Church that meets at city’s only gay bar joins with group that tracks LGBT-friendly businesses to fuel resurgence in activism in ‘Little D’
DENTON — As a crowd gathers in front of Mable Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair on Easter Sunday, they begin to sing “This Little Light of Mine” and enter the city’s only gay bar — for a church service.
Under the direction of the Rev. Jeff Hood, the group of about 35 takes their seats, still singing, until Hood begins his sermon.
Hood moved to Denton from Mississippi last summer. A Baptist minister, he started a house church to spread the word of God in his new city, but when the congregation outgrew his living room, he sought out another worship space.
He thought Mable’s was the perfect site because it is the “center point of the queer community in Denton.” And his church reaches out to the queer community, including LGBT people, and aims to be a “radically inclusive space” for everyone. He said many of the people who attend haven’t gone to church in a while or have never attended.
“A lot of people who are not comfortable going to church are comfortable going to a bar for church because they were there the night before,” Hood said, adding that while many churches have met at bars in the past, few have met at gay bars.
Hood is among a group of activists who’ve fueled a recent resurgence in LGBT advocacy in this town of some 115,000 about 40 miles north of Dallas.
More than 200 people attended a marriage equality rally at City Hall in late March, and six local churches including Hood’s signed a letter vowing to be inclusive published in the Denton Record-Chronicle on Easter.
Lesbian activist Kat Ralph co-founded Keep Denton Queer in December after a patron at a bar in Denton harassed her when she kissed her girlfriend — and the manager wouldn’t address the issue.
What started as a Facebook page for people to post about positive and negative experiences grew into a website and the creation of stickers bearing KDQ’s logo for LGBT-supportive businesses.
Although she’s still putting together information to send out with the stickers, she said six businesses sought her out and already display them in their storefronts.
Ralph hopes the level of involvement from the LGBT community remains strong after past efforts to create an organized movement in Denton — which even led to a citywide Pride celebration in 2009 — died out.
“It fizzled out for a while,” Ralph said. “This is the perfect opportunity to do something locally again.”
How Jesus is ‘queer’
Hood’s church began meeting at the bar on Easter Sunday and has had good attendance. Hood’s wife paints while he preaches to add a visual element. He also alternates between preaching a Bible study and asking his flock to discuss Scripture in small groups before coming back together.
Part of Hood’s teachings focus on the idea that Jesus is “queer” in the sense that his actions were non-normative, even in today’s culture.
“In a world of greed and injustice doing something non-normative is queer,” Hood said, adding that things such as loving everyone and forgiveness are queer because it often goes against our nature to do either fully.
Raised Southern Baptist, Hood was taught to condemn homosexuality, but he became an LGBT advocate in 2007 after his pastoral mentor came out to him.
He now speaks out for immigration equality for same-sex couples and is working with Denton churches on becoming more inclusive because only a few currently are.
He sent out letters on Ash Wednesday encouraging dialogue about inclusion and received a response from a few churches that agreed to sign the letter published in the Denton Record-Chronicle.
But some churches were not open to the dialogue he offered. Hood said his teachings are “definitely a threat” to churches in Denton that teach “traditional family values.”
“We’re committed to being the most inclusive space that ever existed in Denton,” he said.
Natalie Elle Woods, associate pastor-in-training at Hood’s church, found comfort in the church’s teachings.
Also raised Southern Baptist, she came out to her family a few years ago after leaving her husband.
“My faith wasn’t something I could ever leave, but when I came out to my family, they said I had to pick between God and being gay,” she said.
But at Hood’s church, where Woods will be ordained next Easter, she’s found acceptance and spiritual healing.
“It’s a place of acceptance and love and completely different ideology and theology of what God is,” Woods said.
“He wants everyone to regain their faith and even begin their faith.”
Kelly Sanders, who owns Mable Peabody’s, said she opened her doors to Hood because “we’re a part of the community, they’re a part of the community.”
The bar opened in 1979, and Sanders has owned it since 1994. It reopened in a bigger venue after a 2007 fire closed it. As the city’s only gay bar, she said the business has filled a void in the LGBT community.
Sanders said things have changed immensely since patrons needed a code to enter the bar in the ’80s and early ’90s.
“There’s a bigger acceptance,” she said.
Ralph hopes to continue to work with businesses and the community to turn acceptance into equality. She wants to turn Keep Denton Queer into a nonprofit in the next six months and would like to have Denton eventually start its own LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
“I think what we’re doing is fun and has made a difference, but there’s a certain professionalism that needs to be attached,” she said.
But the chamber would remain separate from KDQ, which will remain a community-based outreach and safe haven in Denton, which has no other citywide LGBT organization.
“We’re definitely a place for citizens to go and have a safe place to talk about their experiences,” she said.
From religion to politics
Tyler Carlton, a member of the Denton County Democratic Party’s Executive Committee, helped plan the March marriage equality rally and another one this Tuesday before a City Council meeting where he asked members to create a resolution supporting marriage equality.
Carlton said the response from council members was supportive. Members assigned the city secretary’s office to conduct research for a possible resolution. He said Councilman Dalton Gregory also asked the city manager’s office to research policies and benefits the city could offer its LGBT employees, including domestic partner benefits. The city currently prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in its Equal Employment Opportunity policy.
Gregory told Dallas Voice he thought the reports made before the council on marriage equality “were thoughtful and compelling.”
“I have no idea what the rest of the council would do if this came to a vote,” he added. “It is way too early to tell since we have no data and have not had a discussion on the issue.”
Gregory said he wants the city manager to find out if same-sex city employees with partners could add them to the city benefits program and if death benefits could be given to same-sex partners. He said he expects the office to research other cities that offer these benefits.
Carlton said he was pleased with the response from Gregory and hopes it will lead to change. He will follow up with the city to ensure the measure makes it before the council for a vote and will plan more activism to urge them to pass it.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” he said. “We’ll keep an active role and make sure they don’t forget.”
Longtime Denton activist John Turner-McClelland, who started Denton County’s Stonewall Democrats chapter, became the first openly gay male elected official in the county’s history when he won a seat on the district board of the Denton County Fresh Water Supply in March 2010.
He said Denton has had a long history of activism from the early days of the statewide group Equality Texas to local efforts in the 1970s.
And Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs signed a city proclamation in 2009 and 2012 recognizing LGBT Pride Day in the city of Denton at the request of the Stonewall Democrats of Denton County and other organizations, he said.
“I think like any organizational effort, there are peaks and valleys, and hopefully this is another peak,” he said about the resurgence of activism in Denton.
He also said the March rally was different than past rallies and hopes the demand for action for change from Denton leaders will remain strong.
“We’ve held protest rallies before on the Denton Square, and I felt this time was different, Turner-McClelland said. “This time there was more of a sense of community and that we are not alone.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 19, 2013.