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50 years after LGBTQ uprising, Charleston faith community hopes for more progress

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St. Stephen Episcopal Church is located in Charleston's Ansonborough neighborhood. File/Staff

Fifty years after a monumental uprising helped spark the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement, members of the Charleston area faith community say there's still work to be done. 

That's the sentiment that Linda Ketner, longtime member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and co-founder of the Alliance For Full Acceptance, hopes to convey at an upcoming event honoring the revolutionary moment that helped advance efforts for gay rights.

“We have come a very, very long way," said Ketner, but "in South Carolina, we can still be fired at will for sexual orientation. We can be denied housing."

St. Stephen's Episcopal, a downtown house of worship home to many LGBTQ worshipers, will host an evensong on Sunday to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

The Stonewall Evensong is named after the New York uprising that occurred when angry gay youth clashed with authorities after police attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York. It lead to a three-day riot that received minimal news coverage but helped spark a movement that has echoed around Charleston and the rest of the world.

Ketner noted the progress made over the years, including the legalization of homosexuality. But violent acts against transgender African Americans remain a top concern, she said. In South Carolina alone, four transgender women have been murdered since 2018.

On Sunday, she'll read a poem written by a transgender African American male in an effort to put people in touch with the fear that black transgender individuals experience.

“My goal is to help people feel, on an emotional level, the struggle," Ketner said.

Over the years, St. Stephen's has hailed as a house of worship for all people.

In the late 1980s, black members opened the church doors to white worshipers in a rapidly changing neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, the church was gaining a reputation for its gay and lesbian membership. 

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Today, more than 100 members of the 400-member congregation identify as LGBTQ, worshiping and serving in a church that's become a fixture for inclusion in the Charleston community. The Rev. Adam Shoemaker, rector at St. Stephen's, says that number is growing.

"I personally believe that St. Stephen's is well-positioned for the changing face of Charleston," he said. “I think there’s a lot of people who are looking for an affirmative, inclusive and welcoming congregation that also is rooted in the tradition of the church.”

It's important for the faith community to speak up about inclusion because most people assume that the official Christian position is that gay and lesbians aren’t welcomed in the church, Shoemaker said.

St. Stephen's regularly participates in the area's annual Pride festival, and churches play an important role considering how houses of worship have torn down the gay community, Shoemaker said.

Still, the faith community seems split on the issue as many contend the practice of homosexuality violates the Biblical stance. After much debate, the United Methodist Church recently voted to tighten restrictions around ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriages.

But Shoemaker sees a shift occurring. He's grown up in a world where more churches are embracing the gifts that LGTBQ Christians offer.

In the Episcopal church, evensong, also referred to as evening prayer, is an evening worship service. At St. Stephen's, the program has taken on different themes to recognize the Jewish community and Blues music.

Historically, the faith community has put up a fence to keep others out, said Wayne Hemly, organizer of the evensong. At St. Stephen's, the goal has been to open up the church to different groups of people, he said.

"We're interested in no fence," Hemly said.

The evening service will include renditions of songs composed by notable LGBTQ artists, such as Elton John. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, known for his piano skills, will offer a rendition of John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

The event begins at 5 p.m.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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