The First Out Lesbian and Gay Unitarian Universalist Ministers

Singing for Our Lives

The First Out Lesbian and Gay Unitarian Universalist Ministers[1]

Celeste DeRoche


I set out to interview the first LGBT[2] Unitarian Universalist ministers and the non-LGBT people who helped them achieve these settlements.  The first filter I used was to search for those clergy who were out through their first search and settlement.

I interviewed lesbian and gay ministers who were ordained much later, chronologically, but had important information to contribute to this story.  And I interviewed gay people who were not able to be out at the start of their careers and were willing to talk about what that experience was like.

Clearly there are many strands to this history.  When I started this project I thought it could include the first bisexual and transgendered UU ministers.  By my second interview (hat tip to Mr. Barb Greve) the magnitude of my original focus became clear. It was time to add a second filter to the research.  While I would gladly collect what information I could, I had to limit my research to lesbian and gay clergy. The stories of bisexual and transgendered ministers would have to wait to be collected. This was, in part, because so many of their stories were too raw, too current, and still too fluid. (One bisexual minister gently declined to be interviewed saying it was still “too dangerous” to speak openly.)

In addition to telling their own story of their particular path to ordained ministry, the themes and issues each interviewee related were varied and wide ranging with of course interesting overlaps and intersections within both Unitarian Universalism and the wider culture.  The following is not meant to be an exhaustive description of the content of the interviews but here is an overview of some of the issues addressed.

Several of the interviewees were students at Starr King, located in the Bay Area of California, when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were killed by Dan White.  They attended the large memorial march and vigil held in front of City Hall in San Francisco and had clear memories and stories to relate of that event.

Charlie Kast had a unique perspective and experience.  Before leaving Kalamazoo, MI to attend Starr King seminary he had been a regular contributor to Gays Week, a weekly newspaper for the gay community in that midwestern city.  When the deaths occurred in San Francisco, the editor “…called me and said, “Would you go into San Francisco and interview people at City Hall.”  And I got to sit in Milk’s office.  Oh, man…  I sat in the office, no bigger than this {gestures to his living room} but what sank into me was when Dan White came into kill him {Harvey Milk} there was not an exit.”[3]

These out UU ministers were coming into ministry in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic (1984/1985).  Kim Crawford Harvie’s interview is especially searing in its description of what these years were like in Provincetown and the crucial role the UU church played in the lives of gay men.  At many points the only two people the gay community could turn to were Kim and one funeral director who was willing to accept the bodies of men who had died from AIDS.  When Charlie Kast left the UU Church of Lexington and went to the Second Unitarian Church in Chicago, IL, ministry to people with AIDS was a large part of the work he did with that congregation.

At the same time the Office of Gay Affairs (fortunately soon changed to the Office of Gay and Lesbian Concerns) was beginning. The Welcoming Congregation was developing.  This first group of ministers was critical to these developments.  They were also active with the MFC.  Many of the interviews speak to the active denominational activities each of these ministers sustained.

Interviews with UUA past presidents and administrative staff give detailed accounts of the pivotal role the Department of Ministry and the then Extension Department played in pushing congregations to grow and recognize the talents and skills of lesbian and gay ministers. Interviews with David Pohl and Chuck Gaines illuminate the same time period of the first group of out ministers.  Then David Pettee’s interview provides a compelling overview of the change over time for lesbian and gay ministers and especially for congregations.

The importance of Beyond Categorical Thinking is discussed extensively in the interview with Jacqui James.  Just about all of the ministers interviewed mentioned the importance of this program and strongly urged me to interview Jacqui so I was relieved and delighted that I was able to reach her.  Her interview is key context for this history.

And just as key, I think, is much of the timeline material Keith Kron was able to provide for both the evolution of the Welcoming Congregation curriculum and also the Office of
Gay and Lesbian Concerns.

It is important to note the difficulties that these earliest ministers encountered.  Barbara Pescan and Ann Tyndall had a particularly difficult experience with Community Church in New York City, which all these years later can continue to teach us.  Likewise, Gene Navias’s interview and the 50-year Reflections he offered on his years of ministry also offer much insight into realties we like to think are behind us.

My original plan had been to collect and transcribe interviews and archival research, work them into a manuscript, and then deposit the research with the Unitarian Universalist Archives at the Andover Harvard Theological Library. The vision for the manuscript has been to present these experiences over modest layers of both United States and Unitarian Universalist cultural histories for the period.  Skinner House folks have been encouraging all along. The interviews I can do are completed. I am depositing them at the Archives. The middle step, the manuscript, I offer to other scholars.

