This online historical exhibit chronicles the experiences of LGBTQ+ people with religion in Central Pennsylvania, particularly in places like Harrisburg, Carlisle, Lancaster, York, and other nearby cities. Today, 73% of adults in Pennsylvania are Christian (Pew Research Center) and 81% are white (U.S. Census Bureau), so most of the experiences discussed are from this perspective. For the majority of people interviewed for the LGBT History Project, religion was an important influence in their lives. This exhibit aims to examine how LGBTQ+ people in Central PA have been influenced by religion and how they have reconciled, or perhaps have not reconciled, their identity and their faith. This exhibit was created for the LGBT Center Central PA History Project largely using materials from the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
Image: Aaron Spicher, a member of the Catholic organization Dignity/Central PA, holding a Dignity banner at the 1976 Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade
Some expressed in their oral histories that they did not see a conflict in their religious upbringing and their sexual orientation. For instance, Steven Leshner said he “never really found a conflict” between being gay and being Jewish. Steve Glassman attributed his parents’ progressive thinking to being Jewish, saying it gave them “a sense of empathy for other marginalized and discriminated against groups and also a sense of commitment to social responsibility.”
STEVE GLASSMAN, 2018
Early Religious Experiences Part 1
Early Religious Experiences Part 2
Many others who grew up in Christian churches encountered a “pray the gay away” ideology, struggling for years to change their sexual orientation, praying to God to “solve this problem,” as Sam Deetz explained. Brent Weaver joined ex-gay ministries, until realizing that “not one of [the people in them] ever went from being gay to straight.” Others simply encountered anti-gay information in their churches, such as Joy Verner, who found a book in her church’s library stating that LGBTQ+ individuals burn in hell, teaching her that homosexuality was “definitely bad and definitely not an option.”
SAM DEETZ, 2013
In their stories of coming out to religious family, many people interviewed expressed varying levels of acceptance from family, which often changed over time. Some experienced rejection from family members, were told they would go to hell and were cut off. Many experienced confusion, assertions of “love the sinner but hate the sin,” and family who did not outright reject them but refused to talk about it. Others experienced tolerance which over time turned to acceptance and even advocacy, such as Phil Wenger, who initially experienced tolerance from his father, a Mennonite pastor. Ultimately his father became a “soldier for gay weddings” within the Mennonite church.
Coming Out to Religious Family Part 1
Coming Out to Religious Family Part 2
Coming Out to Religious Family Part 3
Coming Out to Religious Family Part 4
– MARLENE KANUCK, 2013
Many of the earliest LGBTQ+ groups in Central PA were religiously affiliated, such as the Catholic organization Dignity/Central PA, which was founded in 1975 by Jerry Brennan. Two Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) were started in the Central PA area, one in Harrisburg started by Gary Norton in 1980 and one in Lancaster started by Arthur Runyan in 1981. There was also the Friends Lesbian and Gay Concerns, which advocated for LGBTQ+ people within the Quaker community. Martin Rock founded the Brethren and Mennonite Council for Gay Concerns in 1976 to do the same within Mennonite and Church of the Brethren communities.
Dignity Brochure, circa 1980
Friends of Lesbian and Gay Concerns Newsletter, Summer 1979
– STEVEN LESHNER, SPEAKING ABOUT DIGNITY/CENTRAL PA, 2017
Groups like Dignity and MCC organized liturgies and masses. They also hosted speakers on topics related to religion and being gay, such as Fr. John McNeil, who wrote a book about the church and sexual identity. Both groups included many people who were not Christian, and Dignity held an annual Passover Seder. MCC Lancaster and Harrisburg both struggled in their early years with the impact of AIDS on their gay male clergy. Eventually, Rev. Mary Merriman became pastor of MCC Vision of Hope (Lancaster, PA) in 1987 and Rev. Eva O’Diam became pastor of MCC of the Spirit (Harrisburg, PA) in 1991.
A March 19, 1996 article in the York Daily Record about a panel discussion on sexuality and spirituality at the Unitarian Society of York
Metropolitan Community Church
While Dignity, MCC, and other groups were religiously affiliated, they were also important social spaces. They hosted events such as potlucks, discussions, summer picnics at Pine Grove Furnace, and other events throughout the year. Dignity had a volleyball team for many years. Both groups organized bus trips to Gay Pride parades in nearby cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and DC. Both published monthly newsletters informing members of events and masses. Jerry Brennan would write something for every issue of the Keystone, Dignity’s newsletter. Arthur Runyan did the same for Freedom, the combined newsletter of MCC Lancaster and Harrisburg, until he died of AIDS in 1984. Father Sawdy often contributed a “Reflections” column to Dignity’s Keystone. These newsletters also included articles, poems, and stories from members of both local and national chapters of Dignity and MCC. Dignity also published seasonal calendars of events, like the Springtime with Dignity issue to the right.
Steven Leshner and Richard Hause at DC Pride
While these groups provided religious and social spaces, they were also political. Jerry Brennan, the founder of Dignity/Central PA, involved the group in advocacy for LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination protections. Steven Leshner said “it was maybe only within a few weeks of my being involved that John and […] Jerry [and I], went to the Capitol to lobby for gay rights.”