Rev. Dr. William H. Knight: On Being an Openly Gay Pastor and Spreading a Message of Love

Gay/Lesbian / Monday, August 6th, 2018
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As a child, Rev. Dr. William H. Knight knew he was different from other young boys his age. By the time he was in his early teens, he began to realize he was gay, and by his early twenties, he entered into his first same-sex relationship. But he never felt the need to have a big coming out announcement: this is simply who he was. No big deal.

Knight went on to spend 30 years working in show business in Los Angeles. He had always felt a pull to work in ministry, but he didn’t think he had the proper experience, and he had concerns about being accepted as a gay pastor. Eventually he made the leap, and he’s never looked back.

The 74-year-old is currently the Senior Pastor at Metropolitan Community Church, a small church in San Antonio, Texas. He moved to Texas in the spring of 2017 after spending four years as a minister on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Founded by a gay man who was kicked out of his own church, Knight’s current congregation is extraordinarily LGBTQ-friendly; it’s even the home base for San Antonio Gender Association, a support group that meets there biweekly. While Rev. Knight has only been in San Antonio for a little over a year, he’s already become a pivotal part of his local LGBTQIA community. Last November, he gave an impassioned speech at San Antonio’s Transgender Day of Remembrance service, and he gave the invocation at San Antonio Pride this July. He’s dedicated to being a source of love and comfort to this community that has so often been mistreated by the church.

We had the honor of sitting down with Reverend Knight in his office, where we heard his story of becoming an openly gay pastor, got his take on why being gay and Christian can go hand in hand, and learned why tolerance is not enough. Read on for our interview!

Profiles in Pride: How old were you when you realized you were gay?

Rev. Dr. William H. Knight: Oh my Lord. I started in theater when I was 7 years old. One of the great things about theater is it gives you an opportunity to pretend and to put on different masks and try on different roles. It was fun for me, and I got really into it. I never wanted to be anything other than who I was, but I found that who I was wasn’t like the other kids my age. I played football and did all the stuff you were supposed to do, but I just didn’t feel like that.

I probably had somewhere deep down in my soul that I didn’t want to look at or own or have to deal with, probably when I was around 13 or 14, but I didn’t act on that same-sex attraction until I entered the Navy when I turned 20. I didn’t really do a whole lot then. But when I got out of the Navy four years later, I met a man and fell instantly in love, and we stayed together for the next 11 years. I never had the angst, I never had the trauma; it just sort of unfolded. I have never really had a big “coming out,” because it was just never an issue.

Rev. William H. Knight, openly gay pastor at San Antonio Pride
Rev. Knight at San Antonio Pride

PIP: I know you came out before going into ministry; did you have concerns about being a gay pastor?

WHK: As a matter of fact, the reason it took me so long to accept that this was a career path I could follow was because I really felt that my sexuality would be an issue for a lot of people. And the fact that prior to receiving the heart urging to come into ministry, I spent almost 30 years in show business. I was an actor, director, producer, writer, singer — I did all of that.

My fear was that people would say, “Why should we listen to him? What does he bring to the table that has any value? This is a gay guy who’s been in show business for all these years; what possible reason could we have for paying attention to him?”

So I struggled and I fought against the call. One of the things that was part of my spiritual practice was when I was really troubled, when things were weighing heavily on my spirit, I’d take the Bible and let it fall open and see what God had to say. My concern was I didn’t feel as though I had the proper credentials; I didn’t feel as though I had the right background. I didn’t think that if I said yes that it would be effective. And I opened my Bible and the verse said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” I literally sat and wept, because I knew then that it wasn’t about me; it was about me allowing the message of love to come through. From that point on, I’ve not looked back.

PIP: I’ve heard many people use the Bible to justify hatred toward LGBTQ+ people. How do you as a minister reconcile the text of the Bible with the message you have of love and welcoming all?

WHK: Most of the people who use the Bible to what we call “bash gay people” do what we call “proof-texting.” Proof-texting means that you take a particular passage, you lift it out of context, and then you say that’s proof that what you said was accurate, when in fact, when you read it in context, it doesn’t mean that at all.

Many of the passages they use, we call “clobber texts,” which have been disproven time and time again. Yet these people cling to them because their purpose is to foment and further hatred instead of to focus on the fact that the message of God’s inclusive love is for everybody.

We have done extensive research on how these texts were written, the context in which they were composed, the writer, what the writer was intending to do, and none of them — none of them — have anything to say about homosexuality.

First of all, the word homosexuality was invented in the 18th century, and the Bible was written long before that, so it couldn’t have possibly said anything about homosexuality. If someone says, “Well, the Bible says this about homosexuality,” there’s two things. First of all, the Bible doesn’t talk. It was written on the page.

