GLAAD to honor Williams

  • by Kevin Davis
  • Wednesday June 7, 2006
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The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation veers from its routine function monitoring the mainstream media's fairness in depicting the LGBT community to recognize a longtime local civil rights activist and pastor this weekend.

In addition to honoring Hollywood allies at its San Francisco gala this Saturday night, June 10, the GLAAD Media Awards will pay tribute to the Reverend Cecil Williams's 43-year history of helping empower the gay community.

In 1963, Williams began turning Glide Memorial United Methodist Church into one of the city's largest social service providers, and over the years has seen the church become a diverse, inclusive, and dynamic congregation, with many LGBTs among its thousands of parishioners.

"I told them when I came to Glide I would turn the church upside down," said Williams, who went against the denomination's sometimes-antigay doctrine, though the local bishop took a hands off approach. For years, Glide has been one of the most welcoming churches for LGBTs.

When Williams stepped into the ministry at Glide, he oversaw other gay social service providers leading several fronts in the infant LGBT civil rights movement operating out of Glide's basement. The church continued to provide meeting space to homophile groups, and organized crisis intervention, addiction recovery, mental health services, housing, and employment services for male and transgender prostitutes and teen runaways.

Although he had gay "kin folk" in his hometown of San Angelo, Texas, "I had to learn some things," admitted Williams, 76. "I learned quickly."

"Cecil inherited the team at Glide," said Glide's then-young adult services director, the Reverend Ted McIlvenna, who helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. Police raided the group's 1965 California Hall New Year's Eve ball. The raid was followed by a press conference where Williams and other CRH members excoriated the police.

"The police sex detail said this is not your purview," recalled Williams. "From all indications we were ready for a prophetic movement and so it was not difficult to reach out to people rejected, misused, miscalculated, and misunderstood."

In 1965, Williams and Daughters of Bilitis co-founder Del Martin began operating a 24-hour hotline and sounding board called "Citizen's Alert," that responded to reports of police citing, intimidating, harassing, jailing, and sometimes severely beating gays and lesbians. Glide distributed 80,000 information cards suggesting five steps to take when facing SFPD brutality.

"They would really take out after you," said Williams. "'Who are you? What are you doing? You don't have business on the street.' Just mean, man. They wanted to let people know who had the last word."

A few of Glide's pioneering actions include: performing a 1965 same-sex commitment ceremony; becoming the first U.S. church to hand out condoms after Sunday services; performing memorials and remembrances for those who died from AIDS; and, in 1989, offering free HIV/AIDS services.

"Early in the AIDS epidemic, when churches were slow and reluctant to respond, Glide was sending a message of love and compassion and acceptance, and more than that, providing care and services to people who were dying," said Glide HIV services manager Marcel Miranda.

"I owe a debt of gratitude to Cecil," said Calvin Gipson, director of Glide's daily meals program. "Cecil and Glide are what gave me the confidence to live proudly as a black gay man and one of the reasons I moved on to become president of the Pride Parade, eventually selected as a grand marshal, and my primary motivation for becoming a community activist."

Other honorees at Saturday's GLAAD event include actress Jennifer Tilly, a star in the 1996 Wachowski brothers film noir thriller, Bound , who will be recognized for her support of the LGBT community; and partners Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman, who produced the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning 1985 AIDS-themed TV film, An Early Frost and the Showtime series Queer as Folk .

Scheduled to appear at the event hosted by Will & Grace star Megan Mullally, are Cathy Jeneen Doe, who plays a lesbian in the soap opera Passions ; fashion guru Carson Kressley; comedic actress Jennifer Coolidge; fashion design instructor Nick Verreos; Catwoman star Julie Newmar; and Calpernia Addams, the girlfriend of murdered soldier Barry Winchell; and Andrea James.

Tickets are $275 ($375 includes a VIP after-party) and can be purchased online at www.glaad.org/mediaawards or buy calling (877) 252-7814. The event takes place at the San Francisco Marriott, 55 4th Street. A cocktail reception starts at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 7, and the program.