Clashing with the ‘B’ Word: Homophobia in Liberal Quakerism

Now that we are addressing the issue of same-gender marriages in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I think it is pertinent to talk about how the ugly face of homophobia is rampant among some of our monthly meetings. No issue has been more controversial in Quakerism since slavery. Women’s rights, our position against war and violence, and the Civil Rights movement did not find much opposition amid our meetings. However, when it comes down to the rights of the sexual other, especially our right to marry, the story is rather different. I have been a member of several Friends meetings throughout my involvement with the Religious Society of Friends, and in most of them I have been dealing with homophobia, ignorance, and bigotry. Homophobia is one of those spaces that shame some of our meetings, a very big skeleton in our own closet of prejudices. This skeleton needs to be exorcised.

I am a Queer Quaker, and very proud of it, coming out of the closet every single day of my life. I am also a Hispanic and a member of the political left. In other words, I lack power in this heterosexist, Anglo-Saxon, conservative society. I have been seasoning, minding, and discerning about this topic for the past years, since I have felt victimized, like many of my Queer brothers and Lesbian sisters, by other Quakers. It is time that we, as a so-called Christian denomination, open our eyes to our own prejudices, and right now, I see homophobia amid our meetings as our biggest sin.

I want to illustrate my concern about this situation through my own experience. Let’s pretend this is a tale. As a typical tale, this narration has three parts. First, there is a theme, as in any tale. I want to call this theme The “B” Word, “B” meaning the Bible. Liberal Quakers seldom mention the Bible, unless, of course, they need to address homosexuality. Then, certain biblical texts are used as pretexts for oppression. In this particular regard we are no different than other Christians who in the past defended slavery because “the Bible says so.”

My first encounter with homophobia among Liberal Quakers was in my first monthly meeting, part of New York Yearly Meeting. After three and a half years of dedicating my time and gifts to this particular meeting (this was the meeting of my convincement), one day my partner at the time and I presented a marriage proposal to be considered under the care of the meeting. The year was 1999, and we did not think we were going to find any obstacle. After a lengthy called meeting, the present members decided to write a minute in favor of same-gender commitment ceremonies, and we thought a sense of the meeting was achieved. However, there was one voice of dissent: the clerk. He waited for everybody to approve the minute before adamantly stating that he opposed it. His reason: the “B” word.

From that moment on, the issue became an ugly battle within that community. The clerk boycotted the process by asking members of the meeting who were not even worshiping with us (including members in Florida and California who obviously could not attend) to write letters addressing the minute. Then the irrational fears appeared: “What if a bunch of them decide to use this meeting to get married,” said an elderly Friend; “what if they find out and they decide to burn our historic meetinghouse,” said the clerk. I never did find out who these “they” were; the them were obviously us queers!

So, my partner and I decided to withdraw the proposal and go on with our lives. Shortly after that, we decided to move to California’s Central Valley, where his family originated. As a college professor, I could not risk my tenure, so I asked for a leave of absence to try the waters in California for that year.

The second part: After a short time of being in California, I became a member of one of the monthly meetings of Pacific Yearly Meeting, and several months later we presented a marriage proposal. The story repeated itself, but this time the voice of opposition came from a member who insisted on labeling us promiscuous even if the very act of asking for marriage under the care of the meeting talked about how serious we were about our commitment to each other. Hurtful words were uttered, the atmosphere was tense, and again the “B” word made its appearance. Fortunately, this dissenting voice stood aside and a same-gender marriage minute was approved. However, my partner and I decided that we did not want a ceremony after all. We were still licking our wounds from the previous experience and we were now getting new bruises. By the time the minute was approved, the process had taken its toll and my now ex- lover never visited a Quaker meeting again. In fact, he is now an avowed agnostic (probably an atheist) who believes that the last Christian space he trusted has abandoned him. I don’t blame him. As for me, upon returning to the Northeast, my California experience ended, but I continued fighting. At least something good happened out of it: in that meeting gays and lesbians can marry—and without euphemisms. Praise God!

