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Higher Calling: Trinity Episcopal and the Fight for Gay Rights 

On a hot, loud night in September 2017, a small band of people protesting police abuse retreated from the tension of the past twelve hours and filed through the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church.

An armored vehicle with helmeted St. Louis cops rolled past outside on Washington Boulevard. Dozens of other officers in riot gear were still advancing on foot a few blocks south on Euclid Avenue, occasionally firing rounds of pepper balls that burst as they hit buildings or the random protester, delivering a pop of an irritant that burns the eyes.

The activists in the church were protesting the acquittal of ex-cop Jason Stockley in the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, and they would return to the street soon, but the parish hall offered a brief, welcome oasis.

"We had water and snacks," recalls Trinity's young pastor, the Rev. Jon Stratton, "and anti-tear gas supplies."

For decades, the old gray stone church on the northern edge of the Central West End has not only served its congregation, but has also frequently provided a refuge for revolutionaries, outcasts and political dissidents. Countless organizations, religious and decidedly not, that were not welcome anywhere else have held meetings and programs in the parish hall. Over the years, a succession of progressive priests and lay leadership have made it the church's mission to welcome the stranger and attend to the community beyond Trinity's walls.

That has been especially true when it comes to matters of social justice and civil rights. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Trinity's long-running contribution to the gay rights movement. In June, the diocese's first openly gay bishop will visit the church to celebrate its dedication as the first site in Missouri and one of fewer than twenty in the United States to be added to the National Register of Historic Places based on its importance in LGBTQ history.

It's a history that rarely gets any attention outside of a small number of academics and historians who bother to look beyond New York City or San Francisco, Stonewall or Harvey Milk when telling the story of gay rights in the United States. But St. Louis, and especially Trinity, proves the Midwest played a crucial role, says Dr. Katie Batza, an associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, who helped write the application for the national register. And telling that story lets people who feel invisible in the country's middle see their hometowns in a different way.

"They don't have to move to New York or San Francisco to be seen," Batza says. "You can just walk down the street."

Father Jon Stratton in 2017 with people protesting police abuse in St. Louis. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Father Jon Stratton in 2017 with people protesting police abuse in St. Louis.

As far back as the 1950s and maybe even earlier, Trinity was following a path of inclusion that would have been unthinkable in other mainstream religions. Church historians describe "house blessings," an understated precursor to same-sex civil unions and, eventually, marriages.

The church, located a block south of Delmar Boulevard on North Euclid Avenue, sat in the midst of a neighborhood in flux. Wealthy white people were selling their homes and fleeing to the suburbs as less-affluent black people moved into the grand old homes, which were being subdivided into apartments.

"Faced with plummeting attendance and uncertain prospects, Trinity's remaining members and the leadership of the local Episcopal diocese considered disbanding the congregation," wrote Ian Darnell, a curatorial assistant at the Missouri History Museum who has extensively studied St. Louis' LGBTQ history and Trinity's role during the period. "They chose, however, not only to keep Trinity in operation, but also to reaffirm its identity as a 'neighborhood parish.'"

That meant reaching out to the newcomers in the Central West End. Within a decade, the church had integrated significantly — a third of the congregation was black. That welcoming attitude soon included gay members as well. Trinity was in what was known as St. Louis' "gay ghetto," a vaguely defined swath of central St. Louis that had become a cultural hub, with gay bars and coffee shops. By the late 1960s, Sunday services were filled with blacks and whites, gay parishioners and straight ones, worshipping shoulder to shoulder.

Longtime parishioner Jym Andris, 81, says that legacy of inclusion impressed him when he and his then-partner joined later. Other churches "sorted people into two piles — you were us, or you were them," but he could see Trinity was different from the first service he attended.

"They were all worshipping side by side," Andris says, choking up at the memory, "and they didn't really seem interested in how different you were."

The inclusion of black and LGBTQ people began growing organically as a result of the neighborhood's shifting demographics, but a wild night in 1969 pushed Trinity further into the gay rights movement. Halloween had become one of the premier party nights for gay men in the Metro area, the costumed tradition lending itself naturally to raucous drag balls in the gay ghetto. That year, there were big celebrations in the city and across the river in East St. Louis.

Shortly after midnight, a group of nine men were leaving a gay bar on Olive Street when police arrested them.

According to the police report, officers were responding to reports of a fight among the group. A detective sergeant claimed they were arguing over boyfriends and shoving one another when he and four officers from the department's vice division arrived.

"At this time the Officers through their own observations thought that several of the subjects were possibly males dressed as females," the sergeant wrote in his report.

