A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Final thoughts and reflections from the author

At long last, I can write in the first person! Thank you, loyal readers, for following my work over the last four months. I cannot understate the value of your messages of appreciation of this project in all their forms — not only were they motivating for me when I was in the weekly crunch time of getting the installments ready for publication, but they speak to a tangible energy present in this diocese. There is a deep love for the LGBTQ+ community here, and there is an authentic desire in the people that make up this diocese to continue to lead the way in ministry by and for the LGBTQ+ community. I am honored to have gotten to witness it through my interactions with countless people who helped me piece this history together.

My project began as another item on my to-do list in September 2016, “a good intern project,” as my supervisor put it. I was tasked with making information about the Diocese of California’s history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community accessible online. It was entirely up to me how to do it. At first, I thought about having a homepage with an overview of the story and tabs for each year with a short list of things that happened in the given year.

As I began reading through the newsletters, meeting minutes, correspondences, newspapers, and more that are stored in the two boxes from diocesan archives on this subject, I found myself entranced in the stories I was finding. I was reading about people’s lives, their triumphs and their sorrows, their loves and their deaths. I couldn’t just list facts and figures about each year — I had to tell the stories buried in these boxes.

It took months to figure this out, though. When Part 1 was published the first week of February 2017, I only had an outline of what would be included in Part 2, and I had no idea of the exact number of installments that it would take to tell the story I’ve told. As pieces started getting published, emails began trickling in from people who were part of the stories or who knew people who were, and the network quickly grew. My “people to contact” sticky note in my calendar quickly became an inadequate method of keeping track of who I had and hadn’t interviewed yet, as did other early modes of organizing information about this project.

This project grew much beyond any of my initial expectations. I was receiving more information than I could possibly digest and publish on a weekly basis, hence the occasional gaps in publishing in the latter half of the project. I also started hearing stories outside of the scope of this project — I have heard from one person of weddings performed for same-sex couples in an Episcopal church in New York City as early as the 1930s (which is something I’d love to confirm).

I also heard after publishing began about how this diocese’s history of ministry by and for the LGBTQ+ community (which would have, perhaps, been a better series title, but alas, here we are) began before The Parsonage’s founding in 1980. For example, in 1978, the Rev. William Barcus came out while giving a sermon. Harvey Milk — who would be assassinated just one month later — was sitting in the pews that morning at St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco. And now, a copy of that sermon is in diocesan archives, along with copies of the countless other documents people sent to me from their own personal archives.

I have no doubt that there are more stories out there about this. An immeasurably dismal truth in this history is that many of these stories are unrecoverable, as the people holding them have died, and it may be too painful for those left to recount them. There is an incredible piece about this that was published about a year ago in the San Francisco Chronicle that I kept coming back to during the time I was entrenched in the years characterized by AIDS. However, an all too often forgotten fact is that there are more people than we think with the stories from those years. As it was brought up in the panel discussion last week, and as there are biblical parallels, women — in this context, lesbian women — showed up during the AIDS crisis. They, too, can pass many stories down to the next Queer generation.

I think it was important and helpful for me as someone who is part of that next Queer generation to do this project. I was born the same year the first cocktails of drugs started working in 1994 — yes, I’m 23 and am one of those millennials. One thing I noticed when I started interviews was that, almost entirely across the board, people told me they didn’t have much to say. That they didn’t do anything profound, they just responded to the needs of a marginalized community and did what they could. Aside from the fact that that alone is quite profound, I found myself having to remind people with those hard numbers of my age and the year I was born, and that all I’ve ever learned in history class about LGBTQ+ history was that AIDS happened and killed the better part of a generation of gay men. That was it. That fact hadn’t been humanized for me, and it was only then that the geode cracked open and the beauty and rough edges of DioCal’s past with LGBTQ+ ministries came into the light.

As I mentioned earlier in this piece — I was on a mission to tell stories, not to relay facts. And that is because I truly believe one of the most powerful tools humans have to empower social change is our collective stories. For me, as a young queer person in the Episcopal Church, these stories have changed me. I understand more viscerally the oppression experienced by those who came before me, and I have more compassion for the imperfections in this past that are in our present. I’ve also been inspired, and this work has informed how I want to continue discerning and living into my various identities and vocation(s).

Most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunity to compile and share the stories that exist here, in this place with the people here, in these places; I’m a big fan of place-based learning, so it was especially meaningful to do this project in San Francisco, where I had the opportunity to go visit the cottage that used to house The Parsonage (pictured below). I’m thankful that I got to hear the joy, sorrow, lament, tears, and laughter of those who shared their stories with me. I’m thankful I was trusted with the most vulnerable parts of people’s lives. And I’m thankful that now, anyone can look back and learn from them too, as this website will stay up. I couldn’t possibly have done this alone, and I’m so thankful for the many communities that supported me along the way.

   

The narrow alley people walked down to get to The Parsonage.

As I prepare to pack up my car and drive back across the country to Maryland next week, I want to leave this diocese with an observation, and the individuals reading this with a prompt. For the diocese at large, know that you are uniquely able to chart and lead in the path forwards from here because of the special history that exists here. Progress has been made for LGBTQ+ people since 1980, for sure. But there is much work to be done.

On an individual level, I wonder these questions with the people who may be reading this. Are there identity-based communities you are a part of whose stories you don’t know? Are there people you love whose pasts you haven’t heard? What about the place where you live or go to school? What events transpired in those places that got them there? The answers to those questions matter. Not knowing them informs how we view the world and in turn choose to live within it. Knowing them will better inform how we view the world and how we choose to live within it. I know that because of this project, because of the effect it’s had on me, and this diocese. So ask those questions, share those stories, and keep doing the work God has called us in to doing.

 

For more of the living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community series, click here.