Are there degrees out ‘outness’?
In the history of lesbian and gay politics, historians put a lot of stock in whether or not the people we study were “out.” But what exactly does “out” mean? This past week I interviewed Robert W. Wood, author of 1960 book Christ and the Homosexual Wood is a retired United Church of Christ (formerly Congregationalist Church) minister who knew since high school that he was gay. As a teenager he poured through Biblical scripture looking for guidance regarding his sexuality and found none.
A year into university Wood was called up for military service. He suffered a gun shot wound in the mountains of Italy that left him with a collapsed lung. When he was finally released from hospital 666 days later (not making that up), he took his GI Bill benefits and enrolled in the Oberlin Seminary where he studied for a life in service of God. By the time he graduated, he was no better informed about the Christian view of homosexuality and decided to fill the gap himself. Once established in his own church in the commuter suburb of Spring Valley, New York, he crafted a book-length argument for a Christian approach to homosexuality, one that saw homosexuals as equal to heterosexuals, that maintained God approved of homosexuals, and that argued pastors had a moral and ethical obligation to become better informed about homosexuality so that they could provide good counsel to their homosexual parishioners. He also insisted on the right of same-sex couples to marry, which is why I came to know him and his work. Not only did Wood use his real name (something Edward Sagarin, author of the 1951 book The Homosexual in America chose not to do) and put his image on the book sleeve, he gave a copy to each of his own church’s board members. Wood does not identify himself as a homosexual in the book, but simply writing such a book automatically raised suspicions. Remarkably, if an eye was batted in Spring Valley, it was done in private. Wood’s position as pastor was never challenged, and he went on to serve at two other churches before retiring in 1986.
Two years after the book came out, Wood met, fell in love with, and married rodeo cowboy and artist Hugh Coulter. They bought and wore matching gold bands on their left ring finger but maintained separate residences. When congregants invited Wood out socially, Hugh usually went along. Some grasped the nature of their relationship, others did not.
Was Wood “out” or not? In an interview I conducted with him last week he says he “came out” in 1957 when he published a short article called “Spiritual Exercises” in a gay men’s physique magazine. He used his real name and it was printed with a clear head shot, the same one he later used for his book. In an earlier interview with Stephen Law, Wood described an unambiguous public declaration of his sexuality more typical of what Americans consider “coming out.” When Hugh died in 1986 a sympathetic parishioner said, “I am so sorry your friend has died.”
“He wasn’t my friend,”Wood declared, “he was my partner.” It was the first time he confronted the ambiguity that had allowed him and Hugh to lead the life they did while still actively and openly advocating for gay rights.
Being “out” enabled people to publicly fight against oppression while simultaneously providing a visible role model for lesbians and gays who believed they were abnormal, deviant, and sinners. For that reason, being out had a measurable historical impact. Wood’s book is case in point. He received hundreds of letters from lesbians and gays who expressed relief at having a positive view of themselves put forward, but who were still too afraid to sign their own names at the bottom of the page.
Did Wood come out in 1957 or 1986? Or is “outness” too blunt an instrument for understanding the history of queer resistance politics? Perhaps Wood’s story suggests that we need a different metric for measuring “outness” in the 50s and 60s than we do for the 70s and after. What do you think?
(Special thanks to Alan Miller of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for putting me on to Wood’s work)
crossposted to fromoutlawstoinlaws.dreamwidth.org, a community for sharing and discussing same-sex marriage before 1980.