I sat at the head of a table facing tall stained glass windows composed of multicolored squares of soft color. About a dozen people sat around the table, not talking, the atmosphere tense but expectant.
This was the first of four meetings on the subject, “The Church and AIDS.” We met at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church in January, 1990. My involvement with AIDS care began in January 1986 when a group of men and women met at Southampton College to address what could be done for those who were sick and dying on the East End of Long Island. Mostly gay men. Marijane Meaker attended that initial meeting. A member of the East End Gay Organization, leader of the Ashawagh Hall Writers’ Workshop, and a friend of mine, Marijane was always upfront on the issues. From our discussions, a support group was organized that soon became incorporated into the Long Island Association for AIDS Care (LIAAC). I became a pastoral volunteer for LIAAC.
For one of the four Wednesday meetings at the Bridgehampton Church I invited a man with AIDS to speak. One of the best ways to dispel prejudice and fear was to meet someone with the disease. There was plenty of fear in the earlier days of AIDS. Even at Southampton Hospital, some hospital medical staff would not go into a room with a person who had AIDS, and those who did had to dress as though AIDS were a contagious disease. It isn’t, it’s a communicable disease, and the difference had to be learned, and taught.
Most everyone attending the seminar was a member of one of the Presbyterian churches on the South Fork. One woman named Suzanne was not. I had not met her before. The room was spacious, the seating around the table comfortable. There was the soft light of the stained glass windows.
I opened that first session by introducing myself as a pastoral volunteer for the Long Island Association for AIDS Care, and said something of my work with the Amagansett Church. I asked the others to say why they had come to the seminar. Several said they were curious about the subject and wanted to know more. One man said in a gruff voice, “I don’t know why we’re here. I was told to come by my pastor, but I don’t think we have anything to say about AIDS. It shouldn’t be in the church.”
Suzanne, about 60, face drawn, said, “My son died from AIDS in October. I came here because I read about it in the paper. I haven’t been in a church in 20 years, and if the church has nothing to say about AIDS I’ll leave and won’t be back for another 20 years, if ever.”
Her words certainly cleared the air. The man who had objected said nothing further. Suzanne spoke more of her son Mark, and our conversation continued more personally.
The group returned the following Wednesdays, including the man who had spoken harshly. For one of our meetings as planned, Doug Campbell spoke. He had AIDS. I had met him in the hospital a year earlier with his first bout of pneumonia, but he now looked healthy — full face, dark moustache, and thick brown hair. He had not yet lost weight — taking on the gaunt, haunted look so many men with AIDS developed in those years. In fact Doug had been living with his diagnosis for six years, which was exceptional at the time. He was articulate, had a sense of dark humor — as AIDS patients often did — and answered questions forthrightly.
He said, “I know now that I’m going to die, and I know now a bit what that means. I want to see my daughter grow up. I want to see her get married, to know her at 20, 25. I guess I’m angry about that, that that’s not going to happen.”
We had already talked in our group about how you can’t get AIDS by touching someone with the disease, and the handshakes everyone extended to Doug at the conclusion of our conversation was heartwarming for me to see.
My Amagansett church gave me its blessing to engage in an AIDS ministry, and a few members of the congregation became volunteers as “buddies,” paired with men and women who were ill. Buddies visited those who were infected, ran errands for them or took them shopping, and on occasion went out to lunch. Once a month buddies met with a social worker from LIAAC to discuss what was happening. Mostly what was happening was that men were dying. Not until 1987 was there a drug on the market to help with H.I.V. infection. That was AZT. The two leading causes of death from AIDS in the early years were pneumocystis pneumonia and Karposi’s carcinoma. There was hardly a separate diagnosis of H.I.V. because the progression to AIDS was quick.
In August 1986 I received a phone call from Chris Miller of Amagansett, who said his son Dale had just died from AIDS-related pneumonia. Dale, age 27, had worked at the Palm, a restaurant in East Hampton. His father asked if I would take Dale’s funeral, making it clear he and his wife Yvette wanted to be open about AIDS. The candor was unusual in 1986. Dale’s obituary in The Star on August 14 that year was the first to speak of AIDS as a cause of death. In addition to the parents’ forthrightness, I was moved at the funeral service to see so many from church and the business community together with members of the gay and lesbian community. Not separated or isolated.
I saw dozens of men — mostly men, a few women — in a 10-year period from 1986 to 1996, when a cocktail of drugs became available to slow the progression of the disease. Carl was one of those I visited, to speak of one at random. I knew his sister Mary Ellen, who lived in Bridgehampton. One day as he lay dying at home, Mary Ellen got up onto the bed with him and held him. He was curled up, barely responsive. He had a shock of red hair as though on fire, and he was burning, with fever. She motioned me to get onto the bed with them, and I did, and we just held one another, his breathing measured and deep. I said a few words in prayer.
Because my Amagansett church had given me permission to do this work, I organized a monthly healing service at the church beginning in November 1989. Susan Knobel, one of the church officers, helped get this going. I had no idea if anyone would attend and was a bit nervous about it because I had never led a healing service — there was no order for it in the Presbyterian Church at the time. But right from the start a few gay men and women came, some of whom were ill. And what delighted me was that a few from my congregation also attended — mostly older women who were among the stalwarts of the church. Indeed among them were the same ladies I had had lunch with some years before, who after lunch had taken me to “the boys’ beach.”
