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Council on Religion and the Homosexual

The Glide Urban Center was part of a national movement among the nation’s religious organizations to focus on social justice. “Social concerns dominated the country’s ministry in a way that they had not since the 1930s,” writes historian John D’Emilio. “Among black and younger clergy in particular, service to God and to the church increasingly meant active engagement in the world. In San Francisco, where homosexuality had achieved a greater visibility than elsewhere, it was perhaps natural that a portion of this social concern would be spent on behalf of the gay rights cause.”190

Soon after arriving at Glide, Ted McIlvenna discovered that many of the Tenderloin’s youth were young, gay men “driven to street hustling by the hostility and ostracism of their parents and peers.”191 To better understand the needs of this minority community, McIlvenna consulted with two homophile groups: the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, Society for Individual Rights, and the Tavern Guild. McIlvenna’s “crash course on society’s treatment of gay men and women,” as D’Emilio calls it, resulted in the minister’s sudden awareness of “an entire population with real grievances against the church.”192 Almost immediately, McIlvenna became an advocate for gay and lesbian causes.

In late May 1964, Ted McIlvenna, with sponsorship from the Glide Urban Center, organized a three-day conference attended by twenty Protestant clergymen and over a dozen members of the homophile movement, including representatives from the Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society, SIR, the Tavern Guild, and Citizens News. 193 One of the first events was a tour of San Francisco’s queer hotspots, such as gay bars, drag shows, private parties, and homophile meetings.194 That was followed by a two-day retreat at the Ralston L. White Memorial Retreat on Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco.195 For many of the ministers in attendance, the “face-to-face confrontation” with the homophile activists was “the first time they had ever knowingly talked with a homosexual or a lesbian.”196 Del Martin, lesbian-rights activist and co-founder of the Daughters of Bilitis, wrote of the retreat: “San Francisco was the setting for the historic birth of the United Nations in 1945. And again, in 1964, San Francisco provided the setting for the re-birth of Christian fellowship in the United States to include all human beings regardless of sexual proclivity.”197

After the retreat, leaders at Glide, homophile activists, and other clergy in San Francisco continued to meet until December 1964 when the Council on Religion and the Homosexual was formed—the first organization in the U.S. to have “homosexual” in the title. The CRH was incorporated six months later and headquartered at the Glide Urban Center. “Working with openminded members of the clergy was a historic shift for gay activists,” writes historian Marcia Gallo, “and [homophile] leaders recognized that without Glide Memorial Methodist Church, none of the organizing of religious leaders would have been possible.”198 Glide’s involvement in homophile activism was extraordinary in the mid-1960s. The church and the Glide Urban Center became “centers for urban activism, racial and social justice organizing, and progressive politics in San Francisco for the next two decades.”199 Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin called Glide “the most unusual Methodist Church in the country.”200

One of the key events in LGBTQ history in San Francisco occurred in 1965 and involved Glide and the CRH. San Francisco’s major homophile groups and clergy joined together to cosponsor the New Year’s Mardi Gras Ball at California Hall (625 Polk Street) on January 1, 1965, to raise funds for and celebrate the newly incorporated CRH. To ensure the success of this event, members of the CRH negotiated with the San Francisco police and city officials to prevent harassment. In spite of the preparations, as guests began to arrive at the event dozens of police officers appeared on the street with klieg lights and cameras and periodically entered the hall on the pretense of making safety inspections. Ignoring the police presence, more than 500 people— including a number of clergymen and their wives—entered the event. The party continued past midnight, at which point the San Francisco police arrested six attendees, including attorneys Evander Smith and Herbert Donaldson, who had been retained in anticipation of such harassment.

In a remarkable turn of events, Marshall Krause, an ACLU attorney, agreed to defend those arrested at California Hall and organized a press conference on January 2, 1965. Ministers involved with CRH spoke out against police harassment, marking one of the first times in U.S. history that religious leaders spoke publicly about gay rights.201 The ministers’ outrage and their call to end police harassment of homosexuals provoked unprecedented public support and a mobilization by homophile groups and leaders to fight against police oppression. The sudden surge of activity following the California Hall incident, often referred to as San Francisco’s “Stonewall,” thrust the newly formed CRH into the spotlight. Homophile activist Phyllis Lyon remarked, “[It was] our very first step into some kind of connectedness with the rest of the city.”202 Mayor Shelley urged the police to appoint a liaison to the LGBTQ community; they selected Sergeant Elliott Blackstone. Lyon said it was “the first time we had any contact with city government. We’d tried over the years. We’d gone to talk and they wouldn’t talk. We sent them letters, they didn’t answer. All of a sudden we had Elliott Blackstone for police community relations and he was our key. That made us suddenly a persona, the gay community was something here in the city.”203

CRH’s influence continued to grow after the California Hall incident, with protests, publications such as Del Martin’s The Church and the Homosexual, and a series of symposia held at the CRH offices at 330 Ellis Street.204 In June 1965, CRH published a report called “A Brief of Injustices: An Indictment of Our Society in Its Treatment of the Homosexual.” It presented a “clear and strong affirmation of lesbian and gay people, the first of its kind from a group of religious leaders.”205 The brief delineated ten ways in which LGBTQ people were denied rights, and it concluded with a “call for self-definition, dignity, and justice for homosexuals.”206 Also in 1965, CRH organized the first of many Candidates’ Night at Glide, to which local politicians were invited to participate in a town-hall-style community meeting. The politicians were asked questions about “police misconduct and other issues of concern to gay and gay-friendly constituencies.”207 According to historian Marcia Gallo, these Candidates’ Nights were significant as “the first time that ‘the gay vote’ was courted in San Francisco. “[I]t began a pattern of well-organized electoral activity among lesbians, gay men, and their allies that continues to this day.”208