When Kathleen Boatwright fell in love with a woman at church, she fell hard. But this was no carefree romance. The church was staunchly anti-gay. Kathleen was married to a man and had four children. She’d never had a relationship with a woman. As she told Eric in 1989, it was “Pentecostal hysteria.”
When Kathleen Boatwright came out in the mid-1980s and decided to pursue a lesbian relationship, she was shunned by her family and the conservative, evangelical community she called home. Evangelical Christian spaces have traditionally been, and continue to be, unaccepting of LGBTQ people. Read some sobering stories here and here or watch this TEDx talk by Susan Cottrell titled, “Why I Chose My LGBTQ Daughter over the Evangelical Church.”
Boatwright and her then partner, Jean, joined the more progressive Episcopal Church, whose governing bodies voted in 1976 to become more fully inclusive, affirming that, “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” For an overview of the church’s official stance on, and ministry toward, LGBTQ people, historically and today, go here.
In New York City, the Episcopal Church extended an early, if uneven, embrace of gay and lesbian people. From 1969 to 1974, the Church of the Holy Apostles “essentially served as New York City’s first LGBT community center.” It provided meeting spaces for the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, hosting groups like the West Side Discussion Group, Gay Liberation Front, and Gay Activists Alliance. In 1977, the church was also the site of the controversial ordination of Rev. Ellen M. Barrett, the first out lesbian to be ordained to the priesthood.
Rev. Barrett was also a founding member of Integrity USA, the advocacy organization that Boatwright was involved with for a decade, which sought to achieve full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Episcopal Church. Integrity began in 1974 as a newsletter “published by and for Gay Episcopalians and our friends.” You can read the text of the first issue here; a scan of a 1975 issue is available here. Learn about Integrity’s founder, Louie Crew, here (the webpage has a bio as well as an oral history interview), or explore his old website.
Integrity’s newsletter inspired LGBTQ Episcopalians to organize. In 1975, around 200 members formed a handful of chapters and held a national convention. By 2011, there were 58 Integrity chapters and more than 2,000 members. Read about the group’s history here and explore a decade’s worth of Integrity blog posts here. After nearly five decades of advocacy, Integrity dissolved in early 2022. LGBTQ advocacy within the Episcopal Church is now largely conducted by its LGBTQ Caucus. The group TransEpiscopal works specifically toward the full embrace of trans and nonbinary people within the church.
The progressive theologian John Shelby Spong pushed for the Episcopal Church to bless same-sex unions and promoted the acceptance of women and LGBTQ people in the clergy. In 1989, as bishop of the Newark diocese in New Jersey, he ordained the church’s first openly gay male priest, Rev. J. Robert Williams. But Williams, controversial for being outspoken and sex-positive, was asked to resign less than two months after being ordained. He died from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Bishop Spong’s oral history is featured in the Making Gay History book.
In 2003, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, setting off a historic rift in the Anglican Communion. He wore a bulletproof vest at his consecration, amid a torrent of death threats and protests. In 2009, the Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool became the first openly lesbian Episcopal bishop. At its 2012 General Convention, the church officially approved the ordination of trans clergy. This surely would have pleased the trailblazing Pauli Murray, who in 1977 became the first Black person “perceived as a woman” to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Learn more about Murray here.
Immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriage legal in 2015, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted a resolution to allow religious ceremonies for gay couples. The larger Anglican Communion issued three years of sanctions against them as a disciplinary response.
After Boatwright came out as a lesbian, she signed away her custodial rights to her two youngest children, having “bought into the lie that says that children of lesbians or gays are better off to live with the custodial heterosexual parent.” After a drawn-out legal battle she gained sole custody of them in 1988. Many lesbians have found themselves in similarly wrenching situations, often deemed “unfit” to raise children by a prejudicial court. You can learn more about that here or in this 1977 episode of the Public Broadcasting program Woman, featuring two custody lawyers, and this follow-up episode with Mary Jo Risher, whose custody case made news in the mid-1970s. Bias against LGBTQ parents in custody cases has persisted despite studies that demonstrate that children raised by LGBTQ parents are no different than those raised by straight parents.
