Longtime LGBT allies pen memoir

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday February 20, 2013
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In a just published, jointly written memoir, the Reverend Cecil Williams and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, recall their groundbreaking work at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, including early fights for LGBT rights.

The couple's new book, Beyond the Possible (HarperOne, $26.99), traces Williams's arrival in San Francisco and the work the two did revitalizing Glide, transforming it into a well-known church active in social justice work.

For 50 years, Williams has presided over Glide. Located in the blighted, crime ridden Tenderloin district, Glide was, in 1963, a dying congregation.

Williams changed that. As an African American native of San Angelo, Texas, Williams knew the sting of bigotry all too well. In 1955, he was one of the first five black graduates of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Quite active in the civil rights movement, he became Glide's pastor in 1963.

Williams didn't need the Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966 or the more famous Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 to spring into action. Though he's heterosexual, he joined forces with Daughters of Bilitis co-founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in 1964. Together they co-founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which sought to lift the church's veil of exclusion toward LGBT people. It also marked the beginning of gay coalition-building that Harvey Milk would take up years later when he campaigned for supervisor and won in 1977.

That was the beginning of a long journey. Glide was a place where gender variant people could come for counseling and support before the word transgender had even come into popular usage. The doors at Glide were open to all. Hippies and bikers, people of all races, ages, genders, and orientations could come to Glide for spiritual guidance. All were embraced. The homeless were fed. The rights of all were not only respected, but fought for.

Through it all, Williams was harshly condemned and criticized by the conservative wing of the Methodist church. Undaunted, he stood his ground, fought for what he knew to be right, and responded to his critics with eloquence and love.

The book begins with an eye-opening forward by author Dave Eggers. "Too often," Eggers writes, "what is left after everyone has argued about whether more Asian students should be allowed in this school or whether or not there are enough African Americans on that advisory committee is nothing. No results. Lots of talk, nothing achieved. Lots of identity exploration, lots of one-upsmanship about who is most progressive or most radical, but in the end, no actual progress."

"It's a courageous statement," Mirikitani said in an interview that she and Williams gave to the Bay Area Reporter . "It's pretty daring. It's the truth. We're not caught up in that argument. We try to get the partners to the table. We're here to help people."

"It's one of the weaknesses we've had," said Williams. "We have to admit to it and try to change it."

Change has been a big part of their life's work. They referred to the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president, and also to the disrespect accorded to him from the conservatives. They were particularly disturbed by the image of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) pointing in the president's face while she admonished him on an airport tarmac. A photograph of that incident was widely circulated last year.

"It's a strong metaphor for where race relations are in the USA," observed Mirikitani. "President Obama has had a contentious presidency."

"Governor Brewer was trying to diminish President Obama," said Williams. "She was telling him 'you are not important, your positions are not important.'"

The couple said they worried about Obama's re-election last year.

"This past election was a little too close for comfort," Mirikitani said. "There's a lot of work to be done."

Change, however, is slow.

"Schools have not improved, especially for the poor," said Mirikitani. "I fight the comfort of complacency."

"We have to shake the leaves from the tree so it can grow," Williams said.

Over the years, Glide played a major role in helping the Bay Area LGBT community, and to lift up the less fortunate, more marginalized community members.

As a Japanese American, Mirikitani felt great empathy for the isolation that many LGBT people lived with. "The LGBT community humanized us," she said. "My first job was with homeless youth, who taught me the power of authenticity."

Glide was part of a citizen's alert group that documented incidents of harassment against LGBT people when possible. They also sponsored LGBT balls, including one five years before Stonewall that was raided by San Francisco police and resulted in numerous arrests. (All charges were eventually dropped.)

"We are about unconditional love and unconditional acceptance," said Williams.

There has been backlash. In the early 1970s, a group of conservative Methodist ministers protested Williams's inclusion at an Atlanta conference. In the book, Williams recalls addressing that conference, and explaining his positions of love and inclusion for all.

"I wrote a paper on how we can bring these groups together," he recalled. "It had quite an impact on theological position. We want to humanize people, to bring people on the fringes of society together."

Williams and Mirikitani's outreach has stretched beyond the LGBT sphere. Williams said that non-Methodist Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Wicca have all worshiped at Glide.

"Many different creeds come to Glide," Mirikitani said. "Regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion, we welcome you. We want you. We need you. We feel that diversity is the mirror of our humanity."


Williams and Mirikitani will be appearing in the Bay Area to read from their book. On February 22 at 7:30 p.m. they will be at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way (http://www.fccb.org). Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door, though no one will be turned away. On Tuesday, February 26 they will be at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California Street (http://www.jccsf.org). The event is free but advance reservations are required.