A handful of openly gay men, including Gene Leggett and Rick Huskey, offered 1972 General Conference delegates and visitors the opportunity for conversation about homosexuality. Few responded positively. Instead, in the waning hours of the conference, sleepy delegates amended recommended paragraph in the new Social Principles to hold, "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching."1
In July 1975, the United Methodist Gay Caucus organized in Evanston, Illinios. Later renamed Gay United Methodists (GUM) formed to insist that our lives and loving are gifts of God, not rebellion against the divine will. About a year after making a powerful presence at the 1976 General Conference, GUM became Affirmation. In preparation for what we feared would be a decades-long struggle, Affirmation hired Peggy Harmon and Michael Collins to lay a foundation of education, organizing and empowerment across the church.
Lesbian and gay church professionals like Joan Clark, the Rev. Paul Abels, and the Rev. Julian Rush, began to come out across the denomination. Despite harassment and threats by fearful functionaries, these pioneers proved the church could not squelch the developing movement for justice. A specific provision against the ordination or appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" adopted by the 1984 General Conference heightened the climate of oppression. Affirmation responded by creating the Reconciling Congregation Program (RCP). The RCP is the largest organization in the LGBT religious community other than the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, with hundreds of congregations and other groups and thousands of individual reconciling United Methodists. After General Conference 2000, it became the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
Affirmation was a key resource behind the scenes in developing the denomination's domestic and international response to the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, we have also experienced the loss of pioneering members at both the national and local levels.
Delegates to the 1992 General Conference rejected the majority recommendations of a study committee on homosexuality. Affirmation led a coalition of progressive groups in testifying that "the stones will cry out" until God's imperative for inclusion is met by the United Methodist Church. As at previous sessions, Affirmation offered healing liturgy, enthusiastic celebration and pointed reflection through its General Conference presence.
In a powerful witness, RCP challenged the church to "Open the Doors" to its LGBT members at the 1996 General Conference. Distorted understandings of the Gospel led instead to the prohibition of services that celebrate the covenants of same-gender couples.
Responding to widespread concern over the unjust law, Affirmation organized the Covenant Relationships Network (CORNET). In the late 1990s, the Internet-based witness provided information, inspiration, and an arena for strategy formation for those engaged with this issue.
By early 1999, hundreds of courageous clergy pledged to obey the Gospel rather than an unjust law. Two long-time Affirmation members, leaders in their Annual Conference, celebrated their many years of loving relationship at a covenant service presided over by dozens of clergy. The struggle over covenant services is emblematic of the denomination's continuing struggle to truly be the church.
AFFIRMATION: UNITED METHODISTS FOR LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER CONCERNS--Working for more love and justice in the United Methodist ChurchNotes
1The paragraph that had been originally proposed to General Conference in Atlanta would have read: "Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured." [United Methodist News Service, "Homosexuality Backgrounder," <http://umns.umc.org/backgrounders/homosexuality.html> 1 February 2003.]