While names like Harry Hay, Frank Kameny and Larry Kramer are well known for their efforts in championing rights for the LGBT community, one name that is often absent from discussions of the most important gay pioneers — yet equally deserving — is Rev. Robert Wood.
Today, the 91-year-old Wood lives a fairly quiet existence in a retirement community in New Hampshire, although he does get called on to perform many same-sex marriages. More than 50 years ago, Wood spoke out for gay rights both in a controversial book and by fighting for the cause at demonstrations.
It was in 1960 that Wood wrote “Christ and the Homosexual,” the first book in which an author was brave enough to use his real name on the subject. It was groundbreaking in its poignant critique of the church and in its description, support and affirmation of the gay community.
“I had been trying since college to find something to guide me as a young gay man trying to find his way though his sexual orientation and there was nothing,” Wood says during a recent phone interview with the Blade. “You would find a sentence here and there, but nothing complete or helpful in any publication.
“Also, while I was in the military, I had the occasion to go by the barracks holding the men who were going to be court marshaled, and I saw three young men with a Q painted on the back of them, and that made me very angry and afraid,” he says. “As a private, I knew there wasn’t anything I could do except promise myself that someday I would do something about it. That was another reason for writing the book.”
When the book was published, Wood was working as a pastor at a church in Spring Valley, N.Y., and had been there for six years. He gave copies to the leaders of the church beforehand so there would be no surprises.
“Everything was out in the open and they were supportive. My congregation knew me very well,” he says. “In my book, I called for acceptance of same-sex marriages — I was one of the first to do so. It could have blown up at any time but I was very fortunate that is didn’t.”
Wood lived openly with his life partner, Hugh Coulter, for 27 years (Coulter died in 1989) and credits him with helping him be brave in his efforts. The two were even at the first-ever picket line for gay rights, protesting outside the Civil Service Building in 1965 when it was revealed that the head of the Civil Service Department wouldn’t hire homosexuals.
Next June will be the 50th anniversary of the historic occasion and Wood was invited by the Equality Forum to take part in a celebration in Philadelphia to mark the efforts of the 25 brave men and women from that picket line.
Wood was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and always knew he was gay. He went to the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and at the time, the U.S. was about to embark on World War II.
“I enlisted in the Army because they had a program where if you did, you could stay in college until they needed you and it was after the first half of my sophomore year when they decided they couldn’t win the war without me,” he says. “In January of 1943, I went to Texas for training and ended up in North Africa, with the 36th Infantry, among the groups that captured Naples.”
In December of ’43, Wood was wounded in battle and it took him nearly two years to recover. He was awarded a Purple Heart, two Battle Stars, a Combat Infantry Badge and a Bronze Star and was honorably discharged. With the help of the G.I. Bill, Wood graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the Oberlin School of Theology.
In 1951, Wood was ordained in the Congregational Christian denomination in Vermont and served on the Board for Homeland Ministries for the United Church of Christ and on the World Ministries Board.
It’s been more than 50 years since “Christ and the Homosexual” was published and while Wood is pleased to see so much progress has been made, he says he can’t believe being gay is still such an issue in some places.
“What I would like to see is for people to stop using the word ‘straight’ as the opposite of gay because [that implies] gay is crooked, and I think it should be gay or non-gay,” he says. “There are still some states that need to make some changes and it’s slowly coming along and hopefully it will continue to change in the right direction.”
Wood says he has seen a rise of universities offering academic courses on gay history and he’s sometimes contacted by the professors, but that he’s not that impressed with many of them.
“I don’t think a lot of them have a deep understanding of gay history. Some insist gay rights began in Stonewall, but that’s not true, it began in 1951 with Donald Webster Cory’s book (“The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach”) and Harry Hay nine years before,” Wood says. “One professor didn’t know what AIDS stood for. I’m concerned about this younger generation who didn’t live through the early days and never had the feeling of being oppressed and discriminated against. I don’t think they can get that feel from these classes.”
What Wood would like to see is a monument for the thousands of men and women who died in the closet and weren’t allowed to live as “their God-given selves.”
“There are thousands of people who lived unfulfilled lives because of fear,” he says. “Those are the people that should be remembered.”
Wood retired from the ministry after serving 35 years. In 2001, the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania honored him as a gay pioneer and his historical archives are curated by the Congregational Library in Boston.