LGBTQ+ History Month: Robert W. Wood, 36th Infantry Division, U.S. Army

“Is it proper for two of the same sex to enter the institution of marriage? To which I must reply, ‘Yes.’ ”

Soldier/Gay Pioneer

b. May 21, 1923
d. August 19, 2018

Reverend Robert Watson Wood was the first member of the clergy to picket for gay rights. He wrote the first book in the United States on Christianity and homosexuality and was the first to call for church-sanctioned gay marriage.

Wood began his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in September 1941, three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon after, he left and enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II in North Africa and Italy with the 36th Infantry Division. He was severely wounded in battle during the invasion of Italy. He received an honorable discharge, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart, two battle stars and a Bronze Star for heroic achievement in combat. A chapter of the book “We Went to War: New Hampshire Remembers” recounts his story.

With the help of the G.I. Bill, Wood graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and then the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology. In 1951 he was ordained at the Congregational Church in Fair Haven, Vermont. He spent 35 years as a parish pastor.

In 1956 Wood wrote “Spiritual Exercises,” an article for a gay physique magazine that featured a photo of him in his clerical collar. It was his way of coming out. After meeting Edward Sagarin, who wrote the groundbreaking book “The Homosexual in America” (using the pen name Donald Webster Cory), Wood was inspired to write “Christ and the Homosexual” (1960) under his own name. In the book, Wood called for the Christian Church not only to welcome homosexuals, but also to recognize same-sex marriage, which he had performed long before it was legal. In 1960 The Mattachine Society and The Prosperos honored Wood with Awards of Merit.

From 1965 to 1969, Wood bravely protested in his clerical collar at the Annual Reminders, the first public demonstrations specifically demanding gay and lesbian equality. Held each Fourth of July in front of Independence Hall, the Annual Reminders launched the LGBT civil rights movement and paved the way for the Stonewall riot. At the first Annual Reminder, 40 gay and lesbian activists from New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia participated. By 1965 their numbers had more than tripled.

In 1962 Wood met Hugh M. Coulter—an artist, a cowboy, and a fellow World War II veteran—in a gay leather bar in Manhattan. A month before the first Annual Reminder, the couple marched in the nation’s first gay picket line in Washington, D.C., with 18 other gay men and seven lesbians.

Wood and Coulter spent 27 years together and wore matching gold wedding rings. Coulter died in 1989.

Wood appeared in “Gay Pioneers”, a documentary about the Annual Reminders co-produced by WHYY/PBS and Equality Forum. In 2001, the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania honored him as a gay pioneer and, in 2004, the United Church of Christ Coalition of LGBT Concern presented him with its pioneer award.

Wood’s long career as a pastor also allowed him to officiate many same-sex weddings as he continuously advocated in both the Christian world and society for the rights and spiritual integrity of LGBTQ+ people.

After he retired, Wood moved to New Hampshire where he spent the remainder of his years. In 2018, at the age of 95, Reverend Wood passed way at his home. The New York Times published his obituary.



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