From “sissy boy” to AIDS activist to Sunday School teacher, therapist Ken McLeod prepares to teach adult classes about the truths and myths used to support religious attitudes toward LGBTQ folks.
by Karen Derr
After growing up as “the designated sissy boy” in a southern coal-mining community, in adulthood Ken McLeod became a tenured professor, teaching theater at Louisiana State University—a life he left behind to get a master’s degree in clinical social work when he felt called to “do something for my brothers.” AIDS in 1985 and 1986 was, he says, “essentially gay men.” He was 38 when he went back to school to earn his degree at LSU, and his first job as a social worker was at a Catholic hospice for people with AIDS. Appointed by both a Democratic and a Republican governor, he served on the Louisiana Commission on AIDS, advising the Louisiana legislature about the disease. Now a therapist in private practice, he moved to Houston in 1996 to work with various AIDS organizations, including the Bering Support Network at Bering United Methodist Church.
McLeod has been a Unitarian for nearly 40 years, and for the past nine years has attended Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, a gay-friendly religious community near the Galleria. “It’s a congregation that has completed The Welcoming Congregation Program, which is the LGBTQ affirmation program of the UU [Unitarian Universalist] Association,” McLeod explains. He points out that Emerson invites people of all gender identities and sexual orientations to join them, and Emerson co-pastor Dr. Becky Edmiston-Lange has been a visible and outspoken supporter of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
According to McLeod, “The Welcoming Congregation Program is a process that UU churches can go through, and members vote to become a Welcoming Congregation. The program came about because, although Unitarian Universalists have been very supportive of these issues for decades, there was a time in the ’80s when they were doing a lot of visioning in the congregations and surveying to figure out what they thought about women ministers, black ministers in white congregations, and all kinds of things like that. They came up with results that they didn’t like relative to the LGBT community, so they gathered about a dozen people from around the country to sit down and talk about what to do.” McLeod, who was then director of education at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, was one of those chosen. In 1989 the UU denomination’s general assembly voted, and The Welcoming Congregation Program is the idea that came out of that vote.
“One of the challenges for people [who are new to this church] is we don’t have the answers,” says McLeod. “You have to do the thinking, you have to develop your credo, etc. It’s all on you.” Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau were all known to be Unitarians, he says. “We as a denomination have no church-wide policy,” he explains. “We are doctrine-free, dogma-free. Part of what we believe is that everyone has to create their own theology and figure out their own path. Most UUs today would not call themselves Christians. Even though we might look to Jesus as a great teacher, he wouldn’t be the only one and we wouldn’t call him the son of God.” McLeod says UUs use the term fellowship more often than congregation. It’s common for UUs to say, “Don’t tell me what you believe, tell me what you did today,” he says.
McLeod states that “a lot of people find their way to UU as their first step back to organized religion, and very often they use us as a transition back to their faith of birth or childhood, because what they learn from us is that you need to be responsible for your own theology. I have a friend who is Catholic who says, ‘I go to Catholic church for the ritual, and I go to UU for the community.’” He agrees that there is a comfort to going through the rituals you learned as a child.
Although there are marked differences between Unitarian Universalists and other mainstream churches, McLeod says there are similarities. “Our services would look very much like a Methodist service. Our services used to be very different, but now when people come in who have been un-churched for a long time, they say, ‘Well, this feels like a church. There are opening words, sermons, hymns.’”
Emerson has about 450 members. Community is one of the things McLeod talks about a lot. Compared with Houston’s Lakewood Church—arguably the largest church in America—Emerson is quite small and liberal. (Lakewood was the target of protests late in 2014 by Westboro Baptist members because Lakewood is tolerant of LGBT attendees—although Lakewood pastor Joel Osteen has made it clear through several recent interviews that he believes the homosexual lifestyle is a sin according to the Bible.)
In Emerson’s upcoming five-week series on attitudes in the religious community toward LGBTQ people, McLeod will lead the Emerson UU adult education classes in examining those same scriptures plus other sacred teachings. (Of course, he does not believe the scriptures support judgmental views like Osteen’s.) In the first week of the series, McLeod says, “I’m going to be talking about where we as a denomination have been and what ‘Welcoming Congregation’ means. It’s a UU community that, through education and discernment, has chosen to assert their affirmative welcome to people who are LGBTQ.
“The second Sunday is going to be about what the [Judeo-Christian] scripture really says, what Leviticus really means, and [the various ways that has been interpreted by different religions],” McLeod continues. “What have the churches done with this? In the Middle Ages there were same-sex marriages in the church, but then it was suppressed. There’s some really good research done on that by John Boswell out of Yale. The last two Sundays I’m going to look at ‘What about the World Religions?’
Over the last two years, as part of their “Living Text” series, Emerson has conducted a church-wide study of topics such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, earth-centered religions, women and religion, as well as both Unitarianism and Universalism. Last year McLeod taught about Taoism, which he says is an area of interest for him, and if he had to cite a book as his spiritual guide, he says, it would be the Tao Te Ching.
Now, beginning on the first Sunday in February, the entire Emerson congregation will be studying LGBTQ religious issues for a five-week period. During each of the five Sundays, the topic will be the focus of the youth and adult classes, as well as the topic of the day’s sermon. McLeod says, “I think this is a very significant move for a church not identified as a so-called ‘gay church’ but a denomination that has been gay-affirming since the very early 1970s and has been doing services of union since not long after that.”
Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church is located at 1900 Bering Drive in Houston. Each Sunday, adult education classes and activities for youth and children begin at 10 a.m., followed by a worship service at 11 a.m. To learn more about Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church or the upcoming study series, go to EmersonHouston.org.
Karen Derr is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine and a broker associate at Boulevard Realty.
A Universal Approach to Life
“As Unitarian Universalists, we have no sacred text per se. In our search for what gives life meaning, what sustains us through the tough and tender moments of life, and what gives us a sense of our place in the universe, we think anything can be potentially instructive. And so we draw wisdom from a wide variety of sources—not only what are considered traditional scriptures of the world’s religions, but also contemporary literature, science, and art and music—and, perhaps most importantly, from personal experience.
“We think that any religion that is worth its salt has to make sense, to be real and true—for us as individuals and for humanity collectively. And so the life experiences of someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender can be just as revelatory of the sacred (that is, revealing to us what it means to live a life of goodness, integrity, and purpose) as a story from the Bible. The love that two people of the same gender feel for one another can be as illuminating and challenging as any classical love story [with regard to] what it means to cherish another person and to put that person’s well-being on a par equal to one’s own.
“In our quest to become better people and to help make the world a better place for all people, should we limit ourselves to only one source of inspiration?” —Rev. Becky Edmiston-Lange, Co-Minister, Emerson UU Church