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RGOD2: Praise to risk-taking clergy who said “I will!” to same-sex marriage

Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the excitement and attention around the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of same gender marriages when some clergy were (illegally) blessing unions, marrying and doing all kinds of imaginative house blessings for gay and lesbian couples.

In acts of loyal defiance to the church’s attitude to LGBT people in the 1980s, many clergy responded to the pastoral needs of LGBT couples often risking their jobs to do so. We did everything from house blessings (where friends and family would gather in a couple’s home to recognize and bless their relationship) to finding liturgical and authentic expressions of care and support to meet a need to come out about their love and commitment to each other.

My first gay wedding

I met Darryl and Lyle while working as youth director at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in 1984. Working with homeless runaway and throwaway youth in Hollywood, I was well-known as an openly gay priest and there were few congregations were LGBT people we welcome.

The pastoral needs of the LGBT community were largely unmet and a number of straight and gay/lesbian clergy were often asked to bless couples. It was a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy long before we knew this phrase. Darryl worked in the entertainment industry, had married a woman previously and they had two children. He divorced when he came out and later met Lyle.

Darryl and Lyle now wanted to get married -- an impossible dream back then, but we began counseling and I agreed to preside at a Eucharist (Mass) where they would exchange rings and vows. It was my first gay wedding. A month before the wedding, Daryl’s beautiful daughter who had hoped to be maid of honor at the wedding, was diagnosed with leukemia and died at 21 years of age. It was a terrible blow to the family yet they decided to proceed with the ceremony, and we remembered her and prayed for her. She wrote a poem for her dad and his partner.

Sam Harris and other Hollywood folk were there although this was a huge professional risk for me, newly licensed by the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles to function as a priest, it was a pastoral response that needed to be made. I was prepared to take the risk. I still have a copy of the liturgy and thank them profoundly for asking me.

Love in the Age of AIDS

By 1989, we found ourselves in the tsunami of the AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles and I was working as the first openly gay priest at All Saints Church, Pasadena at the AIDS Service Center. Although my work was largely administrative and fundraising, I always had one of two people in my life who reminded me of the devastating effects and pastoral needs of millions of people living with HIV.

I met Gregg Davis and his partner in West Hollywood and would visit them regularly. Gregg was very ill and bedridden, and his partner was an amazing tower of strength. This was the kind of love that moved many heterosexuals to see the true potential of LGBT relationships and we can often forget that the current wave of support for LGBT people and marriage began in earnest with the AIDS epidemic. Nurses, doctors, caregivers and society at large could see the quality of loving in many previously hidden LGBT relationships. We were more than what we happened to do in bed.

These courageous couples taught us so much and that our love was good. With little hope in sight for a long life together, they asked me if I would marry them. Imagine a priest sitting on one side of the bed of a man who had lost about half his body weight, sunken eyes and almost skeletal, and his partner sitting on the other side of him exchanging vows. It was one of the most beautiful acts of love I have ever witnessed, and we all cried.

A week later, we were conducting Gregg’s funeral in All Saints, full of beautiful white flowers and lovingly created by his now widowed partner – this was the closest thing they would ever get to a church ceremony back then. There were many clergy all over this country who sat in places like mine and we not only experienced the power of love in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, but witnessed a kind of radiant resurrection in the couples themselves. Love is transformational and more powerful than death. These faithful ones should never be forgotten and they helped to lay the foundations of the movement to win LGBT equality and marriage.

Laughing our way to equality

There were so very funny moments too. A lesbian couple came to me in Trinity Church, Melrose in 1987 and asked for a blessing on their anniversary. We were still light years away from the church officially marrying them, so this was a kind of code. They were asking for a public and holy place to express their love and commitment.

I decided the best way to celebrate their relationship was to have a Mass on a Saturday morning when few people would be around the church. I told the Rector I was doing it and reiterated to these two very beautiful Latina women, this was not a marriage.

When the day came for the ceremony, one of the couple turned up in a black tuxedo with three lesbian groomsmen dressed the same way! Then a car full of three bridesmaids showed up in full Mexican wedding outfits and I was confronted with a full scale Mexican wedding party. It was spectacular!

The bride arrived fashionably late, which gave me time to lock all doors and ensure that the altar guild ladies who were arranging flowers in another room did not stumble upon this very new phenomenon. I was working on the California AIDS Plan at the time and Dr. Beverlee Myers of UCLA was busy, sitting in a nearby office typing away at a plan how the State of California would care for AIDs patients in the next five years. I kept moving from one room to another like an English actor in one of those awful stage dramas where doors open and shut to ensure the ceremony would be for our eyes only.

Looking back, it was a wonderful kind of camp pantomime and it was given it final flourish when the full scale lesbian wedding party left the church and entered a car with a rear sign saying “Just married.” The Latino neighborhood around the church came out to send them off cheering and clapping and I still believe they did not fully see that we were sending two women off! As far as they were concerned, this looked like a traditional Latino wedding and I guess for the couple, it really was. And that is all that matters. Life as a priest is seldom dull.

Full circle

In the 1990s while working as a priest in Riverside, Stacey and Deanne asked me to bless their union and baptize them into the church. Their son, Mitch also wanted to be baptized, and we had a wonderful beach ceremony and party at my home in Laguna Beach.

Ten years later when couples could actually get married in California, they asked me to preside again at the marriage. In June 2008, having just returned from studying in Ireland the day before, complete with jetlag, I couldn’t wait to be with this remarkable family.

Mitch, now a fully grown heterosexual adult, came proudly beaming up the aisle with both of his moms, one on each arm. His father was present and not only took an active part in the ceremony but over the years remained a vital part of this family. It was a remarkable day and although I have married more heterosexual couples than LGBT couples in my 35 years of ministry, there is still something unique and profound about each one of them.

Celebrate the moment and those who cheered us on the journey

We are on the cusp of a marvelous moment in the history of the LGBT movement in this country and if we are to be true to the occasion, we cannot forget the thousands of clergy who said “I will” at great personal and professional cost as well as the brave couples who taught us so much about loving deeply and courageously.

Death is not the end of a relationship and love is eternal. Easter is all about these things and I have witnessed many deaths and resurrections in the people who came to me for blessing. What a privilege! Marriage is being redefined in the heterosexual and homosexual worlds and it is still “to be honored among all people” as the Book of Common Prayer so aptly reminds us. And the people said “Amen!”

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.