds worship services and events at Trinity.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Reverend Lindy Bunch engaged in a four-part conversation with transgender activist and Trinity staff member k.m. yarian on the place of LGBTQ people and advancement of queer rights in the church.

Exterior of a church where we can see two different sides of the building. There are three red doors.

photo by: Alessandra Kameron

Exterior of the Trinity + St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (Brooklyn, New York)

Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church was among the first houses of worship in New York City to welcome openly self-affirming LGBTQ individuals. The church was a founding member of the More Light movement, a coalition of Presbyterian congregations formed in the 1970s to advocate for full church inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

Although the Presbyterian Church (USA) at large has welcomed the participation of openly LGBTQ individuals since 1978, the denomination did not allow openly LGBTQ ministers or same-sex marriages until the 2010s. LAPC now proudly incorporates LGBTQ-friendly hymns and appointed its first openly gay interim pastor, The Reverend Morgan Valencia-King, in 2021.

Since the late 1980s, Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church has collaborated with other pro-LGBTQ groups, including the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church which caters to the Black LGBTQ community and held services in LAPC’s sanctuary. LAPC’s parish house has been home to the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) since 1996.

Front façade of a church made up of varying stone work, the tower on the right is made up of lighter material then the main building.

photo by: Deborah Howard

Exterior of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Named after lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde, this organization was founded by and created as a center for LGBTQ people of color who mainstream LGBTQ organizations had excluded. From the parish house, ALP has organized around issues of transgender rights, women’s leadership, and anti-violence and uplifted additional LGBTQ organizations supporting Arab, Asian, Latinx, and Black communities.

Arlington Street Church, Unitarian Universalist (Boston, Massachusetts)

On May 17, 2004, the day Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Arlington Street Church held the first legal same-sex marriage ceremony in a church in the United States. Reverend Kim Crawford Harvie, an openly lesbian minister who has served at Arlington Street Church since 1989, officiated the wedding of members David Wilson and Robert Compton in front of a packed church erupting in celebration.

Reverend Crawford Harvie told the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Rainbow History Project that “no one was surprised” that this landmark marriage ceremony occurred at a UU church, since the denomination has supported full LGBTQ equality since 1970 and responded to the AIDS epidemic with love. Reflecting on his wedding in a 2019 interview for NPR, Compton said, “That day wasn’t about us. This really was for thousands and thousands of people.”

Arlington Street Church embodied its denomination’s progressive theology long before this wedding. The congregation rang the steeple bells for Boston’s first Pride parade in 1971 and shared space with groups in various LGBTQ rights movements. To this day, the church identities as “a welcoming congregation” that affirms the dignity and worth of all human beings.

Exterior of a church with a tall spire in the center.

photo by: Arlington Street Church

Exterior of the Arlington Street Church.

Calvary United Methodist Church (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Calvary United Methodist Church (UMC) was the sixth UMC church nationwide to oppose the anti-LGBTQ stance of the denomination at large, becoming a Reconciling Ministry in 1985. The UMC remains strongly divided over issues of LGBTQ inclusion due to exclusionary language in its book of law, and Reconciling Ministries call for the full inclusion of, and intersectional justice for, LGBTQ people. Calvary hosts events for and sponsors denominational legislation in support of the LGBTQ community.

Two people standing in front of a third with their arms around each other and foreheads touching.

photo by: Rebecca Gudelunas

A scene from the Curio Theatre Company's production of "The Matter of Frank Schaefer."

Two people standing in front of a third figure who is performing what appears to be a blessing of some kind.

photo by: Rebecca Gudelunas

A scene from Curio Theatre Company's "Romeo and Juliet."

Through the work of the affiliated nonprofit Calvary Center for Culture and Community, the congregation shares space with the Curio Theatre Company. Curio has produced plays at Calvary that explore issues of gender and sexuality, including a lesbian interpretation of Romeo & Juliet in 2013. The company also created the play The Matter of Frank Schaefer based on the story of a Methodist priest who the denomination tried and punished in 2013 for officiating the same-sex wedding of his son six years earlier.

Arch Street United Methodist Church (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

The United Methodist Church’s official refusal to recognize or conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies has been contested prominently at Arch Street UMC, another Reconciling Ministry located a short drive away from Calvary. Arch Street became the public face of opposition against the UMC’s decision to try, and later suspend, The Reverend Frank Schaefer for officiating a same-sex wedding.

Aerial view of the  a church. The image shows the intersections of a street with cars approaching on either side. The image cuts off the view of the spire though you can see part of it at the top.

photo by: Arch Street United Methodist Church

An aerial view of the Arch Street United Methodist Church.

In November 2013, over thirty UMC ministers gathered at Arch Street to stand in solidarity with Reverend Schaefer and to officiate the wedding of long-time members Richard Kevin Taylor and William Robert Gatewood. These ministers risked losing their jobs, healthcare, and positions in their church for this action, which Arch Street’s The Reverend Robin Hynicka described in The Philadelphia Inquirer as a statement, movement, and celebration of love.

Arch Street has continued supporting LGBTQ people who have been excluded from the UMC and other religious denominations. In 2015, the congregation welcomed the Equally Blessed Coalition, a Roman Catholic organization for LGBTQ inclusion, for services and to serve a communal meal to the hungry after its members had been refused entry to a meeting visited by Pope Francis. The congregation has also become a presence at Philadelphia’s Pride parade and provides practice space to the Philadelphia Freedom Band, which consists of volunteer LGBTQ musicians.

These five congregations represent only a fraction of the worship, outreach, and advocacy work that National Fund for Sacred Places participants have conducted to support the LGBTQ community. Other notable examples include First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose stance of LGBTQ prompted the church’s removal from the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, and Church of the Epiphany in Los Angeles, California, which is working to create the first national monument to Latinx individuals who died from AIDS.

The work of ensuring that LGBTQ people are treated and respected as equals within places of worship is far from complete, but, as these National Fund for Sacred Places congregations have shown, great strides have been made.

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Emily Kahn is the former associate manager of the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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