The Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, Class of 1951, who spent 15 years as the Episcopal Bishop of Utah and later co-founded Oasis California, a statewide lesbian and gay ministry, died Dec. 26 in his San Francisco home. He was 87 years old. In more than six decades as an Episcopal priest and bishop, Charles was an advocate for the underdog, including those left out of the church hierarchy such as women, lesbians and gays. In 1993, he publicly made the gay rights cause his own, and in the process became the first Christian bishop to come out as gay. “I was ashamed of myself for remaining silent when the church was involved in an acrimonious debate about the whole question of gay people in the life of the church. I couldn't live with that any longer,” Charles told The San Francisco Chronicle in a 2004 interview after a wedding ceremony with his partner in a San Francisco church, a marriage that California didn't recognize. They married again in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in the state.
A native of New Jersey, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1951. As a young clergyman in Connecticut, he met former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and thanked her for her work on behalf of African Americans - "one of the great moments in his life," said David Perry, who was married to his male partner by Charles in 2008 and considered himself a member of the bishop's family. “If there was a community and a cause that required an opening of spirit and church, Otis Charles was right in the forefront," Perry said. “He was the most relentlessly joyful and nonjudgmental person I ever met.”
Charles was elected Bishop of Utah in 1971. Five years later, he told his wife, Elvira, that he was gay. While advocating for gay rights within the church, he remained silent publicly about his own sexuality for the next 17 years, fearing, as he explained in the 2004 interview, that the exposure would be too hard on his wife and family as well as the diocese. He came out shortly after announcing his retirement in 1993, and the couple divorced after 42 years of marriage. They have five children.
Charles retained his bishop's rank after his retirement and remained a member of The Episcopal Church's 300-delegate House of Bishops. In 1999, he was arrested and led away in handcuffs at the national Episcopal convention in Denver in a protest over the church's treatment of gays and lesbians. Four years later, he was a delegate to the Episcopal convention that approved the election of V. Gene Robinson (Class of 1973) as Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay person to serve as an active bishop.
He was also active in antiwar causes, and as bishop opposed government plans to make Nevada and Utah launching sites for the MX missile. After leaving the Utah post in 1986, he served as president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. In 1993, he moved to San Francisco, where he rejoiced, as he recalled in the 2004 interview, in “walking down the street, seeing a rainbow flag or two men holding hands.”
He directed a gay ministry, and, at age 76, met Felipe Sanchez-Paris, a retired professor and political organizer. They took part in a church wedding ceremony in 2004, and then married officially in September 2008. Sanchez-Paris died this past July.
Charles is survived by five children - Christopher Charles of Washington, Conn.; Nicholas Charles of Woodland (Yolo County); Emilie Charles of Salt Lake City; Timothy Charles of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Elvira Nelson of Salt Lake City - 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A memorial service was held January 11 at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.