Personal Memories of LGBTQ Groundbreakers in the UUA

I was a surprising, and surprised participant in some important moments in the LGBTQ history of the UUA. I say surprising because I had a heterosexual upbringing and identity that did not prepare me to meet gay and lesbian people in the larger world of Unitarian Universalism beyond my home church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As I emerged into leadership in Liberal Religious Youth, and decided to run for continental office in LRY, I was given the gift of people and opportunities that would never have come way had I stayed involved only locally, or even regionally. I was “surprised” by my involvements because they came as invitations or relationships that I did not seek out, that early on actually frightened me, and that ultimately, I chose to accept. I did so because I realized that this is what being a Unitarian Universalist was all about – remaining open to people you did not know or understand that might have something to teach you about the common life we all share.

The 50th Stonewall Anniversary we are celebrating also marks a year of powerful changes in my own life. In May 1969 I dropped out of college and moved to Boston to become a full-time leader in Liberal Religious Youth, to work at the UUA headquarters and to follow the youth conference circuit. I attended the July 1969 General Assembly in Boston, which was dominated by the Black Empowerment Controversy. Stonewall had happened a month earlier, but it was not an event that cracked through the consciousness of most straight Unitarian Universalists. The Black Power movement dominated UU politics, but it also had an intersectional influence on other liberation movements. Our Youth Agenda to gain control over the LRY budget is one example. In Mark Morrison-Reed’s Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy, he draws a picture of the inspirational connections between feminist and LGBT leaders and movements and the Black Empowerment controversy. Morrison-Reed cites Rev. Richard Nash as a pioneering gay UU minister who was involved with and influenced by his support for black empowerment. I met and worked with Dick Nash in 1969 as a youth leader and as a supporter of FULLBAC. Dick was working for the UU Service Committee in Boston during 1969-70 and was an important local supporter as we planned for the 1969 GA. Yet, I was unaware of Dick’s involvement in the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles or his identity as a gay man. If I had known, the homophobic fear and hatred that lay just under the surface of my radical hippie persona would probably have frightened me away from him.

One month later an encounter with Rev. James L. Stoll changed all that. Jim is often mentioned among the early out gay UU leaders alongside Dick Nash, although they moved in different circles. When I met him sometime in 1969, he was the minister of our church in Kennewick, Washington. Rev. Stoll had a history of support and involvement with continental youth ministry before I came along in leadership roles. He was a member of LRYAC, the LRY Advisory Committee. LRYAC was a continental committee of youth advisors who consulted with the UUA’s Education Staff, including the LRY Executive Director, the LRY Board and its Executive Committee.

Jim was an advisor to the 1969 Student Religious Liberals Continental Conference over Labor Day weekend 1969, held at Camp LaForet in Colorado.  Jim, like so many closeted gay professionals, was both furious and inspired by the Stonewall Rebellion earlier that summer. He had decided he would not live in secrecy any longer. I don’t know whether the SRL Conference was the first public place he came out as a gay man. I was in attendance representing LRY and present at the evening worship service Jim led . There is a biographical entry about Jim Stoll in the on-line LGBTQ archive you can access, that includes reflections and memories from Jim’s friend Rev. Lee Bond-Upson about that time and event. He came out powerfully in a moving sermon and worship service at that service, and  it was a moment that changed my life. For the first time, I was given access to the point of view of a gay man. The possibility that gay people weren’t sick, just different, opened up to me. The realization that my own ignorance was part of an oppressive system that I supported first occurred to me. I have been forever grateful.

Jim became an important part of LRY’s network of adult supporters over the next year. He was on his way out of the Kennewick ministry in mid-1969, and had moved to the Bay Area. Even as his own life was changing, and his public gay activism was moving more to the center, Jim was sympathetic and supportive of the youth empowerment agenda. When it was time to get ready for the 1970 Seattle General Assembly, Jim was all-in with our LRY leadership cadre. He had an apartment in Seattle, and with his home as a base for our organizing for that Assembly, he offered us adult credibility and credit and a place to stay when we needed it. But Jim also wanted something from us as we headed for that assembly.

Jim had authored a resolution he wanted to get before the 1970 UUA General Assembly that would support “homosexual civil rights”. He needed allies, and he needed campaign workers to be able to get this resolution before the General Assembly by petition.  The LRY leadership was happy to be among those allies. As an affiliate organization of the UUA, LRY had the ability to propose social justice resolutions and had administrative capacity and money (which we now controlled) to use to collect signatures and advocate for the resolution. We did both and successfully got the resolution on the agenda during the winter of 1970.

I wish I had a transcript of the speakers during the floor debate of the homosexual civil rights resolution at the 1970 General Assembly. I’m sure Jim Stoll and Dick Nash both spoke, and I can’t recall who spoke on behalf of LRY – possibly our social justice director, Burt Cohen.  I don’t remember what the final vote was – but it passed. It was the first official statement by the UUA on anything related to LGBT people. Over the next year, a Gay Caucus was organized in the UUA and held its first GA gathering in 1971. According to Jeff Wilson’s essay in the Journal of UU History cited in footnote 624 of Mark Morrison-Reed’s book, the organizers were James Stoll, Richard Nash, and Elgin Blair.