In the episode, Boatwright mentions reaching out to the Denver chapter of PFLAG for guidance. Boatwright had previously found support among the members of the Spokane chapter of PFLAG as well, especially the Rev. Charles Wood and his wife, Ann. Learn more about PFLAG in this Making Gay History episode featuring the organization’s cofounders, Jeanne and Morty Manford.Integrity Pamphlet vertical pages
Integrity pamphlet written by Kathleen Boatwright, ca. 1990. Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Boatwright.
Kathleen Boatwright: The way to acceptance was for everyone to think alike, and to know that God had something definite to say about every day in every way. And so there was only one way to interpret everything that happened or came into our life. Gays were to be, uh, pitied and hated. Homosexual people are, uh, stereotypically effeminate men or overbearing man-hating women. And, uh, they are people who simply have a confused identity, and if they would become a Christian, it would resolve their issue.
Eric Marcus: Did you believe that?
KB: No, ’cause I wanted to try it.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus, and this is Making Gay History.
In the late 1980s, when I was gathering oral histories for my Making Gay History book, I had a few go-to questions for my interviewees—questions to help me get a sense of who they were, in relation to themselves and the world around them. Things like, “When did you first realize you were different?” Or, “Where were you when Harvey Milk was assassinated?” And, “Were you aware of the Stonewall uprising when it happened?”
In Kathleen Boatwright’s case, the answer to that last question was a decisive no. In June of 1969, Kathleen was diapering babies. She was 19, married to her high school sweetheart, and had just given birth to their second child. Her life was about as far removed from the spirit of gay liberation as you can get and would remain so for another decade and a half. During that time, Kathleen and her husband, an Oregon state police officer, adopted two more children. And along with Kathleen’s parents, they joined a charismatic evangelical church, which quickly became the center of their lives. As Kathleen would later reflect, she was “living the 1950s in the 1980s.”
Then Kathleen fell in love with a woman. Jean. A dramatic awakening under the best of circumstances, but in Kathleen’s conservative, fundamentalist, and staunchly anti-gay world, it was an out-and-out earthquake. When Kathleen left the evangelical circle to pursue a relationship with Jean, she was cast out, shunned by her family and her community. It was a heart-rending experience—and one that turned her into an activist.
By the time I met Kathleen, at the first ever Creating Change Conference in 1988, she was vice president for the Western Region of an organization called Integrity. Integrity had been founded in 1974 to promote equal access for gay and lesbian people to the rites and rituals of the Episcopal Church—the more progressive church that Kathleen had joined after coming out. I was immediately struck by Kathleen’s grace and courage, and the following year, when another conference brought her to San Francisco, where I was living at the time, I met up with Kathleen to hear more of her story.
So here’s the scene. Kathleen and I are sitting on a park bench at the top of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, across from the majestic Grace Cathedral. Children in a nearby playground are providing happy background sounds. Kathleen is just a couple of weeks shy of her 40th birthday. She’s dressed in a robin-egg-blue skirt, a silky blouse, and a paisley blue scarf tied in a bow at her neck. All from JCPenny, she tells me. It’s a conservative look, consciously and proudly so. Part of what makes Kathleen so effective in her advocacy work is her unthreatening approachability. Not to mention her warmth and her loving spirit.
I clip a microphone to Kathleen’s blouse and ask her about her fateful first meeting with Jean the spring of 1984 in the small town of Corvallis, Oregon—home of Oregon State University, where Jean was a student, and the site of a new nondenominational Bible church that was occupying much of Kathleen’s time.
EM: Interview with Kathleen Boatright, July 2, 1989. Location is Grace Cathedral. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
KB: I met Jean through my local fundamentalist church. She was preparing to enter her senior year of veterinary medical school. And, um, she had been very active in the Southern Baptist Church. And she heard about this new nondenominational church, and she came and liked it, and became vitally involved in the ministry with the college students and with singing. And I was director of the children’s choir and vitally involved with women’s ministries. So we became acquainted.
