John (Jack) Yoakam was born on January 11, 1947, in Toledo, Ohio. He and his family attended Monroe Street United Methodist Church, where he was baptized and confirmed, sang in the Boys Choir, and participated in Sunday School, the Methodist Youth Fellowship, and was a member of Troop 44, the chapter of the Boy Scouts sponsored by the church.In 1963 he moved with his parents and sister to Houston, Texas, where he continued his church involvement at Bellaire United Methodist Church.
In 1965 one of the ministers from Bellaire church, the Reverend Jack Albright, invited John and other Methodist Youth Fellowship members to participate with him in a vigil supporting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the march to Selma, Alabama, for equal voting rights. This demonstration was held on a Sunday afternoon in front of the Houston City Hall and was the first time that John participated in a public protest.
John graduated from Bellaire Senior High School and first attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. He then transferred to Texas Christian University for his sophomore year. At T.C.U. he was active in the Wesley Foundation, where he was first introduced to the writings of theologian Paul Tillich, particularly a sermon, “You Are Accepted,” which had relevance to John as he struggled with his sexual orientation. In the summers of 1968 and 1969 John journeyed to Camden, New Jersey, where he worked with youth programs at the Neighborhood Center, a settlement house in the predominantly African American south side of the city. In the spring of his senior year at T.C.U. John applied and accepted into the U.S.-2 Program of the United Methodist Church. John was assigned to Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, a multicultural congregation on the northwest side of Chicago. His U.S.-2 service fulfilled his obligation to the Selective Service System as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
During the two years that John served at Humboldt Park Church, he also worked with the Northwest Community Organization (NCO) as the organizer for The Organization of Palmer Square (TOPS). John worked with the Reverend Jim Neuman at the church, and with Shel Trapp at NCO, from whom he developed skills as a community organizer. While working at the church John also began quietly exploring the gay community in Chicago.
After he completed his two year term as a US-2, John enrolled as a student at Chicago Theological Seminary in the fall of 1971. There he met an openly gay classmate, Chuck Harbaugh, who previously worked at the Seattle Counseling Center for Sexual Minorities. John also attended meetings of the Gay Liberation Front at the nearby University of Chicago. In November of 1971, John, Chuck and other GLF members attended a gay conference over Thanksgiving weekend at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He met gay activists from all over the country including John Preston who was then part of Gay House and the Minnesota Council for the Church and the Homophile in Minneapolis.
In the spring of 1972, John returned to Humboldt Park United Methodist Church (where he had transferred his membership during his U.S.-2 term) to seek support from the congregation in order to begin the process of ordination in the United Methodist Church. This time, however, John told the congregation that he was gay and that he was seeking to become a minister in part to minister to and with the gay community. The congregation held a series of meetings to discuss John’s application to become a minister in light of his sexual orientation. Although John had a simple majority support of the church members, he did not have the two-thirds majority required. In April of 1972 the quarterly conference of the church turned down John’s application for the ministry. This was the same month that the United Church of Christ in northern California voted to ordain William Johnson, as the first openly gay minister. John learned about Johnson through an article in The New York Times and later in the summer of 1972 met Johnson in Los Angeles. During his travels in the summer of 1972, John visited potential sites for an internship in ministry with the gay community including: the Seattle Counseling Center for Sexual Minorities (where Chuck Harbough worked); the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Church (annual conference held in Los Angeles); the Sex and Drug Forum of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (Phyllis Lyon); and Gay House in Minneapolis. At Gay House, John met Jim Frost, the director, who would later become his lover.
During the 1972-1973 academic year at Chicago Theological Seminary, John sought the support of other gay religious persons and organized Gay Seminarians and Clergy (see the biography of Dr. Rick Huskey). At its General Conference in 1972 the United Methodist Church declared in its Social Creed that homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Between the quarterly conference vote at Humboldt Park Church, and the General Conference declaration, John found little support in his quest for ordination in the United Methodist Church. He also had few financial resources to continue his seminary studies. Consequently he shortened his academic program, graduating in June of 1973 with a Master of Arts in Religious Studies.
