From 1969 to 1974, the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea was one of the most important meeting places in New York City for organizations of the early post-Stonewall gay rights movement, including the West Side Discussion Group, Gay Liberation Front, and Gay Activists Alliance.
Three early gay religious congregations provided services here in the 1970s: the Church of the Beloved Disciple, “a church for gay people;” the Metropolitan Community Church of New York; and an LGBT synagogue that would later become known as Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.
Gay Activists Alliance wedding zap at the Marriage License Bureau in the Municipal Building, 1971. Photo by Richard C. Wandel. Courtesy of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
The Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea was one of the most important meeting places in New York City for organizations of the early post-Stonewall gay rights movement, particularly from 1969 to 1974. The Episcopalian rector at Holy Apostles, Father Robert Weeks, was instrumental in allowing this to happen, in part because his church was financially strapped and needed the rental income that groups could provide. In the fall of 1967, Weeks had coordinated a gathering of regional Episcopal priests which put forth one of the first religious declarations that homosexuality was morally neutral. Weeks presided over a number of early gay marriages (“services of friendship”), and participated in the protest led by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) after the police raid on the Snake Pit in March 1970, also praying for the injured Diego Vinales at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
One of the earliest LGBT events at Holy Apostles (in the parish hall) was the First New York City All-College Gay Mixer on May 2, 1969, sponsored by Columbia University’s Student Homophile League (formed in 1966). The first LGBT group to meet here regularly, from August 1969 to 1971, was the West Side Discussion Group (WSDG), which held weekly meetings and dances. Initially part of the Mattachine Society of New York, WSDG became a separate organization in 1956, and dropped its affiliation with Mattachine in 1965 after more militant leaders took over Mattachine. GLF held its weekly Sunday meetings here from December 1969 to December 1970, also using Alternate U. for dances and events, and then moving to the Gay Community Center.
Gay Youth was founded in 1970 and had its social meetings here until 1972. The first dance for GLF women was held here in June 1970. GAA had its Thursday meetings and its dances here between January 1970 and May 1971, when it moved to the Firehouse. Lesbian Liberation, a committee of GAA, was formed here.
In July 1970, Father Weeks turned over Holy Apostles for Sunday afternoon services to the pioneering Church of the Beloved Disciple, “a church for gay people.” Beloved Disciple was founded by Father Robert M. Clement, a former priest in the Polish National Catholic Church and the first openly gay priest to participate in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1970, and his lover, John Noble. Clement officiated over a same-sex “union ceremony” at Holy Apostles in April 1971. Clement and Noble were married at 33 Wooster Street in July 1971 by Troy Perry, who had founded the gay Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles in 1968. New York’s City Clerk Howard Katz, incensed at these “illegal marriages” by Clement and Weeks, threatened arrest. GAA held one of its most famous and creative “zaps” at Katz’s office in the Municipal Building – an engagement party for two same-sex couples, complete with wedding cake.
Then, in 1973, Jacob Gubbay, a Jewish man from India, saw an ad for a gay Passover Seder to be held here, which he volunteered to lead. Less than a year later he was successful in negotiating space for a gay synagogue to host Friday night services at Holy Apostles. The congregation, later officially named Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, held services here until it found a permanent home in Westbeth in July 1975.
By 1974, Father Weeks had begun an outreach ministry to the LGBT community, which had not especially participated in Holy Apostle’s own services and activities, and ended the church’s policy of leasing space to LGBT organizations.
In 1977 at Holy Apostles, Ellen M. Barrett was ordained as a priest by Bishop Paul Moore. She was one of the first American women to be ordained, and was also the very first openly gay Episcopal priest. She had previously served as a co-chairwoman of Daughters of Bilitis, New York, and as a moderator of Gay Students Liberation at NYU, and was a member of Radicalesbians of GLF.
Architect or Builder: Minard Lafever (original design and chancel addition); Charles Babcock of Richard Upjohn & Son (transepts addition)
Year Built: 1846-48; 1853-54 (chancel addition); 1858 (transepts addition)
Daniel Hurewitz, Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).
David Carter, Stonewall: the Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).
Erin L. Nissley, “Local NEPA Priest Started LGBT Church in 1970s,” The Times-Tribune, July 12, 2015, bit.ly/2gKge0W.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, GLF files.
Heather R. White, “The Church of the Holy Apostles” (Sept. 2016) and “Gay Rites and Religious Rights: New York’s First Same-Sex Marriage Ceremony,” in Kathleen T. Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore, eds., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York: NYU Press, 2015).
Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: the Story of the Struggle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
Moshe Shokeid, A Gay Synagogue in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
“MCCNY History,” Metropolitan Community Church of New York, bit.ly/2g3RdN5.