EM: How did you meet?
KB: I met her before church one time. She was coming to sing, and actually she had a very nice conversation with my daughter, who was 15 years old at the time. And I was impressed with Jean’s presence as an older college student to include a 15-year-old. I thought that was a very mature sort of thing.
EM: She was in her twenties then.
KB: She was in her twenties.
EM: And you were in your thirties.
KB: And I was in my thirties. And, um, I remember her singing at church, and I happened to be sitting in the front row that day. And I was so enamored by her presence that she really made an impact, she stuck in my mind. And she was gone then from August until January of the following year.
EM: So you didn’t, you didn’t talk.
KB: So we really didn’t talk. She sang at church and I didn’t see her for seven months. So come January of 1985, I looked across the room and I saw this woman determinedly walking into the church, late, carrying her guitar. And I had this incredible lump in my throat. And I said to myself, Jean’s back. And it was just this, the beginning for me of feeling emotions at a different level.
I still hadn’t identified what they were, but I can still feel that big lump in my throat. And, and it was the beginning of the service, so I had to wait till church was all over to go run and find out where she’d been and what was going on. And it was, that was real unusual for me, because I always had difficulty meeting new people or projecting myself, but I didn’t have any doubts that I wanted to seek her out. And so I did, and found out that she was back in Corvallis for five months to finish her degree.
And she didn’t have a place to live. So I said to her, “Don’t worry,” I said, “my parents have always wanted to take in a college student. You’re red-headed like Dad, they’ll love it.” And I went and drug my mother away from where she was talking, and I said, “You remember Jean, she’s looking for a place to stay. Why don’t you and Dad take her in as a, and board her as a college student?” Now that’s seen as a subversive plot.
EM: You, did you see it as that? Or it was just, uh—
KB: My parents, um, from early on, I think, saw how much Jean meant to me, that meeting her brought a sense of me alive they hadn’t seen before. I used to cry when I was a little child for hours on end ’cause I just never socially adapted—was always extremely intelligent and bright, but low in self-esteem, and not being able to find that friendship that I was looking for.
And, um, so when Jean came into my life, my parents were thrilled and delighted because they saw me emerging as a happier woman and more fulfilled, and they were glad I was happy for a while.
EM: What did your, did your husband have any sense of, of this friendship?
KB: Uh. No, he was very involved in his career and always had been non-participatory both as a parent and a spouse. So, to be really frank, as long as his sexual appetites were met to some degree, he was tolerable in the household. So our relationship was kind of basically that.
But after four months of being friends, she had to go away for an internship with another veterinarian. And the veterinarian’s wife approached her and asked her if she was bisexual. They were fundamentalists themselves, too. And he knew his wife was unhappy, and he thought if he brought in a woman student for a month, it would help. Well, it helped, because Jean started sharing with this other woman the kind of relationship she and I had shared—an intimacy, ability to connect, ability to communicate.
And so when Jean said she was playing with fire, I knew emotionally what was going on. And when she came home, we went for a long walk. And my response was to put my arm through hers and say, “Oh, don’t worry,” you know, “we’ll, we’ll get it fixed.” You know? ’Cause I was already starting to cling and not want her to explore this with another person. So my first response was spiritual: homosexuality is wrong, so you cannot be this way. And besides then, that means you would be leaving my life.
EM: And for you to be homosexual would mean leaving your life in a big way.
KB: When a person starts to struggle with their sexual identity, all other issues are laid aside. It’s like taking big steps back into your adolescence, and all those longings and all those feelings that you’ve wanted to explore all come to the surface, and you become a 35-year-old 15-year-old.
And I spent my summer that summer being that. I can remember Jean wanting to be more sensual with, with me. And so she says, “I’ll give you a backrub some night.” After Bible study, no less. And, um, she said, “Why don’t you lay down on the blanket on the floor and take off your bra and blouse and I’ll rub your back?” And it was like, okay… My husband was working all night, this just seemed like a great setup right here. So she rubbed my back and I said, gee, this is it.
