Finding Religion in Honolulu: The LGBTQ Metropolitan Community Church of Hawai’i

In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a ruling that would prove prescient. Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, along with two other couples, had filed a lawsuit against the state in order to have a marriage license issued to them. At the time, Hawaii state law banned same sex nuptials. Surprisingly, while the court did not revoke the ban, it did issue a 3-1 majority opinion that would propel same sex marriage forward and spur the backlash against it. “Marriage is a basic civil right” and that “on its face and as applied,” the Hawaii law “denies same-sex couples access to the marital status and its concomitant rights and benefits,” wrote Justice Steven H. Levinson in the court’s majority opinion. When President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Congress cited the ruling as a compelling reason for the passage of the law. Mainland states feared having to honor same sex marriages from Hawaii–hence the reason for DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

At the time, the Baehr lawsuit appeared to be “quixotic”, noted the New York Times in 2013. Indeed, even within the LGBTQ community, the idea of gay marriage was controversial, sometimes even divisive. Literary critic Edmund White noted as much in his memoir City Boy: “Back then we had no notion of ‘gay marriage’, partly because many of us were equally opposed to marriage for straight people … As the [1970s] wore on, we became more and more convinced that monogamy – and even the concept of the couple – was outdated.”[1] White, of course, did not speak for the entire LGBT community, but he represented a powerful strain of thought among many within it at the time. Yet, two decades later, Hawaii became one of over two dozen states to sign same sex marriage into law; later Obergefell v. Hodges made same sex marriage the law of the land.

Normally when one thinks of LGBTQ history, New York or San Francisco dominate narratives, however, Honolulu clearly has its own history in this regard. A 1971 newsletter/pamphlet from the city’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a branch of the larger MCC evangelical LGBTQ movement started in 1968 Los Angeles, provides insight into Honolulu’s gay history and a window into the national connections beginning to emerge among the Gay Liberation of the 1970s.

Perry in Detroit
Flyer, Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, 1971-1973, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1968, Troy Perry held the Metropolitan Community Church’s first service. It began in Perry’s Huntington Park living room, but by 2016, according to the MCC’s website, the Christian organization encompassed 300 congregations and 43,000 members in 22 countries across the globe. As Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons surmised in their 2006 work, Gay L.A., “it is probably the world’s largest employer of gays and lesbians.”[2] According to Heather Rachelle White, author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, the founding of the MCC, “catalyzed a gay religious movement that quickly eclipsed predecessor efforts.”[3]

MCC LA photo from card
Los Angeles Metropolitan Community Church, 1973-1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A former Pentecostal clergyperson, Perry had been defrocked due to his homosexuality, but never let go of his belief in Christianity. Perry did, however, express a healthy skepticism regarding traditional churches potential for accepting gay Christians. “[M]ost organized religions have been no more helpful to us than an empty well,” he wrote in 1972.[4] Thus, he embarked on creating a network of affiliated churches open to gay and lesbian Christians. Perry’s “strong features, penetrating hazel eyes, and towering six feet” naturally drew listeners as did his penchant for pithy quotes refuting scripture-based homophobia: “I’m not saying Jesus was homosexual, but if he lived today, people would be suspicious, he never married, he ran around with 12 men all the time and was betrayed by a kiss.”[5]

Within only a few years, the MCC movement had spread to several other cities and states including Honolulu, Hawaii. One of the most prominent LGBTQ political activists of the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Kameny—whose papers are located in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress—followed the expansion of the MCC and collected newsletters from several of its churches. One such newsletter from the Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, located in Honolulu, provides insight into the city’s gay community and the issues most important to its the LGBT residents.

The MCC also provided a space for community beyond bars. Though gay bars had proliferated in the post WWII era and were undoubtedly important in forging a gay community, they often remained under surveillance by local law enforcement; police in Los Angeles and elsewhere frequently harassed, arrested, or outted patrons and owners. Moreover, in the search for identity and companionship, many gay men and women eschewed the bar scene more generally. “[I]t is difficult for [gay men and women] to get to know each other as people in the bars and other such meeting places,” noted the Honolulu MCC newsletter. “One of the valuable functions of the church is that it provides a place where people can relate to other peoples as individuals, rather than merely as sexual contacts.”[6] Institutions like the MCC provided both visibility and community.