I thought of Catholic churches I had attended, one in Manhattan: Our Lady of Guadalupe on 14th St., which had healing services for people with AIDS. In addition to the visiting priest, Fr. Bill McNichols S.J., and those who were ill, it was the old ladies who sat there saying their Rosary who could be counted on to keep things going. In the next Dark Ages it won’t be the Vatican that keeps faith going, it will be those old ladies praying their Rosaries.
Many men who were sick had left the church of their upbringing because of the church’s hostility about homosexuality. For some, when they became ill, the religious questions returned along with the guilt. Did I get AIDS because I’m bad?
I saw that religious hostility when in 1987 and 1988 I attended hearings at the Suffolk County Legislature to broaden the definition of civil protection in the county’s Human Rights Law. The proposal was to change the wording to include “without regard to sexual orientation.” I went to the hearings wearing my clerical collar and spoke in support, joined by Sandy Rapp of the East End Gay Organization. Men and women from the religious right, in particular Pat Robertson’s organization, had placards quoting scripture, or with such loving words as “God Hates Homosexuals.” So violent were they in their attitude, the president of the legislature had them take their placards outside the room. After the hearing as I was leaving, some of those from the right literally circled me and pointed their fingers, saying, “Shame, shame.”
The legislation to include “without regard to sexual orientation” passed.
Concurrently with these events, at the request of two gay men attending the Amagansett church, I organized a gay men’s spirituality group. I did this quietly on the side, not through the church itself or asking permission from the church officers. At least half a dozen of us met as a group, sometimes a few more, first meeting at the manse. I had articles or books to discuss or recommend. Then others of the men hosted the monthly meetings and introduced subjects to discuss. Regardless of church affiliation, or no affiliation, the desire was to integrate a sense of spirit with our sexuality: to be affirmed spiritually as gay men. We continued meeting up until my retirement.
I had gone back and forth about whether I should be out to the church. Our Presbyterian Church passed the rule in 1978 that no “self-affirming, practicing homosexual” could be ordained a minister or church officer, and the rule became even more restrictive when proscriptive language was incorporated into the church’s constitution.
So what was I to do as a gay minister in the church? I could remain in the closet and live with the tension of that duplicity, appearing to be straight. I could come out and risk my position. Or I could come out and leave the church. I wanted the matter to be resolved for the sake of my own health. After all, how could I lead healing services, anointing men and women with oil and prayer, if I wasn’t healed myself?
I was elected by my Presbytery of Long Island to attend our 1989 Presbyterian General Assembly, the national legislative body of the church. The meeting in June was in Philadelphia. Each of us from across the country served on one of the standing committees of the Assembly, and we were selected by a computer draw of names. By chance I landed on the committee to examine yet again the issue of ordination of gay and lesbian men and women to be ministers or officers of the church. My assignment on that committee by chance in a computer draw could be construed also as providential. Or as Carl Jung the psychologist put it, “meaningful coincidence.” Or two sides of the same coin.
I was one of about 20 men and women on that committee. We met in a conference room around a large table, and another 20 to 30 sat behind us as observers. That is, our meetings and deliberations were open. It was the committee’s task to consider the issue of gay ordination and recommend any change of policy to the Assembly. The committee could recommend rescinding the language, or it could reaffirm it.
We met several times. The conversation was abstract. We spoke of gay and lesbian ordination as an issue. Not about people. The conversation went on and on about “them.” What was best for them? What was best for the church? Opinion on the committee seemed to be divided about 50/50. Everyone was polite, but there was no real engagement with a policy that hurt actual people, keeping men and women from ordination when they felt called to it by God.
For me, the tension kept building, and in one of our conversations I burst out, saying, “I am a gay man, and I am ordained, so when you’re talking about ‘them’ you’re talking about me.”
The room was stunned into silence. I was stunned myself, not having planned that. The effect was that the conversation about the issue became a conversation about people. The tone completely changed. So did opinion, and in the end the committee recommended unanimously to the General Assembly that the church’s prohibitive language be rescinded.
Following the meeting where I came out, two men on the committee came up to me and each said, one with tears, “Thank you.” News that I had come out ran through the corridors and onto the Assembly floor. On the night before the Assembly was to adjourn the following noon, a man — not from our committee — got up on his own and moved to rescind the prohibitive language. The next stunner was that the Assembly, about 600 people, voted the motion through. It was completely unexpected. There was much wild applause, cheering, jumping up and down, and hugs from those of us in favor of the change.
The celebration was short-lived. Overnight the conservative guns in the church caucused and got someone to bring the vote up for reconsideration. Ministers of large conservative churches effectively played the money card, saying they would withdraw from the denomination if the vote from the evening before remained. It worked, as it had before — and would again and again until the final repeal came by vote of the ecclesiastical units called presbyteries in 2011. I said conversationally at the time and have said many times since, of those “big steeple” ministers threatening to leave, taking their churches and money with them: there’s the door.
For me personally following that 1989 General Assembly, another door was open.
I was now out to the church. At age 55, it had been a long time coming.
The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church, and in retirement he has been active in the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor. A member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop for 30 years, he has previously been published in The Star.