The first initiative to document historic and cultural sites associated with the LGBT community in New York City, illustrating the richness of the city's history and the community's influence on America.
The congregation of this former church was led by the pioneering, openly gay Reverend Paul M. Abels from 1973 to 1984. The church and neighboring parish house also provided meeting space for a number of LGBT groups, most notably the Salsa Soul Sisters – the oldest black lesbian organization in America – from 1976 to 1987.
The Washington Square United Methodist Church was known for its progressive stance on a number of issues, including its acceptance of the LGBT community. A large number of gay men and lesbians were among its members. From 1973 to 1984, the Reverend Paul M. Abels led a campaign to restore the church. After publicly acknowledging his homosexuality in 1977, he became the first openly gay minister in the country with a congregation in a major Christian denomination. He also performed “covenant ceremonies” for LGBT couples who were forbidden by law to marry. Although his bishop called for his removal, both regional and national church authorities ruled in his favor. However, in 1984, Rev. Abels left the ministry amidst continuing criticism over his homosexuality.
The church and parish house also provided space for LGBT groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Harvey Milk High School, and the Metropolitan Community Church of New York. In 1972, openly gay health experts led an open community forum to an audience of nearly 100 gay men about the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases, which encouraged the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Project at Liberation House soon after. The first-ever rehearsal for the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus was held here in 1979.
From October 1976 to May 1987, the black and Latina lesbian group Salsa Soul Sisters also met in the parish house. Founded in 1974 by Reverend Dolores Jackson, Sonia Bailey, Harriet Alston, and others, the group had grown out of the Black Lesbian Caucus, which formed in 1971 as a subcommittee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). They had previously met at the Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church (now Church of the Village), beginning in 1974.
As an alternative to bars where lesbians of color had historically faced discrimination, the Salsa Soul Sisters’ space here provided welcoming social events and weekly meetings on topics such as racism and single lesbian parenting. The group also published the quarterly magazines Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians (1977) and Salsa Soul Gayzette (1982), and formed the Jemima Writers Collective, all of which were written by and about lesbians of color. In 1987, the Salsa Soul Sisters moved to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) and later changed its name to African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC). It is credited as the nation’s oldest black lesbian organization. In 2004, the church building was sold and converted to private condominiums. The congregation merged with two others to form The Church of the Village on Seventh Avenue and West 13th Street.
Architect or Builder: Gamaliel King (church); Charles Hadden (parish house) Year Built: 1859 (church); 1879 (parish house)
Bruce Lambert, “The Rev. Paul Abels Dies at 54; Gay Pastor Lead ‘Peace’ Church,” The New York Times, March 14, 1992. David Deitcher, ed., The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall (New York: Scribner, 1995). [source of pull quote] Larry Rohter, “New York Offering Public School Geared to Homosexual Students,” The New York Times, June 6, 1985. Perry Brass, “A Prophecy Before Our Time: The Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic Opens in 1972,” New York Public Library blog (November 7, 2013), on.nypl.org/2eDa5iQ “Rev. Paul Abels,” The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network, bit.ly/2fbm2ix. Salsa Soul Sisters Research File, Lesbian Herstory Archives. Third World Gay Women, Inc., “Salsa Soul Sisters Pamphlet,” Greenwich Village History, bit.ly/2ddFjLG. “Third World Women’s Gay-Zette,” Fifth Issue, January 1977.
Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.