The Rev. Julian Rush, United Methodist pastor who came out publicly in the early 1980s, was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1936. He speaks of his early years: "I was born gay...I'm sure of that. I was…the grandson of a horse-loving urologist and one of two children of a pharmacist. My mother and dad spent most of their days, except Sundays, working at the drugstore. During my preschool and elementary years, because I was so sheltered, I was the stock definition of a sissy. I had very low self-esteem and desperately wanted to be popular, but didn’t know how.”
Julian grew up next door to his grandparents so had close family connections. His early years were filled with piano, art, the Methodist Church and Boy Scouts. He had a religious conversion experience at a summer camp meeting he attended with his grandmother between his 10th and 11th grade years. He recalls that this brought about changes in his lifestyle with a more outward focus, responding to and caring for the needs of others. In spite of his deep insecurities, he thrived in his ability to please others and became popular among his peers. He became student director and drum major of his high school band. He was president of the youth group at his church and even the statewide president of Methodist Youth.
Meridian Junior College was an extension of the local high school, essentially the 13th and 14th years. When Julian was in 11th grade he helped with the spring musical variety show produced and performed by the 14th graders. His musical creativity and talent flourished in this setting and he received special recognition from his older colleagues at the dinner following the performance. Subsequently Julian poured his energy into musical composition and dramatic performance. The next year he wrote his first full-length musical that was performed by students. He wrote and produced dramatic musicals each year in junior college.
Julian moved on from Meridian to Millsaps College in Jackson. He joined a fraternity there and was elected President his senior year. He had developed a strong bond with another member which they eventually confessed to each other was a deep affection. But neither was able to act on that. Then at a fraternity meeting another member reported that one of the new pledges was thought to be a homosexual and should be expelled immediately. Julian argued for caution and time to investigate this further, but the group overwhelmingly called for immediate expulsion. As President It was Julian’s responsibility to inform this pledge that he was blackballed—without a reason being given. This incident—combined with Julian’s distress about his own sexuality—put him a downward spiral which included a suicide attempt. He was unable to complete his school work in order to graduate. A music professor suggested he come back for another year to focus on musical studies. Julian thrived in musical studies and graduated the following year with high marks.
In spite of some misgivings because of his sexual confusion, Julian continued to be drawn toward becoming a minister. After college he moved to Dallas and enrolled in Perkins School of Theology. Julian prospered there in the interplay of new understandings of the Bible, the Christian faith and the Church. After completing his Master of Sacred Theology degreed he stayed there two more years to get a Masters in Christianity and the Arts. He wrote a three-act musical “On Friday with the Bluejays” as his graduate thesis. During this time he was ordained a deacon and then an elder in the Mississippi Annual Conference.
Following seminary Julian became minister of youth at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth. This 4,000-member church had 250 youth in their youth program. When the youth president asked for Julian’s assistance to create a variety show to raise money, Julian responded by writing and directing the youth in a musical production that was highly successful. Thus Julian realized the potential of using musical drama as the vehicle for his ministry with youth. This became his trademark for the next two decades. During his second year in Fort Worth Julian married a woman he had met in seminary who was a Christian educator. Two years later, their first son, Jason, was born.
After five years as youth minister in Fort Worth, Julian enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Denver School of Drama in 1969. During his second year in Denver a second son, Joel, was born. Julian continued to be troubled that his marriage was not more fulfilling. So he poured his passion into the arts. Inspired by the recent release of the Jesus Christ Superstar musical, Julian organized a local performance as a collaboration between Park Hill United Methodist Church and the Denver University Theater Department. The performance was a smashing success, drawing an audience of over 700 persons and generating widespread praise for Julian.
He graduated in 1971 and became youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs. He wrote a musical that the youth performed his first Christmas there. The musical was such a success that Julian organized a spring-break tour of performances in churches in New Mexico and Texas. Thus Julian’s youth ministry further expanded into travel tours of the musicals his youth performed. During his six years at this church Julian wrote “PT Was Here” about Paul of Tarsus, which he considers the best musical drama he ever wrote.
After five years in Colorado Springs, Julian moved on to continue his thriving youth-musical ministry at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. In spite of his outward success in ministry, Julian’s inner turmoil and dissatisfaction only increased as he reached his 40s. He began therapy to explore his discontent. He decided to get out of his marriage and moved into his own apartment. Gradually his therapy sessions turned him to confront the question of his sexuality. Julian later expressed: “It’s hard for some people to understand how I could have lived for so many years and not have dealt honestly with my sexual orientation. On some level, I knew that I was gay, but I think I translated that awareness into a different constellation so that I wouldn’t have to face the reality….I had constructed a reality for myself that carefully omitted any possibility of having to confront the fact that I was, indeed, gay.”
