Gail Stratton is one of only a few openly gay religious leaders in Mississippi. That’s something the minister is working to change.
A biologist who lectures at the University of Mississippi, Stratton was ordained on campus in 2016 in front of more than 200 people. She said many were clergy from different denominations.
“It was stunning,” Stratton told NBC Out.
“It was so affirming partly because it feels so important to me that women be present as spiritual leaders [and] that gay people be recognized as spiritual leaders.”
When she was growing up in New Mexico, Stratton loved going to church, but she said she found most churches to be “very homophobic.” She stopped going in the early 1980s after meeting her wife at a science conference.
“It was like I always had to be choosing whether I wanted to be a religious person or if I could be a lesbian person,” she said. “That’s a false dichotomy, and yet I didn’t see how I could be both.”
Stratton moved to Mississippi to live with her wife and son in the mid-1990s. They began attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in the early 2000s, because their son, then in the ninth grade, was welcomed at a youth camp there.
“When he shared he had two moms, people just said, ‘Cool, what else is new?’" Stratton said. For Stratton, belonging to a church that welcomed her family felt “wonderful.”
“It was like coming home,” she recalled.
Stratton became president of the congregation after she and her wife joined the board in 2003. The couple became activists in their community, organizing meetings for P-Flag and building a space for LGBTQ people in Mississippi. Stratton felt a yearning to grow the community within the church.
“That’s where my heart was,” she said.
The advocate was ordained soon after receiving a theological degree from the Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2016.
“It was very affirming not only of me, but I would say [of] liberal religion and the belief that there is goodness in the world, and there is a spirit of love that is present that is beyond any one naming,” Stratton explained.
She said out religious leaders are vital to building acceptance. “It’s really important that I be a role model, that young people see that if they’re LGBTQ, there can be a place for them,” she said.
Stratton said her ministry and activism are driven by love.
“I know that I have been loved, and I’ve flourished, and I see that when love is present, really good things can happen,” she said. “When love is present, there’s all kinds of possibilities.”
Pride Means: "Self-esteem, knowing deep in my soul that I have worth. And I would love for all people to feel that. I think if we could start with more people having basic acceptance of themselves, the world would probably be a friendlier place."