Gay History: Council on Religion and the Homosexual

The Council on Religion and the Homosexual was a San Francisco-based organization founded in 1964 for the purpose of joining homosexual activists and religious leaders.

Clockwise from upper right:  Partygoers on their way to the Council on Religion and the Homosexual Mardi Gras Ball at San Francisco’s California Hall under the watchful eyes of the San Francisco police, January 1, 1965. Credit: San Francisco Examiner. Evander Smith photographed by the police outside California Hall (the police photographed everyone entering the building using sequentially numbered cards), January 1, 1965. Credit: Evander Smith—California Hall Papers (GLC 46), LGBTQI Center, San Francisco Public Library. Herb Donaldson photographed by the police outside California Hall, January 1, 1965.  Credit:  Courtesy Herbert Donaldson.

The CRH was formed in 1964 by Glide Memorial Methodist Church, as well as Daughters of Bilitis founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. It included representatives of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ denominations.[1]

In the early 1960s, as social change accelerated across the U.S., progressive clergymen increasingly took to the streets to minister to marginalized persons. The Rev. Ted McIlvenna, who worked for the Glide Urban Center, a private Methodist foundation in downtown San Francisco, witnessed the oppression and violence homosexuals faced, and to improve the situation sought a dialogue between clergy and homosexuals.

With the support of the Methodist church, McIlvenna convened the Mill Valley Conference from May 31 to June 2, 1964, at which sixteen Methodist, Protestant Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and Lutheran clergymen met with thirteen leaders of the homosexual community.

Following the initial meeting, the participants began plans for a new organization that would educate religious communities about gay and lesbian issues as well as enlist religious leaders to advocate for homosexual concerns. In July 1964, the participants, along with several other clergymen and homosexual activists, met and formed the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH), which was incorporated in December of that year. The CRH was the first group in the U.S. to use the word “homosexual” in its name.[2]

1965 Fundraiser

On January 1, 1965, CRH held a costume party at California Hall at 625 Polk Street in San Francisco to raise money for the new organization. When the ministers informed the San Francisco Police Department of their intentions, the SFPD attempted to force the rented hall’s owners to cancel the event.[3] After a further meeting between the ministers and police, which resulted in an agreement not to interfere with the dance, guests arrived to find police snapping pictures of each of them as they entered and left, in a blatant attempt to intimidate.[3]

When police demanded entry into the hall, three CRH-employed lawyers explained to them that under California law, the event was a private party and they could not enter unless they bought tickets. The lawyers were then arrested, as was a ticket-taker, on charges of obstructing an officer.[4]

Seven of the ministers who were in attendance that night held a press conference the following morning, where they described the pre-event negotiations with police and accused them of “intimidation, broken promises and obvious hostility.”[3][4] One minister compared the SFPD to the Gestapo.[4]

When the arrested lawyers came to trial, they were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which saw the lawyers’ arrest as an attempt to “intimidate attorneys who represent unpopular groups.”[3] Charges were dropped before the Defense had presented its case.[3]

The incident and its aftermath are often regarded as the starting point of a more formally organized gay rights movement in San Francisco.[5]

Candidate’s Night

In 1965, CRH held an event where local politicians could be questioned about issues concerning gay and lesbian people, including police intimidation. The event marks the first known instance of “the gay vote” being sought, which led lesbian activist Barbara Gittings to say “It was remarkable. That was something that [gay] people in San Francisco were way ahead of the rest of the country in doing.”[1]


     Licata, Salvatore J.; Robert P. Peterson (1982). Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. Routledge. p. 175. ISBN 0-917724-27-5.

  1. ^ Squatriglia, Chuck; Heredia, Christopher; Writers, Chronicle Staff (2003-09-25). “Donald Stewart Lucas — gay rights pioneer / He helped build foundation for later activists”. SFGate. Retrieved 2019-10-08.
  2. ^ Jump up to: a b c d e D’Emilio, John (1998). Sexual politics, sexual communities: the making of a homosexual minority in the United States, 1940-1970. University of Chicago Press. pp. 193–195. ISBN 0-226-14267-1.
  3. ^ Jump up to: a b c Shilts, Randy (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. St. Martin’s Press. pp. 53–60. ISBN 0-312-56085-0.
  4. ^ Smith, Kristin (November 4, 2011). “Tears for Queers”. The Bold Italic. Archived from the original on August 27, 2017. Retrieved 2017-06-04

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