You Can’t Preach Here! You Can’t Marry Here!

Contributed by Eric Schuman
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem, Oregon

In writing this essay, I ask the reader to understand its context. I’m writing from my memory of events occurring up to 38 years ago.  Primary sources have been consulted, but neither my archival papers nor my own memory are infallible. Be assured I’ve done the best I can to recount events accurately. For any errors, I accept full responsibility.

It was nearly Christmas, 1982, when a brief article in UU WORLD struck me as odd. It announced a resolution to be voted on at the 1983 General Assembly which would affirm the right of UU clergy to perform same sex unions in our congregations, without interference from any board of trustees or fellow clergy.

I wondered what the need could be for a resolution like this.  That some UU clergy around the country were performing same sex unions was no secret. It certainly wasn’t a rare event.  We hadn’t heard of any repercussions to ministers performing such services, so why the need for a resolution at General Assembly?

Thinking about who might be well enough connected to know the answer, I phoned Rev. Frank Robertson, Minister of Religious Education at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.  Widely respected and well known in our movement, Frank was an out gay man who served on the UUA Board of Trustees.  I was living in Topeka, Kansas, and we’d last seen one another earlier that year at General Assembly in Maine.

“How are you, Frank,” I asked? His reply took me by surprise. He explained that it had been the worst year of his ministry, and that he was suffering from severe job related stress caused by conflict with his senior minister, Rev. David Eaton, and the All Souls Board.

Frank had performed a same sex union at the Church for two African American women, and an article describing the event with an accompanying photo of the couple in the All Souls sanctuary had been published in Jet Magazine, a periodical read by many of the congregation’s Black members.  A number of lay people who objected to the service approached David Eaton and brought a resolution to the Board of Trustees which prohibited same sex unions from being performed in the sanctuary, and forbade any clergy from participating except the senior minister.  The new policy passed with unequivocal support from Rev. Eaton, who was probably the most prominent African American minister in our denomination at the time.

Frank was nervous about his tenure at All Souls and wondered if he would be terminated for his role in bringing attention to the church because of his support of same sex unions. In less than a year he was either forced to resign or terminated.  My phone call to learn about the reason for the resolution had been made to the minister victimized by the homophobia of a Unitarian Universalist congregation whose actions made the need for the resolution obvious.

I had been a member of All Souls from 1969-70.  I had worked with David in support of black empowerment in the UUA, and I was deeply disappointed and angered with what I’d learned from Frank.  I gave considerable thought to what I might say to David if I saw him at GA in Vancouver the following year. Seeing him in a hallway, I told him he had missed a critical opportunity to support a different marginalized group of people – gay and lesbian folks like me. (I hadn’t previously come out to him.) He became quite defensive, explaining it was the will of Black members of the congregation and that he was obliged to support them.  He told me I didn’t understand Black folks, to which I replied that I recognized homophobia when I saw it and I hoped that he would recognize it someday as well.  I suggested that as a result of the policy passed by his board they might want to consider purchasing a bus to be stationed on the All Souls parking lot, and instead of conducting services of union in the sanctuary, they could have same sex couples married in the back of that bus.  He wasn’t amused. That was the last time I would see David Eaton.

The 1983 General Assembly was to prove critical in the history of Unitarian Universalists for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (UULGC).  It was clear the group was at a turning point and needed to demand justice from the UUA for its lesbian and gay members. For most of the group, same sex union ceremonies represented the line in the sand. Nothing less than a strongly worded resolution endorsing same sex gay relationships would satisfy our need for justice. Even so, I saw a more compelling issue at the time.  Two young ministers, Barbara Pescan and Ann Tyndall, were openly gay candidates aspiring to become co-ministers at Community Church in New York City – one of our urban churches which had been most successful at racial integration of its congregation. It was also known as one of the most progressive congregations in the City, championing many local issues regarding peace and justice.

During candidating week, an open meeting of the congregation was called where more than one member said they were “appalled, horrified and disgusted” that lesbians could possibly become their ministers. One member recalled that ”Speaker after speaker built up the hatred and bigotry, calling  Ann and Barbara ‘scum’ and ‘mutants.’ ” The vote to reject was 55 to 38.

Unfortunately, at the time the climate in UU congregations was generally unfriendly to openly gay candidates, and although one openly gay man had been called to a pulpit in Maine, no openly gay women had.  Discrimination in hiring was the rule, and the fact that gay and lesbian clergy had to hide their sexual orientation in order to be called to a pulpit was symbolic of the homophobia which was ubiquitous in our member congregations. Several gay clergy recounted stories of being rejected by a congregation when their professional packet included reference to their sexual orientation, and after removing the reference, they would be hired by a different congregation.  The wider denomination had to be aware of the problem:  a 1980 General Assembly resolution called “Ministerial Employment Opportunities” issued a call to our churches, the UUMA and the Department of Ministerial and Congregational Services to assist gay, lesbian and bisexual religious leaders with settlement.

