A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 1: Full and equal claim

Over the coming weeks, intern Sara Yoe will be taking readers on a journey through the archives of the Diocese of California. Specifically, she will chronicle DioCal’s unique involvement and support of the LGBTQ+ community. From the founding of The Parsonage in 1981 to a youth immersion trip to the Castro last summer, this diocese has been on the forefront of LGBTQ+ inclusion both in the church and the secular world. Throughout the series, Sara will use the terms of the time referenced to refer to the LGBTQ+ community. Where this story begins in the 1980s, "gay and lesbian" was commonly how non-heterosexual identities were referred to, with occasional mention of bisexual people. "Transsexual" or "transvestite" were common terms used to describe people who now use the word "transgender" or have other gender non-conforming identities.


In 1976 at General Convention, a resolution was passed proclaiming that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” This concurrence was the first official action that The Episcopal Church took to explicitly welcome gay and lesbian people. By the mid 1970’s, homosexuality had been removed from the American Psychological Association’s list of disorders, and legislation decriminalizing same-sex intimacy was beginning to pass around the country. There was still, of course, such a strong negative stigma tied to homosexuality that many gay and lesbian people were forced to stay in the closet, including the two priests in the Diocese of California who saw a need for a “place of reconciliation” between the church and the gay and lesbian community.

Neither the late Rev. Bernard Mayes nor the Rev. John Williams were new at working for social progress for the oppressed and marginalized. In the 1960s, Mayes began the nation’s first suicide hotline — now San Francisco Suicide Prevention — by posting his phone number on cardboard advertisements on Muni buses and handing out matchbox cards with his phone number in the Tenderloin district. At the same time, Williams was leading faithful people on trips to Mississippi where they stood in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.

 The Rev. Bernard Mayes

Mayes and Williams had both lived most of their adult lives closeted with male partners and had experienced the fears that come with living in two different worlds that could not intersect. After many meetings with the Bay Area chapter of Integrity (a national organization for gay Episcopalians and their allies) and other private meetings with as many as 30 other closeted gay Episcopal priests, Williams came to the conclusion that there needed to be an Episcopal “‘presence’ in the midst of the outcasts,” Mayes later wrote in an extensive history about The Parsonage.

The Rev. Bernard Mayes

The two men then worked together to dream up what this place could be. Williams was most concerned with the immediate pastoral needs of the gay and lesbian community, while Mayes was more interested in bridging the social gap that existed between the church and the gay and lesbian community because of church doctrine. In order to more clearly define their mission, Williams and Mayes hosted more meetings to discuss the pastoral and theological needs and expectations that a place of reconciliation between the church and the gay and lesbian community would need to prioritize. They discerned that, indeed, this place was to be one where people could come for pastoral care; however, they also saw the need to make this an outreach ministry, where all kinds of issues affecting the gay and lesbian community could be explored. And later down the line, The Parsonage would be the perfect place to begin conversations on creating a same-sex relationship blessing liturgy.

With more clarity and small but meaningful financial promises from attendees, Mayes and Williams went searching “in the heart of the gay ghetto” for the to-be home of The Parsonage. After considering an apartment that once belonged to Harvey Milk, the two secured a cottage on Castro Street in San Francisco at half the neighborhood’s usual rent, thanks to a realtor who had a soft spot for Episcopalians. And thus, a week after Pentecost in 1981, the lease was signed and The Parsonage was born.

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