John then moved to Minneapolis to live with Jim Frost. In the fall of 1973 they were featured in a “Moore on Sunday” television program on gay and lesbian life. John became involved with a peer counseling group known as Gay Community Services. In 1974 he was hired to become a counselor and educator on gay and lesbian life styles at the Neighborhood Counseling Center (NCC), a mental health outreach program funded by Abbott Northwestern Hospital. John helped organize a gay men’s coffeehouse, which met at Plymouth Congregational Church. He conducted workshops on gay and lesbian life styles, working with Patty Schamus, an out lesbian who was also hired by NCC as a counselor. For five years they helped raise visibility of the gay and lesbian population. Some of the organizations they provided training for included the Clinical Pastoral Education programs at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Hennepin County Medical Center, Lutheran Social Services, Luther-Northwestern Theological Seminary, the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, as well as classes in human rights and diversity required for teacher recertification. They also worked with the growing transgender population in the inner city of Minneapolis.
John participated in protests against the discriminatory policies of Northwestern Bell Telephone Company. He joined the Minnesota Committee for Gay Rights, organized by Steve Endean (later founder of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC). John participated in the efforts in St. Paul in 1978 to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Ordinance (which included protections for persons on the basis of sexual orientation), which was overturned by on a referendum and not reinstated until 1991.
Shortly after John moved to Minneapolis in 1973, he, along with a Quaker minister, Ron Mattson, formed a gay religious study group. The group was ecumenical. Some of the members went on to form chapters of other gay and lesbian religious organizations such as Dignity, Lutherans Concerned, Integrity, All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church. In 1976 John began attending the Twin Cities (Quaker) Friends Meeting in St. Paul. He became a member of the meeting in 1978 after attending Friends General Conference, the annual gathering of Quakers from the United States and Canada. It was at FGC that John also connected with Friends for Gay Concerns (later to become Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns), an organization for which he became one of the co-clerks in the 1980s. John also organized a local chapter of FLGC in the Twin Cities.
John had an ecumenical spirit and attended other gay and lesbian religious groups in the Twin Cities. He sang in the Dignity Choir, organized a conference on gay and lesbian spirituality in 1986 through Reformation Lutheran (ELCA) Church in St. Paul, attended and led retreats at the ARC retreat center near Cambridge, Minnesota. In 1983 he became a student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in order to complete the Master of Divinity degree that he had begun in 1971. He completed an internship under the supervision of Pat Jones at the Minneapolis Friends Meeting and graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in May of 1985.
By that time John had become a Quaker and no longer sought to be an ordained minister. John, however, served on the Ministry and Counsel Committee of the Twin Cities Friends Meeting, the committee which oversees pastoral care and worship in a Friends meeting. In 1987 he and his then partner Bob Schmitt approached the committee to be married under the care of the meeting. On Halloween day, in 1987, Bob and John were the first gay couple to be married under the care of a Quaker meeting in Minnesota, one week after the second March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian rights (which John also participated in as part of the FLGC contingent). When John and Bob separated in the fall of 1990, John left the Quaker meeting. From 1992-1995 John was a member the First Unitarian Society and since 1996 has attended the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis.
John responded to the AIDS crisis by first becoming a volunteer buddy at the Minnesota AIDS Project and later as supervisor for support groups at MAP. He worked for the University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Projects as school and community outreach coordinator from 1989 to 2000. He was involved in setting up support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth throughout Minnesota. While employed through the University of Minnesota John enrolled in a doctoral program in social work. He graduated in December of 1999 with a Ph.D., completing his dissertation on the “History of the Gay and Lesbian Counseling Program of Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, 1974-1987,” recounting some of the earlier events of the gay and lesbian community that he had been a part of in the Twin Cities.
John accepted a position teaching social work at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University, in the fall of 2000. He became chair of the department in 2001 and served in that capacity until 2008. While at St. John’s and St. Ben’s John was a faculty sponsor of Prism, the campus organization for GLBT students. He also participated in the GLBT faculty/staff group and helped organized the first Lavender Graduation ceremonies for GLBT and allied students on campus. He served as a facilitator for the Gay and Bisexual Men’s group in St. Cloud.
Professionally John has been active in several organizations involved with concerns of aging within the GLBT community: including the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Aging Issues Network of the American Society on Aging, and GLBT Generations in the Twin Cities. Like his earlier ventures in raising awareness of gay and lesbian issues in the 1970s, Dr. Yoakam has been involved nationally, regionally, and locally in training professionals on the needs of GLBT seniors.
John lives with his partner (since 1994), Gary Gimmestad, in Minneapolis. In 2008 they were active in starting a cancer support group for couples in the First Universalist Church. In the summers they enjoy retreating to a 16 acre farm near Pepin, Wisconsin, which John purchased from Jim Frost in 1988.
Yoakam died on April 20, 2009.
(This biographical statement provided by John Yoakam.)