Launching the Grassroots Continental UU Rainbow Movement

Although UUs had been officially engaged in working for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights since the 1970 General Assembly resolution to end discrimination against “homosexuals and bisexuals,” it wasn’t until 1985 that the grassroots movement of queer UUs became a national/continental presence. That February 50-100[1] LGB UUs (others not yet acknowledged) and a few allies gathered in Houston at one of the few UU churches served by an openly gay minister. It was a watershed moment that launched a new grassroots movement to end homophobia and promote the acceptance of LGB UUs as members, lay leaders, and ministers.

If you were there, you may remember that the leaders of the recently re-formed UUs for Lesbian and Gay Concerns—Carolyn McDade and Doug Strong—led an opening program called “Kindling Our Common Spirit.” On Saturday morning, Bob Wheatley, director of the UU Office of Lesbian and Gay Concerns for the past seven years, shared his experiences and his ideas about possible paths forward, in a presentation called “On Ground Hogs, Unicorns, and Other Mythic Creatures.” Four facilitators (Dorothy Emerson, Diane Neumann, Walter Gorski, and Paul Culton) then led a provocative discussion on “Our Right to Selfhood: Unlearning Homophobia.” Later that afternoon, after a series of workshops, the facilitators led a group process to envision our next steps: “Towards a Common Action—Sharing Visions and Strategies.”

Saturday evening featured a keynote talk by noted author Judy Grahn, “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds.” And then a celebratory dance. It was such a joy to finally be together!

Bob Schaibly, minister of First Unitarian in Houston, gave an inspiring sermon at the Sunday morning service, acknowledging the historic nature of our gathering and welcoming us all to the church. That afternoon, the conference concluded with “Carry the Light,” another group process to help launch the next phase of the movement towards full acceptance and inclusion of us queer folks in UU life and the wider community.

The one controversial issue that arose concerned the need for lesbians to have women-only space and time during the convocation. To understand why this was important, we need to remember that at first the “gay” movement was led primarily by gay men. At the 1984 General Assembly, when I first became involved with the leadership and goals of the movement, I was shocked to discover that very few, if any, women were involved. I should not have been surprised, since most things at that time were male-dominated and many still are today. 1984 was the year that women ministers reached the threshold of 15% of the UU ministry, with the numbers boosted by the inclusion of Ministers of Religious Education. Our influence as women was just beginning to be felt, with different voices demanding to be heard.

At the biennial Women’s Federation gathering the year before, UUWF had recognized that for lesbians to be fully included in women’s groups, work needed to be done to address homophobia. I brought that agenda to the meeting of what came to be known as UUs for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, previously UUs for Gay Concerns. I objected to the focus in 1984 of passing a resolution to affirm the practice of clergy performing Services of Union for same-sex couples. Many women at the time objected to the patriarchal nature of marriage and were less than enthusiastic about focusing on marriage rights. Then I learned about the plans for a gathering and discovered that women had not been involved. Someone decided I should be added to the planning group, since I was in the Boston area where they were holding their major planning meeting.

Having come from a background of feminist organizing, I advocated for women-only space at the convocation, but the men voted it down. So, I felt gratified when women at the gathering insisted and signed a petition demanding women-only space at this and all future gatherings. A gay male participant (Stephen Storla) recalls an announcement at a general session of a woman-only space being designated. He had never heard of that before but understood it after it was explained. He understood what the men on the planning committee did not, that women needed safe space to empower ourselves to engage in this work against the male-dominated structures of our society and faith community. My participation on the planning committee resulted in the selection of a lesbian keynote speaker and the inclusion of lesbian voices in the workshops and discussions. And after the convocation, there was a general recognition that lesbians needed to be a visible and active part of future organizing.

The significance of this first gathering of UU LGB folks has not yet been fully explored. My goal in writing this piece is to encourage others who participated in this gathering to share your stories. What do you remember about the discussions and workshops? (If you took notes, please share them.) What were the results of the various discussions and group processes? How did the convocation affect you? What changes did you see as a result of this gathering?

Please send any memories or recollections that you have to

[1] Estimated

Dorothy Emerson

Rev. Dr. Dorothy Emerson was a semi-retired Unitarian Universalist minister.  She received her M.Div. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1988 and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Andover Newton Theological School in 1997. Dorothy served many churches in Massachusetts, as well as in Connecticut and Hawaii. She was the founder of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, and served as its Executive Director from 1991-2001. She advocated for many years to have the UUA focus on class issues, and the intersectionality of race and class. Most recently, Dorothy coordinated the U.U. Rainbow History Project until her death in May, 2019.