Outward Bound

Priest leads gay movement


Episcopal priest Bob Spencer is co-chair of the S.C. Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement in Columbia.

For Bob Spencer, an ordained Episcopal priest who moved to Columbia from Idaho, the change in scenery has been "refreshing." That may strike some as odd, given that Spencer is openly gay and that South Carolina is not considered the most welcoming place for gays and lesbians. But the Palmetto state is more "tolerant and aware of gay and lesbian issues," Spencer said.
"Generally, I've been well accepted here," he said. "That may be in part because I haven't been real aggressive about being out. People know I'm out, but primarily people see me as just another person," Spencer said.
Some would argue that Spencer is not just another person. He is among a list of openly gay and lesbian ministers which has grown over the past five years as the nation becomes more aware of and sympathetic to gay and lesbian issues. A growing number of Americans realize that gays and lesbians are not so different from heterosexuals.
A native South Carolinian, Spencer moved back to Columbia after his chaplain position in an Idaho hospital was eliminated. Spencer immediately became involved with the S.C. Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, a group he now co-chairs.
"The majority of the Idaho gay culture is still hidden," Spencer said. "Here the gay community is very open and people are generally more receptive or tolerant. But back in Idaho people still have a lot of hang-ups about gays and lesbians."
Ordained in 1972, Spencer did not reveal his sexual identity until 1981. "When I first came out, I did not come out in my congregation. I did come out to the bishop in Idaho, but after a couple of years, I wasn't being used very much in the Diocese. This was the only time that anyone had ever made me feel ostracized about being gay," Spencer said.
He came out to three small Idaho churches, and said people were "very positive." Little was said about Spencer's identity until 1992, when Spencer wrote a letter to the editor against an anti-gay initiative in Idaho that would ban local measures prohibiting discrimination of gays and lesbians.
"There weren't any major negative reactions to the letter, which the newspaper made into a guest column," he said. "But, it sure had an effect."
A similar situation reemerged last month for Spencer. When WIS-TV did background work and interviews for a story about the deaths of two gay men in an insurance scam, Spencer was asked for his comments. "The interview didn't cause any problems for the congregation I'm working with, but it did get a few phone calls," he said.
The biggest project at hand for Spencer is helping to organize this month's S.C. Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival, a weekend of activities, workshops, concerts and rallies which will be held April 26 28. For the past three years, the state's gay pride march has been the largest political demonstration at the State House, but this year's rally will be in Columbia's Riverfront Park. It will feature Chastity Bono, the openly lesbian daughter of entertainer Cher and Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), and Roberta Achtenburg, the first out lesbian to serve in a presidential administration.
"This should be a real celebration with the people we have lined up to speak at the rally, the speakers forum and the entertainers," Spencer said. "Being in the park will also help create more of a celebration feel. I anticipate a good gathering; we've already had a tremendous response from individuals across the Southeast."
Spencer will hold a relationships workshop April 28 at the S.C. Gay and Lesbian Community Center, at 1108 Woodrow St. in Columbia, beginning at 2 p.m. Workshop participants will examine the history of gay and lesbian relationships and look at what characteristics make them work.
"We're also going to look at what issues pull on a relationship." Spencer said. "No matter what kind of relationship there is, there will always be tensions. We're going to look at how we can creatively live through these challenges and grow together."
Spencer's relationship conference comes at a time when South Carolina and more than 20 other states have bills pending that would refuse to recognize marriages of same-sex couples. A court case in Hawaii is set to begin this summer that argues the state has a right to refuse marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. A decision permitting same-sex marriages can be applied to other states' recognition by way of the 9th Amendment. That has prompted many homophobic lawmakers to draft their bills. A similar bill passed by the Colorado House and Senate was vetoed last month by the state's governor.
"Marriage is the ultimate expression of love, and to deny it to two people of the same gender is hypocritical," said Spencer, who has married same-sex couples. He said he's not holding his breath until the day same-sex marriages are legal, but he did call it a "real possibility."
"This is going to be an area that will test the constitution of this nation," he said. "If even one state allows same-sex marriages, we will see if this nation can stand together or if it's just a federation of states."
Spencer said there is very little dialogue in the Episcopal church about same-sex weddings. "The church's policy is that a marriage require two monogamous heterosexual individuals. The church welcomes gays and lesbians, but is still more conservative when it comes to marriage," he said.

Tige Watts is the executive editor of In Unison, the Southeast's source for gay and lesbian news, which is based in Columbia. He can be reached by e-mail at NUnison@aol.com.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 4/6/96