Interview presumably conducted by Lee Paczulla
December 6, 2010
Q: Was the issue of homosexuality already being talked about within the congregation when you were called to serve as minister? If not, how did it come up?
A: When I first came to the church, it didn’t come up in the search process – but after I appeared, a member who had been absent for a few years came back; apparently he felt comfortable with me. Ed Clifton was quite open about being gay, he was not partnered, and it was no big deal. Ed was a cantankerous kind of fellow.
So… the precipitating incident: I was sitting in my office on the second floor when Edith Mannheimer called and said “There’s a young man down here who demands to see you.” So a young man walks in door and says, “I am Craig Schoonmaker, president of Homosexuals Intransigent at Columbia University, and I demand to use your space.” [I replied] “I am sympathetic, but cannot personally grant any group the right to meet in the church.” He demanded, and again, I said “I am empathetic, but I have to talk with the Board.” “Well,” he said, “if we can’t meet here, we’re going to picket the church” and I said “Really?”
At that point any news was good news – nothing would be better than to have a picket line in front of the church, calling attention to us. So he went away, and I went to the Board, and what emerged from this is that we decided we ought to engage the congregation in talking about all of this.
We found a lovely woman, an out lesbian and a UU, who was going around to congregations if invited… Julie somebody… and we must have invited a gay man as well, who may not have been UU… and we had a very productive conversation. The consensus was they can meet here if they want to.
Then various people began to emerge who had been longstanding members of the congregation – Elizabeth Parmelee was born into the church, in her late 60s at the time, and was headmistress of very prestigious school on the West End, part of a very prominent family – and she had a lesbian partner. Ed Pease was another. I knew about his partner, and he had neither denied nor affirmed that he was gay. He wasn’t proclaiming it, but if you thought that he was, that was fine with him.
Various people began to come out of the closet, not vociferously, but they let it be known – the point is all those years, as far as I can see, no one had ever noticed. Then there was the rather outspoken former chair of the Board, Roland Gammon, who was more of a supporter; a psychiatrist who knew him said “There’s a clear example of a forced heterosexual.” I’m not sure if they [Homosexuals Intransigent] ever actually did meet there, but I know another group did and it was all very easy and comfortable. There was never a serious controversy in the church at all; whether anybody drifted away because of that, I don’t know, but I can’t remember anyone.
I think what I can say is that Ed Clifton was the person who was vociferously out, and it didn’t seem to bother anybody; there was a sense that “that’s fine.” Ed Pease didn’t hide his homosexuality, but didn’t proclaim it, and only after the Schoonmaker incident did it become clear to me that Elizabeth [Parmelee] and Bee were a lesbian couple. There were some others around whose names I don’t remember… the point being that we thought we were a pretty relaxed and tolerant group already, therefore we didn’t feel a need to do anything specific. Part of the lesson that began to emerge after a while was that it’s not enough to say “all are welcome;” you sometimes have to say directly that “GLBT people are welcome.”
Q. Was there any awareness at all of the Stonewall riots within the congregation?
A. Certainly we were all aware of it. I guess I went there in the Fall of 1969, but I don’t remember it being a congregational conversation; it might have been coffee hour conversation, but I don’t remember us as a result saying we ought to do anything.
Q. What was the reception like to your earliest sermons on the issue (the “Men’s Liberation” sermon in May of 1970, and the sermon with Rev. Nash speaking afterwards in November of 1971)? What about the newsletter notes of the same period?
A. I’m sure there were about a half dozen people who were maybe uneasy. I remember a couple that was – well – he was a professional waiter, a perfectly nice guy, but in social class terms they came from a very conservative, Italian background. Then I think of a couple of other people who probably weren’t too happy about it. When people see the majority affirming something, then they’re not going to stand up and say “I object” – they’re either going to sulk or just not come in as much as they did before. But I don’t remember any active resistance.
