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Craig Rodwell | Profile

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Biography

Craig Rodwell was born in Chicago on October 31, 1940. His father left the family early on, so his mother struggled to support Craig and his older brother. From ages 6 to 14 Craig lived at a small Christian Science boarding school, The Chicago Junior School in Elgin, Illinois. There forty-five boys lived in three dormitories out in the woods.  As Rodwell recalled in an interview with Bruce Stores, "We lived, played, and thought Christian Science from sunup to sundown. We even had to say the 'Scientific Statement of Being' in football huddles."  Sexual play was common among the boys there and they expressed their adolescent homosexuality in typical ways. At fourteen Craig had a sexual encounter with an adult male (at Craig's initiative) who was arrested for having sex with a minor and sentenced to five years in prison. The authorities encouraged Craig to testify that he had been solicited and paid money. But Craig refused to lie, so he was threatened with juvenile detention. The hearing officer allowed Craig to remain with his family if he went to a psychiatrist. At this young age Craig became steadfast in his conviction that the system was wrong.

After boarding school, Craig went to public high school in Chicago and enrolled in Sunday School at the 16th Church of Christ, Scientist. One of the Sunday School sessions there had a dramatic impact upon his life. As Craig expressed in his interview with Stores: "It was there, I learned from my Sunday School teacher that the official Church stance on homosexuality was negative. I knew then [1957] that someday, somehow, I would help challenge the false teachings in the Christian Science movement." After high school, Craig accepted a scholarship to study at the American Ballet School in New York. Craig was enthusiastic about moving to New York, particularly to Greenwich Village, which he had heard had a large homosexual community. He also looked forward to connecting with the Mattachine Society he had been told about.

Craig moved to New York in the summer of 1959. He immediately looked up the Mattachine Society but was not allowed to get involved since he was under 21. As a student with limited financial means, he did not to bars, but connected with other gay men on the streets and in the parks. He got into scrapes with the police because he refused to acquiesce to the typical police harrassment of the day. He was jailed after staging his own picket against his local draft board and was sentenced in September 1962 to brief prison time for resisting a police sweep at a popular gay cruising area at Jacob Riis Park. He was treated harshly by the police and physically abused by a prison guard which shook his self-confidence. He attempted suicide and then left New York to travel across the U.S. eventually reaching California.

However, he returned to New York in early 1964 and resolved to advocate for justice for gays. He started volunteering full-time in the local Mattachine Society office. He formed the Mattachine Young Adults in 1964 to promote his belief that gay visibility was the key to ending oppresssion. In 1965, he helped organize the East Coast Homophile Organizations' public protest of the exclusion of gays from federal employment and the military in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. He staged a "sip-in" in 1966, to challenge the state Liquor Authority's refusal to license bars that served liquor to gay men and lesbians. He was outraged that so many gay bars were owned and operated by the organized crime syndicate. Rodwell's persistence in public defiance and protest played a key role in leading the New York Mattachine Society and other early homophile groups to become more activist.

A strategic movement thinker, Rodwell perceived that the homosexual community needed a focal point and proposed that Mattachine-New York open a storefront office. He was greatly discouraged that his project was rebuffed, so he quit Mattachine. He worked summers on Fire Island and other odd jobs to save enough money to buy a storefront at 291 Mercer Street. He opened it on Thanksgiving Day 1967 as the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. "My general policy  was to have a shop where gay people didn't feel they were being exploited either sexually or economically...It was not a porn shop. There were no drawn blinds or 'Adult only' signs or 'peep shows' in the back. Young people and women were welcome. About one-fourth of the clientele were women. The bookshop also became a gathering place for lesbians and gays in the neighborhood, [as] notices, and bulletins of community events helped bring many inside." [From Stores.] At this time Rodwell also started his own organization HYMN (Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods) through which he published a newsletter Hymnal which gave him a platform to encourage more radical activism.

Late on Friday, June 27, 1969, Rodwell and his partner at the time, Fred Sargeant, were playing cards with friends. When they left to walk home they heard sirens and shouting in the direction of Sheridan Square. They walked over and saw the police wagon outside the Stonewall Inn. Sensing something different in the air, they climbed up to a spot where they could watch what was happening. Rodwell was exhilarated to watch the growing resistance to the police harrassment and started cheering and yelling encouragement. Recognizing that something of great significance was happening here, he went to a phone booth to call city newsrooms to ask them to send a reporter. He was disappointed that the story was largely ignored except by the Village Voice.

Rodwell was out on the street the next morning passing out leaflets encouraging gays to continue to fight oppression. He participated in the growing street  protests on the following nights. His desire and vision for the gay community to come out publicly in bigger and bolder ways was unquenchable. At the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations in Philadelphia, on November 1-2, he and Ellen Broidy proposed a resolution that a demonstration should be held in New York City on the last Saturday in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion and that it be called the Christopher Street Liberation Day. This was the birth of the annual Gay & Lesbian Pride commemorations that soon emerged in most major U.S. cities.

Over these years of his whirlwind gay liberation activity Craig had met other gay Christian Scientists. While he was still thinking about ways to challenge the church's homophobia, he was too busy to give this much attention. In the late 1970s, he decided to place a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a prominent place in his bookstore. Through this display he encountered more gay Christian Scientists, including Ray Spitale. Craig, Ray, Bob McCullough and Bob Mackenroth from Ninth Church of Christ, Scientist, New York, became the nucleus of gay Christian Science activities there. They called themselves Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS). Unlike the gay Christian Science groups forming on the West Coast (under the name of Emergence), the GPICS group was activist from the start challenging the Mother church, its leaders and members.

Craig, Ray, and the two Bobs decided to collaborate on writing an eight-page pamphlet,"Gay People in Christian Science?" Over a period of months they mailed a copy to every Christian Science church, practitioner and college organization--8,000 copies hand-addressed and stamped. Rodwell headed up plans to pass out the brochure at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston. He corresponded with the security office at the headquarters to explain what they would do and to reassure them that this would be a peaceful demonstration. When the day arrived, the GPICS cohort gathered for a service and then walked over to the Mother Church where they found high security and police presence. The group proceeded to set up a table with flowers, books and the brochure. The head of security came up to tell Rodwell and the group that the table was illegal and must be removed. The group huddled and, by a close vote, decided to remove the table. Rodwell and several persons stayed and continued to pass out the pamphlet. When they were not outside leafletting, the group sat in and listened to the Annual Meeting. In their naive confidence the group thought that the distribution of the pamphlet would stir the church to reconsider its position and move toward a more positive stance. However, the church's position only appeared to harden.

In 1981, LGBT activity in Christian Science circles shifted to Boston where a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, Chris Madsen, was fired for being a lesbian. This became the focal point of protest and widespread media attention. At the 1982 Annual Meeting, the GPICS activity was more in-your-face with protests and demonstrations. In the years that followed, the locus of LGBT Christian Science activity shifted to other groups in the Midwest and the West and Rodwell stayed involved although not in a key leadership role.

Rodwell was diagnosed with stomach cancer in May 1992. After months of struggle with his illness, he learned it was terminal. He then sold the bookstore to get his personal affairs in order and died on June 18, 1993. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church began publicly acknowledging that lesbians and gays could officially be members of the church.

(Information for this biographical statement taken from Rodwell's obituary in the New York Times, June 20, 1993;  Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter; and Christian Science: Its Encounter with Lesbian/Gay America by Bruce Stores.)

Biography Date: May, 2015

Tags

Christian Science (officially Church of Christ, Scientist) | Mattachine Society | Activist (church change) | Gay Liberation Movement | Stonewall Riots (NYC) | New York | New York City | Rodwell, Craig

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