Categories: Lambda Lore

A church was among Utah’s first LGBT organizations

It should not be surprising that one of the earliest gay-oriented organizations in Utah was a church. The Metropolitan Community Church, a Protestant Christian Fellowship with outreach to gays and lesbians, was founded by Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968. Perry felt that “God was not against me because I was a homosexual.”

In 1972 a fellowship of that church was established in Bountiful and later in Salt Lake City. Founded by Pastor Robert Buckley, the SLC fellowship of the MCC held its meetings at the First Unitarian Church on 1300 East. The church had a rough start as some of the early misconceptions within the “homosexual community” were that “some people think that there are orgies going on at Metropolitan.”

However, as most gay people were unwelcome in mainstream churches, the church began to grow when other churches turned away its gay members. At the time it was believed that in some churches they “may welcome a gay person with loving arms, try to help him become straight but then tell him he will go to hell if he retains his lifestyle.”

In January 1973, Salt Lake City’s MCC was officially chartered as a church within the MCC Fellowship. Perry came to Salt Lake City to officiate at the charter presentation. At that time Rev. Richard Groh, a former minister of the Evangelical Free Church, was called as its first pastor and held its meetings at 740 S. 700 East, a building that now houses the first mosque in Salt Lake City.

By April 1973, the MCC of Salt Lake City moved to 870 W. 400 South, the site of the former Grace Methodist Church. The MCC shared the building with the Westside Community Mental Health Center and Union of the Poor. The congregation was made up of about 50 members, mostly under age 35. Sub for Santa and public speaking engagements had begun to involve the church in the new gay community. That location much later became home to the Tongan Methodist Church and is now a vacant lot.

Lee Christensen, a temporary leader of the church, told a reporter about the organization of the “Metropolitan.” He said the church was led by “an ordained minister” who “leads the congregation along with five laymen.” “Services are Protestant, with a sermon, prayers, communion, and hymns. Doctrine doesn’t exist in the MCC. But it will have to come. Some people will leave if not developed; others will leave if it is.” The worship coordinator also told the reporter, “I like it left open so that we can draw from a large religious background.”

The infant MCC became embroiled in controversy possibly over this lack of doctrine. As it was the main disagreement between its gay men and women members was over the leadership of the church. Pastor Groh, who led the church at the time of this dispute, resigned in August 1973 “due to this fractious spirit within the church.”

Christensen was appointed worship coordinator along with a 30-year-old lesbian named Laverl Kay Harris, as his assistant. A gay man became the new pastor, so Harris and most of the women withdrew from the MCC and founded the Grace Christian Church. Harris became pastor of the splinter church which continued until 1976 when its 35 members began to dwindle.

Of this mass exodus from MCC, Christensen noted, “Women have virtually disappeared from the congregation. I’m not down on women’s lib per se. I’m for equal rights, but it can go too far. Some of the women in the congregation felt there was a lack of love in the congregation.  Several felt they had it and so they took it with them.”

The University of Utah’s Daily Utah Chronicle featured an article written by Jean Johnson about the MCC on Oct. 30, 1973. The piece was called “Gay Church Welcomes Community Unwanted.” Christensen was the main person interviewed for the article. He told Johnson, “I don’t feel that a particular sexual orientation is a sin. Metropolitan Community Church is for everyone, especially for those who feel they have been discriminated against because of their homosexual orientation.”

Christensen added, “Most of our congregation is fairly well-educated. Many of them do not especially want their employers to know they attended church here. Once they accept their homosexuality, there is no need to run around shouting to the world about it; I’m not sure that our purpose is to help our congregation accept their homosexuality. Our purpose is to make our lives as good as humanly possible. If someone needs help; if someone wants to become straight; I’m all for it. We’re not out for converts to the church. Some of our members are politically active in Gay Liberation groups, but our duty at Metropolitan is to cater to religious needs.”

The Chronicle’s article received both positive and negative response. Clarence Widerberg wrote: Recently The Utah Daily Chronicle published an excellent article by Jean Johnson concerning the “Gay Church.” In my opinion, the article reflected the heighten social awareness which reporting is capable of and which is necessary for developing a sensitive community. It is interesting to note that Ms. Johnson’s article was rejected by the Salt Lake Tribune because “it was offensive to the subscriber.” Whatever the jargon for censorship is, it seems to me that Watergate, the Mid East, and advertisements are equally offensive. Apparently, the Tribune is not willing to recognize the social significance of a gay church, or even willing to recognize it as news.”

Wayne Bateman, on the other hand, took great offense at the article. “If homosexuals of Salt Lake City want to organize a religion, it certainly is their prerogative to do so, but I am appalled that the Daily Utah Chronicle found that to be the most important news Tuesday that related to the University or its students.”

The paper, however, responded to Bateman writing, “We were certainly shocked to find this letter from Mr. Bateman, who as one of the founding members of the Cro-Magnon Journal has always stood against repression of the press. We are sorry if Mr. Bateman is offended by real life, but we feel that the article in question was not only of great interest to the majority of our readers but that it filled a need for information about gays that most members of the university community need and want to understand.

While the MCC and Grace Community Church tried to give a spiritual outlet to men and women in Salt Lake City’s early gay community, the Mormon Church began to mobilize against what they perceived as a wave of wickedness and sin sweeping over the state. On March 8, 1972, the Mormon Church pressured the Idaho State Legislature to repeal its 1971 criminal code revision that decriminalized homosexuality.

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Ben Williams

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