And all the little pieces, all the little feelings… Even comments my mother said to me over the years, like, “Don’t cut your hair too short,” “You can’t wear tailored clothes”… Realizing that the neighbors I’d grown up with were a lesbian couple, and I had never even thought about that… Um, the feelings of walking through Walden’s bookstore looking at The Joy of Lesbian Sex, and, and longing for that kind of intimacy… all sort of came upon me at, at that moment.
And I felt a real willingness to release myself to this person in a way I’d never done before. And the phone rang, and it was my son from Bible college calling me, and I thought, oh, God, saved by the bell here. I don’t know where this would’ve gone, but it, it began that process for me.
EM: You were in deep.
KB: Oh, shit, I was way over my head. And what’s so painful for, especially women who come into their sexual identities tend to come later because we are culturalized to be mothers and wives and caretakers. And we fall into that pattern without any self-examination.
Um, for me, I was really painted into a corner because there wasn’t a single place I could turn for even questioning. I started looking to some Christian sources and what they had to say I didn’t wanna hear.
KB: And, and some of the advice was so incredible. Like, if you feel homosexual tendencies, you can’t have someone over to your house in the evening. You can never let a member of the same sex to sit on your bed while you’re chatting. Uh, only meet in a public place. You know, those aren’t cures.
EM: No. So you realized, you thought that was wrong.
KB: I thought that was ridiculous.
KB: But I also thought it was my only option because my spiritual nature was more important than my physical nature. Intellectually and emotionally, I was so hungry and so turned on and so all everything else. And it was Pentecostal hysteria. So that’s when people pull the trigger, turn to the bottle, take drugs, leave town, you know…
EM: But you didn’t.
KB: Oh, absolutely not. I was madly in love. And beyond that, I had found someone that shared the same sort of values I did.
EM: How did your journey then go from that point to then being in a relationship?
KB: My relationship with Jean reached crisis point. Decisions had to be made, uh, letting go had to happen. It was, it’s, it was fish or cut bait. Um, after the summer, I said to myself, I’m going away for a few days, and I’m going to think about this.
And I got in the car and I drove down and said to Jean, “I’m leaving for three days. Will you come with me?” And she said, “Yes.” And for that weekend, for me, it was the acknowledging that I was a lesbian and I wanted to come out in my identity and to let her know I really loved her. And I laid myself open and, um, her response then was to process that for about a month.
And, uh, I thought to myself, Jean’s gonna figure out how she feels and what she wants to do. And I’m gonna go down and say, figure out if there is any Christian support somewhere that says you can reconcile these two—the two strongest emotions I had seemed diametrically opposed to one another.
EM: One was your love for Jean.
KB: And the other was my love for my faith. I, I didn’t feel I could build a life of love if I rejected my faith. So I borrowed my grandmother’s car and for the first time in my entire life, I was by myself with my own agenda.
EM: So you left your husband—and your children and your husband…
KB: My children, my parents, my support structures. Got in a car and there was a ministry in California called Evangelicals Together led by a former American Baptist minister.
So, uh, I made an appointment with this guy and we sat and talked for just a couple of hours and he was very simple. He said to me, “In order to deal with your dilemma, you have to take a step from your relationship with Jean and go further and claim your own identity. Who did God create you to be?”
And through our sharing and looking at the gospel and what Jesus had to say from a different perspective, I could embrace the theology that said that God knew me before I was born. That He accepted me as I was made to be, uniquely and wholly. Uh, that my acting out on who I was was gonna affect the people I loved around me, but ultimately, in an obedience to God, you answer that call to be all that He’s created you to be.
And I felt firmly and wholly that what I had experienced with Jean was not demonic possession, was not Satan tempting me with sins of lust, but a, an intimacy and a love that was beautiful and was a God-given thing. And so now I just had to figure out how to deal with it.
And I felt like my love for Jean was willing. I was willing to risk all. And, you know, um, she flew down a few days later and agreed to commit to me and I to her. So I, we, I was, I was jumping off a cliff, but I was holding somebody’s hand. So that felt good.
