Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often deemed as the catalyst for the modern LGBTQ rights movement. On June 28, 1969, police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn, a bar and gathering space for members of the LGBTQ community. Riots ensued between the police and LGBTQ patrons and passersby, led by transgender women of color including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Despite high-profile examples of faith-based opposition to LGBTQ rights since the riots, these anti-equality viewpoints do not reflect the attitudes of all faith communities. Faith leaders and religious communities have also played a key role in the LGBTQ rights movement.
This column details five of the many ways in which faith communities have aided the fight for LGBTQ equality in the five decades since the Stonewall riots.
1. Stepping into action after Stonewall
Faith leaders were at the forefront of the growing LGBTQ rights movement immediately following the Stonewall riots, both in their communities and in broader LGBTQ advocacy efforts. Two ministers—the Rev. Troy D. Perry, founder of the LGBTQ-affirming Metropolitan Community Churches, and the Rev. Bob Humphries—were key organizers of one of the first pride parades, which took place in Los Angeles in 1970. The parade, along with simultaneous events in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, served as a platform for the LGBTQ movement to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots and to celebrate LGBTQ identities in a public way. Since then, faith leaders have continued the tradition of marching in pride parades.
Meanwhile, the formation of faith-based LGBTQ organizations established the groundwork for future activism and organizing. Explicitly LGBTQ-affirming houses of worship were created, such as New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, founded in 1973 and now the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue. In addition, national faith-based LGBTQ advocacy organizations were established to offer services and foster community across the country. For example, DignityUSA, initially created in 1969 as a counseling and support group for LGBTQ Catholics in Los Angeles, became a national organization in 1973. Its advocacy work continues today through activities such as a national AIDS project and a national initiative to combat violence.
Existing religious denominations also began to shift toward a more public stance on LGBTQ inclusion within both religious spaces and everyday life. In 1977, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis began advocating for legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated Bishop Gene Robinson as the first openly gay man to be elected bishop in the high-church traditions of Christianity. This decision challenged other Christian denominations to question their official stances on LGBTQ issues. The continuing wave of acceptance from religious communities toward LGBTQ inclusion has positioned people of faith to be leaders within broader LGBTQ advocacy efforts.
2. Filling the void of inaction during the HIV/AIDS crisis
People of faith supported the LGBTQ community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, even when the federal government would not do so. They worked to combat barriers to proper care, such as lack of funding allocated to public health programs, stigma, and discrimination. In 1987, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for increased federal spending on AIDS research and education at the second annual March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The Council of National Religious AIDS Networks was organized in 1993, issuing a declaration for its interfaith coalition to provide crucial support systems and services that were not being offered elsewhere.
By 1999, American faith communities had launched support programs organized by at least 5,000 formal and informal faith-based HIV/AIDS organizations, which was the largest response from the United States to the crisis at the time. This work continues through organizations such as INERELA+, an international interfaith network of faith leaders who are living with or personally affected by HIV/AIDS. INERELA+ equips religious leaders to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS in their communities. Other groups focus their work within their faith communities; RAHMA, for example, provides “education, advocacy, and empowerment” around HIV/AIDS to Muslims and other faith communities. Despite stigma, lack of resources, and even opposition from some within the faith community, people of faith continue to provide essential services in the struggle to combat this public health crisis.
3. Demonstrating solidarity in the wake of violence
In 1998, faith communities called for greater national attention to violence against LGBTQ individuals after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old college student, in Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard was an active member of his local Episcopal church, and after his death, the Episcopal Church along with the broader interfaith community organized vigils to express their outrage and to call for the passage of federal legislation addressing hate crimes. In 2018, Shepard was interred at Washington National Cathedral. The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the dean of the cathedral, stated that Shepard’s death “should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are.” Washington National Cathedral provided a spiritual and ritual space for remembrance of Shepard, while calling for inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ individuals.
In 2016, when one of America’s deadliest mass shootings took place at the Pulse nightclub and gay bar in Orlando, Florida, faith communities were ready to respond to this act of senseless gun violence. In the moments of grief after the shooting, the Muslim community showed an outpouring of support by standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and by organizing blood donations, which were crucial to those injured in the attack. In addition, individuals from a diversity of faith backgrounds hosted dialogue sessions, vigils, and religious counseling services. In the wake of violence, the faith community mourned for LGBTQ people and their loved ones while raising awareness to better protect LGBTQ lives.
4. Providing vocal support for marriage equality
Faith-based organizing for marriage equality was widespread in the push to counter religious anti-equality narratives and make marriage for same-sex couples a nationwide right in 2015. Many religious denominations publicly stated their support for marriage equality. At the state level, people of faith held interfaith services and submitted letters to state legislatures in support of marriage equality in states such as Minnesota, California, and Virginia. African American clergy from across Maryland participated in the effort to legalize marriage for same-sex couples by voicing their support in television advertisements. In one ad, the Rev. Delman Coates states, “I would not want someone denying my rights based upon their religious views, therefore I should not deny others based upon mine.”
A 2017 study from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that majorities of most religious groups now support the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples. Comparing attitudes from 2013 to 2017, opposition to marriage for same-sex couples has declined among several religious groups. For example, a majority—57 percent—of black protestants stood in opposition to marriage equality in 2013, while in 2017, 48 percent supported marriage equality and 43 percent opposed it. The survey found that twice as many Americans support marriage equality as those who oppose it. Undoubtedly, many people of faith are included in that majority of supporters.
5. Continuing the fight for equality
Just last month, people of faith led the way when voicing their support for the Equality Act, a groundbreaking, bipartisan bill that would provide LGBTQ people consistent and explicit protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in key areas of public life. The Equality Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 17, 2019, with support from more than 5,000 people of faith and more than 70 faith-based organizations.
Faith leaders reflected on this event as an opportunity for people of faith to atone for both their past and present discriminatory behavior toward LGBTQ people. As the Rev. Fred Davie, executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary, noted upon the House’s passage of the act:
In every age, Christians are called to stop and assess our complicity in marginalizing those we consider to be other … Today, in this age, we have a chance to undo centuries of dehumanization and denial of full citizenship to members of the LGBTQ community in the U.S.
The broad faith support for the Equality Act is consistent with recent polling showing that majorities of all religious groups are in favor of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
Despite decades of positive change, the rights of LGBTQ Americans continue to be threatened today in areas such as child welfare, health care, and employment. People of faith continue to stand at the forefront of these fights, working to dismantle the narrative that LGBTQ equality runs counter to religious values and beliefs. Although freedom of religion has been misused as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, people of faith will continue to ensure that it extends to every individual. And just as they have throughout history, these advocates will faithfully demand that LGBTQ Americans are treated equally and with justice and respect.
Emily London is a research assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
The author wishes to thank the following individuals who significantly contributed to the research, drafting, and/or review of this column: Laura Durso, Adam Graubart, Maggie Siddiqi, and Winnie Stachelberg.