The Rev. Robert Wood, gay rights pioneer, was a man of God way ahead of his time

  • ABOVE: Rejean Blanchette (left) and Bob Paradis were married by The Rev. Robert Wood five years ago and now live in Deerfield. TOP: The Rev. Robert Wood, shown in 2014, was a giant in the gay rights community in the 1960s and ’70s. He died at 95. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Rejean Blanchette (left) and Bob Paradis, who were married by Rev. Wood five years ago and now live in Deerfield. Rev. Robert Wood, who died this week at age 95, was a giant within the gay rights community 50 and 60 years ago, a man of God who dared fight for gay marriage anti-discrimination laws long before society was ready. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Rev. Robert Wood (right) and artist Hugh M. Coulter, his partner of 26 years, are shown in 1972 at a friend’s house on Long Island, N.Y., celebrating their 10th anniversary together. Coulter died in 1989. Courtesy

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    Rev. Robert Wood began speaking and writing for gay causes shortly after his ordination in 1951. He wrote "Christ and the Homosexual" (1960), which helped begin the dialogue between organized religion and the GLBT community. He was among the first clergymen to advocate for same-sex marriage. His partner of over 26 years, American abstract artist Hugh M. Coulter painted the painting behind him. He died in 1989. Geoff Forester

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/26/2018 5:42:01 PM

What in the world was the Rev. Robert Wood thinking nearly 60 years ago, when homosexuality was viewed as a mental disorder and gay people lived in the shadows?

“He was advocating for gay marriage in the early ’60s,” Rejean Blanchette of Deerfield told me before a recent podcast at the Monitor. “None of us would be where we are now if not for people like Bob Wood.”

Wood, who moved to Concord 30 years ago from New York City, died Aug. 20 at the age of 95. He was living at Havenwood-Heritage Heights retirement community.

If you want a short list of leaders who rocked the boat during the 1960s and ’70s and forced society to address the issue of equal rights, put Wood’s name near the top, next to people like King and Steinem.

Wood marched in 1965 in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia to raise awareness about gay persecution before gay people marched. He wrote books about gay issues and used his real name before gay people wrote books and used their real names. And he stated emphatically that gay people could, in fact, be valuable churchgoing members of the community before that sort of conduct was fashionable.

He also showed that a gay soldier could fight bravely and earn his country’s highest honors, which is what Wood did during World War II after sustaining two life-threatening injuries in Italy.

That fact, like Wood himself, came out later, and you can bet the reverend would not have received that recognition had his commanding officers known he was gay.

Wood spoke about his life as a gay man with unabashed purpose, correcting me a few years ago during an interview. He told me he had met his lover, Hugh Coulter, at a bar in New York City, and when I attempted to confirm that this was a gay establishment, Wood quickly said, “Gay leather bar,” making sure I knew the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Yet, shockingly, few know anything about this gay-rights giant, and, for a while, that included Blanchette and his husband, Bob Paradis, who also participated in the podcast. They were married by Wood in 2013.

“He was overshadowed by a couple of other people who did the march with him,” Blanchette told me. “He was quieter than the others, so that is why he never got the recognition that others got.”

Wood, who grew up in Ohio, told me he knew his sexual orientation by high school. Going to dances with girls never appealed to him.

He built on that foundation and later became comfortable enough in his own skin to write a book titled Christ and the Homosexual and put his name right on the cover. He emerged as the first author of a book calling for Christian churches to accept gays.

“One big thing is he was not afraid to name himself and wear his collar,” Paradis said. “Previous to his book, he ministered gay people and he was pictured in a magazine with his collar and his name, and that amazed me that he had that kind of courage.

“He had his share of threats, but he said the thank-yous were more than the threats. People knew they were not alone.”

Blanchette and Paradis, both in their 60s, have been through all the family pain and shame as they learned to accept who they were and tried to build a life closer to normal.

Blanchette, married to a woman for 32 years and the father of three, officially came out in 2009, although he said his wife probably knew the truth by then. Still, she was “bitter,” he said.

The couple divorced the next year, and while Blanchette said his two daughters were fine with his lifestyle, his son was not.

“My ex made my son choose between me or her,” Blanchette said.

Paradis’s father, hoping to make his son straight, wanted to take him to Las Vegas, perhaps thinking that a prostitute would do the trick. Paradis didn’t go.

Since those dark, unsure days, Paradis and Blanchette have found their places in society and, in fact, they found each other. Blanchette is a retired controller, Paradis a retired bricklayer.

Paradis met Wood first, introduced by a common friend named Dicky Pervonga, who’s been living at Havenwood since 2006. Pervonga explained to Paradis the national impact Wood had had on the gay community.

“What Bob tried to do and getting people to accept who he was was very important,” Paradis said. “He helped people like me along the way. I learned so much about what his struggle was.”

But like Paradis and Blanchette, Pervonga had no idea who Wood was when he first met him.

“I got to know him and then I got to know about him,” he said. “He was so far ahead of his time, generations ahead of where one would expect him to be. He is a person I will always admire and respect, and I’m glad he will get some acclaim. So many people are not aware of what he accomplished.”

Blanchette first saw Wood at the Capital Gay Men, a social club that meets Friday nights at 7:30 at the Wesley United Methodist Church on Clinton Street.

There, Blanchette listened to a man in his mid-80s talk about his ground-breaking book, written nearly 50 years before.

He learned the importance of this man, that he had retired from the liberal United Church of Christ in New York City and moved here; that he had thumbed his nose at pastors like Jim Baker and Pat Robertson; that he had lobbied to make gay marriage legal and job discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal; and that he was a major player during the civil rights movement, marching in the first-ever gay demonstration in our nation’s capital on June 25, 1965, along with 26 other gay and lesbian activists.

Years later, Wood performed his final same-sex marriage when he married Blanchette and Paradis, both of whom cared for their role model during the final years of his life.

A memorial service will be held Oct. 2 at Havenwood.

“Everyone is invited,” Blanchette said.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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