Velma Jeanne Barnett was born on May 28, 1930, into a longtime Methodist family in Waynoka, Oklahoma. She was vice-president of her high school Methodist Youth Fellowship and led the Sunday evening worship and discussion groups. She graduated with a B.A. in music from the University of Tulsa.
Jeanne relocated to southern California and began a long professional career in state service in 1959 with the Employment Development Department. She later transferred to the Bay Area where she was regional administrator and then moved to Sacramento where she was Chief of the Unemployment Division and concluded her career as Chief of the Employment Data and Research Division. She retired in 1991 after 32 years of service.
In spite of her heavy professional responsibilities, Jeanne always gave generously of her time and talents to the church. She served in nearly every leadership capacity at St. Mark's UMC in Sacramento. She was also a leader in the United Methodist regional conference: leading classes in personnel, consulting with pastors on personnel matters, chairing the Conference Reorganization Committee and also the Personnel Policies Committee. She received a special award from Bishop Melvin Talbert in 1994 and was elected Conference Lay Leader in 1996.
At the age of 50, Jeanne experienced an epiphany: that she was a lesbian. Shortly thereafter she met Ellie Charlton, another active United Methodist laywoman, at a lesbian potluck gathering. They became friends although Ellie was in another relationship at the time. When Ellie's relationship ended, they began dating and soon made a life commitment to each other that nurtured and sustained them for almost 20 years. Indicative of their committed relationship they later organized annual "Enrichment Weekends" for lesbian couples.
Jeanne and Ellie both became active advocates for full inclusion and rights for GLBT persons, through National Affirmation: United Methodists for LGBT Concerns and the California-Nevada Reconciling Conference Committee. Jeanne was appointed to the national United Methodist Committee to Study Homosexuality in 1988 as one of two openly gay/lesbian members. She served as one of the presenters of the Committee's report at the General Conference in 1992. She was subsequently elected a delegate to the 1996 General Conference--one of the few times an openly lesbian or gay person has served as an official delegate to this United Methodist quadrennial "congress."
On October 4, 1998, the pastor of St. Mark's UMC, Don Fado, preached a sermon stating his intention to perform a public gay/lesbian commitment service with a number of other clergy participating. Jeanne and Ellie informed Fado of their interest in celebrating a Holy Union. They had considered having a commitment service early in their relationship, but believing that only a few friends and no family members would attend, they had decided not to. Because of a recent ruling by the United Methodist Judicial Council that clergy were banned from officiating at same-gender commitment services, it now seemed appropriate to make a public witness of their committed relationship.
News of the planned Holy Union traveled quickly and the plans grew in magnitude. The Holy Union was celebrated on January 16, 1999, at the Sacramento Convention Center Theater with 1,200 guests and 95 clergy co-officiating. The ceremony received widespread TV and newspaper coverage. A video about the ceremony was produced and distributed. Over the following 18 months, Jeanne and Ellie traveled throughout the U.S. and were honored by a large number of church and GLBT groups.
Ecclesiastical charges were filed against the 68 United Methodist clergy of the California-Nevada Conference that co-officiated at the ceremony. A hearing was held in February 2000 at the Fairfield UMC, following which the charges were dropped.
Jeanne suffered a stroke in January, 1995, while attending an Affirmation Council meeting. Her mental and physical health steadily improved in the years immediately following, but later began to decline with complications from diabetes, deteriorating eyesight, and heart problems. Jeanne died on October 1, 2003. Following Jeanne's death, Ellie found a hand-written note that said, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."
(Information for this biographical statement provided by Ellie Charlton and documents of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. Photo above of Jeanne (left) and Ellie taken by Mike DuBose of the United Methodist News Service.)
Biography Date: February, 2005
Methodist (UMC, United Methodist Church) | Barnett, Jeanne | Charlton, Ellie | Affirmation (United Methodist) | Activist (religious institutions) | Marriage Equality | California | Sacramento