And upon my return, I met with my husband at a counselor’s office, and I said, “Yes, I am gay, um, and I’m going to ask for a divorce, and I want to meet with our older children and my parents and talk about the decisions that I’ve made.” ’Cause I felt at least I had a right to make my own decision, but that’s all the rights I got.
A couple hours later, uh, I went to pick up the girls. They were expecting me to pick them up at Grandpa and Grandma’s. And my dad stepped out on the front porch and pushed the children away and slammed the door and took me physically, forcibly, by the arm, led me down the stairs, and said, “You’re never seeing your children again without a court order.”
EM: Oh my God.
KB: “Just go shack up with your girlfriend.” And he forced me down to the street. I was denied access to my residence. I was denied any visitation with my children. Um, the church had an open prayer meeting, disclosing our sin and our relationship. And so it became the hottest news in Corvallis.
I didn’t have another single soul after 22 years living in this area that anybody would talk to me. My daughter hid from me. If, if she drove into a parking lot where I was, she, I’ve seen her lay flat on the asphalt so I wouldn’t see her. Hide behind corners in the grocery store. People I’d known all my life!
EM: Your children…
KB: We’d worked on PTA together! I’d had people follow me in a car or drive off the road because I was coming. It was like I had the plague.
EM: How big a town was this?
KB: 30,000. Plus the college.
EM: How big was your church?
KB: Three, 300, but Jean’s boss belonged to that church, and she was on the research staff at Oregon State. So the church went to her boss and said, “This woman is a lesbian, fire her. She’s breaking up a household. If we get her out of town, everything will be fine.”
The college did not succumb to that blackmail. So she finished her six-month contract with the college. But at that point I didn’t have a single person who would speak in my defense. So what do you do? And so I bought into the lie that says that children of lesbians or gays are better off to live with the custodial heterosexual parent that can provide a sense of normalcy that the gay parent cannot. So I signed away my custodial rights and became secondary parent and drove off.
EM: Where did you go?
KB: Jean had a one-year contract in Denver, Colorado. And this is how high our priority was to find a community: as we drove into Denver, you go over this big hill and it’s like, you know, 15 miles more toward town. We stopped at a phone booth and called the local PFLAG president and said, “Is there a supportive Episcopal parish in this town?” And she said, yes, go to this place, look up this person.
So Jean and I, uh, called the church and found out when services were and if they had an Integrity chapter, because we knew that there was a ministry to the gay and lesbian community called integrity. And there was, and it was at St. Barnabas. So two nights later, we walk into our first Integrity meeting, and there are 12 attractive men in their thirties with this rector having a meeting.
And they are, like, shocked to see two women, because it’s unusual for women to be in Integrity, because what’s dirtier than being a lesbian in a Christian community is being a Christian in the lesbian community.
KB: Oh. Bigtime. Because it brings in so many other issues besides sexual orientation; it brings in, you know, women’s issues and the patriarchy and all that stuff.
And, um, the rector there encouraged me to be involved with Integrity. He, of his own pocket, sent me to the first regional convention I went to. This was, like, in, um, ’87, I guess, here in San Francisco.
EM: How did people react to you? Do you have any, do you have any recollections of stories or…?
KB: Um, yes. I, I find that in my political activism, that personalizing an issue is the way to go. We will never tear down harmful traditions or theologies until we start dealing with people and their lives and their loves and start relating to them as humans.
EM: How has that translated into, into your…? Can you tell me about—
KB: I speak as a person—
EM: Can you tell me about any of those, those experiences?
KB: Here’s a great one, okay. For the first time, the women of Integrity were seated at Triennial, and Triennial is this gigantic group of ultraconservative women who have a convention every three years.
So Integrity got invited to do Tri—Triennial, and it was made for me. Everybody wears their Sears Roebuck dress. Everybody is a mom, basically. Everybody lived like I had always lived for 20 years. And I know how to network and how to deal with those women.Untitled design-2
Brochure of the Council for Women’s Ministries of the Episcopal Church, to which Integrity belonged. Credit: Courtesy of Kathleen Boatwright.