And in order for things on the page to come alive, they have to be interpreted by those of us who read them. If we read them in the context of our own fears and our own biases and prejudices, of course it will seem to reflect those things. But in fact, if you look at it in purely objective terms and you look at it in the historicity of how it was written, there is no point where it says people who love one another and come together in a mutually accepting and loving relationship have anything except love of God.

They talk about people who exploit other people; they talk about people who use other people shamefully. They talk about a lot of things that are hateful and unloving, and of course those things are true. But none of those are restricted to one’s sexuality. They’re about one’s behavior. When they try to say this is about your identity, it’s a complete error.

PIP: Does your church have a lot of members who have been kicked out or shunned from their former religious institution for being LGBTQ?

WHK: We have what I call those who have been damaged by the church, those who have been exiled by the church, those who have been shunned by the church. MCC was founded by a man who was thrown out of the church for being gay. And not only was he thrown out of the church for being gay, but he was denied the right to communion. For Christians, communion is an essential part of their worship and their spiritual journey. He was denied the right to communion because they said, “You are not a true believer.” They used all of the jargon and all of the ways that were judgmental and harmful and hurtful.

His determination was that our doors and our table will be open to everyone. Because he saw personally the harm that came from being denied, from being told you’re not worthy, the harm that comes from being told you’re not welcome. So what he did was, he said, “Whenever we open the doors for service, not only will everyone be welcome, but everyone will be welcome for communion, too.”

Rev. William H. Knight, openly gay pastor
Rev. Knight. Photo by Parker Radbourne.

PIP: That’s amazing. When I saw you at San Antonio Pride, there were some noisy protestors using Christianity to fuel their hatred. I asked if you ever try to go reason with those folks, and you said no, that they’re like a pig in mud. Can you talk about that?

WHK: Yes, all that happens is you both get dirty and the pig loves it! What I’ve learned is when people have been fed a steady diet of misinformation, a steady diet of inaccuracies, they have absorbed and accepted those things as reality for them, and they tend to operate out of that. In order to move beyond that, the first step that has to happen is an acknowledgement of “I could be wrong.”

Until there is that acknowledgment, there is no point in having that conversation. Because all they’re doing is trying to convince you that their position is right, and you know for sure that it’s not. So rather than spend all that energy, what I say is, “If you ever reach the point where you’re willing to have a conversation about this, we can have a conversation. But I’m not going to waste one moment trying to convince your hatred that love is stronger. I’m not going to take one moment to try and convince you that your ignorance of the facts is better than knowing the truth. I simply have a finite amount of energy, and I’m not willing to spend any of that for you.”

PIP: What about when an LGBTQ person’s own parents are like that?

WHK: It can be extraordinarily difficult. I’ve had heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of kids who have tried to come out to their parents, and their parents have thrown them out of the house.

I know one story of a young girl who did everything right. She was the cheerleader, the student body president; she was everything their parent would want their child to be. She went off to college and discovered all the repression she’d been going through while she was growing up, because she’d refused to deal with it. They said, “You should have a boyfriend,” so she had a boyfriend. They told her to go on dates, so she went on dates. It wasn’t anything she wanted to do; she was just fitting into the expectation.

She got to college and she eventually met a young woman, and at first they were just friends. Then the friendship grew and deepened, and they began to feel very strongly for each other, and they finally became an expression of the way they related sexually. Because the relationship was so strong and so healthy, and she was so strengthened by it, she felt that she should tell her parents about it. Well, she told her mom about it, and the next thing you know, her mom hung up the phone. The next phone call she got was from her brother who said, “Mom and Dad are canceling your checking account, they want the car back, you’re not welcome at home, and your clothes will be sent in a box.” To this day, she does not have a relationship with her parents.

There’s no part of me that understands how you can do that to your flesh and blood and claim to be a Christian and claim to be a follower of Christ, who taught love. I recognize that it happens, but there’s no part of me that understands that. So yes, you have these horror stories of people who are entrusted not only with the wellbeing, but with the spiritual wellbeing of their child. And instead of demonstrating love and acceptance, they run into this condemnation and refusal to even allow them to be a part of the family unit.

Rev. William H. Knight, openly gay pastor in San Antonio
Rev. Knight being interviewed by Profiles in Pride. Photo by Parker Radbourne.

You run into things like, “You’re the uncle, but you can’t babysit the kids because you’re gay and we’re afraid you’ll do something to the kids.” And you go, “You do understand that most of those pedophiles are straight, right? You do understand that”? But it doesn’t make any difference. Logic and reason cannot pierce that shell of bias and of false beliefs.