During 1970-71 when I returned to Canada to go to college in Toronto my denominational involvement was focused as part of the leadership team of The Fellowship for Renewal, (FFR) a broadly-based UU liberation organization that originated in the white allies of the black empowerment movement. FFR had expanded its focus to include not only black empowerment but empowerment for women, gay people and youth. I met Elgin Blair in the fall of 1971 at First Unitarian Church in Toronto where he was a member interested in FFR. Elgin was the first person I ever met who routinely wore buttons every day on his clothing proclaiming himself to be gay. The following spring as we looked ahead to the 1972 General Assembly in Dallas, Elgin offered me a ride if I could share the driving with him. So we spent some memorable days together getting to know each other.  My understanding of what it meant to be a gay man in our culture was undergoing further education each time I had a chance to enter into a deeper friendship like this one. The following year, at the 1973 General Assembly, the Gay Caucus was successful in their advocacy for the establishment of an Office of Gay Affairs (a name derived from the terminology used for “Black Affairs”, and later changed to “Office of Gay Concerns”). It was fully funded in the 1974 Budget.

I was at the right place at the right time to be able to know and work with several other influential people in the history of LGBTQ activism in the UUA during the 70’s: Frank Robertson, Bob Wheatly, Mark Belletini and Gene Navias.

Frank Robertson was a FULLBAC supporter and a Youth Agenda supporter active in the Fellowship for Renewal in the early 70’s. He was personally supportive and generous with me and the other LRY leaders of that time. He was coming out of a heterosexual marriage and becoming public about his gay identity in 1971 when he was hired as Director of Religious Education at All Souls Unitarian Church in 1971. He is likely the first religious professional who was hired by a UUA congregation as an openly gay man.  His partnership with Rick McDonald dates from 1972 according to Frank’s obituary.  Frank was a national and local Gay Caucus leader, and a key player in the establishment of the Office of Gay Concerns.

After graduating with my undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto, I went directly to Harvard Divinity School go pursue my M.Div.  I was at HDS for only two successive years of academic study, but during that time, in 1973-74 I did my Harvard Field Education requirement at the Cambridge Council on Aging, supervised by their Executive Director, a UU lay leader I knew from Arlington St. Church named Bob Wheatly. Bob later became a UU minister and was the second director of the Office of Gay Concerns starting in 1977. We maintained a close friendship throughout the seventies.

In the summer of 1974 I moved to the Bay Area to begin a full time internship at First Unitarian Church of San Francisco. By then the Castro neighborhood was a national mecca for gay people and a full-blown out gay culture was influencing the church. I stayed in the Bay Area after graduating from Harvard because I received a call to the Starr King Unitarian Church in Hayward in the East Bay in 1976 where I served until 1980. So I was a witness and community participant in the powerful and frightening events of the late 70’s in the Bay Area – the political rise and election of Harvey Milk, his assassination, and the White Nights riots that followed.

In the spring of 1977, I was named an adjunct faculty member at Starr King to teach a course on 20th century UU History.  Mark Belletini was a student in my class. Mark was a striking seminarian, so obviously brilliant in theology, history, and worship. We came to know each other through the class and our shared interest in the Congregation of Abraxas, an ordered community of UU’s dedicated to worship as a central spiritual practice. Mark was always a comfortably out gay man at Starr King as I recall, but during the seventies, gay ministers were still mostly closeted in their public employment roles. In the 1969 UUA Presidential election, we had a gay candidate who was a significant contender in that field of seven, UUA staff member Rev. Deane Starr – but Deane did not come out until later in the 80’s as he approached retirement.  I presumed that Jim Stoll had left parish ministry and gone into hospital chaplaincy in part because of suspicion of his gay life style. There was inspiration in Frank Robertson, who was not grandfathered in as a UU minister until we recognized the Ministry of religious education in 1979.  But the usual lore is that Mark Belletini was the first openly gay UU minister to be called to a church through the usual settlement process – and the church he was called to was the one I had just left, the Starr King Unitarian Church in Hayward, CA.

I hesitate to pat myself on the back as having anything to do with that call.  The congregation had been influenced by the culture of the Bay Area for a decade by 1980, and there were out gay people among church families and members. The congregation had mobilized in opposition to a state ballot initiative that would have compelled school districts to fire teachers who were openly gay. So the tide was turning in Unitarian Universalism and Starr King Church was riding the wave as a tide of newly ordained and out LGBTQ ministers began to roll in during the 80’s and 90’s.

When I left Hayward, I returned to Boston to become the UUA’s first Youth Programs Director. My colleague in the Department of Religious Education was Eugene Navias, and within a few years he was named the Director of Department of Religious Education. I had first met Gene as an LRY leader a decade earlier when he was a key leader in the development of the About Your Sexuality curriculum and its revolutionary inclusion of judgment-free educational material about homosexuality.  Gene had been serving the UUA since 1963 and had been comfortably out among his closest friends and colleagues in LREDA for a long time already, but it was still a matter for concern in 1982 as to whether President Eugene Pickett would make the obvious decision to name Gene Navias, an out gay man,  as Head of the Department of Religious Education. Our anxiety was mis-placed, as President Pickett did not hesitate.  Gene influenced generations of religious educators and youth to become a leading edge of advocacy for open and accepting attitudes towards LGBTQ people.

I have been so blessed by these opportunities to have known and often to have deep and meaningful friendships with so many of these key leaders in the UUA’s LGBTQ history, and it’s a pleasure to share these memories with you.

Wayne Arnason

Rev. Wayne Bergthor Arnason has had a 40-year career of service in Unitarian Universalist institutions.

Rev. Arnason retired from the settled parish co-ministry that he shared with his wife, the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, in Rocky River, Ohio, in 2016. During 2015-2016 he was the part time consulting transitional minister for the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton, Wisconsin. Currently he serves a half time interim minister position in Sterling, Virginia. Before coming to West Shore, Rev. Arnason served in a long-term parish ministry at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, beginning from 1984-2000. In retirement, he returned to Charlottesville where he and Kathleen had kept a home. More from Meadville-Lombard website...