Until the 1980s, St. Louis had a law against "masquerading" — wearing clothing of the opposite sex in public. The law was written in the 1800s for reasons that slipped away over time, but police had begun wielding it in the arrests of gay men. That the nine were stopped at the end of Halloween night when untold thousands of costumed people — presumably a number of them in clothes that tweaked gender norms — had been partying throughout the city didn't seem to count as a defense. Technically, Halloween was over; it was 12:25 a.m.

Police hauled them all to the jail, fingerprinted them and booked them into cells. As proof of the men's criminal behavior, the sergeant catalogued their outfits:

#1. [Name redacted] Light brown female wig, purple mini skirt, female type shoes, and white bell bottom pants

#2. [Name redacted] Blonde female wig, purple dress, and silver colored nylon hose, silver high heeled ladies shoes

#3. [Name redacted] Blonde ladies wig, multi colored ladies blouse, black mini skirt, nylon hose, panty hose, black ladies high heeled shoes

#4 [Name redacted] Blonde ladies wig, white ladies blouse, black sweater, black ladies skirt, nylon hose, ladies girdle, and black ladies high heeled shoes

#5 [Name redacted] Blonde ladies wig, ladies full length green dress, yellow nylon hose, brown shoes

#6 [Name redacted] Brown ladies wig, silver ladies mini dress with a fur ring around the bottom, ladies black nylon hose, ladies black high heeled shoes, wearing a ladies necklace around his neck

#7 [Name redacted] Blonde ladies wig, ladies ankle length white evening gown type dress, ladies black nylon hose, ladies high heeled shoes

#8 [Name redacted] Black ladies wig, ladies full length evening gown blue in color, ladies full length gloves white, ladies black nylon hose, ladies white high heeled shoes

#9 [Name redacted] Blonde ladies wig, ladies white fur stole, ladies full length green evening gown, ladies black nylon hose, ladies white high heeled shoes

Most of the nine refused to speak to police after they were taken into custody. But at least one answered a few questions. According to the report, a detective asked him about that night and whether he and the others were gay, even though the masquerading ordinance said nothing about sexual preference.

"I have been going to the places in that block of Olive," the 24-year-old reportedly said, "because on Halloween we get to dress like women, which I love to dress like, and that in this part of the city all the fellows are gay and we can have fun without the police bothering us."

The Rev. Bill Chapman served at Trinity for two dozen years. - COURTESY ELLIE CHAPMAN
  • COURTESY ELLIE CHAPMAN
  • The Rev. Bill Chapman served at Trinity for two dozen years.

Raids on gay bars and arrests were nothing new in St. Louis, but the response this time was unlike any police had seen.

A few months earlier in 1969, the city's first gay rights group, the Mandrake Society, had formed with eight people in a small apartment in the Central West End. Noted sociologist and author Laud Humphreys was among the organizers, and he wrote about the early days as the group tried to recruit more members by handing out mimeographed flyers at gay bars throughout the Metro area. Slowly the group began to build, holding large picnics for supporters and potential members in public parks.

"September's picnic drew 50 men and women, some of them in drag," Humphreys wrote in his 1972 book Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation. "One middle-aged couple spread linens and a sterling service, lit candles, and sipped French wine. A gang of motorcyclists, along with a few men in the public park made remarks and posed some threat, but the picnic was not disrupted."

As the membership increased, Trinity opened its parish hall to Mandrake's monthly nighttime meetings. The telephone number the group printed on its flyers and newsletters went to Humphreys' and his wife's home.

"By October, we were beginning to receive calls from distressed homosexuals, generally in need of legal advice or someone to talk to," he wrote.

And then came the Halloween arrests. Humphreys was awakened by an early morning phone call alerting him to the nine arrests in St. Louis and about a dozen in East St. Louis. Mandrake members had already created a phone tree to spread news in emergencies, and they immediately began dialing that morning.

Humphreys headed to the East Side but learned when he arrived that everyone arrested there had already been released without charges. St. Louis, however, was different. City police were determined to hold all nine on the masquerading charges. In the following hours, Humphreys and about two dozen gay activists and supporters arrived at the station to protest the arrests. Stunned parents came for some of the men, and Mandrake members and other allies were able to raise bail money for others. It took until after 8 a.m., but police finally released the rumpled partygoers to a crowd of cheering supporters.

Despite what police wrote in their report about responding to a fight, Humphreys wrote that he interviewed the men individually afterward and all gave a consistent version of events that conflicted with the official police narrative. They said officers were waiting for them as they left a gay bar and targeted them for arrest. And they claimed cops manhandled them in the police van and mocked them during their hours in custody, parading fellow officers and other prisoners past their cells to gawk.

"Now I know how the monkeys feel at the zoo," one of the nine later told Humphreys.