Coming to the realization that he was gay brought a flood of emotion and relief. Julian reached out to learn more about this new identity by becoming a volunteer counselor at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Denver. He drove to the Center on his days off to do phone counseling with a diversity of LGBTQ persons. He quickly discovered a sense of community along with personal satisfaction and freedom. This positive energy led him to share his newfound identity with colleagues who worked with him in the congregation’s youth ministry. He received affirming responses from these colleagues, but soon the word reached his senior pastor—before Julian had the chance to tell him. Julian met with the senior pastor who proposed that they present this matter to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (the church’s personnel committee) since the news seemed to be circulating around the congregation.
The Staff-Parish Relations meeting was quite contentious and went on for an extended time. Julian was not present and learned afterwards that there were divisions—some strongly supporting him, others strongly opposing and some who were unsure how to respond. The committee determined that it could not resolve this and agreed to think it over and meet again a few days later. Julian attended this next meeting so he could answer questions and talk more about his experience. The regional church head (the District Superintendent) facilitated this meeting and noted that he and the bishop were strongly supportive of Julian. The committee was not able to come to an agreement so concluded by: 1) asking the bishop to move Julian elsewhere to be in ministry; 2) allowing Julian to continue his ministry in Boulder for the time being; and 3) scheduling two all-church meetings for a week later—one for youth and one for adults.
The persons who spoke at the all-church meetings were generally supportive of Julian, almost exclusively so at the meeting of the youth. However, several dissatisfied members started working behind-the-scenes to secure Julian’s ouster. Julian considered resigning to alleviate the tension, but again the District Superintendent relayed the message that both he and Bishop Melvin Wheatley wanted Julian to stay. An all-church meeting was then scheduled with the bishop present for August 30, 1981. Three hundred persons attended this meeting and expressed a wide diversity of perspectives. Again this meeting produced no resolution and the contention continued to roil the life of the congregation. Finally the Staff-Parish Relations Committee determined to meet on October 21 to make a decision. Julian was terminated from his ministry position as of October 31.
The bishop immediately appointed Julian to the staff—at no salary—of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Denver. The next couple years were very strained for Julian as he lacked opportunities to express his creativity and carried a large financial burden with sporadic work and low income. The employment opportunities he found were either in sales or in janitorial services. Some of his supporters in Boulder invited him to lead a house church there. Julian had become a public persona with extensive local and national media coverage about this openly gay minister. Calvin Trillin wrote a feature story about him for the New Yorker.
In May 1982 Julian moved to Kansas to nurture a relationship with a man there. Again he found himself in the media spotlight and unable to secure a satisfying and well-paying job. So he moved back to Denver in October 1983 and returned to ministry as part-time pastor at St. Paul’s. The AIDS crisis was just beginning to unfold and the director of the Gay & Lesbian Center called Julian in to ask if he would lead their response to AIDS. He started with a handful of volunteers and gradually developed the lead service agency in response to HIV-AIDS in the state. When he left the Colorado AIDS Project 17 years later, it had 75 staff members and a budget of three million dollars.
His partner had moved to Denver with Julian but never felt comfortable in the large city so decided to return to Kansas. In 1990 Julian met Michael and they joined in a holy union two years later. Julian stayed close to his two sons through this time and watched them each get married and have children.
In 1996, Julian collaborated with Jean Hodges, theatre artist and member of First UMC Boulder, tand wrote the music for an original musical drama, Come to the Table. The musical told the story of a family moving toward acceptance of a son coming out and the role that their faith played in it. Come to the Table was performed in Denver in May 1996 to delegates and visitors to the United Methodist General Conference as part of the "Open the Doors" campaign of the Reconciling Congregation Program.
When Julian left the Colorado AIDS Project in 2001, he used his wealth of experience with death and dying to go to work for Compassion and Choices. There Julian led workshops and trainings on end of life choices. In 2007, Julian retired and he and Michael decided to move to the warmer climate of Arizona. He got involved in the music program at a large and dynamic downtown United Methodist church in Phoenix. A few years later, the pastor was moved to another church and the vitality of the congregation withered. Julian languished for a time without a church home and an outlet for his musical gifts. But more recently has found a Unitarian Universalist congregation where he feels at home.
As Julian looks back on his life journey he suggests—through the lyrics of a song--that our task is:
We are on this road together
spreading good will and love
whereever we go, you and me.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from information provided in the book Julian Rush—Facing the Music as told to Lee Hart Merrick and other writings by Julian Rush with editing by Julian Rush.)
Biography Date: June, 2020