There’s a footnote story here which is that Anthony Marshall joined the church somewhere in the middle of all this, that is after we’d gone through the issue of the conversation and stuff, and quickly became a leading member, terrific guy. And I can remember Ed Pease saying “I wonder when Tony’s going to come out of the closet.” Tony didn’t come out of the closet. Having lost contact for a decade, we re-established contact with him in Florida. We went over to see him three or four times and on the fourth or fifth time, he said “Guess what? I’m gay! I never knew it!” – and I believed him. I realized I may have encountered people who are basically homosexual but somehow it just doesn’t come into consciousness until the middle of life.
Q. Right after Rev. Nash was invited to speak at the church, a group called the UU Gay Fellowship was organized and met through only one church year according to the records, from ’71-‘72. What precipitated the invitation to Nash, and was the formation of the group planned, or inspired by the service? Do you remember why the group stopped meeting?
A. I knew Dick Nash, and liked him, but I don’t know where that precipitated – we were still wrestling with the issue at that time. I don’t think it was a matter of any controversy [that the UU Gay Fellowship stopped meeting]; but some of our visibly gay and lesbian members had no desire to be part of a group. It was probably very important in the history of gay and lesbian things that there are people who affirm and celebrate their gayness – they want the world to know – and there are other people who are hiding it, who say we don’t need a group, we have our friends, gay and straight, it’s just one more meeting for what purpose? But certainly the church was known as welcoming; we took referrals from other ministers. So the word was around.
Q. What do you remember about a group called the Gay Women’s Alternative, founded by Jean Powers in 1973? The group’s meetings weren’t advertised nearly as much as the UU Gay Fellowship – do you know why this might have been?
A. I haven’t thought of that name [Jean Powers] for at least 30 years. I don’t remember anything about the group. I think what I would guess is that she probably came to me and said, “We want to do this” and I said “Sure.” What I remember is that she was not the kind of person where I would want to join a group that she was leading. The wonderful woman who came earlier, Julie, was so warm and affirmative, whereas Jean was sort of a formidable woman who seemed very tough. That doesn’t mean she was, but I would make a personal statement: with Julie I’d like to get to know her better, with Jean I don’t particularly want to be your pal. The point of making that statement is that if I reacted that way, it’s possible that women reacted that way, and that in fact she hoped to start something that didn’t catch on.
Q. One thing I discovered about Ed Clifton in the archives was that he was part of a group called the Extended Family – can you tell me more about this group?
A . This was one of my initiatives – the idea was we had a lot of single people, older people who are widowed perhaps, and there were relatively few children in the church. It was not my bright idea alone, this was a thing that was happening in other congregations, comparable to a small group ministry kind of thing, to give people an opportunity to get together socially, outside of church. There were 15-20 of us, and we’d get together once a month; my children were there, the only children.
Ed was very visibly part of that, and was exactly the kind of person that we wanted it to be for, in the sense of a person living on his own who valued social contact but didn’t have much of it outside of the congregation. One of the interesting stories is that our son, who must have been 8 or 9 years old, came home at some point and said “I hate those fags.” And my wife at that point said to him, “Do you know that your uncle Ed is a fag?” “Huh?” People accept the ones they know; it was a great lesson for my son, to be told that he actually knew a real live homosexual and spent a lot of time with him.
Q. How much do you remember about how homosexuality was addressed at other churches in New York City during this time?
A. Well Donald Harrington [at Community Church] was known as homophobic. The one thing I remember was over a different issue, the Black Empowerment movement. Winifred Norman visibly left and came to our church, because Donald was an ardent integrationist – but I also have a hunch that Winnie was a lesbian, she never married, never had a visible partner.
There’s another name… an African-American woman who was very active in the church. She had a live-in partner who was not a part of our church but would show up from time to time, but I don’t think they left Community for us.
The minister of All Souls Church at that time, Walter Cring – I knew him, liked him, he was personally a pretty conservative type, didn’t want to make waves.
Brooklyn would have been relatively supportive; the minister was a very good guy at the forefront of the black empowerment movement… I would think he’d be a very strong supporter of gay rights.