The Rev. Alvin O. Jackson often preached that homosexuality is a sin. At his church in Memphis, Jackson helped start a ministry to "reform" gay men and lesbians in a program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
This week, Jackson gave the keynote speech at the fourth biennial Sharing Our Rainbow of Light religious conference, a day affirming gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.
Jackson, now senior pastor of National City Christian Church in Northwest Washington, said his change of heart began 10 years ago.
At the Memphis ministry to turn people into "ex-gays," Jackson said he became friends with a young man who was in tears as he struggled over his sexual identity.
"It's easy to put down people when they're just labels and categories, but when you really know a person, it changes the whole dynamic," said Jackson, 49, who has encouraged African American churches to be more accepting.
About 185 people attended Thursday's conference in Washington, which included workshops on biblical interpretations of homosexuality, ideas on how churches can support gay couples and families and on ways to bridge gaps caused by racism, sexism and homophobia.
This year's conference theme was coalition-building, and the attendees and presenters were more diverse than in previous years, said Tom Hull, conference co-chairman.
Hull said the gay rights movement has been on the defensive for many years but now is doing more outreach. He cited the recent meeting between conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell and his followers, and 200 gay rights supporters, including the Rev. Mel White, who co-wrote Falwell's autobiography and later came out as gay.
"We're not going to change the world, but we can change individuals," Hull said. "Instead of constantly defending against attacks, we can interact with people."
In a speech to the conference, educator and writer Virginia Ramey Mollenkott urged people to question why some churches extol the virtues of marriage but deny that right to gay people--and why churches will cite the need to encourage racial harmony but won't support rights for gay men and lesbians.
The gay community, she said, also is guilty of bias. She cited a poll in the Advocate, a weekly news magazine, that said nearly half of those questioned did not think transgendered people should be included in the gay rights movement.
"We must learn to respect differences," Mollenkott said. "We can learn to listen to one another, to find common ground . . . to engage in the politics of affinity."