By Ashley B. Dreff
General Secretary, Commission on Archives and History
June is Pride month. I want to take a moment to celebrate a piece of United Methodist history prior to the insertion of language regarding sexuality into the 1972 Book of Discipline. In 1964, ministers ordained by The Methodist Church (1939-1968), an immediate predecessor of The UMC, in San Francisco, California, recognized their own limitations when it came to understanding the complex nature of human sexuality. In an effort to better understand those who identified as non-heterosexual, they reached out to their local gay community in the Tenderloin District, admitted their ignorance when it came to understanding non-heterosexual persons, and joined members of the Mattachine Society (one of the first gay rights organizations) for a night out at a local gay bar. Out of this experience, the “Council on Religion and the Homosexual” was formed in 1964.
As an ecumenical collaboration, but one led predominately by Methodist clergy and lay persons, their objective was simply “to promote a continuing dialogue between the religious community and homosexuals.”
The CRH spread beyond San Francisco and into other major metropolitan areas. Through it, clergy used their heterosexual privilege and religious authority to escort LGBTQIA+ persons to clubs, ensure their protection from police, and provide a safe space in which they could socialize and strategize. One of the history-making contributions of the CRH to both Methodist and LGBTQIA+ history is the 1965 New Year’s Day Ball, a little known pre-Stonewall encounter between a local gay community and police.
In the early 1960s, it was illegal for gay men to dance together publicly; thus, private dances had become the underground norm for socializing. In a show of mutual support, the CRH hosted a New Year’s Day ball in 1965, providing a safe space for LGBTQIA+ persons to dance together in celebration of the new year. Methodist clergy attempted to ensure that those in attendance would be protected from a police raid by meeting beforehand with local police and securing proper permits along with promises to not interfere. Even with these preparations, on the night of the Ball the police lined the entrance to the hall in order to threaten and harass those entering. They made their presence known by frequently walking through the Ball, interrupting the festivities and keeping those in attendance on edge. Before the dance was over, six persons were arrested, including clergy. The next day, Methodist clergy along with clergy from other mainline denominations held a press conference and expressed their outrage and called for an end to police harassment of local gay communities. This is not the last time that clergy stood up for LGBTQIA+ persons, but it just might be one of the first documented.
As we celebrate Pride this month, let’s intentionally and strategically remember the pride-ful moments of Methodist history where clergy and LGBTQIA+ persons worked together to live into the Wesleyan mandate to do no harm. If you’re interested in a history of the CRH, I highly recommend Heather R. White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (UNC Press, 2015) as well as an online exhibit from the LGBT Religious Archive, which includes photos of the New Year’s Ball and interviews with those in attendance. You can also find primary source material related to this organization and other LGBTQIA+ Methodist organizations through GCAH’s and Drew University’s Special Collections by using our finding aids.
Dr. Ashley B. Dreff