That young woman keeps reaching out to her family for birthdays and holidays, and they steadfastly refuse. There are, however, some stories where when one parent is accepting, and one isn’t, and at some point they can maybe at best do what I call it an “armed truce.” They agree not to talk about it and they agree they’ll have a holiday together, but they can’t bring up “the topic.”

Some may say, “Well, if I can’t authentically be myself, if I have to guard my every word, if I have to censor my thought process before I can say anything, that’s just too damaging to my soul for me to participate. So I have to love you but I don’t have to subject myself to that kind of treatment. I will love you, but we won’t have interaction.”

PIP: That makes sense. Has it become more common for churches to begin preaching the message of “God is love” and “all are welcome” rather than discriminating?

WHK: Here’s the interesting thing: It’s become sort of politically incorrect to say that gay people aren’t welcome and that LGBTQ people don’t have a place in the church. So many churches have said, “OK, you’re welcome to come, but just don’t have sex. You’re welcome to come, but don’t demonstrate affection for each other. You’re welcome to come, but we can’t put you in leadership.”

All of those things are really an attempt to give the impression that one is welcome, but when you peel away those layers of restrictions and things you can’t do, you find out that judgment and condemnation are still there. My question for all of those who are welcoming and affirming is, are same-sex couples welcome to hold hands and come and take communion together and worship together, and are you willing to baptize their children? And all of the things that are part of being a real community — are they welcome to participate in every level of that, including leadership?

I’m not interested in being tolerated. For me, tolerance implies that you have the right to not tolerate, so I don’t do tolerance. If you cannot accept us, I understand that, but I’m not willing to be somewhere where I’m not accepted. And after acceptance, there’s celebration. We don’t just accept you and say, “Bring your poor, tired self here.” We say, “Bring your fabulous, wonderful self here, because we love you!”

Rev. William H. Knight, openly gay pastor
Rev. William H. Knight at a Spanish service at MCC

PIP: I love that! I saw you speak at the Transgender Day of Remembrance service last year, and your message of how everyone, especially trans people, deserve love and dignity was so powerful. Why is this something you’re passionate about?

WHK: When I was growing up, from the time I can even remember, my mom and my dad were passionate about education. When you graduated, you’d have what you called an autograph book. You’d ask your friends to write something profound in it. In kindergarten they’d write, “I like your hair;” just dumb stuff. From the time we were in kindergarten, my mother would write the same Shakespeare quote from “Hamlet.” It was “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

That was just part of the fabric of my whole being. It really centered around being true to oneself. You cannot be true to oneself unless you are honest with yourself. And one of the things I most appreciate about those who insist upon living authentically and to who they are is that they have had to come to a realization that their exterior and their interior are not in harmony. And in order for them to be authentic, they have to find a way to make those things come together. It’s an incredibly challenging thing to ask someone to do.

I know young people who are younger and younger who are coming to the realization that their body expression and their soul expression are not in harmony. It takes an incredible amount of courage to say, “I know this is how I present to the world, but this is not who I am in my heart. And in order for me to be authentic, I have to make those things agree.”

That takes an incredible amount of courage to accept the truth of your being, no matter what other people are saying. I have been blessed to know some incredibly courageous and talented and gifted people who have traveled that journey, and I have the utmost respect for the journey they insist upon traveling in order to be authentic.

PIP: Absolutely. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to share?

WHK: [Editor’s note: he was speaking of the service taking place on Sunday, July 22]. We’ll be talking about this on Sunday because it’s been weighing so heavily on my heart. We pride ourselves on being a community of love and being an extended family, and when any members are hurting, we all are hurting. And this situation at the border is just unbelievably unacceptable.

We’re looking for how can we support these people who are coming to our shores looking for safety and looking for help and looking for someone to protect them, and instead what we’re doing is ripping babies from their mothers. It’s unbelievable. Yes, I accept that it happened, because that’s the reality. But where does your heart have to be to make that OK? What do you have to believe to be true where you can make that OK? I can’t think of one thing that is Christian or loving or even human that makes that OK.

So Sunday is Parents Day, and we want to celebrate the fact that we honor parents. But we don’t get to selectively honor the parents we think are doing well, we don’t get to honor the parents we think are great; we have to honor all parents. Because all of us have done the best we could with the parents we have. I firmly believe that even when we’ve had damaging childhoods, they were doing the best they could. They were trying; they were working out of the things they understood.

To carry anything other than love in our hearts for them damages us. I say, “My forgiving you is not about you; my forgiving you is so I can have a heart space so I have more room for love. I can’t afford to have anything in my heart for you but love, because I don’t intend to carry anything in my heart but love.”

Featured photo by San Antonio-based queer photographer Parker Radbourne. Thank you to Parker for taking these amazing photos pro bono for Profiles in Pride! 

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