Rev. Robert Wood, a Protestant minister who participated in gay rights demonstrations in the early 1960s and was the first known American clergy member to call on Christian churches to welcome gay people and recognize same-sex marriage died on Aug. 20 at his home in Concord, N.H. He was 95.
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based LGBT civil rights organization Equality Forum, which oversees LGBT History Month, called Wood a major figure in the early LGBT rights movement’s efforts to build bridges to people of faith.
In a write-up on Wood’s life and career, Lazin said Wood enlisted in the Army shortly after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1941 while he was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
He was severely wounded during the allied invasion of Italy, according to Lazin’s write-up, and later received the Army’s Combat Infantry Badge, the Purple Heart, two battle stars and the Bronze Star.
Through financial assistance from the G.I. Bill, Wood graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in Ohio. In 1951, he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church and for the next 35 years served as a parish pastor in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Lazin’s write up says.
Wood’s advocacy for LGBT people first surfaced in 1956 when a gay supportive article he wrote called “Spiritual Exercises” was published in a gay magazine. In an action unheard of at that time, Wood used his real name in the article’s byline and allowed the magazine to publish a photograph of him wearing his clerical collar, Lazin’s write-up says.
In 1960, Wood wrote a book entitled “Christ and the Homosexual,” which became the first known published work by a clergyman to call on the Christian Church to welcome homosexuals and to recognize same-sex marriage, Lazin’s write-up says. Also in 1960 the Mattachine Society, one of the nation’s first gay rights organizations, honored Wood with its Award of Merit.
In 1962, Wood met Hugh Coulter, an artist, cowboy, and World War II veteran. Lazin’s write-up says the two became a couple and remained together for 27 years until Coulter’s death in 1989.
Wood’s role as an out gay rights activist continued in June 1965, when in clerical collar he marched in a picket line in front of the White House with 26 other gay and lesbian activists in the first gay rights demonstration in the nation’s capital. The event was organized by D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny.
On July 4, 1965 at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Wood was among 40 activists, including Kameny and LGBT movement pioneer Barbara Gittings, in the first annual Reminders demonstration, which linked the then fledgling homosexual rights movement with the nation’s founding principles of democracy.
“Wood participated in the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall each July 4 from 1965 to 1969,” Lazin said in his write-up. “These seminal Annual Reminders, which were the first to call for equality and involved activists from the East Coast, laid the groundwork for Stonewall and the LGBT civil rights movement,” Lazin said.
Wood later appeared in the documentary “Gay Pioneers,” which profiles six early LGBT rights leaders who tell the story of the early LGBT rights movement.
The Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania honored Wood in 2001 with the designation of Gay Pioneer. In 2005 Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, recognized Wood for his groundbreaking efforts to engage gays with the Christian faith at the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Annual Reminders in Philadelphia.
In 2013, Wood performed his last same-sex marriage by joining the couple Robert Paradis and Rejean Blanchette of Concord, N.H. Lazin’s write-up says the couple cared for Rev. Wood for the last five years of his life.
“Rev. Wood courageously stepped forward to begin the discussion of gays being recognized as equally religious and spiritual and being welcomed with equality as children of the Almighty,” Lazin said. “Before it became legal, Rev. Wood performed same-sex marriages. His legacy is monumental.”