Friday, January 10, 2014

Remembering Otis Charles, first mainstream bishop to come out as gay

Bishop Otis Charles listens in 1994 as Kittredge Cherry speaks at Hands Around the God-Box, a prayer demonstration to end homophobia in the church. Charles stands in the front row wearing a purple clergy shirt.

Gay Episcopal bishop Otis Charles, right, stands with MCC founder Troy Perry at Hands Around the God-Box in New York City, June 1994. (detail from photo above)

Episcopal bishop Otis Charles, the first mainstream Christian bishop to come out as gay, died on December 26 at age 87.

I actually met Bishop Charles in person in June 1994, the year after he retired and came out publicly as gay. We met when he attended Hands Around the God-Box, a prayer demonstration that I organized at the National Council of Churches’ headquarters in New York.

The photo above shows me speaking at Hands Around the God-Box to a crowd that includes Otis Charles standing in the front row next to Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Churches. It was part of Stonewall 25, a LGBT pride festival celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

At the time Bishop Charles struck me as being rather dazed and confused by the unfamiliar experience of a LGBT pride celebration and his new role as our public advocate.  It was unfamiliar territory. He had been a closeted Episcopal priest since his ordination in 1951. Then in 1993 he retired, came out publicly as gay, and divorced Elvira, his wife of 42 years. He seemed to be looking for guidance from Troy, who founded MCC as a LGBT-affirming denomination in 1968, even before Stonewall.

During his career Charles served as bishop of Utah for 15 years and then president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Simply by coming out in 1993 Charles moved the public debate on LGBT rights forward. He went on to run Oasis/California, the Episcopal LGBT ministry in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Retaining his bishop's rank after retirement, he advocated for LGBT rights as a member of the Episcopal church’s House of Bishops. He was even arrested and led away in handcuffs at the 1999 Episcopal convention as part of a protest against the church’s mistreatment of LGBT people.

“I was ashamed of myself for remaining silent when the church was involved in an acrimonious debate about the whole question of gay people in the life of the church. I couldn't live with that any longer,” he said in a 2004 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle after a church wedding with his husband Felipe Sanchez-Paris, a retired professor and political organizer.

They married again in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legalized in California. The couple appears together in the film “Love Free or Die,” a 2012 documentary about another gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson. Sanchez-Paris died only six months ago on July 30, 2013.

Bishop Otis Charles became a LGBT-rights trailblazer late in life and found love even later. May he join the LGBT saints who advocate for us on the heavenly side.

Related links:

Bishop Otis Charles - gay rights advocate - dies (

Requiescat in Pace: The Right Rev. Edgar Otis Charles (Walking with Integrity)

Bishop Otis Charles and the Bridge to Somewhere by Susan Russell (Huffington Post)

Profile of Right Rev. Otis Charles (LGBT Religious Archives Network)

THE BATTLE OVER SAME-SEX MARRIAGE / Gay bishop proves it's never too late to fall in love / With grandson in attendance, 78-year-old cleric marries same-sex partner (San Francisco Chronicle, April 29, 2004)

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

1 comment:

Trudie said...

Lovely piece, Kitt, made special by your personal sharing.