The Gospel of the Gay Ghetto: Liberal Protestantism and the Destigmatization of Homosexuality in St. Louis, 1955–93

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 4:10 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 4 (New Orleans Marriott)
Ian Darnell, University of Illinois at Chicago
Through the second half of the twentieth century in St. Louis and other postindustrial American inner cities, homosexuality shifted from being per se disrespectable to part of the urban mainstream. This paper highlights a dimension of this transformation that has received little attention from historians: the role of liberal Protestant neighborhood churches. In the midst of post-World War II white flight, many of St. Louis’s affluent, all-white Episcopal and Presbyterian churches began to emphasize a Christian imperative to embrace human diversity. In the 1950s and ’60s, some of these congregations became racially integrated and contributed to the development of racially mixed neighborhoods. These urban spaces also became hubs of gay life, and “out” gay men were increasingly welcome in liberal Protestant congregations there. In the 1970s and ’80s, several of these churches provided crucial material and moral support to the city’s fledging gay rights movement and helped to forge connections between gay activists and local political and cultural elites. Drawing on church archives, organizational records, newspaper accounts, and oral histories, “The Gospel of the Gay Ghetto” argues that in both the realm of ideas and the day-to-day work of community-building, liberal Protestant churches played a major part in the destigmatization of homosexuality in inner-city St. Louis.