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Utah's former Episcopal bishop, a gay-rights trailblazer, dies at 87

Published January 3, 2014 10:56 am

Religion • Otis Charles came out after leaving his Beehive State ministry.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Rev. Otis Charles, a trailblazing gay clergyman, died the day after Christmas in California, grateful that he had lived long enough to see same-sex marriage come to his former home: Utah.

Charles, former Episcopal bishop for the Beehive State and the first openly gay bishop in any mainline Protestant denomination, died surrounded by family on Dec. 26, the church's Feast of St. Stephen, at the Coming Home Hospice in San Francisco. He was 87.

Utah's current Episcopal bishop, Scott Hayashi, said Charles was "especially joyful when Amendment 3 in Utah was struck down just before Christmas."

Originally from Norristown, Pa., Charles served as Utah's eighth Episcopal bishop from 1971 until 1986, helping the diocese through a period of growth and development.

In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he was active in the peace movement and opposed Nevada and Utah as launching sites for the MX missile, according to a news release. In the House of Bishops, Charles was chairman of the Prayer Book Committee, assigned to revise it, and a member of the Bishops' Committee on Racism.

He was "a friend, companion, guide and mentor for me," Hayashi said on the diocese's website. "He carried the diocese forward during a time of great challenge and few resources. Where others might see scarcity, Bishop Charles saw an abundance of spiritual resources from God and in the hearts and wills of the people of the Diocese of Utah."

Charles "steadfastly modeled, proclaimed by word and example, and strove always 'for justice and peace among all people,' " Hayashi said, and he "respected the dignity of every human being."

Charles told his wife, Elvira, that he was gay in 1976, but they remained together — and silent about his orientation — until shortly after he made a public announcement in 1993. The couple were married for 42 years and had five children.

"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," Charles told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 about his coming out. "I couldn't live with that any longer."

In 1999, Charles was arrested and led away in handcuffs for his civil disobedience at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver after joining a protest against the church's stance on gays and lesbians.

In 2004, Charles and his longtime partner, Felipe Sanchez-Paris, had a commitment ceremony in San Francisco. Four years later, they married. Sanchez-Paris died July 31, 2013, and his ashes were interred at the columbarium at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Salt Lake City.

The two are featured in the documentary film "Love Free or Die," the release said, testifying about a resolution directing the Episcopal Church to create a provisional rite for the blessing of same-gender relationships at its General Convention in Anaheim, Calif., in 2009.

Charles is survived by his first spouse (who lives in Utah), five children, 10 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and four children of Sanchez-Paris.

A memorial service and celebration of Charles' life will be held Jan. 11 at San Francisco's St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. A similar service is planned at Salt Lake City's St. Mark's, but the date isn't set.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal —

Otis Charles

April 24, 1926 — Dec. 26, 2013