Barbra MacNair was born December 1, 1949, in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of an American Baptist Church minister who pastored several churches in Northern California. When she was eleven, the family moved to Kansas City where her father taught at the Central Baptist Seminary. She remembered this as an entirely different milieu. For the first time she went to school with African American children and lived where neighbors flew Confederate flags. After four years, the family returned to northern California, and while her father worked for the denomination her mother was church secretary. Barbra was proud of the liberality of the American Baptist Church. Her father had been a conscientious objector during World War II and both parents were deeply committed to social justice. Barbra was raised to believe that God loved everyone. As she grew up, she was active in Baptist Youth Fellowship, choir, and later, Sunday school teaching. Attending college in the early 1970s, her summer work was at a Baptist retreat center and it was there that she came out as a lesbian.
Returning to college (she graduated in 1972 with a degree in Recreation Therapy), she moved into an apartment with her first lover, who was deeply closeted because she was a Baptist seminary student. Barbra was unwilling to conceal her sexual identity from her parents, and that conflict eventually ended the relationship. Barbra had decided to come out to her parents, but dreaded their response. When she did, she was immediately assured of their love and support “no matter what.” Belief in the love she heard in the liberal churches of her childhood and in her parents’ response when she came out became a source of strength and purpose in the ten or fifteen years of the work she did with American Baptists Concerned.
American Baptist Concerned (ABConcerned) organized after the American Baptist national convention in Denver, Colorado, in 1972. Barbra had met Rick Mixon along with many seminary students through her first partner. Like her partner, most of the women seminary students were closeted, so Barbra, who had no ordination ambitions, was often the only woman who joined two or three gay men to staff a table at annual and biennial Baptist conventions and local events. They were usually not given table space within the conventions, tabling outside on sidewalks, handing out literature. She remembers a time when they handed out all the flyers they brought within an hour; she also remembers being spit at, attendees taking pamphlets and tearing them up in front of the table, of being called names and warned of damnation.
Mostly, she and others at the tables listened and talked with distressed parents of gays and lesbians who feared their children were doomed to hellfire. She remembered a seminary student who came out and whose father immediately drove him out of town, abandoned him there, and told him he was no longer his son. A pastor told one gay man that he wished the gay man had a millstone tied around his neck and was thrown in the sea. She found listening to these stories harrowing, but knew in her heart that she was doing necessary work, “good work.” When she imagined Baptists who had been told all their lives that they were loved, but had that love withdrawn when they came out as gay or lesbian, she knew she needed to extend to them the love she had received from her parents and pastors. She found strength in her certainty, and spoke fearlessly when called before large convention audiences.
Liberal churches like Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland nominated Rick and her to represent them at regional and national conventions. She remembered a convention in West Virginia when a busload of anti-gay activists arrived to jeer and television covered the conflict. She recalls Rodger Harrison, Harold Sutherland, Robert Stapp, and Esther Hargis also served ABConcerned in the 1970s and 1980s. At this time, no pastors could openly support ABConcerned for fear of being expelled. During these tumultuous years, President Carter convened a meeting of anti-gay church leaders and then another meeting with LGBTQ leaders. After their presentation, one of the Carter officials told them that they sounded a lot more Christian than the church leaders opposed to homosexuality. This meeting was the first time Barbra remembered LGBTQ religious organizations from many denominations—Methodist, Congregational, MCC, Presbyterian, etc. assembling nationally. Typically, LGBTQ organizations in various denominations participated together in Pride events, always getting big cheers.
Ted Weiman, along with Rick Mixon and Rodger Harrison and others started ABConcerned and its newsletter, Voice of the Turtle. This was entirely volunteer, mostly member-funded with occasional contributions for travel and postage. Feeling competent as a writer, Barbra took over as editor of the quarterly, writing announcements, riding herd on contributors, editing and preparing brunch for the “mailing parties.” After twelve years, Chris Boisvert assumed editorship and Barbra stepped away from volunteering and focused on a career as an acupuncturist in San Francisco. She worked as an activity director and also a secretary for the American Baptist Church USA. She never felt either job was threatened by her work for ABConcerned.
As LGBTQ people were more welcomed in churches, the need for ABConcerned was less essential. The Association of Welcome and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) became a funded, non-profit organization that provided resources to LGBTQ-friendly churches and members within the ABC-USA. Barbra stepped down from volunteering with ABConcerned sometime after 1990, and later moved to Sonora where she and her wife work growing and selling produce from their market garden.
In 2005, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists established the Barbra MacNair Award for Christian Witness. This award is given "to an individual layperson whose life has inspired understanding and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people by opening dialogue that would not otherwise be there, opening the eyes of those who might otherwise turn away, and, by example, helping to advance the affirmation of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. " Barbra was the first recipient of this award.
(This biographical statement written by Doris Malkmus from an interview with Barbra MacNair and edited by MacNair.)
Biography Date: April 2021
Baptist (American Baptist/USA) | Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (formerly American Baptists Concerned) | Activist (religious institutions) | California | Harrison, Rodger | Mixon, Rick | Hargis, Esther
“Barbra MacNair | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed June 28, 2022, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/barbra-macnair.