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Gay Activists Step Up Bid for Churches' Recognition

Their leaders' new emphasis on '60s-style civil disobedience fails to persuade United Methodist convention and is resented by some blacks, but protesters will try again at Presbyterian and Episcopal meetings.


CLEVELAND — On a drizzly morning earlier this week near the shores of Lake Erie, 300 gay rights advocates steeled themselves against leaden skies in a cause they hoped would make history.

Nearby, knots of Cleveland police officers awaited. It was a cinematic scene, a choreographed exercise in nonviolent protest. Everyone knew their place.

Inside the Cleveland Convention Center, 992 delegates to the United Methodist Church's international convention were preparing to reaffirm their opposition to blessing same sex-unions and ordaining non-celibate gay men and lesbians.

Outside, on cue, the protesters marched once around the convention center and then divided into small groups and took turns blocking the main driveway leading into the center. Police politely asked them to disperse. They politely refused. By the day's end, nearly 200 were arrested.

Gay rights leaders said the protests in Cleveland--including the arrests of another 31 demonstrators on the floor of the convention the next day--were a turning point in the campaign to win full and equal recognition from the nation's churches. Similar civil disobedience is planned later this summer when the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and the Episcopal Church hold their national conventions.

No longer will gays and lesbians and their straight supporters be content solely with teach-ins, marches and respectful dialogue, they said. The time has come for direct action, including nonviolent civil disobedience and economic boycotts, they assert. Church volunteers and employees who are gay or lesbian will be asked to withhold their services until their congregations accept them--and their sexuality--as God-given.

The escalation in the gay rights campaign is the brainchild of the Rev. Mel White, a gay minister with the predominantly gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Churches. White, a co-founder of Soulforce, an ecumenical gay rights activist campaign, has adopted both the tactics and the language of the nonviolent civil disobedience movement of the 1960s.

"I'm the heir of that legacy and these people are the heir of that legacy," White said.

Thursday, for example, as protesters here were led away by police after disrupting proceedings at the Methodist convention, those under arrest and their supporters began singing "We Shall Overcome."

Earlier, during a Soulforce rally before the demonstrations, gay rights leaders repeatedly invoked the name and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Among those present to lend support was Yolanda King, the oldest daughter of the civil rights giant.

"I am a 100%, dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying believer in The Dream with a capital T and capital D, the dream that led my father from a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., to the vision of the mountaintop in Memphis, Tenn.," King told protesters here. "It's a dream about freedom! The cause that is bringing us together is a reflection of that dream."

Also arrested at the convention were Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose nonviolent tactics won independence for India, and the Rev. Jim Lawson, a patriarch of the black civil rights movement, confidant of King and pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

Some Resent Civil Rights Link

But some black leaders resent efforts by gays and lesbians to compare their campaign with the black civil rights struggle.

Among them is the Rev. E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles--a charter member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which fought for civil rights in the 1960s.

"The difference in the 1960s is that where you worked, where you ate, where you slept and where you went to school was based on your color," Hill said.

"Unless a gay person tells it himself, nobody would ever refuse him admittance to schools, from eating at a diner, going to a church or any of the indignities that we suffered because of the color of our skin, which was so obvious. I can't see the parallel," Hill said.

Many African American churches, like conservative white churches, say they are in no position to defy what they see as injunctions against homosexuality in Scripture, said the Rev. Eugene Williams, executive director of Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, a coalition of small and medium-size black churches.

"The African American is both blessed and burdened with this tradition of a civil rights mantle," Williams said. "It's blessed in the sense that it created room and space for other social movements to come along. But it's burdened because it then has the responsibility for holding up the mantle for everybody . . . when I'm not sure we find common ground."

Lawson, who supports the gay rights movement within churches, agrees that there are historical and contextual differences from the black struggle.

"All the folks in the black community who want equal opportunity for themselves are not necessarily committed to this area," Lawson said.

"Some say this is a sexual matter. I don't think it is that," Lawson said. "I see it very clearly as another manifestation of the struggle of the American people toward making it possible for every single one of us to have full human rights, full access to opportunity."

Robert Graetz, a white Lutheran minister whose home was firebombed in the 1960s in retaliation against his civil rights work, said the gay rights campaign is part of a continuing campaign for human rights.

"For a long time," he said, "the old civil rights force has not really begun to channel their efforts into this campaign to deal with homophobia. Now we're saying this is all part of the same campaign. . . . We just have to finish the job we started before."

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