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1987: Homosexuality, AIDS, and a Fundamentalist Baptist Crusader Named Bruce

somerset baptist church 1985
Somerset Baptist Church, Mt. Perry, Ohio, Bruce and Polly Gerencser and kids, 1985

In July 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in the southeast Ohio community of Somerset. After a year or so of meeting in rented buildings, we bought a 150-year-old abandoned Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset, on top of what locals called Sego Hill. For the next decade, I would pastor a rapidly growing (and later declining) congregation. In 1987, Somerset Baptist Church crossed the 200 mark, attendance-wise. We were the largest non-Catholic church in Perry County. I proudly displayed on our church sign the brag, “Perry County’s Fastest Growing Church.” Of course, a few years later, when attendance dropped to under 100, I didn’t change the line to say, Perry County’s Fastest Declining Church.” Only good publicity for Jesus, I thought at the time.

In the summer of 1987, my wife and I, along with our children, attended the Ohio State Fair. The AIDS crisis had come to the attention of then-Governor Dick Celeste — a Democrat — and the Ohio Health Department. The Health Department had set up an AIDS information table at the fair, including information about AIDS, condom use, and how to have safe sex. Needless to say, I was outraged over this overt, in-your-face display of immorality. At the time, I hated homosexuals, and it was not uncommon for me to use homophobic slurs from the pulpit. Privately, I would share with colleagues in the ministry the last homo-joke I had heard. Example: What do you call a man with AIDS in a wheelchair? Rolaids. Funny, right? When a church member told me that he had physically assaulted a gay man who had come on to him, I complimented him for standing up to faggots. Such was the Bruce Gerencser of the 1980s.

Not one to let my moral outrage pass, I returned home and set in motion what would be one of the biggest moments in the history of Somerset Baptist Church. I thought, what was the best way to let Governor Celeste, the Ohio Health Department, and homosexuals know what GOD thought about AIDS and their condom/safe-sex initiative? I decided that the church would run a full-page ad in the Perry County Tribune that would expose what I saw at the state fair and what the Bible said about homosexuality — an abomination that demanded capital punishment.

I made a passionate pro-God, anti-homosexuality appeal to congregants, asking them to help fund a full-page ad in the local newspaper. In short order, I had collected the $900 necessary to publish “What the Bible Says About Homosexuality.” The newspaper ran the advertisement without changing a thing. I called out Governor Celeste by name, as I did the Ohio Health Department. I listed the relevant Bible verses about homosexuality and wrote a short sermonette that drove these verses home. I was quite proud of myself. I sure told that queer-loving liberal, didn’t I? I let everyone in Perry County and the surrounding area know exactly what GOD — whom I often confused with Bruce — said about homosexuality, AIDS, and safe sex.

The advertisement got a lot of press, including coverage by at least one TV station in Columbus. Boy, was I proud of the stand Somerset Baptist Church took against sodomy and sexual perversion! At the time, I believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God as judgment on homosexuals. I know it is hard for readers to square the Bruce they now know with the Pastor Bruce of the 1980s, but let my story be a reminder that change is possible; that even homophobic Christian bigots can see the light. (Please see Bruce, What was Your View on Homosexuality When You Were a Pastor?)

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Good lad!

    Growing up in the East San Francisco Bay Area, and having been conditioned by my father to read the Oakland Tribune newspaper faithfully, I learned early on that the AIDS crisis was not cut and dried, a simple matter of God taking vengeance out on Them Evil Homos. I followed the crisis through college and then in 1981 went to work for a military contractor in Silicon Valley. There I encountered my first gay man, a very kind middle manager who turned out to be one of my early mentors. But he was eventually chased out of the company by a bunch of he-men ex-military guys who mostly seemed to be warming chairs. Meanwhile, my homophobic new husband was encountering gay co-workers in his own workplace who were good people and great engineers, both attributes Husband deeply respected. The upshot? I got into gay rights before Husband did, but we both were totally on board by 1990.

    Remember, this is in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Imagine my shock, in 2001, when a straight male colleague publicly made fun of a gay one. Gay Colleague was phoning home to his partner, explaining that he would be late because the work crew were having dinner together.
    Straight Colleague pretended to talk into a phone (his hand) making fun. He was visiting Silicon Valley from rural New England, where he was based, and he was in turn shocked that his little joking riff was greeted by frowning stares from everyone present at this event. He shut up.

    The work crew was going off to some vegan East Asian restaurant, which intrigued me though I’m an omnivore…but I was so disgusted I went home. I gather that the straight guy never, ever misbehaved himself at work again, at least not in our workplace. He may have gotten a universal cold shoulder at dinner, which would have been just fine by me.

  2. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    I’m sad to say when my husband and I were conservative Christians we were anti-gay. Which made it hard for some family. Funnily enough, the family members loving behavior to each other slowly changed our minds. That and realizing that the Bible wasn’t the end of morality.

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      Yes, me too. We even overcame our distrust of catholics to head up a local branch of SPUC, (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, an RC founded charity) which offered free pregnancy testing and our spare room was full of donated baby items for those clients who chose not to have an abortion…AFAIR…that was only ever 2 women…the rest disappeared after the result of their test. We put our heads in the sand about 2 male neighbours who ran a wonderful Antique Shop locally and hoped they were just business partners, drawn together by their enthusiasm for antiques! We were pretty sure that, had they in fact ”chosen a homosexual lifestyle,” they’d soon see how evil and wrong that was and maybe even come to my pastor-hubby and ask to know how to get saved from all that. Oh the sad delusional way we lived in the 1980s in our fundy wonderland!
      I am in awe of your honest confession here, Bruce.

  3. Avatar

    I too was raised to believe that homosexuality was a perverted choice, a sin, and that HIV/AIDS were the punishment from God to set them straight. However, in college I befriended some gay guys and learned that gay people are people like us, that being gay isn’t a choice,and that evangelical Christians are MEAN to gay people. One of my friends was cut off by his Baptist preacher dad, only welcome to return to the family after he stopped being gay.

    Bruce, thanks for sharing. It’s a good reminder that religious zealots are convinced they are doing the right thing by their treatment of those they consider sinners. It’s a reminded of their level of commitment to their agenda, and why those of us in opposition to it must fight back.

    • Avatar

      Some of my very best friends in college (U of Georgia) were gay men. And the radio station in my hometown was owned by two women who lived together. I think the first time I ever heard the word lesbian was in reference to these women. In fact, when one of the women died a few years ago, the other was listed as her life partner in her obit. i’m not so sure that people would have been so understanding way back when if these women had been two gay men.

      Btw, my aunt in Cincinnati campaigned for Governor Celeste.

  4. Avatar

    raised the same way. now coming to realize how wrong it all was. raising the kids differently. how much energy and time we wasted trying to marginalize other groups who refused our religion. but i cannot change it, just move forward in a new and different way. thanks for sharing these things w/all of us.

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    Bruce, if that’s what being a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher caused you to be, I’m extremely glad that you left the church, and transformed into a liberal atheist. You’re a better person for it. There might not be a god who cares, but your fellow humans do, when you treat all of them like valuable people.

  6. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I repeat ad-nauseum and I apologize, that Christianity is designed to harm self and others. You, Bruce, did not become a hater because of Christianity BUT Christianity offered you ritualized tools to harm yourself for God-thought, and to attack others for baby Jesus who was crucified. You did a good job at your work but you do a much better job now as a real man expressing his heart. I admire your heart, what you have taken of the harm done to you and the harm done to others, what you have created here for us. It is both wonderous to me and painfully simply human. Thank-you. Tell Polly she is in our thoughts here.

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Bruce Gerencser