I argued that UULGC should devote its energy in the coming year to combat this blatantly homophobic practice, but I was not to prevail.  The overwhelming majority of members preferred a yearlong action directed at affirming same sex unions. After the motion passed, the next step was to find a member willing to devote the time it would take to coordinate a bi-national campaign and get the resolution passed once and for all. (Canadian congregations were then part of the UUA.)

At that time I was serving as president of the 8 state (and 2 Canadian provinces) Prairie Star District.  After having been defeated at General Assemblies in 1982 and 1983, the membership apparently believed I could wield influence which might be effective in gaining the resolution’s passage. Although my heart was with the issue of discrimination in hiring, I was willing to take on the task because UULGC deemed it our first priority.

1984 GA in Columbus, Ohio was also to be a UUA presidential election year.  Sandra (Sandy) Caron, UUA Moderator, had announced her candidacy over a year earlier, and I had a chance to get to know her through my work as district president.  An attorney who regulated banking in New York State, she was intellectually sharp, assertive and personable.  She solicited my support, and I gave it willingly. Many months later Rev. William F. (Bill) Schulz announced his candidacy.  He began work at “25” as director of the Office of Social Responsibility, and became executive Vice-President during the term of Rev. Eugene Pickett.  I admired Bill’s accomplishments, and we had the opportunity to work together in planning a 25th anniversary observance of the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision in 1979, co-sponsored by the UUA and my home congregation of Topeka, Kansas.

At a dinner Sandy and I had together. I told her how concerned I was about the events at Community Church in New York. I told her that if elected, I hoped one of her first priorities would be to raise consciousness regarding homophobia in hiring at the administrative and congregational levels and with the regional ministerial settlement representatives who represented the UUA to congregations seeking ministers.

She told me she had risen to the top of the New York banking regulators in a nearly exclusive male world of attorneys.  She said she faced sexism at every level, and that if she could break through those ceilings on her own, so could lesbian ministers.  She would offer no support to out of the closet lesbians seeking pulpits.  I was appalled and uncertain how to proceed.

Shortly before a district presidents’ meeting in Boston, Bill Schulz phoned me to ask for a meeting in his office. It took me by surprise when he solicited my support for his candidacy, and I told him that as much as I admired him and would support him were he elected president, my support for a candidate had been pledged to Sandy.

“What would it take to change your mind,” he asked?  I asked if he knew about what had happened to Ann Tyndall and Barbara Pescan at Community Church, and he said that he did, and was shocked by the congregation’s homophobia.

“What can you do about the issue of discrimination against gay and lesbian ministers seeking pulpits,” I asked?

“When I’m elected, I’ll do everything possible to change the settlement process so that this practice never happens again.”

“But your responsibilities as Executive Vice President include the ministerial settlement process. What are you going to do now?” I asked.

“What would you suggest?” he replied.

At a meeting of the Prairie Star District board in Minneapolis, a fledgling UU gay and lesbian group in that city asked for a grant of $234 to help with promotional expenses.  I spoke on their behalf, but the motion died for lack of a second. I was so angry that I considered resigning. Instead, I used district funds to hire a facilitator to conduct a workshop on homophobia in hiring practices in my own district. Rev. Morris Floyd was a United Methodist minister working as the director of a lesbian and gay community service center.  His facilitation skills were brilliant, and he earned uniform praise in evaluations from our board.

I suggested Morris’ name to Bill Schulz as a person who could facilitate homophobia training for the UUA board and the ministerial settlement representatives (MSRs) who were key to the process then utilized in hiring.   After the MSRs met in 1985, the hiring process administered by the denomination was radically changed.  From the start, congregations seeking ministers were educated regarding the UUA’s commitment to fairness in hiring, the denominational history of support for gay and lesbian rights (six resolutions passed at General Assemblies between 1970-80), as well as women, people of color and persons with disabilities.

In 1988, a program called “Beyond Categorical Thinking” was implemented which brought regional teams expert in fairness in hiring to congregations seeking ministers. From a 1988 personal correspondence with Rev. Charles Gaines, ministry settlement director, I learned that in one survey performed by his department, 3% of respondents in a church seeking a minister would object to a Black candidate and 37% to a candidate who was gay or lesbian.  Serious consideration was given by UUA board and staff to withholding settlement assistance from the denomination to any congregation which would not equally consider women, GLBT, persons of color or disabled candidates, but the “stick” approach was rejected in favor of the “carrot” through persuasion and education.