Newsletter cover
Cover, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The Honolulu church represents the power of this movement. Judging from its March 1971 newsletter, the Honolulu MCC engaged the public in a number of ways. Its pastor, Reverend Hanson, often addressed American Studies classes at the University of Hawaii; he attempted to convey to students the difficulty of gay life in 1970’s America. Due to the secrecy of gay life, promiscuity proved easier and safer “in some ways, since living with one person makes it necessary to decide what to tell other people, such as parents and co-workers.” “The strong pressures brought against such a relationship lead to the failure of many,” Hanson would tell the students, “which is why MCC requires a six months’ trial period for a couple before a marriage may be performed.” [7]The very fact that the church sanctified gay marriages demonstrates its prescience.

Denver newsletter cover
“The Catalyst” newsletter, Metropolitan Community Church of Denver, June 4, 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Even the church’s small numbers—according to the newsletter, its most recent service counted 43 attendees—were related to sexuality, since many gay men and women feared being unmasked to a then hostile public. Moreover, the church’s prominence would draw unwanted attention to homosexuality. Nonetheless, the church continued to engage the broader community. Additional efforts at outreach included meetings with local police to express parishioner anxieties regarding surveillance and harassment. [8]

Police beat.jpg
“Rapping with the Police”, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, March 21, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Political concerns also drew the church’s attention. In 1971, the state legislature had begun to consider revoking Hawaii’s anti-sodomy law. State Rep. John Carroll (12th district) met with church members and assured the church that he was in favor of the revision, noting that he “strongly opposed . . . the hypocrisy of our current laws, and has supported changing them for several years. What people do in private should not be a matter for public concern, as long as the public is not harmed by it,” Carroll told listeners.

Mainland politics also drew the scrutiny of MCC newsletter editors Alan Chapman, Dick Roberts and Ned Will. Frank Kameny’s 1971 campaign for Washington D.C.’s non-voting seat in Congress received coverage, and the editors wrote of Kameny’s effort positively for forcing the media to acknowledge the LGBTQ community: “Kameny’s campaign has a major plank; the recognition of a Homosexual Citizen as a full member of society.”

JackBakersShoes2
Campaign poster “Jack Baker for MSA President, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

Minnesota’s Jack Baker, who with his partner Michael McConnell attained the nation’s first gay marriage in 1971, also drew ink. Baker had been denied a position in the University Minnesota Library and had sued arguing this denial stemmed from discrimination. Baker had first gained national attention in his successful 1971 run for University of Minnesota Student Government President; now his victory in federal court added to his LGBT rights resume. Unfortunately, a Federal Appeals court reversed the decision later that same year.

Kuhio Day

While the newsletter tells us little about the ethnicity, race, or gender of church members, it did highlight native history in both its graphics and articles. One such example was this March 1971 piece on the 100th anniversary of the birth of “The Citizen Prince” Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole. “He was democratic in demeanor, dignified yet affable,” the editors wrote. “His chief contribution to constructive legislation was his work toward the enactment of Congress in 1921 of the measure creating the Hawaiian Homes Commission of which he was one of the first members.” While many date the Hawaiian Renaissance to the mid-1970s, when a series of events and protests signaled a new interest and political awakening of native Hawaiian culture, the newsletter suggests that at some small level this was occurring even earlier.

USA directory MCC

Though it might be a solitary newsletter, this single issue tells us a great deal about aspects of Honolulu’s LGBTQ culture. Perhaps congregation members were a minority among the larger gay population, but they were active not only in the church but in the surrounding community. Church congregants expressed an awareness and interest in politics, local and national, while highlighting aspects of the state’s native history.

 

[1] Edmund White, City Boy: My Life in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 99-100.

[2] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 260.

[3] Heather Rachelle White, “Proclaiming Liberation: The Historical Roots of LGBT Religious Organizing, 1946-1976”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 11. 4 (May 2008): 103.

[4] Troy Perry, The Lord is My Shepard and He Knows I’m Gay: The Autobiography of the Rev. Troy D. Perry, (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1972), 5.

[5] Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.; “Life in Christ”, Metropolitan Community Churches Newsletter Volume I Issue II, Christ Church, Baltimore, Maryland, July 1972, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[6] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, Vol 1 Issue 10, Honolulu, Hawaii, March 21, 1971

[7] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971

[8] Metropolitan Community Church of Hawaii, “ka leo ola o Hawaii newsletter”, March 21, 1971.

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