It was just months after a raid on a gay bar in New York City sparked the Stonewall riots. In St. Louis, the Halloween arrests would similarly become a rallying cry in the gay rights movement.

Forty-five years later, in 2014, one of the men arrested, salon owner Gregory Smith, recounted the episode in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. The group of friends had just left a bar called the Onyx Room on Olive Street and were walking toward the gay-friendly Golden Gate coffeehouse when police swooped in to arrest them. Smith remembers singing Gypsy show tunes in the jail cell, until police made it clear that he was in some serious trouble. And he remembers finally walking out of jail that morning.

"So I get to the processing desk to leave, and the guy says to me, 'I want you to take that wig off and walk out of here like a man,'" Smith told the radio station. "I said, 'I don't think so. I'm in a purple dress and gold heels.' I said, 'I'm going to walk out the way I came in.'"

A painting in Trinity’s incorporates the images of actual parishioners around the coffin of the Rev. Charles Bedwick, who died of AIDS. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • A painting in Trinity’s incorporates the images of actual parishioners around the coffin of the Rev. Charles Bedwick, who died of AIDS.

Father Bill Chapman arrived at Trinity a few months before the Halloween arrests.

He and his wife, Ellie, bought a big, old house for $24,000 in a run-down block of Westminster Place, not far from the church.

"This place was in terrible shape," Ellie Chapman says. "We loved it."

At first, they were simply parishioners at Trinity. Bill Chapman had run a ministry in the low farmlands of the Bootheel, and he and his wife had moved to St. Louis in search of better schools for their children. He initially worked on housing issues for the Missouri diocese here but was soon hired by Trinity as an associate priest. He eventually became its rector, staying for more than twenty years until his retirement in 1993.

Square-jawed with a head of thick, dark hair, Chapman had been born in Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at age seventeen. He flew as a pilot in World War II and maintained a certain steeliness even after he moved to the United States and became a pastor. He often pushed Trinity forward in support of issues he considered moral imperatives, such as backing same-sex marriage, which put him at odds with bishops and the Episcopal Church at large.

"Bill was fighting the battles," Ellie Chapman says. "I won't say they were real battles — he did things that didn't make him popular, but that didn't bother him much. He had pretty thick skin."

When AIDS hit St. Louis in the 1980s, Trinity's support for the LGBTQ community quickly drew it into the crisis. As the church had done in the 1960s and 1970s, it offered space to fledgling gay rights groups. But its involvement deepened as its own parishioners contracted the disease.

"It was a really sad time," Ellie Chapman says.

Fear of the illness, coupled with no small amount of homophobia, had led to widespread ostracization of people with HIV and AIDS. Trinity, however, continued to care for its sick congregants — at least four of whom died of the disease. It also became a refuge for people from outside the parish, including people from other churches, who were forced to leave their congregations when they were discovered to have HIV or AIDS.

"When people came with that illness, they were given as much mercy as the congregation could and help to live their lives," says Andris, who joined Trinity in the mid-1980s, near the time the first cases were reported in St. Louis. "Bill Chapman didn't have the view that gay men with AIDS somehow brought it on themselves. Instead, he had the view that they had a disease and needed help."

One of the people who showed up at Trinity during that time was the Rev. Charles Bewick, a British-born Episcopalian pastor who was forced out of his church when he contracted HIV. Trinity welcomed him as an assistant pastor and tended to him as he developed AIDS, grew sicker and died in 1989.

Congregants marched in the Pride Parade in his honor, and to this day there is a painting in the church's entryway that is a remembrance of Bewick. It's a depiction of the holy family in which the figures are modeled after Trinity parishioners. In the foreground is a coffin painted with the red St. George's cross adopted by England.

Chapman spoke at public forums about AIDS and prodded St. Louis media to cover the crisis with greater sensitivity and less fear-mongering homophobia, wrote Batza, the University of Kansas associate professor. The epidemic never hit St. Louis as hard as it did larger cities with bigger gay populations. But Batza says that also meant there were fewer services available to those who did fall victim to the disease.

That extended even into death. Ellie Chapman says finding a funeral home to handle the burials was difficult. "There was only one in St. Louis that did AIDS burials," she says. "They would always call Bill to do the funeral."

It was not a popular thing to do, fear of the disease being what it was at the time. But Ellie Chapman says her husband considered the parish as wider than the physical church, more like a neighborhood.

"Bill's idea was that if you have a parish, then you minister to whatever goes on in your parish," she says. "That's your territory."

Trinity Episcopal Church will be added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the gay rights movement. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Trinity Episcopal Church will be added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the gay rights movement.

Father Chapman was a heavy smoker for years and died of emphysema in 1998 at age 74.