The third part of this story has to do with the meeting in which I was a member before changing my membership to Westfield (N.J.) Meeting a year ago. Westfield is a queer-affirming meeting, and that’s the reason my civil union partner and I are attending. My previous meeting, like some other monthly meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was debating the issue of same-gender marriages. The meeting had approved a minute in favor of same-gender marriages, but a small minority of members was adamantly opposed to the term. So, at this present moment (early in 2010), that meeting has not arrived at unity. Once again, the “B” word made its wonderful appearance. The meeting had three called meetings, two of which were structured during special worships. The meeting at large agreed with the celebration of same-gender commitments ceremonies, but the naming was still a problem.

Those of us who were insisting on the use of the term marriage, were as strong in our positions as those who preferred the term commitment or union. The State of New Jersey has already created a euphemistic term for our legal relationships: civil unions. The state did this in order to appease both conservatives and liberals. But why did we need a compromise term in that meeting if we can speak more clearly? My partner and I were joined in civil union in March 2007 and we are not particularly looking for our meeting to marry us. Maybe we will in the future. We are still waiting for the State to take the first step. However, we would like to open the doors for others to have the freedom to marry. Does God celebrate civil unions for gays and lesbians and marriages for straight people? I don’t think so. God is an inclusive entity.

We gay Christians have had our share of biblical arguments when confronted by those who think they know the Bible. Of course, it is the same old story: Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:5-8), Leviticus (Lev. 18:22-23, 20:13), and that ever-famous homophobe (and possibly a closet case according to John Shelby Spong), Saint Paul (1 Cor. 6:9), among others. However, when you tell your accusers that eating pork, wearing different types of fabric, and bathing while menstruating are prohibited by the Bible, they laugh at the absurdity of these laws. If your children disobey you, you have to kill them, says the Bible. Funny thing: the most dissenting voices in that meeting were two women. Didn’t Saint Paul say in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that women should not speak in the temple? I am not saying I believe in Paul’s words. I am saying it is this type of absurdity that pushes people away from congregations, but it is hard sometimes for some people to understand this.

The main opposition in that meeting was that “the Bible does not say anything about two men or two women getting married.” As a Liberal Quaker, my visceral reaction is: “So what?” However, the Bible narrates two sublime stories of same-gender love and commitment: Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan. Still to this date, scholars are debating David’s famous line: “Your love for me surpassed the love for women.” (2 Sam. 1:26) Something to think about!

I am not suggesting that Ruth and Naomi were lesbians or that David and Jonathan were an item. After all, homosexual is a relatively recently coined term (late 19th century). That’s not the important thing. What I am saying is that they loved each other and celebrated that love with words of commitment. In the 21st century, we Queers want to celebrate that type of love with marriage.

But my main concern has to do with the discernment process itself. I know that the sense of a meeting is something that can take years to arrive at. Nevertheless, when a small minority does not stand aside on an issue as crucial as this, isn’t it exercising power over the meeting as a whole? Isn’t this a sort of Quaker tyranny, to keep the meeting hanging on? Is the “B” word the perfect excuse for these members to exercise this power and to hide their homophobia? I don’t believe this is fair Quaker practice. This goes against our Testimony on Equality. I have the feeling we have to let this one season for a while and accept the fact that it took John Woolman many years to convince the Friends in my geographical area that slavery was wrong. That’s the blessing—and the burden— of Quaker process.

In the meantime, it is time that we start using the Good Book as an instrument of freedom, not of oppression, because many Queer people are fleeing from the Church. As long as Christianity insists on oppressing us, we only have the option to follow our own queer Light.


Alvin J. Figueroa, a member of Westfield (N.J.) Meeting. is associate professor of Modern Languages, Gender Studies, and Religious Studies at the College of New Jersey. He is also a candidate for a master of arts in Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion. He lives with his spouse, Gary, a Buddhist, in Rancocas Historic Village.