Peg Beissert was born as Marguerite R. Beissert on August 1, 1914 in New Jersey. She was an only child. Her mother and father taught her to be a strong, independently-minded woman, which was a rarity in those days. She met the love of her life, her husband Al, and had four children, one of whom died in infancy. The other children are daughter Jan Beissert Gray and sons Wayne and Neal Beissert.
Peg attended Douglas College of Rutgers University, another rarity for a woman of her day, earning a Bachelor's of Literature (Litt.B.) in journalism. After the death of her infant child she became very interested in spirituality. In 1963, she earned her Masters in Religious Education from Drew Thelogical Seminary. In 1971, she earned her Masters of Divinity magna cum laude from Drew and was ordained by the United Church of Christ.
While in seminary she met and studied with Dr. Nel Morton, one of the first feminist professors. Peg was outraged that because Nel was a woman the University would not promote her to a full professorship. At that time women could only be lecturers and assistant professors. In notes for an article about her life, Peg wrote: "It was while I was in seminary that I gained two new insights: I became a radical feminist and I knew 'something had to be done' on the gay/lesbian issue." She continued:
The day after I was ordained (after careers in journalism and Christian education) my pastor-colleague introduced me as the first woman abortion counselor to more than a hundred male clergy. This was prior to Roe vs. Wade. They had been sending women to Puerto Rico, then to New York when abortion was legalized there. This was a very thoughtful, deliberate step I was taking, but the experience convinced me women had the right to decide about their own bodies.
In January 2012, Peg was honored by the California Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and was presented an award as one of the early pioneers in providing spiritual care and counsel to women with problem pregnancies.
Peg described her husband Al, as "an early feminist." He supported her in her quest for women's equality. They truly had a marriage of equal partnership. She once said she would never get married again because she was sure she would never meet a man who was as egalitarian and feminist as Al.
In the mid 1970s Peg was called as the associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Thus she became Presbyterian. Peg served on the Presbytery's Candidates Committee, overseeing persons seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Peg wrote of the experience of Chris Glaser coming to ask for ordination:
I was totally impressed by him. I have never thrown myself more into the action. (I was accused of giving one man on the committee a heart attack). We did approve Chris by a vote of 7-5, but he was crucified by the Presbytery. After the vote against him was taken, he was asked to lead the Presbytery in prayer. He included "those ministers here tonight who are gay and hidden." It was Chris who began asking me to preach at West Hollywood Presbyterian Church occasionally. This was a new world for me.
In 1981, Rev. Dick Hetz, who was helping Chris lead West Hollywood Church, was murdered. The congregation needed another clergyperson to celebrate the sacraments and do other ministry tasks that only an ordained person can do in a Presbyterian Church. Peg's husband Al had just died and the Presbytery asked Peg if she would "fill in" at West Hollywood.
West Hollywood was the perfect place for Peg. She was loved by a whole bunch of great men even as she mourned the loss of the most important man in her life. At the same time, she became an LGBT advocate. Peg later became the interim pastor there and served the congregation until Dan Smith was called as pastor on October 1, 1984. A few years later, Chris resigned as Director of the Lazarus Project. Peg was selected to be the next Director and served there for almost ten years. She was an indomitable advocate and worked tirelessly with homophobic pastors. She retired as Director of the Lazarus Project on June 1, 1995.
Peg was one of the early heterosexual allies who was willing to stand up for LGBT people and LGBT Christians. This giant of justice and courageous woman of faith was only 5'2", was as thin as a pencil, and wore 4" heels (almost until the day she died). She drove a red sports car with a stick shift, wore black racing sunglasses and drove like a bat-out-of-hell. Few people could keep up with her--on the road or in life.
Peg died on October 15, 2013 at the age of 99. She was a prophet, an activist, a brilliantly gifted thinker, a pioneering feminist and a woman who thought, lived and acted as one far ahead of her time.
(This biographical profile edited from a remembrance provided by Rev. Dan Smith, now pastor of West Hollywood United Church of Christ.)
Biography Date: October, 2013
Presbyterian Church (USA) | Glaser, Chris | Lazarus Project | Activist (church change) | Ally | Feminism