Ellie Chapman, who taught writing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, remains a devoted member of Trinity. At 92, she still works a weekly shift at the church's food pantry. She has seen a number of priests carry on Trinity's work since her husband's death, and she is impressed by the Rev. Jon Stratton, the current rector.

"In some ways, he is like a young Bill Chapman," she says. "His sermons are, in a lot of ways, revolutionary. I think his heart is in it the same way Bill's was."

The 35-year-old Stratton was hired five years ago after serving as the director of an Episcopalian service corps in St. Louis. On a recent morning, he arrives at the church by bike, despite frigid temperatures, and lights a candle in his wood-paneled office.

"We have kind of a sewage backup problem, so that helps," he says, apologetically.

He grew up in the Pentecostal church in Southern Illinois, and his father was an evangelist and pastor. Although Stratton came to disagree with the conservative beliefs, there are lessons that he carries forward.

"I was always taught that your Christianity wasn't just something you did on Sunday mornings," he says.

That ethos has pushed him into the streets to advocate for equality and to support protests against killings by police in Ferguson and the city of St. Louis. Others from the church often join him, and for those who can't, he believes it is important that he goes to bear witness.

"The people of Trinity realize that Jesus calls us to make our beliefs real in the world," he says.

In many ways, the church has changed significantly since Father Chapman arrived in St. Louis. The Central West End is once again among the city's most popular and expensive places to live, eat and shop. As the neighborhood's demographics have changed, Trinity's racial diversity has waned. It is now about 85 percent white, compared with the 1960s, when about a third of the congregation was black.

The issues of the day have also changed: The masquerading ordinance that police used to justify the 1969 Halloween arrests was finally killed in the late 1980s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage is a right. Chapman used to privately conduct unions for gay and lesbian couples in his office; now marriage is the law of the land.

Even the Mandrake Society, the groundbreaking gay rights organization, has faded away. Now, Trinity opens its parish hall to weekly meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Still, Trinity's practice of reaching out to the surrounding neighborhood remains. It's still the church's parish, its territory.

"The church has changed, but this kind of ecumenical outreach ... it seems like it's a continuing thread," says Andris, the longtime parishioner.

Stratton says there is still a lot of work to do on gay rights, but Trinity also focuses on issues of racial and economic inequality. Delmar Boulevard, the unofficial but stubborn border between white and black St. Louis, is a block north with all the city's glaring failures it represents. Stratton points to the "institutional poverty, institutional racism" on display just outside the church's doors.

"We believe Jesus' presence is in the people we meet on the street," he says.

For all of Trinity's history with political activism and revolutionary commitment to human rights, it remains a small and, in many ways, typical neighborhood church. There are potluck dinners and Sunday school. All the practiced routines of the liturgy have been largely unchanged for more than a century.

When Jym Andris and Stephen Nichols moved nearby in the mid-1980s, they had been a couple for about a year. One day, they went for a walk near their new home to find a church. They were not looking for a gay church or an activist church, just some place where they seemed to fit. The people they met at Trinity seemed warm and welcoming.

Andris had not grown up with the structure of an Anglo-Catholic church service, and he soon found comfort in the order and traditions, knowing that they connected the broader church across the world.

"I'm kind of a traditional person, really," Andris says.

He had kept his homosexuality as a dark secret into early adulthood and long assumed he would never be able to get married and settle down with a person he loved. But that began to change when he started dating Nichols. As they grew closer, they began to talk to Father Chapman about the possibility of getting married. The larger Episcopal Church still did not allow it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the topic remained controversial with some of Trinity's members. One parishioner wrote Chapman a letter in 1987, worried that same-sex unions would induce straight congregants to "leave in droves" and that the church's blessing would be "license for any kind of sexual behavior," according to church historians.

Chapman, however, gradually moved forward. He had already been performing private unions in his office, but in 1991 he decided to grant a lesbian couple's request for a ceremony in the open church. That is what Andris and Nichols wanted as well.

"It was a controversial topic," Andris says.

He remembers a fellow Trinity member asking why he and Nichols couldn't just have a "holy union" instead of a wedding.

"Well," Andris replied, "when I got down on my knees and proposed to Stephen, I didn't say, 'Will you holy union me?' I said, 'Will you marry me?'"

Legally, it would be two more decades before same-sex marriage was allowed in Missouri, but Andris and Nichols had their ceremony. On May 15, 1993, the two stood in front of 135 of their friends and family, holding hands as they exchanged vows at Trinity.

"It was pretty much just a family-oriented affair in the church," Andris says. "I never thought growing up I could have such a thing."

Trinity Episcopal Church will install a plaque recognizing its addition to the National Register of Historic Places during a formal ceremony June 13 at the church, 600 N. Euclid Ave. For more information, go to www.trinitycwe.org.

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