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Higher Calling: Trinity Episcopal and the Fight for Gay Rights 

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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."

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