Monday, March 23, 2009

Quaker homophobia

Next month, I'm taking part in a panel discussion on quaker homophobia. Yes, my monthly meeting and yearly meeting embraces LGBT folks and same-sex marriages, and I'm very grateful for this, but there are quakers in the world, including not far away, who are very anti-gay. What can/should we do about this? What if we don't do anything?
Here is my statement for the panel:

I have been carrying a concern.
I have been carrying this concern since hearing an epistle read a P.Y.M a couple years ago. The epistle was dated August 30, 2006, and stated, "Gay is contrary to scriptures and nature. Even the tiniest crawling creatures observe strictly God’s command...." and that "[We] shall not team up with any group that proclaims this immoral conduct."
The epistle was from East Africa Yearly Meeting. It was from Friends "to Friends everywhere."
This concern grew when I read reports of a man standing in a regional Quaker gathering in Africa and saying that homosexuals and their allies should be put to death. It was reported that no one, including Friends from the U.S who were present, stood to challenge the man.
When I heard last Fall that George Fox University, a Quaker school in Oregon, prohibits "homosexual behavior" in its students, faculty and staff, the concern only grew.
I am very well aware that Africa is on the other side of the world and that there are very different branches of Quakers/ism. I am also happy that Claremont Meeting and Pacific Yearly Meeting are on record supporting same-sex relationships and marriage.
But these feel like rationalizations - it is nice to say we are not like that and to feel good - and ones that are too easy. The fact still is that there are those among the "Friends Everywhere," including those not that far away, who condemn me as a gay man, saying that I am immoral and should be banned or even killed. (I find the distinction between "the sin" and "the sinner," as in "love the sinner, hate the sin," to be disingenuous, to say the least. I resent being called a "sinner," with its implication that I sin.)
What am I to think?
More importantly perhaps, what would my gay friend think if he saw the East Africa Yearly Meeting epistle (it is easily found on the Internet)? What do I tell him?
What do we tell the gay man who shows up at a Quaker Quest session with this question? Or would he show up?


  1. Go for it, John. Good thinking.

  2. Hey John,
    An interesting post. My own primary concern, as a member of a dually-affiliated yearly meeting, has been the question, "How do we (as Quaker queers and allies, as a yearly meeting) engage homophobia in transformative and challenging ways, without breaking fellowship?" I wrote an open letter to my yearly meeting and interested Friends that shared my perspective on some of those issues.

    I wanted to add some further information about the incident you describe at the FUM General Board meeting in Kenya two (?) years ago. I've talked to several people who were there. Some told me a story like the one you report. Others, particularly folks who have more experience with the theological understandings and cultural context of east African Friends, have a different interpretation.

    What I have heard is this: The clerk of the Ugandan yearly meeting was asked to give an invocation, and read from the first chapter of Romans, which includes the statement that [long list of behaviors, including homosexuality] are worthy of death. No one responded immediately, because of the context of worship and scripture reading, but several Friends approached the speaker afterward.

    I have heard (here is where I can't really be sure) that the Ugandan Friend was very upset that his words were interpreted as advocating physical violence. He has publicly renounced that interpretation in a letter of apology that was published in Quaker Life magazine (I wish I could find it online), but affirmed his anti-homosexuality statements.

    So it's definitely a story about homophobia, but in my opinion, not a story about Quakers advocating violence (which is how it has been told and re-told, with very detrimental effect in some cases). I think it merits great care in the telling.

  3. I share this concern. I look to Friends' antislavery history as indication that in the past, those who knew that deep and grave injustice was ineffectively addressed by their meetings provided a jeramiad for their times. Historians link Friends with abolition as if it were an inevitable development. However, if you look at the history more critically, it becomes clear that the early, middle, and late years of Quaker abolitionist activity was led by only a few Friends who were willing to marginalize themselves from their own communities because what Justice demands is often unpopular.

    I notice a great deal of ineffective "niceness" among Friends that acts to effectively stifle troubling but necessary conversation. We have to get past this cowardice with one another if we are to labor together as a people of peace, justice and unconditional love. This is perhaps the greatest civil rights issues of our generation. I maintain that we have been called and we know what our answer must be.


  4. I've actually experienced several instances of homophobia among liberal Friends.

    Perhaps we should take the plank out of our own eyes before pointing out the splinter in others' eyes.

  5. Hi John, I'm glad that you are carrying this concern! I am a lesbian who was blessed to marry my wife in the manner of Friends in our Grand Rapids Friends Meeting (& then also married by a gay JP in California). Good luck with the panel.

  6. Hystery: Here's an interesting site that tells about early Quakers and slavery. Evidently Penn himself owned a few.