In a 1988 letter to a past chair of the UUA Annual Program Fund, I wrote, “(UUA Executive Vice President) Kay Montgomery shared with me that perhaps more than any other issue now before the UUA, homophobia in settlement ‘…goes to the heart of who we are,’ and how we handle it will say a great deal about how seriously we choose to live our professed values, purposes and principles. She further describes the question as ‘a profound moral dilemma.’  I couldn’t agree more.”

I had no experience coordinating a national political campaign, so after the 1983 General Assembly I consulted one of my most knowledgeable and experienced friends — Dru Cummins, UUA trustee representing Prairie Star District and first Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly.  Dru’s position was that as long as the Services of Union resolution was categorized as a general resolution, it was unlikely to pass because it was competing with issues of global and national significance.  The key to passage was to change the wording from one of support for same sex unions to one requiring the expenditure of UUA staff time and money – thus qualifying it as a business resolution.  I wrote the suggested language. Dru reviewed it and made editorial suggestions, and then the campaign began.  The newly worded business resolution supported freedom of the pulpit for clergy to perform same sex unions without interference from their congregation, and mandated the UUA publish tracts supportive of same sex unions and materials for use by clergy in preparations for the celebrations.

We sent the resolution to all UUA districts for their endorsement, asking them to submit it for inclusion on the 1984 General Assembly agenda.  We encountered little difficulty in obtaining the required number of district endorsements, but there were significant challenges from UUA legal staff and the General Assembly Planning Committee, which repeatedly rejected our requests to change the resolution from “general” to “business.”  We persisted at every possible venue, including the UUA Board, which advised UULGC to once again change the wording slightly so it could withstand any challenge for inclusion as a business resolution.  The board then submitted the resolution for consideration at GA itself, with unanimous agreement of its members.

By the mid-1980s, UULGC had become a significant presence in the denomination.  Nevertheless, lesbians and gay men were routinely left out of decision making at the highest levels. At a General Assembly,  Rev. John Buehrens announced the appointment of a “Task Force on Social Responsibility” to thoroughly evaluate denominational efforts at social justice and social change which would include racial justice, peace and the Office of Lesbian and Gay Concerns.  When he announced the members he had appointed and none was an openly gay person or lesbian, I added the matter to the UULGC agenda.   We drafted a demand to Buehrens and the UUA Board that an openly gay man or lesbian be included on the Task Force.  We nominated two prominent UULGC members and included their credentials. The following day, a closeted lesbian minister we didn’t recommend was added to the Task Force. She wasn’t even out to her own congregations. This incident reminded me of the old saying, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, it’s probably because you’re on the menu.”

UULGC members and supportive friends from all over the U.S. and Canada were involved in promotion of the resolution at the congregational and district levels. I coordinated strategy for the floor fight at General Assembly and recruited key people from around the continent to speak in Columbus.  When the issue came to the floor for discussion, it was clear we’d done our homework.  The opposition seemed less organized and eloquent.  In contrast to the earliest gay affirming resolution at a GA in the 1970s, no one suggested that passage of this resolution would lead to further resolutions promoting bestiality.

We had no idea what the outcome would be, but the Services of Union Resolution passed by an overwhelming majority of delegates. We didn’t know that reporters from the Associated Press would cover the vote and were surprised to see articles in the following day’s New York Times and in newspapers all over the country.  The Unitarian Universalist Association had become the first religious body in the world to endorse same sex marriage!

We couldn’t have been more pleased.  Bill Schulz was elected president, but some of our UULGC members were deeply disappointed that the UUA failed to elect its first woman president or its first lay person as president.   My strong support of Bill’s candidacy among UULGC members and my criticism of Sandy Caron for her opposition to changing the ministerial settlement process resulted in the loss of a few friends. Although I was hurt by this, there was no question in my mind that my efforts were worth the price I had paid and the long hours I spent in the previous year’s work on behalf of change in the UUA.  I’ve never regretted my decision, and I’m proud of the small role I was privileged to play in making the UUA more just toward LGBT ministers and same sex couples who want to marry.

Eric Schuman

Eric Schuman first joined a UU church at the age of 15.  A self avowed fomenter of "good and necessary trouble," in 1970  he seized a Maryland pulpit with two UU friends demanding justice for UUs of color, and remains an outlier today -- an outspoken believer in freedom of conscience and freedom of the pulpit. After retirement from a 40 year medical career, he became a special student at Starr King School for the Ministry. With his two golden retrievers, he does animal assisted therapy with the criminally insane and hospice clients in Salem, Oregon, where he lives with his husband.