Since 2007, my ability to do this work has been eroded. I live with a chronic brain illness. I am told that each of the 13 brain surgeries I’ve had has affected my cognitive abilities like a major concussion. I am no longer able to sustain the work. It has taken time for me to accept these limitations, to admit that I cannot complete the project as hoped. And I am mindful that these interviews are too important to be languishing, pun embraced, in my closet.

It has been a privilege to be entrusted with the experiences told in these interviews. I am grateful for the courage, grit, and vision in each one. As I hand them off, I hope scholars and saunterers will find themselves well met in these stories. I hope, also, that UU’s will continue to fund the scholarly collection of primary historical documentation toward the goal that we tend well our living tradition.

Celeste DeRoche, Ph.D


The first out ministers and their settlements are:[4]

1980 Mark Belletini, Starr King Church, Hayward, CA

1980  Douglas Morgan Strong, All Souls UU Church, Augusta, ME

1982  Mark DeWolfe, Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, Mississauga, ON Canada[5]

1984  Barbara Pescan, Beacon Unitarian Church, Oak Park,IL

1985 Kim Crawford Harvie, UU Meeting House of Provincetown, Provincetown, MA

1985  Lindi Ramsden, 1st Unitarian Church of San Jose, San Jose, CA[6]

The following is a chronological list of all the interviews completed:

6/24/08  Scott Alexander

6/25/08  Mr. Barb Greve

2/09/09  Meg Riley

2/09/09  Rob Eller-Isaacs

3/21/09  Charlie Kast

4/05/09  Chuck Gaines

5/02/09  Barbara Pescan and Ann Tyndall

5/12/09  John Buehrens

5/13/09  Bill Schulz

            5/14/09  Kay Montgomery

            5/16/09  Barbara and Bill DeWolfe (parents of Mark DeWolfe)

5/18/09 Kim Crawford Harvie

5/19/09  Gene Navias

5/20/09  David Pohl

            6/04/09  Wayne Arnason

9/16/09  Douglas Morgan Strong

5/16/11  Michael Nelson

            5/25/11  David Pettee

            5/26/11  Keith Kron

5/27/11  Jacqui James

5/31/11  Jory Agate

            2/22/12  Lindi Ramsden

4/24-25/13  Anne Odin Heller

Ongoing List of Interviews needed:

 As I was working, I kept a list of people who ought to be interviewed.  There were names discovered through the archival research.  I was also given names by the interviewees.  I hope folks who read this will have names to add.

Jay Deacon

Lucy Hitchcock

Diane Miller

Charlotte Cowtan

Dee Graham

Ken MacLean

Bob Schaibly

Tom Owen-Towle


Then there are the ancestors.  The first out ministers stood on the shoulders of people whose stories can only be retrieved through archival research and I wanted to include the folks whose papers I accessed.

Mark DeWolfe

Jim Stoll

Richard Nash

Frank Robertson

Phebe Hanaford Coffin

Carl Seaburg

Charles Vickery

Richard Hasty

Bob Wheatley

These records are stored at the Andover Harvard Theological Library in the UUA Archives.

[1] This project was funded in part by the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and a [UU Women’s Federation] Margaret Fuller Grant.

[2] This conversation began in July 2007. My language of organization and focus reflects terms in use at that time.

[3] Interview, Charlie Kast, 3/21/09, pg. 8.

[4]As this is an involving project, it is hoped that people will add additions and corrections to this timeline.

[5] Clearly not interviewed for this project, Mark DeWolfe needs to be mentioned as his settlement falls within the parameters of this project.  He was spoken of often by many of those interviewed as a classmate and dear friend.  His loss is acutely felt.

[6] Lindi was the first out lesbian minister settled on the West Coast.

Celeste DeRoche

[from Dictionary of UU Biography] Celeste DeRoche first encountered Unitarian Universalism at the Ellsworth Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellsworth, Maine. She now lives in Los Angeles, California where she is a member of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Canoga Park. She has been the Youth Group advisor since becoming a member at Emerson in 1996. This year she taught for the first time in the Coming of Age program.

Celeste recently finished her Ph.D. in United States History. Her degree, from the University of Maine, specialized in the history of immigrant woman. She now plans to turn her research focus to a history of how Unitarian Universalism came to the Pacific Coast.

Celeste lives in West Hills, California with her life partner of sixteen years, Gail Geisenhainer, the minister of Emerson UU Church.