Franklin Gene Leggett, an early openly gay Methodist clergy, was born in 1935 in Edinburg, Texas. He graduated from Pan American College in 1956. Raised in the church, he was destined for ministry and enrolled in Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. He graduated with honors in 1959. He was ordained in the Southwest Texas Conference of The Methodist Church in 1961. During his first year of seminary he married Fanny, his hometown sweetheart. Also during seminary he discovered clandestine homosexual life in Dallas.
Leggett received a fellowship for doctoral work in biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York City. He served a small pastorate in northern New Jersey while studying there. A son was born into the family. Anguish over his sexual orientation led Gene to leave his studies and return to Texas where he was appointed to the staff of Travis Park Methodist Church in San Antonio in 1961. He then served in Dilley (1962-63) and at University Methodist in Austin (1963-65). During these years two more sons were born. Gene also engaged more actively in homosexual networks and eventually told his wife about his attraction to men.
In 1965 a member of his congregation, suspecting Gene's secret life, hired a private detective to follow him. Gene was called into the church office and confronted with the results of the investigation. He was offered a deal--resign from his current position and seek another non-parish position and the matter would be dropped. Believing that this was best for his family and not yet ready to be openly gay, Gene accepted the deal.
Leggett moved his family to Dallas where he pursued graduate studies and began a specialized ministry as a member of the resident company of the Dallas Theater Center. He and Fanny decided on an amicable divorce and she moved back to the Rio Grande Valley with the boys. Gene, close friend Peter Madison, and a few other friends established and operated a home on Gilbert Street, the House of the Covenant, as an outreach to homosexuals and other persons marginalized by church and society.
After some time, Leggett is quoted as saying that he found this arrangement “neither healthy nor Christian.” So in spring 1971 he wrote a letter to friends and family members in which he stated: “I am a homosexual. This is not some new and frightening facet in my personality. I am still the same Gene Leggett you have always known.”
The word of Leggett’s coming out reached the Board of Ministry and Bishop Eugene Slater in his annual conference. They concluded that he was “unacceptable in the work of the ministry” while giving no particular rationale for that conclusion. Leggett decided to address this issue publicly and boldly during the Southwest Texas Annual Conference session in late May, 1971. This encounter received widespread national media coverage (see articles listed below).
A group of members of the Gay Liberation Front appeared before the annual conference session of about 600 clergy and laypersons and demanded that they “cease the harassment” of Rev. Leggett. Leggett’s appearance in the national media was reported as “a tall bearded man with mod clothes and a pink lapel button reading 'Gay!'” Accounts stated that Leggett told the conference that he wished “to continue the ministry as a Christian and hopefully as Methodist.” After a lively debate by the clergy members of the annual conference with opinions ranging from some who proposed ignoring the matter to others pressing for a church trial, they voted 144 to 117 to suspend him from ministry and surrender his clergy credentials. No charge of misconduct or mention of homosexuality was named in the action, simply that he was "unacceptable" as a United Methodist clergy.
Leggett requested consideration for readmission as clergy in 1972 and was refused by the Austin District Committee. He applied to the conference Board of Ministry in 1973, which deferred a decision in order to get legal clarification. Leggett's case went to the denomination's highest court, the Judicial Council. In April 1974 the Council ruled that since his suspension involved no "charges or complaints of character" he was eligible to be considered for readmission. He did reapply to the conference in 1975 and was voted down. During this time, Leggett also became a public spokesperson for a fledgling gay movement in the United Methodism. After his case became public in 1971, Life magazine devoted an issue to the growing gay liberation movement and included a photo of Leggett in beard, jeans and ecclesiatical regalia outside his house in Dallas. This generated calls from closeted gay persons across the South seeking a positive word from the church.
With true dramatic flair, Leggett organized defrocking protests for several years at the Southwest Texas Annual Conference session. During the ordination service, he came to the front of the hall and stood gagged with his liturgical stole bound and tied around his mouth and head. Several friends participated with him in this annual protest. Gene organized a similar protest in 1977 at the Minnesota Annual Conference to protest the defrocking of Rick Huskey.
In May 1972, Leggett went to the General Conference, the quadrennial law-making assembly of The United Methodist Church, in Atlanta to lobby for more openness for homosexual clergy. There he met Rick Huskey, a gay clergy from the Minnesota Conference, and together they began to organize homosexual clergy and lay persons within the church. The following spring Leggett and Huskey traveled along the East Coast speaking with gay and lesbian United Methodists. In the summer of 1975, they co-convened the first national meeting of The United Methodist Gay Caucus, which eventually became Affirmation. He returned to the General Conference in Portland in 1976 to once again advocate for gay and lesbian persons.
Employment was difficult during this period. Gene worked intermittently as a typist, telephone solicitor and guinea pig in medical experiments; otherwise he lived on unemployment and food stamps. He relocated to St. Antonio where he worked for a while in a community service agency. He became a member of St. Stephen's UMC where where he taught Sunday School and worked as janitor in the church. St. Stephen's sent a letter of support for his reinstatement as a clergy in the conference in 1975.
He returned to Dallas in the late 1970s where he lived several years with his partner Ron Martinez and worked with the Fort Worth Ballet. In 1982, he and Tom Adams co-founded Texas International Theatrical Arts Society (TITAS), a nonprofit cultural arts organization. TITAS rapidly became the premier presenter of international dance and music performers in north Texas. He was also active in the Dallas chapter of Affirmation and Oak Lawn United Methodist Church. Leggett died of complications related to chronic hepatitis on December 31, 1987.
(Sources: Research collected by Dr. Kenneth Rowe and Rick Huskey; New York Times, June 3, 1971; The Washington Post, June 5, 1971; Newsweek, June 14, 1971; Christian Century, June 23, 1971; United Methodist Reporter, January 15, 1988. Photo is of Gene and his son John; provided by Gene's son Stephen.)