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Gay rights pioneer, groundbreaking author Rev. Robert Wood, turns 89

Monday, May 21, 2012
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“Is it proper for two of the same sex to enter the institution of marriage?
This is an important question, to which I must reply, ‘Yes.’”

-Rev. Robert Wood, 1960

While recently rummaging through a stack of old books in an LGBT collection at my university, I stumbled upon an all but discarded title. In it, the author lays out his theological position for, among other things, gay marriage and gay affirming churches—pretty standard fare these days. What grabbed my attention, however, was the fact that it was written 52 years ago!

Robert Wood, circa 1960

In 1960, the young Reverend Robert Wood (1923-present) published this first-of-its-kind book, entitled “Christ and the Homosexual,” in hopes of inspiring a movement of dialogue, new writing, and deeper understanding regarding the gay community, particularly by the Church.

Wood, himself a gay man, was ministering at the time in New York City and was well acquainted with the ostracism experienced by the gay subculture at the hands of what he saw as “a society which in most cases has not taken the time to study the facts and to know the individuals involved.”

“Christ and the Homosexual” was the first book published merging these two subjects, and groundbreaking in its poignant critique of the Church, and in its description, support, and affirmation of the gay community.

All 3,000 hardbound copies sold at a cost of $3.95 each. Copies of the book are extremely scarce today as no further editions were printed.

Ironically, world-renowned psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis (1913-2007), criticized Wood in his introduction to the book, saying that Wood is “dead wrong” in his presumption that homosexuality is often innate, not a result of immaturity or neurosis, and that homosexuals can rarely if ever be converted to heterosexual.

Robert Wood c.1986

Wood was essentially challenging the science of his day and presenting a case that homosexuality is authored and blessed by God. In the book, he stated of the Church:

The Church has done much to keep the homosexual from Christ. Society, often under the influence of the Church, has
also thrown roadblocks in the pathway of the homosexual who seeks a higher purpose in life beyond the sexual plane of pleasurable existence.

But the struggle is difficult, the motives misunderstood, the behavior pattern considered perverted. Yet Jesus Christ, whose struggle was also difficult, whose motives were also misunderstood, whose behavior pattern was revolutionary, awaits all men — even the overt homosexual.

Wood called for an end to discrimination in the military and in the work place, full inclusion and affirmation in the Church, and marriage equality. In the book, he states:

To say without reservation that homosexual marriages are immoral and should not be sanctioned by the clergy is to sacrifice the homosexual upon the altar of the status quo.

[...]

(I)f he is seeking a home life, a lifelong, life-sharing relationship with one person, there is no reason why such a relationship should not be considered a marriage. If we are to treat him like everyone else in our parish or community or office, why put his union in a distinct classification?

Wood not only advocated for full inclusion of gays in the Church, but also for their ordination, saying, “Whether a homosexual can be a Christian and a clergyman, the answer is ‘yes.’”

He displayed his non-judgmental insights into the hidden life of the gay subculture of his day, drawing attention to the struggle
of closeted homosexuals in straight marriages, and even describing sadomasochistic parties, while condemning police blackmail and court-ordered lobotomies.

Many churches today will claim to accept gay people, as long as they change their orientation. Even in 1960, Wood was opposed to such as notion, stating, “Let me make myself perfectly clear. When I say the overt homosexual can become a full disciple of Christ and truly merit the name ‘Christian,’ I do not qualify my remarks by saying, ‘…if he stops being a homosexual.’”

Wood’s book was not merely a polemic against the heteronormative Church. He wrote extensively on the practical contributions of the gay community regarding culture, society, and religious life. At one point, he offered suggestions on how local parishes could incorporate gay couples into their weekend dance parties and allow them to hold hands in the pews as any straight couple would.

He encouraged more comprehensive sex education in schools and even premarital counseling for gay couples.

All of this may sound quite commonsensical today. After all, we now have gay-affirming mainline denominations, LGBT churches, gay clergy, a rapidly growing gay Christian movement among evangelicals, and in some states of course, gay marriage.

However, in 1960, particularly from a religious standpoint, Wood was a lone voice calling out in the wilderness—a pioneer for gay rights—who sought to increase understanding, and to advance dialogue between the gay and Christian communities.

On the back flap of the book, Wood is quoted as saying; “Some of my colleagues have suggested that I ought not associate myself openly with this book. But the message needs to be proclaimed, and the time is long past.”

Rev. Wood turned 89 on Monday.

Rev. Robert Wood, born May 21, 1923 in Youngstown, OH, is a recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his combat in World War II, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Oberlin College, and an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. He is a recipient of multiple awards for his relentless activism, including one from the Mattachine Society in 1962. He lived with his spouse, American abstract artist Hugh Coulter, from 1962 until Coulter’s passing in 1989. Wood now resides in a retirement community in New Hampshire.

His collection of papers has just been made available to the public this week at the Congregational Library in Boston.

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