So during general convention, I attended a seminar by conservative Episcopals who said gays and lesbians have confused gender identity. And we had an open meeting at Triennial in which we talked about human sexuality. And everybody said all the biological information that we’re expected to say, but we never talk about sexuality.
So after about 40 minutes of hearing these women drone on, I stood up in my Sears Roebuck dress and said, “Okay, ladies, put on your seat belts, ’cause you’re gonna take a trip into reality. And you’re not gonna wanna hear it, but I need to say it, because you need to know how people’s lives really are.”
And so I talked to them about my journey. I talked to them about the misnomers about confused gender identity, and I said—I was wearing this circle skirt, and I said—“And as you can see from my, my appearance,” and I curtsied, I said, “I do not have a confused gender identity.” And everybody who had been really stiff just started laughing and they started listening.
And, um, so afterward I had lots of people come up to me and say… This one woman said to me, “I’ve been driving by my daughter’s house for eight years and my husband has never let me stop because she’s a lesbian, but I’m gonna go home…” And she says, “My daughter’s name is Kathleen,” and she started to cry, and she had never even told the women from her church about what had happened to Kathleen. It’s like the living dead for many Christian families. They just have a child that’s lost prematurely in so many senses of the word.
So incredible healing has happened as I’ve been vulnerable. And let’s face it, my appearance, my speech and demeanor—I’m a pill most people can swallow. And I think in my heart that I represent the hidden majority of lesbian women, because many, many are married or have been married, have children, and they have too much to risk, like I’ve risked and lost, to come out.
EM Narration: By the time of our interview, Kathleen Boatwright had regained sole custody of her two younger children. Over the years, her two older children gradually reentered her life as well. Even her parents’ resolve to shut Kathleen out waned over the years, although they never truly accepted the new life she built for herself.
For 10 years, Kathleen remained active with Integrity and worked toward ministry for gay and lesbian couples. In 2015 the Episcopal Church became the first major Church in the United States to bless same-sex marriage.
After completing a degree in nursing, Kathleen worked in long term mental health care for children and teens and in direct care nursing. She went on to get a teaching degree and coordinated an education program at a mental health facility for young people. She spent the last two decades of her working life as a special education teacher in Albany, Oregon, before retiring last year.
Kathleen’s relationship with Jean ended not long after our interview. The breakup left Kathleen blindsided, but soon after she met Dawn Wright, a choral teacher and choir director at a local junior high school. They spent the next 32 years together, before Dawn died on August 7, 2022. She was 62.
Kathleen now lives on her own, but is surrounded by a large family—which includes more than a few LGBTQ people. She is the grandparent of a lesbian, the sister-in-law of two gay men, the aunt of a gay nephew and a lesbian niece. And Kathleen’s youngest daughter, Katie, and her girlfriend just got engaged to be married.
Thank you to everyone who makes Making Gay History. That includes producer Inge De Taeye, audio engineer Michael Bognar, researcher Brian Ferree, photo editor Michael Green, genealogist Michael Leclerc, and our social media producers, Cristiana Peña and Nick Porter. And thank you to Tyler Albertario who helped us locate Kathleen.
Special thanks to our founding editor and producer, Sara Burningham, and our founding production partner, Jenna Weiss-Berman at Pineapple Street Studios. And thank you to the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division for their assistance with photos and other images. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Myers.
Season eleven of this podcast has been made possible with funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation; Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; the Calamus Foundation; Christopher Street Financial; Mary Cadagin and Lee Wilson; Louis Bradbury; David Quirolo; Andra and Irwin Press; Patrick Hinds and Steve Tipton; Lauraberth Lima and Ariela Rothstein; and my friend, the author Sam Freedman. Thanks, Sam!
Head to makinggayhistory.com where you can find all our previous episodes, archival photos, full transcripts, and additional information on each of the people and stories we feature. And if you love what we do, please give us a five-star rating in your favorite podcast app to help more people discover our proud history through the voices of the people who lived it.
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I’m Eric Marcus. So long, until next season!