Whose Water Are We Carrying?

March 16, 2012

The question of how Quakers should view homosexuality is a religious and spiritual question, not a matter of law or public policy. Nevertheless, our consideration unfolds in the midst of continuing turmoil in law and policy. And that turmoil creates an undertow that can drag our spiritual seeking to places far from God’s will.

Until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was approved in 1865, chattel slavery of African-Americans was legal in the United States. Nearly 150 years later, we are still working to clear away the vestiges of discrimination on the basis of race, still working to make our country fully welcoming and affirming towards those of all races.

Until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was approved in 1920, women could be legally denied the right to vote in local, state or federal elections. For decades after this, restrictions on women holding certain occupations were common. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in the workforce on the basis of sex as well as on the basis of race.

There have been those (even among Quakers) who resisted the elimination of discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Often that opposition has been justified with appeal to Scripture, and yet in retrospect we can see that selfishness, prejudice and fear were the deeper motive for sustaining discrimination.

So, too, has there been resistance to the full recognition of civil rights for homosexuals and the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That opposition, too, is often justified by appeals to Scripture, but could prejudice and fear be the undertow that powers the opposition?

Action to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation came later than the efforts to end discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Until 1962, every state in the union made sodomy a felony. Sodomy was rarely if ever well defined, but often held to include oral and anal sex and bestiality, and enforced almost exclusively against homosexuals. Such anti-sodomy laws were finally declared unconstitutional across the United States in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas on grounds of privacy.

We can usefully date the beginning of advocacy among gays and lesbians for full recognition as human beings to June 28, 1969, when homosexuals in Greenwich Village (New York City) resisted police raids against them in what have come to be called the Stonewall Riots. (The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar at the center of the persecution and resistance.) Before then, homosexuals had submitted to social stigma and legal persecution. After Stonewall, gays and lesbians increasingly insisted on an end to such policies and practices. The struggle continues, and, to a large extent, we Quakers have placed ourselves on the wrong side of those efforts to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Today, a patchwork quilt of states and municipalities have adopted laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, There is still no provision in federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Recent public policy attention has focused on service of homosexuals in the military, and on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. We see news about these matters nearly day.

Homosexuality hardly figured in any spiritual reflections among Friends (or other Christians) until the yearnings for ending discrimination against gays and lesbians triggered a virulent political backlash. We can date that push-back against gay rights to the late 1970s, less than a decade after Stonewall. In 1977, entertainer Anita Bryant began a campaign to overturn a new anti-discrimination employment law in Dade County Florida. She made that cause national in creating a group called Save Our Children. That same year, James Dodson founded Focus on the Family. Harvey Milk, a gay activist and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was assassinated in 1978. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, declaring a war on homosexuals. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has a useful timeline:http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-al….) Powering that pushback were oft-repeated, untrue assertions that homosexuals abused children, were promiscuous and lured young people into their wicked ways.

In 1982, shortly after this anti-gay rights pushback gathered force, Indiana Yearly Meeting adopted its Minute Homosexuality, declaring it a sin.

Perhaps we were paying no attention at all to the national political debate. I don’t know; I wasn’t a member of IYM then. Our Minute came about (I understand) because the pastor of West Elkton Friends testified at a child custody hearing on behalf of a woman, a meeting attender, who had divorced her husband and now had a lesbian partner. Some members of the meeting complained to the Yearly Meeting office. And so we discussed homosexuality as a Yearly Meeting and minuted our view. Why did we feel called to act? The timing falls right in line with the anti-gay pushback of Bryant, Dodson and Falwell. Perhaps the undertow sucked us in.

We may intend our Minute to be a wholly internal matter, something among ourselves. We may want it to be a wholly religious and spiritual matter. Nevertheless, we cannot avoid our stance being part of the national, often ugly drama of lesbian and gay rights.

The IYM Minute (and similar minutes and various Faith and Practice statements in other YMs) helps support a stigma against those whose sexual orientation leads them to be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered or queer. Because of that stigma, some people are not hired; some lose jobs. Because of that stigma some people are bullied and beaten. Because of that stigma, some people are denied an opportunity to rent an apartment. Because of that stigma, some couples cannot adopt a child. Because of that stigma, long-time loving couples are denied the mutual legal rights and protections that come with marriage.

Do we want to find ourselves in the van with those who want to sustain discrimination against gays and lesbians? Are we comfortable lending moral support to the stigma, with the pain it always causes and the brutality it too-often occasions? Do we want to have this issue define our ministry? Whose water are we carrying?

Do we want to do this in the name of the love to which our Savior called us?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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