ROBERT CLEMENT         

THE CHURCH OF THE BELOVED DISCIPLE,

THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

Whether it was providing a safe haven, a community meeting space or paying for advertisement in important gay magazines, there were progressive churches that created a significant impact on the early gay liberation movement. Many of them recognized Apostolic Succession and extended ornate, Roman Catholic ceremonies and sacraments. Only a handful have endured, but, at the time, many were in communication with each other and grew together.

 

In 1970, Robert Clement, who at the time was the head of the Eucharistic Catholic Church, founded the Church of the Beloved Disciple. The Church of the Beloved Disciple was the first “gay church” in New York City. It was not the first church to welcome LGBTQ people, but it was the first church labeled as such with openly gay pastors and an almost exclusively gay congregation. With his Church of the Beloved Disciple, Robert Clement’s most important contribution was his performance of gay marriages. 

“When I founded the Church of the Beloved Disciple, it served as an early community center. Our purpose was to be open to the community. When we were first formed, the Gay Activist Alliance used our church. We didn’t care what your position was, everyone was free to use our church hall for meetings. While there wasn't an awful lot of money running around, we were fortunate because we owned the building.

In 1970, with our clergy and our congregation, I came up with “Holy Union” marriages. The people who had these ceremonies considered themselves, at least before God, married. The New York Post referred to them as gay and mock marriages. It was a turning point in the concept of marriage.

After the first Pride March, we started getting all these requests for these ceremonies, so we had to do something about it. Our ceremonies were based on Episcopalian and Roman Catholic marriages. I thought, well, these people aren’t legally married, so what should we call it? Then we ended up saying, well, gee, if we follow the sacramental aspects of marriage, it's a Holy Union. So, I said, okay, I’ll call them Holy Unions. 

 

Then, of course, New York City got upset. The city clerk, Herman Katz, heard about us because of the publicity we were getting. They sent me a notice that said that they would like to speak to me, and I said, fine, fine. I got my lawyer, who was a straight man, and we decided to go to the Marriage License Bureau in the Municipal Building at City Hall.  

My approach was very simple: I'm a firm believer in the constitution, and, as far as I was concerned, it went right down to the separation of church and state. I said, yes, I’m performing mock marriages.

 

I owned up to what I was doing and said, yes, I’m performing mock marriages. If you're going to try and tell me that the state is going to tell me what I can do in my church, I am going to keep on performing Holy Unions because the state is wrong. The United States Constitution still existed at this point.

 

I brought the Gay Activist Alliance with me to City Hall and they organized one of their famous zaps. We decided to throw an engagement party for two of their members. This didn’t take away from our message but showed how serious we were and how far we were willing to go to defend ourselves.  

 

I remember screaming gay power. There are times when screaming GAY POWER, G-A-Y P-O-W-E-R, is necessary. You stand up for what you believe and if it means shout, go ahead and shout, let the people who hear you be convinced that you believe in what you're saying and what you're doing. The city caved and didn’t pursue us any further. 

In my religious work, I was, when necessary, an activist. I was not going to lie down and let anyone run over me and step on me and step on my work. No way. Nope. I am a gay man, and I feel that I am as much an equal citizen as everyone else. No one should be a second class citizen. Thank you. If it requires shouting and waving a fist, you can be sure I was going to do it because it’s what I would do today.”