Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to — gay, lesbian, straight or undefined — has looked at me with a blank stare when I’ve asked them about Salem’s designation from The Advocate as one of the gayest cities in America.
“Really?” they ask, in disbelief.
Examining The Advocate’s criteria, it’s obvious that the magazine’s selections are at least partly tongue-in-cheek. Salem got serious points for transgender protections and for LGBT elected officials — who work here at the Capitol, but aren’t necessarily from Salem. We also got two points for our roller derby leagues. Having recently attended my first-ever roller derby bout, I would say that most of the ladies I observed seemed to be 30-something straight housewives who just happened to enjoy knocking each other down, but I haven’t really studied the issue in depth. I think Salem should have gotten at least one point in the “fabulous shopping” category (Nordy’s, wonderful boutiques and antique stores), but that is another article.
Although points weren’t given for it, Salem was recognized for the number of LGBT-welcoming churches it has — this in the largely un-churched state of Oregon. The article listed six — Salem Spirit of Life Church; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem; First Congregational United Church of Christ; Freedom Friends Church; Morningside United Methodist Church; and Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests — and there is at least one other, Saint Mark Lutheran Church.
One of those mentioned, the First Congregational United Church of Christ (FCUCC) on Marion Street, was a church I had noticed before for its Irish-countryside stone beauty and for the sign it had last year on the front lawn: “Blessed are Those that Occupy.”
When I contacted the church, I was told that it was between pastors, but I was able to chat with Susie Francois, one of the church deacons. (The new pastor, the — coincidentally — openly lesbian Rev. Dr. Janet Lynn Parker, arrived at the end of February.)
Francois was a little puzzled by Salem’s “gayest city” status as well, but she was happy to tell me all about the church’s history, beginning with the earliest New England Pilgrims who were, as she pointed out, in rebellion against established authority (consider the root of the word “protestant’). The national UCC ordained its first openly gay clergy member, Dr. William Johnston, in 1972 — only three years after the Stonewall riots. In 2005, the National General Synod of the United Church of Christ became the first leadership body of a national church to support same-sex marriage.
Because each UCC church is autonomous — members vote on important church decisions — not all of them are “Open and Affirming” congregations. Salem’s has been since 1997. Some, in more conservative areas of the country, reject the recommendations of the national synod regarding LGBT members. “We believe that each of us has the God-given right to interpret the Bible as we see fit,” Francois tells me. “It can make it difficult to come to a decision sometimes, when everyone has a voice. It’s like herding cats.”
The Salem church has no idea how many LGBT members it has. “We don’t segregate,” Francois said.
We believe that each of us has the God-given right to interpret the Bible as we see fit.
She told me about a UCC church in Seattle where lesbian members asked to be seated separately in a specially-designated area, for solidarity’s sake. “The pastor wouldn’t allow it, so they left the church. Our motto is ‘That They May All Be One,’ and separating people out into interest groups defeats that purpose.”
Francois does know that when the Salem church became Open and Affirming, as has been the case with most UCC churches, their membership grew. She feels that there is a hunger among LGBT people for spiritual community. “When you have been through any kind of trauma, including growing up LGBT in this country, you look for a spiritual base to deal with that. You are looking to not be alone.”
After the interview, I stopped to admire the sanctuary, simple and restrained, as all Reformation-based churches seem to be: soaring arts-and-crafts style wooden arches and minimalist stained glass. In the hallway hung a display of woolen rainbow scarves, knitted by members of the congregation. These scarves are part of a nationwide church project, initiated by Rev. Marja Coons-Torn, to be given to attendees at the next General Synod meeting in Long Beach, Calif. The project leaders hope to turn the General Synod into a landscape of bright colors to raise awareness about LGBT teens endangered by harassment and related suicide, and to symbolize the church’s commitment to defend against violence, “to protect every youth whose life and health are endangered by bullying.”
On my way home, I recalled President Obama’s second inaugural address I had watched just the day before: “If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” At the First United Church of Christ, in the halls of government, and in the hearts and homes of many residents, that truth is lived here in Salem. I say we deserve The Advocate’s recognition. Let’s do what we can to live up to it.
The First United Church of Christ of Salem is happy to perform commitment ceremonies for LGBT couples, and looks forward to the day of true marriage equality. More information is available on its website: www.uccsalem.org.
Laura Gildart Sauter, a recent transplant to Salem, writes a column on local farming for Salem Weekly and has had her short fiction and poetry published in various obscure literary journals.
Other Stories in the Series
The Advocate says our city is one of the gayest in America. What do local residents think?
Salem native Scott Hossner says he has found a fulfilling gay community in the Cherry City.
Rob Owen, a relative newcomer to the city, questions The Advocate’s reporting — and its conclusion.
In 2002, the Salem City Council voted to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Salem’s roller derby teams are accepting of everyone, LGBT and otherwise.